Dr. Annie Zink

Leaves are shifting from vibrant greens to the yellows, reds and browns of fall. Crisp autumn air and vivid sunrises greet us in the mornings. Long days filled with endless activity are fading. Fall has a different cadence. The end of summer is when we begin to slow down, reflect and settle in with our loved ones, our communities and ourselves.

Fall feels like the perfect month to celebrate recovery.

Substance misuse and mental illness are far too common in Alaska, and every Alaskan who has been affected or touched by these diseases of despair has their own journey to recovery.

For some it may be recovery from alcohol or opioid addiction, for others it may be depression or mental illness. Some stumble after the loss of a job, a home, or a loved one. For each of us, recovery is a deeply personal journey, but almost always involves connection to others or a higher power. As writer Johann Hari said, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.”

Many of us have experience with addiction, either personally or professionally. As an emergency physician, I am humbled whenever I witness the despair and destruction of addiction, the power of recovery, and the resiliency of family and caregivers as they struggle alongside those battling addiction. Among my most memorable work experiences are when I have sat beside patients in their darkest hours and then later learned they found a way to recovery.

Addiction is a disease, as real as a heart attack or a broken bone. Addiction is not a moral failing. Part of addiction treatment is compassion, respect, and the deep belief that recovery is possible, even if it does not come easily or quickly.

We each play a role in recovery. That means not pushing a friend to have a beer when they say no, recognizing that a co-worker’s struggles may be a reflection of a deeper battle with addiction, or learning how to love with healthy boundaries a family member who cycles through addiction.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ broad mandate is to promote and protect the health and well-being of all Alaskans. This includes supporting meaningful addiction and resiliency work by health care providers and within communities. States play a unique role by serving as a conduit for funding sources like the marijuana tax and federal grants that facilitate evidence-based prevention and early intervention programming to promote and protect Alaskans health. Now with the implementation of Alaska’s 1115 Medicaid waiver, we have more tools to empower recovery than ever before. This waiver, made by Alaskans for Alaska, was recently approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and allows additional substance misuse and behavioral health services to bill for Medicaid reimbursement. The waiver supports recovery though a number of programs, including community-based and inpatient substance abuse services, ambulatory withdrawal management, peer-based crisis services and adult and youth residential treatment options, to name a few.

It is often easier to think of addiction and recovery as someone else’s problem. But the reality is addiction plays a huge role in all of our lives. According to a 2017 report by the McDowell Group, the economic impact of drug and alcohol abuse in Alaska exceeds $3 billion a year. These costs are borne by state and local governments, employers and residents, and affect all of us. We also know drug problems are common among Alaska’s prison population; 79% of offenders who were given an assessment reported having a drug problem in the past, while 43% reported having a current drug problem. A patient once told me, “I would steal from my mother. Why would I not steal from you?” His comment drives home how significantly addiction can fundamentally change a person’s brain and affect their life choices. Directly or indirectly, addiction is a part of our lives, and so is the power and importance of recovery.

Today, as the berries wrinkle and the fireweed fades, we pause together to celebrate recovery. But like the knot in a tree, through growth, we can grow around and live with our challenges, and come out stronger and more whole. Dr. Gina Perez-Baron, a family practice physician and medical director at the Seattle Indian Health Board who has effectively treated addiction in rural and underserved communities for over a decade, once said: “The seeds of recovery are already inside you.” Our role as Alaskans is to nurture those seeds, personally and in others. This September, let’s celebrate and support recovery as a process and applaud every Alaskan’s journey towards health and wellness.

Dr. Anne Zink, M.D., is a board-certified emergency physician and Alaska’s chief medical officer.

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