By Lesley Weidenbener
Lesley Weidenbener, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – There was a time when I looked at addicts as people who made poor choices in their lives and refused to take responsibility for their actions.
I had little interest in government-funded programs to serve people I believed had brought their problems on themselves.
Today, I believe I had it wrong.
As I’ve grown older – and hopefully wiser – I’ve come to understand that addiction is far more complicated and now believe that our responsibility to deal with the problem is not only a moral one but a financial necessity as well.
I believe addiction is a disease – but one that does involve personal responsibility. I believe the chemicals that addicts pour into their bodies – be they alcohol or heroin or prescription narcotics – change the chemistry in their brains, which makes kicking the habit that much harder. I believe that mental health problems underlie many addictions or make recovering from the disease more complex.
My thinking has evolved over the years.
It’s come from watching friends fight battles with addictions – and sometimes win, sometimes not. It’s come from talking to counselors about how I could help loved ones and how I couldn’t help them. And it’s come from listening to experts at the General Assembly, people who know about addiction and mental heath and who believe that one key to solving our criminal justice problems is to do more to battle addiction.
I’ve been in this place for a while. But last month, as I sat at the funeral of a good friend’s brother – a recovering heroin addict – I found myself overwhelmed with a sense of urgency about the issue.
My friend’s brother grew up in Floyd County where he started using drugs. But he had most recently been living in Tennessee, where he’d received inpatient treatment for his addiction and had remained in a supportive, recovery community.
He was just 23 years old when he complained of feeling sick, saw a doctor and then came home and went to bed. He didn’t wake up. Police say there was no sign that he had relapsed. It could be that he had compromised his body after years of addiction. It could be something else. Honestly, I don’t think it matters.
What does is that at his funeral, a dozen of his friends from Tennessee – other recovering addicts – drove to Indiana to be with his family as they laid him to rest. The service became all about recovery and redemption. These friends stood up to tell their own stories, to talk about how seriously he had taken his recovery and to reveal the role he had played in their battles against the disease.
This diverse group of young men and women are the reason we need to care about addiction.
They know that recovery is about hard work, about support and about good choices. They are grateful for the opportunity now to have jobs, to have meaningful relationships and to help others recover as well. They are young people no longer lost – and they are devastated by the loss of one of their own.
There are thousands of people in Indiana who are like them – people who have fought the addiction battle and are now in recovery. And there are thousands more who remain mired in the disease. They are our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers and our loved ones.
There are ways we can help.
Gov. Mike Pence has already signed a bill that makes a heroin overdose antidote more widely accessible. Lawmakers are working on deals to provide millions of dollars in new funding for addiction and mental health services for defendants in local communities. And there’s debate about whether to let more counties use needle exchange programs to try to keep addicts safer from disease.
These could all be important steps in a battle that has no single solution. But what’s most important is that we agree as a society that this is a problem worth tackling and keep alive the conversation about what we can do to make a difference.
That conversation, I believe, starts with an understanding that addiction is a disease, one that can’t be addressed unless the person enveloped in it is ready for the help. But when an alcoholic or a heroin user or any other addict is ready, it’s in our society’s best interest to be ready to help.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.