This Maine woman used her alcohol addiction to help others. Now, we need a solution for everyone else

Jean Baker woke up to the reality of her alcohol addiction when she walked into work one day and was told people there knew about her problem. Until she got help, she wasn’t welcome back.

“It felt like somebody pulled the rug out from underneath me,” Baker said. “But it was the best thing that happened to me.”

It was 1998. She sought a counselor and began going to self-help groups where she met others experiencing the effects of addiction: the shaking, the inability to focus, the standoffish reactions from people who did not know addiction. She built her own network of support. She wasn’t alone.

Sober for 16 years, Baker is now the volunteer board president of the Bangor Area Recovery Network, or BARN, a nonprofit located on Center Street in Brewer that offers free self-help groups, programs for parents, and recovery coaching. It draws more than 100 volunteers and people seeking services each day.

As she did for herself in the late ’90s, she is working to create a stronger, wider network of support for those trying to overcome their addiction. Overcoming chemical dependence often requires changing the patterns of one’s life, even the people in one’s life, and community support is key.

The battle is always uphill. The Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services estimates about 71,660 Maine adults were in need of treatment for their alcohol or drug addiction in 2010. Yet only 21 percent — 14,996 people — got that treatment. What will the state do about the remaining 79 percent?

It can’t meet the need by cracking down on drug dealers if it doesn’t also reduce demand. And what about the top drug of choice — alcohol? There were 538 alcohol-related deaths in 2010 and 175 drug-related deaths. That year, 83.4 percent of hospital inpatient costs relating to addiction were for alcohol use.

So far Gov. Paul LePage has proposed more law enforcement: 14 new Maine Drug Enforcement agents, four new prosecutors for the Office of the Maine Attorney General and four new district court judges for the state’s four drug courts.

There has been a common refrain since LePage broached the idea in his State of the State address in February: Why not use that money for treatment?

Why not fund health care coverage that allows more people to receive help from drug or alcohol counselors or use the money to reduce waitlists at treatment centers? Look at what BARN can do on $60,000 per year, with no money from the state’s general fund. Think of what it and similar centers could do if they got state aid — especially how they could help address the large problem of alcohol addiction.

“It’s still our biggest cost, but we haven’t raised the tax on alcohol in 20 years,” Baker said. The idea that the state could use the revenue to fund substance abuse treatment services isn’t new. The Maine Legislature increased taxes on beer and wine in 2008, but the increase was repealed by voters in a referendum.

Baker said she was lucky. She had insurance and access to health care. People who don’t have coverage but want to detox may find themselves facing waiting lists at a treatment facility.

“We need to be there with something in place,” Baker said. “If you tell them, ‘Come back in 30 days, and maybe we’ll have a bed for you,’ what do you think is going to happen in those 30 days?”

In the beginning, the drinking or the drug use is a choice. But “at some point the choice is taken away,” Baker said. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. But when they need help, they should be able to get it.

One continued concern is the number of young people needing treatment. About 27 percent of men and 20 percent of women ages 18-24 suffer from alcohol or drug abuse or dependence — significantly higher than the estimated 9 percent of Maine adults with an addiction.

You can’t demand that young adults, who have abused alcohol or drugs since they were young teenagers, get a job and expect them to be successful, Baker said. “They don’t have life skills to fall back on.”

Baker also wants to see a wider, societal attitude change, so “instead of pointing a finger and saying, ‘Those people,’ say, ‘Here are people who have a problem’ … and welcome the fact they’re trying to get better.”

“The more you focus on the problem, the bigger the problem gets. The more you concentrate on the solution, the bigger the solution gets.”


Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.