Mayor Claude Morgan outside of City Hall during an interview Sept. 3. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster 

SOUTH PORTLAND — Claude Morgan, who is stepping down as mayor in December, said serving in the public sector for more than two decades has taught him many things, including how to deal with his addiction to alcohol, and how to stay sober.

“I took the position because I knew I needed to learn how to take a beating – to stand up, dust myself off, and forget about it in order to move to the next step,” Morgan said. “I was a fixated, dwelling kind of person that obsessed over slights and losses … but you have to let stuff go.”

Morgan is heading into the final year of his third nonconsecutive three-year term on the City Council. Elected mayor by his fellow councilors, he also filled that role in 2007.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 15.1 million adults suffer from alcohol use disorder, characterized by excessive consumption of alcohol despite legal and health repercussions.

According to Dr. Christopher Buttarazzi, and addiction psychiatrist with Maine Behavioral Healthcare and Maine Medical Partners, addiction is an equal opportunity affliction and doesn’t discriminate based on economic status, gender or age.

“The vulnerabilities that can lead to addiction and mental health disorders, loss, social pressure, social-economic changes, can happen to anyone from any socioeconomic strata,” he said. “The reasons people develop the disorder are incredibly varied and differ person to person.”

While it’s been over 23 years since Morgan began his journey into sobriety, he said his experiences have played a direct role in the implementation of public policy during his time in office.

His perspective helped guide the city through the uncharted territory of marijuana policy, he said, noting that many ordinances centered around medical and retail marijuana stores have rules and regulations similar to those applied to alcohol.

“When I hear arguments about why marijuana is bad for us, I think of the slew of things that are bad for us and wonder why we’re pulling this one out of the drawer when there are so many others,” he said. “I find myself being studiously agnostic because of that experience. I have to look at everything and weight it equally.”

Serving as mayor, while stressful, has taught Morgan to keep things in perspective. Ordinances that have been worked on for months, he explained, can suddenly dissolve.

“Votes are taken and you may lose, but you just have to keep moving forward,” he said.

Although it’s been decades since he had his last sip of alcohol, Morgan said it is still sometimes difficult to stay sober.

“I describe it as, everybody is happy, they’re all getting on the train station and you’re the one that’s left behind,” he said. “You’re watching everyone continue to do this in a healthy way and enjoy themselves and you realize you can’t get on that train anymore. It’s a lonely and isolating experience.”

In his 30s, having just entered college, his father passed away, leaving behind a slew of unresolved issues between them.

“I really went on a bender. I was circling the drain and I kept putting myself in dangerous situations,” he said. “The mask you drop, the inhibitions you lose, it’s fun for a while, you get to explore a new character in there. I thought I was a hotshot … but it turns out mine wasn’t pretty.”

Buttarazzi said it’s typical for people who go through traumatic life events, such as the loss of a loved one, to turn to substances as a means to cope with unpleasant feelings or emotions.

“Somebody who is feeling depressed or anxious who starts using alcohol or other drugs to try and feel better often develop an unhealthy relationship with those substances,” he said. “I’ve never liked the concept of a functioning alcoholic, because if you have alcohol use disorder, you have a dysfunction, it’s just a matter of how well you’re hiding it.”

Behavior traits of those who abuse alcohol include aggression, lack of restraint, loneliness, and self-destructive and compulsive behavior. In the midst of his grief, Morgan decided to travel, and found himself in sketchy situations in bizarre places, such as Eastern Europe, where he would get into fights.

He said his addictive personality gave him an overblown sense of how he fit in, and alcohol distorted that perspective further.

He attempted sobriety at one point, but began drinking again six months later. Spiraling downward, Morgan remembers the night be made his second and final attempt at sobriety. Stumbling out of an Irish pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he hailed a cab, despite not having any money – because he couldn’t stay upright on his bicycle.

Back at his apartment, Morgan went upstairs while his distressed cabby waited outside. Watching from his apartment window, swallowed by apathy, he awoke the next morning with a torturous headache and decided he needed to change his life.

“Not only was I going backward, but I was watching myself do it and critiquing myself. That didn’t have any future,” he said. “I started telling friends I wasn’t drinking, and after a while it just became ingrained.”

It took him years before he could walk into a bar and feel comfortable, he said. In order to avoid the chances of a relapse, Morgan won’t take cough syrup or eat any desserts that include alcohol as an ingredient.

Every now and then, he said, he still experiences triggers – coming across the cover of a glossy magazine with people sipping on extraordinary hand-crafted rye; observing from the outside the social experiences centered around the handcrafted beer movement – situations, he said, that make him feel as if he is missing out.

“There’s always the question of ‘couldn’t I have just one?’ and the answer for me is, if I have one, I need a bucket,” he said.

In our society, Buttarazzi said, drinking alcohol is seen as something celebratory. In movies and television too, he said, you see a lot of characters drinking alcohol, which, he said, can inappropriately link drinking to success.

“The way alcohol is advertised is very seductive in its means and that is on purpose,” he said.

In his sobriety, Morgan said, he’s been lucky enough to find good people and caring partners who supported him on his journey. While he doesn’t tell people they need to quit, he said it’s been so much more rewarding than where he was.

“I’ve learned how to laugh – you think stuff is funny when you’re impaired and laugh loudly, but now, I really laugh from a real place inside,” he said with a smile. “I tell folks when you get to that point, you’ve really arrived, then it’s coasting.”

Buttarazzi said a substance can manage to replace every connection and relationship in someone’s life, and recovery is about reforging those lost connections — support systems, hobbies and interests — to help with recovery in the long run.

“The true opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connectedness,” he said. “This is where things like AA come into play, that allows for someone to start connecting with other people in a safe space.”

As he finishes up his time in office, Morgan said he’s enjoyed working on the council and serving as mayor, and will continue to live a distortion-free, impairment-free life that has led to nothing but positive experiences since he made that promise to himself.

“We all do the same kind of soul-searching. You don’t arrive anywhere, you just stay on this journey,” he said. “And this is the right journey for me.”

This story was updated Nov. 19 to make clear that Morgan will serve one more year on the council after stepping down as mayor.  

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