Story last updated at 3/6/2013 - 1:41 pm
You can take the farm out of the boy, but in Matt Felix's case, he's still rolling up his sleeves.
Felix recently stepped down as the executive director of Juneau's National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. The results of his decades serving the city in several capacities related to addiction issues are numerous.
"I'm a farm boy," Felix said. "But I've always been interested in health services."
Felix grew up in northern California.
"I watched a lot of good people that couldn't afford health care die," he said. "They had everything to live for. The psychology that went into that was a mystery. It peaked my interest."
It peaked his interest enough to enroll in a university that had a graduate program specializing in addiction counseling. As part of obtaining his graduate degree, Felix worked four hours a day in halfway house in Tucson, Ariz.
"I got to work for some of the well-known experts in the field of addiction," he said. "It just keep peaking my interest the more I got into it."
Felix said it was the complexity of addictions, and the lack of public and professional understanding of them that fueled what would become a lifelong career in the field of addiction. One of the things Felix sought to address was the public and professional perception of what an addiction is.
"We were establishing addiction as a chronic disease," Felix said, of his work in Arizona. "A disease that needed to be treated long term. Like diabetes, once you get it, it doesn't go away. You need to teach patients to self-treat because they have a chronic disease for the rest of their life."
In 1977 he received a phone call from an old friend of his from his graduate program. His friend was aware of a job opening for which he thought Felix would be a great candidate. The position was for the director of Health and Social Services for the City and Borough of Juneau. He flew up for an interview, he said, and spent some time fishing.
"I was not going to take the job," Felix said. "But (city assembly members) explained that the city had a great future; it looked like tourism would be rapidly expanding. They wanted to make the city a better place to visit and live."
Felix said that previous consultants' studies had shown that Juneau had a problem with addiction issues that would adversely impact the attractiveness of the region.
"They didn't have a lot of money to change the community or provide treatment, but money was on the horizon as the oil (revenue was starting to boost the economy)," he said. "More important than my salary was: Would I have money to work with?"
Felix knew from his previous experience he could assist people suffering from addiction issues, and Juneau appeared a ripe city for his talent. He took the job, agreeing to a one-year commitment. During that year he was charged with designing a long-term plan to address the alcohol and drug addictions plaguing the city.
"I came up with a two-part plan," Felix said, which he presented to the city assembly following his year commitment. "One part was to implement a system of treatment and recovery through the borough. The other part was to change policies that contributed to the problem in Juneau through (improving) and implementing policy through ordinance to have a positive effect."
He said the assembly embraced his plan with enthusiasm, and Felix agreed to stick around to oversee its implementation.
"I spent the next 20 years implementing this plan," he said.
He secured federal funding for a treatment center, the Rainforest Recovery Center, and began an outpatient clinic as well.
"Rainforest was the first special hospital in the state," Felix said. "We added an Emergency Services Patrol, (patrols for intoxicated and passed out people), and funded Gastineau Human Services for their halfway house residential post-hospital care facility."
Felix said he also worked to pass two major city ordinances. One was aimed at reducing alcohol and tobacco use and another required bars close at 2 a.m. instead of the 5 a.m. closing time that had been in place when he started his position. In addition, he introduced a local alcohol tax.
"This provided us with funds for treatment," he said. "Over time the city had become a much more pleasant place to live, a lot of it due to this plan."
After a stint as the state director of the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse from 1982 to 1989, Felix remained with the city until 1999, when he became the executive director of the NCADD Juneau in 2000.
To label Felix as the man who helped clean up the city streets of inebriates is unfair, in that his concern extends beyond the city's fażade. Felix is genuinely excited about the advancement in understanding the physiological aspects involved with addictions.
"The big story is that we're on the brink with addictions," he said, citing the advent of the MRI and grasping onto the idea of how addictions are physiology diseases.
"The ability to battle addiction to a standstill is on the horizon," he said. "It's so exciting. It will cut through all the stigma and misunderstandings and myth and give the public a better understanding of addiction (as a) physiological disease. To see the breakthroughs is just thrilling."
Felix said that he has seen too many tears over the years, and to get a glimpse that some of the pain can be reduced is an overwhelmingly positive improvement.
"The prominent theory was that a lot of people who were addicted (to drugs and alcohol) had mental health problems, or that the mental health problems caused the addiction," he said.
So to recognize addictions as a disease, Felix said, is a big wave towards reducing addictions and their associated deleterious behavior, as those who struggle may feel more inclined to seek treatment earlier, as they be less embarrassed to do so. It's the stigma, that people addicted to alcohol and drugs are just plain wrong or bad, that Felix would really like to see change.
"It's changed, but it hasn't changed enough," he said. "Relapse is a common occurrence in all diseases. When you understand it as a chronic disease with a physiological basis, than you clear up a lot of the myths, misunderstandings and stigma and prejudices that go along in the main stream."
Felix said it's not often that people seek help on their own, there is generally a family member that intervenes.
"When it's accepted by the population as a disease, we'll see more people seeking help (for themselves)," he said. "We don't look at them as human beings with a disease. We have an opinion of who they are because of their behaviors. That's what stigma is. When society makes that transition and treats it as a regular chronic disease we'll be able to treat it a lot better. It will eliminate a lot of the denial created by the individual themselves. That's the goal, nationally."
That goal has, as of November 2012, been handed to Kathryn Chapman, who came to the NCADD from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Juneau, where she also worked as the executive director. NAMI worked in conjunction with the NCADD on various projects, and Chapman said she "loved the energy" from the NCADD.
"Alcoholism and addiction has personally and professionally impacted me in my life and so many people I work with and care about," Chapman said. "The thought of contributing to the field of alcohol and other drug addictions really excited me."
After Felix announced his retirement plans, and Chapman voiced her enthusiasm as a candidate for the job, Felix gave her a book to read: the biography of Marty Mann, the founder of the NCADD.
"After I read Marty Mann's story, I felt like I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up," Chapman said. "I wanted to be someone who contributes toward the fight against alcoholism and addiction and I wanted to be a part of the movement and organization that Marty founded."
Good, because she got the job. Chapman is heavily invested in helping to remove the stigma associated with addictions.
"I'm tired of seeing the pain and suffering in people's lives and hearing negative comments about people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs," she said. "These are not bad people, these are sick people. For the majority of addicts, they cannot simply quit. Although there is no cure, alcoholism and addiction is preventable and treatable."
Chapman said she has a couple of visions for her new role and the direction NCADD can go. She'd like to provide an increased amount of community education in the school system and for the public. She said that social services and health care professionals are generally the target of continuing education.
"My vision also includes expanding our direct services, such as interventions, assessments and outpatient treatment services," Chapman said.
Extended funding is also something she hopes to see continue, as is an expansion of the NCADD's services to family members.
"There are so many families who walk through our door who are scared and seeking help for a loved one," Chapman said. "Families need support and education about this disease. (They) play a vital part in a person's recovery."
She plans to continue the implementation of programs and services Felix helped establish, but to also modify them as our community evolves.
"I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to our community in this way," she said.
Chapman tipped her hat to Felix, saying that though he's retired, he continues to assist the NCADD.
"He is now my mentor," Chapman said.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.