August 25, 2012

Overcoming addiction takes time, support


---- — I recently attended the Drug Court graduation in City Court of a young woman who has made changes she never imagined possible just a couple of years ago. And, she is not the only one who didn’t foresee her turn-around.

She was in City Court for repeated arrests, all related to excessive drinking and violent behavior. She spent time in jail, at inpatient treatment, in residential programs and on probation.

We spent more than three years together, as judge and defendant. It was wonderful to come back and be part of celebrating her achievements.

Through many years as an attorney and judge, I learned not to be in the prediction business. If I tried to do that, I would be wrong much of the time. I certainly would not have predicted this young lady’s success, as she seemed quite unwilling to stop drinking and commit herself to treatment. She is “Exhibit A” for why it is important not to close the door and to keep pushing and encouraging.

As judge, I saw the people who had been arrested, whose lives were so out of control that they committed crimes. Sometimes, it was driving while intoxicated; sometimes, it was stealing from family or friends, or assaulting them or damaging their property, or worse.

Being arrested can be a wake-up call that prompts a drug abuser to get treatment or an opportunity for a judge to order it. As painful a decision as it may be, calling the police when your loved one breaks the law may be the best way to help them.

Life may not have to get that bad. I am sure that it is extremely difficult to watch people you love destroy themselves. Even though you think they won’t listen or are afraid of “rocking the boat,” it is important for family members to talk to the drug-abusing person. Be honest, but not accusing or judgmental. You want to help, and let them know you will be there for them but won’t enable their drug use.

It is also essential not to have unrealistic or arbitrary time limits. For example, one year to straighten up and change your life seems like plenty long enough from the outside, from the family’s or criminal-justice system’s point of view.

However, from the perspective of the addict or the substance-abuse treatment provider, it is pretty brief. It takes a great deal of hard, emotionally challenging work to make the changes necessary to really stay clean and sober. As I was repeatedly reminded in many cases, it took years to get in the desperate condition the person was in when arrested; it will take a lengthy period to be able to live a life of real recovery.

Overcoming addiction to alcohol or other drugs is much more difficult than I imagined before watching people who were trying to do it. Of course, not everyone who is arrested while under the influence is addicted. Those who are not addicts can stop using, if they choose. But for the person dependent on drugs, stopping is not simply a matter of deciding to do so.

When drugs or alcohol control you, it seems to me that it takes immense courage and strength to change your life. Because to do so means that you have to face yourself, really acknowledge your own shortcomings. Who wants to do that?

To trust other people to help you, to really open up, to truly work on yourself are all extremely difficult — and absolutely essential. This is very challenging. Non-using family and friends can be a crucial source of strength and support while the person works on recovery.

There are outpatient treatment programs locally and inpatient programs outside our area. Any of the local treatment providers can give you a list of meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as meetings for family members.

Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.


HOT TO GET HELP Here are some sources for help with addiction issues: Champlain Valley Family Center: 561-8480. Clinton County Mental Health & Addiction Services: 565-4060. Conifer Park: 561-1447 and 1-800-926-6433. St. Joseph's: 483-0666 and 483-6566. St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Alcohol Prevention: 358-2967.