Addiction is a terrible and complex disease, and it can overtake an individual whether they have slid to the fringe of society, as Coleen Singer had when she overdosed on heroin last Christmas in Lewiston, or they have all the advantages of affluence, as David McCarthy did when he took a fatal dose last year in his father’s home in Falmouth.

That’s why it’s impossible to say whether Singer would still be alive today if, as argued in her obituary, Gov. Paul LePage had increased access to methadone treatment by expanding MaineCare, or even if — magically — all the other barriers to addiction recovery had been removed.

But there are still lessons to be learned from the deaths of Singer and McCarthy. First, that addiction is a disease like no other, but still a disease. And second, that it will win frustratingly often, but that is no reason to give up doing what we know works.


The families of Mainers lost to the disease are already there, and we should listen to them.

While Singer’s obituary has made headlines for its mention of LePage, it is most striking in its portrait of Singer’s addiction, its interplay with her untreated mental illness, and how together they colored her life and ruined relationships.

McCarthy’s story, told first in an obituary and then in the pages of The Washington Post, is also stunning, and instructive.

Painkillers in high school from his stepbrother’s prescription grew into a full-on habit, before he, reluctantly but inevitably, turned to heroin, first through snorting then the needle.

Detox and short-term rehab stints didn’t stick. Unconditional family support, then tough love, ultimately didn’t matter.

McCarthy eventually put together six months of cold-turkey sobriety, but he relapsed, and later died in his bedroom.

The following night, with the family stunned and grieving, McCarthy’s stepbrother overdosed, but survived, on the same batch of heroin.

These stories, and similar ones printed recently in Maine, show addiction for all it is: tragic and illogical, unrelenting and indiscriminate, more powerful than love or the fear of losing everything.


That is how we describe it, anyway, because unlike other diseases, addiction reveals itself in compulsive behavior that is often mischaracterized as wholly personal choice.

The behavior is the result of a complex mix of brain chemistry altered by powerful opiates, untreated mental illness, environment and genetics that is not entirely understood.

Addiction, then, must be treated from a variety of angles: detoxification and drug maintenance to soothe cravings, counseling and therapy to treat underlying issues, and support to overcome the relapses and setbacks that often are inevitable.

The availability of these interacting treatments does not guarantee success, as McCarthy’s story shows. But it does make it more likely.

And despite what LePage said in his latest radio address, there are not enough of these services in Maine, and more than any other one thing, the lack of treatment options is contributing to the heroin epidemic.

We could “crack down” on drug dealers, as the governor said. We could add more drug agents, in addition to the four new ones, plus $200,000 in discretionary funds, already included in the latest budget.

But there were 5,801 drug arrests in Maine last year, up from 5,559 in 2013, and still addiction is as rampant as ever.

The truth is, no amount of arrests will make a dent in the state’s opiate epidemic.

What will is increasing access to treatment, and understanding addiction the way McCarthy and Singer’s loved ones already do.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: