Time for my occasional New Year’s health resolution. When I’ve bothered to make one, it’s usually, “Maybe I don’t need a glass of wine every night. Maybe I’ll give it up during the week.” Of course, when I come home in the dark and it’s freaking cold outside, I decide instead that life is short, and whether it’s a weekday or not I have a glass. That’s a lack of willpower.

The lack of willpower, while not an admirable character trait, is not the same as having an addiction. The research is clear. Addictions can occur in response to traumatic experiences, genetic pre-disposition, mental illness or environmental or social factors. However, no matter the cause, willpower alone is not enough to overcome an addiction.

Addictive behavior is often a coping mechanism employed to dull the pain of feeling unloved, insecure, vulnerable, out of control, or just alone. As such, treatment, critical for long-term success in addiction recovery, is about finding causes, not symptoms. It involves asking, “What happened to you?” not, “What’s wrong with you?” People with addiction need help finding alternative ways to cope.

Research into a correlation between what happens to us early in life and health outcomes in adulthood began in the early 1990s. People who had lost hundreds of pounds in weight-loss therapy started gaining it back in very short periods of time. Patients revealed that when they weighed less they felt vulnerable to further victimization. Some, usually men, felt physically weaker. Others, mostly women, felt more vulnerable because their newly lighter bodies were more often noticed by the opposite sex. Something deep inside themselves wanted to be bigger.

Subsequent research involved a study of 17,000 patients privately insured through Kaiser Permanente. Of that middle-class population, two thirds had experienced one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, such as abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, or living with an alcoholic.

The researchers were stunned to find that children who were exposed at an early age to four of the 10 types of ACEs were twice as likely to be adult smokers; 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide; seven times more likely to be alcoholic; and 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs. They were also likely to be suffering from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and a plethora of other maladies. They died earlier as well.

Findings over the past 20 years have been clear that whatever scarring experiences happened to those patients as children had physical and mental health consequences throughout their lives.

Fortunately, Maine is a leader in promoting the prevention of Adverse Childhood Experiences. The Legislature has been willing to try to prevent ACEs, primarily by increasing children’s access to quality learning and educational experiences in their child care settings.

But we also need legislators to be committed to making sure treatment options are available for adults. We need policymakers to understand the critical role they have in making Maine a leader in preventing and treating addiction. They need to stand behind the 60 percent of voters who support the expansion of Medicaid to provide services to those who need them.

The economic and brain science is clear — if Maine is ever to become a prosperous state, we need to start early in growing strong and healthy bodies and minds. Our common well-being demands that children whose parents are struggling with addiction get the help they need. That means they must have access to treatment they can afford.

I disagree vehemently with Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts to deny treatment options to those he doesn’t deem worthy. However, I was happy the governor got help with his addiction to food (“‘Little skinny guy from Maine’ named LePage details impact of weight loss surgery,” Dec. 28).

As one of the people whose tax dollars were used to pay for that treatment, I believe we are a stronger state when all Mainers get the medical services they need to feel they are “healthy and … around for the long haul,” as the governor described feeling after his treatment.

Addictions are not overcome by willpower. Personal strength can help one stay on a healthier path, but for the most part willpower really only comes into play once treatment is accessed. If we are serious about treating addictions — whether to drugs, alcohol or food — it has to start with access to treatment.

The governor was lucky that when he finally sought help, it was available and his insurance covered the cost. My hope for the New Year is that LePage comes to realize that the people of Maine deserve the same, for addiction and for the everyday medical care that they need.

Medicaid expansion was passed by a large majority of Maine voters. The Legislature needs to stand up to the governor if he refuses to adjust his thinking. Lawmakers should take the time to examine sustainable funding options for expansion and then implement it. Mainers deserve nothing less.

Karen Heck is a resident and former mayor of Waterville.


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