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A Life Recovered: Jimmy McGill’s Incredible Journey

Even when Jimmy McGill woke up in the Lonoke County jail in 2014 with no idea how he had gotten there or how long he had been there, he didn’t think he had a drug problem.

Several days earlier, he had been spotted lying unconscious in his car. When the sheriff woke him and asked him to step out, a lapful of drugs spilled onto the pavement. Busted … again. It turned out to be the last of dozens of arrests spanning more than two decades spent in pursuit of drugs.

Everyone else could plainly see McGill was an addict, but he didn’t buy it. Not yet.

Virtual evangelist of recovery

Today, McGill tackles his job as recovery coordinator with the Arkansas Drug Director’s Office with the same gusto he used to put into finding drugs. He’s a virtual evangelist of recovery and has put the state’s fight against substance use disorders in the spotlight. And he’s a key ally to Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the battle against substance abuse. Arkansas Blue Cross and its affiliates are helping to:

  • Train and supply first responders to handle opioid overdoses with potentially lifesaving tools.
  • Support affected members by covering medication-assisted treatment.
  • Connect healthcare providers to UAMS (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) experts, via the AR-IMPACT program’s video network, to discuss opioid concerns. (The Drug Director’s Office also supports this program).
  • Equip the state’s employers to deal with substance use disorders in the workplace (the Together Arkansas initiative). Programs McGill has created are part of the toolkit available to employers.
A family tradition

In his addiction days, McGill was following a path set by his grandfather (a moonshiner who died an alcoholic) and father (a violent drug user who spent much of McGill’s childhood in prison). Physical and sexual abuse drove McGill to seek relief in alcohol and drugs around age 11. What followed was “a self-imposed prison called addiction,” a life of personal turmoil, gang activity, failed relationships and even several prison stretches of his own.

“I never saw a good home – a happy home – until I broke into someone else’s,” McGill said. “I tell people I only got high once … it just lasted 23 years.”

A fateful transition

The turning point came in two parts:

  • His addiction came into sharp focus in 2014. In the Lonoke County jail, he “got clean.” Weeks without drugs let his natural charisma come out. Good behavior earned him coveted “trusty” status and all its perks. Life was good. Then his cellmate scored some drugs. “I resisted,” McGill recalled. “But I finally gave in. For the first time, I hated myself for not being able to turn it down.” “Trusty” status revoked, life got worse.
  • He recognized himself – and the possibility of a drug-free life –in a fellow addict’s recovery story.
Life-changing recovery

A life-changing “first” came in 2015. He was paroled to a recovery residence. In a support group, another addict said: “Addiction is hard to see when you’re in it. When I sold my food stamps for drugs, I thought I had a hunger problem. When I sold my TV to get drugs, I thought I had an entertainment problem. When I sold my car to get drugs, I thought I had a transportation problem. It never dawned on me that what I had was a drug problem.”

“That just hit me like a brick in the face,” McGill said. “I was 38 years old, and I was just learning that recovery was even an option. Lots of very smart, caring folks had tried to help me: counselors, teachers, pastors, doctors. But they all lacked the one thing I needed, and that was credibility. I couldn’t relate to them, and I was too ashamed to tell them all the horrible things I had done.

“But when I met people who were in recovery, I saw everything clearly. I had a path forward, and I saw that someone just like me had made the journey successfully. And they were accepting me and hugging me. An addict in recovery did in two minutes what people had been trying to do for 20 years.”

Jimmy McGill with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and state drug czar Kirk Lane
Jimmy McGill with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) and state drug czar Kirk Lane (2nd from right).
Recovering “out loud”

“I made a decision that I was going to pursue recovery the same way I had pursued drugs,” McGill explained. “I actually listened to people. And I began recovering ‘out loud.’ Before I knew it, my life was filled with completely different people, places and things. And everywhere I’ve wreaked havoc, I’ve tried to go back there and make up for it.”

For McGill, part of recovering “out loud” included starting a personal Facebook page, on which he shared his story and insights about his recovery. Some visitors may have mistaken him for the “Better Call Saul” Jimmy McGill from the popular TV series. But however they got there, many of them liked what they saw. His posts were read and shared at a high rate.

People began asking for help – dozens a day. And McGill helped – with personal support and connections to recovery resources. Word spread. He was in demand as a speaker on addiction and recovery – so much so that just 18 months into his recovery journey, he was invited to speak at an opioid overdose awareness ceremony at the Arkansas State Capitol, alongside dignitaries and experts that included state drug czar Kirk Lane. Lane recognized McGill right away. He had arrested him several times.

But the transformed Jimmy McGill made a big impression, and the two started a new relationship that eventually made them coworkers in the state’s fight against narcotics and addiction.

Hooked on recovery

Today, McGill has passed five years in recovery, is happily married, has a renewed faith, is back in his children’s lives and is hooked on helping people find recovery. In fact, recovery is something of a family business. He and his wife, Chelsea (they met in recovery), have started a nonprofit to help women overcome addiction. “It’s almost like I married my sponsor,” he joked.

McGill also has developed a statewide network of more than 300 peer recovery specialists and created incredibly effective programs – like the one at the very Lonoke County jail where he recognized his addiction. That program has an astounding 74% success rate.

That result, he says, shows the power of giving addiction a face.

“The more we can do to humanize this disease,” he said, “the more we will be able to kill the stigma of addiction. I now realize my past had a purpose. So if sharing my story helps someone get on the road to recovery, I’ll go anywhere I can and tell it as many times as I am asked. It’s the least I can do.”

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