The extent of Jimmy McGill’s recovery transformation after 23 years of drug addiction cannot be overstated. It can, however, be illustrated by someone who knew him at his worst: Kirk Lane, the “hard-nosed cop, notoriously known to get everybody he set out to arrest.” His interactions with McGill — or mentorship, as McGill described it — started in the back of a patrol car.

 

“He saw me when I was the bare resemblance of a human being,” McGill recalled. “I’m skin and bones; I haven’t showered in days. I’m walking around with an ego as big as Texas, thinking I’m the flyest thing since an airplane. You can’t tell me I’ve got a drug problem.”

 

As the third generation of addiction — the grandson of a bootlegger and son of a father who learned from an early age that he wasn’t scared of anything, jail included — McGill’s traumatic upbringing indoctrinated him into a violent lifestyle.

 

At 38 years old, he was headed back to jail for the sixth time. With 18 felony convictions and a pending drug charge, he had surrendered to the fact he would likely die incarcerated.

 

As he recounted this period of his life, McGill explained his situation as a mix of both “self-imposed disadvantages” and being at the mercy of addiction. Alongside his choices was an illness beyond his control.

 

“I always thought there was something wrong with me,” he said. “There’s this misconception that people use substances because they want to use. That’s not the truth. I remember staring at a loaded syringe and crying so long that the tears crusted to my face. I didn’t want to use, and I knew I was going to anyway.”

 

Here, McGill pointed to what he’s come to call “the first miracle.” Despite the pending charge, he mades parole — a situation unlikely at the time, and nearly unheard of now. While he was in a recovery residence, another realization hit him like a brick to the face.

 

Former Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane (Left) learned about the real power or recovery thanks to McGill’s story.

 

“I realized whatever was wrong with me was way bigger than me,” he explained. “As a teenager, my choice was to use. But my choice was not to not stop, because I tried to stop thousands of times and couldn’t. When you talk about substance use disorder, that’s what you’re talking about: something that will not let your brain stop the obsession with returning to that use. Substance use disorder is both a medical condition and a mental health issue. It must be treated as such.”

 

In recovery, McGill began telling his story and encouraging others to battle stereotypes by, in his words, “recovering out loud.” The more he spoke out about his experiences, the more invitations he received. In 2017, at two years clean, McGill was invited to speak at the Arkansas State Capitol alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Attorney General’s office. Also on the speaking docket was newly appointed Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane.

 

“I decide I’m going to go shake his hand and tell him thank you,” McGill said. “And I did. He just smiled and said, ‘It’s good to see you, too.’ I could tell immediately he had no clue who I was. The FBI spoke, the DEA spoke, Kirk spoke — and then I spoke.

 

“I started out, ‘I’ve got two years clean. Before I was clean, there were only two things I liked to do: get high and hide from Kirk Lane.’ Everybody laughed, and it hit him. He came up and bear-hugged me afterwards.”

 

That night was a catalyst for both men. For Lane, who was “trying to arrest his way out of the problem,” McGill said, “He realized recovery is a real thing.” For his part, McGill described the night as “magical,” because he learned his story could impact decision-makers at the highest levels.

 

Lane and McGill began traveling around the state speaking to colleges, law enforcement and other groups about the real possibility and need for a recovery-centered approach.  In 2018, Lane told McGill about a position opening up with the Arkansas Department of Human Services in the new Peer Recovery program.

 

Another impossibility turned into reality: Even though McGill was the only applicant actually in recovery — one of the qualifications for the job — he was still on parole, so his chances of getting the state job were slim to none. But he passed his interview with flying colors, impressing an intimidating panel that reminded him more of the parole board.

Jimmy McGill

In 2019, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a bill allowing DHS to hire individuals with prior drug-related offenses to work as peer support specialists.

 

“The governor had to sign off on a special waiver for me to be hired,” he said. “I knew immediately that this was bigger than me. I knew that this was bigger than Kirk. This was about giving a voice to a population of people who had not had one. This was about fixing a system that doesn’t realize it’s broken.”

 

In September of 2022, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed off on another milestone of McGill’s success story, granting him a full pardon.

 

“I had the breath knocked out of me when I got the phone call,” he said. “It opened my eyes to full-fledged redemption. To go from 19 felony convictions to being a liar if I say I’m convicted of anything — I still can’t wrap my head around it.”

 

Now an author, pastor, homeowner and national vanguard for the power of recovery, McGill described his journey as “a story of impossibilities, where the underdog becomes the champion,” and it’s hard to argue with his assessment.

 

“Only God can take you from sitting in state prison into a state position,” he said. “That’s exactly what happened.”

 

As the name suggests, a peer recovery model relies on the expertise of peers: people with direct lived experience in recovery from addiction, mental health or similar struggles. Peer recovery specialists are trained and deployed to hospitals, jails and other places where they can approach people in crisis with true understanding and support their long-term success.

 

“All these things that were once a burden or an embarrassment now become a pathway to a productive future,” McGill explained. “Every mistake ever made becomes on-the-job training. We built a workforce out of it.”

 

According to McGill, the concept of peer support has been considered an evidence-based practice by Medicaid as far back as 2007, but before 2017, the state workforce was virtually nonexistent. The few peer recovery specialists who did exist were underutilized or put in positions that didn’t highlight their true value.

 

“Addiction has been around for a long time, killing people,” McGill explains. “The sad part of the story is that the right people started dying — with the opioid epidemic — and all of a sudden, they started caring. In 2017, the federal government began releasing its first rounds of funding for states and territories. One of the stipulations of the money was that we embrace the concept of peer support.”

 

In his role as Director of Peer Support for the Arkansas Deaprtment of Health and Human Services (DHS) and a certified Peer Recovery Peer Supervisor, McGill has spearheaded the development of peer recovery throughout the state. According to the Arkansas Peer Recovery site, McGill has assisted in training over 330 peer recovery specialists. Arkansas peer recovery now spans from DHS and the Division of Youth Services to emergency rooms, drug courts and community service centers.

 

The founders of the state’s first jail-based peer recovery program, in the same Lonoke County jail where Jimmy McGill spent time as an inmate.
From left: Casey Copeland, Sheriff John Staley, McGill and Kirk Lane.

 

Two of the first places in the state to benefit from this peer recovery program also symbolized the full circle of McGill’s own recovery. The first was the same Lonoke County jail, where McGill was headed for the sixth time, having given up any hope of life outside of prison. The second was Next Step Recovery Housing, the community-funded recovery group founded in 2017 by McGill and his wife, Chelsea.

 

“We went back to the same population that had been stigmatized by society, and now they’re the key ingredient to overcoming the mental health crisis and the substance use addiction epidemic,” McGill said. “The same group of youth with different sexual orientations. Those same people they said were homeless and would never be anything are now leading the nation. That’s what this thing is about.”

 

The success of Arkansas Peer Recovery has made the state an example for the nation and put McGill in a position to teach the model to groups across the country.

 

“We are number one in the nation when it comes to evidence-based recovery support services, and we’ve got the only 988 call center in America with certified peer workers in it,” McGill said. “We have mobile crisis units. We built the only model in the nation with a career ladder for peer specialists.”

McGill speaks at the Clinton Public Library as part of the Mobilize Recovery Across America 2022 bus tour.

McGill also highlighted that the Arkansas model of peer support was built to not be dependent on Medicaid for sustainability. Instead, he and DHS focused on collecting effective data that would make employers “look foolish if they didn’t embrace the concept of peer support,” he said. The program is Medicaid billable, but also benefits from discretionary grants and other funding mechanisms.

 

Another key to keeping the program viable in the long-term is leadership development and finding people within DHS who truly believe in peer recovery. McGill is confident in having that support from Jay Hill, director of DHS’ Division of Aging, Adult, and Behavioral Health Services, who “took the torch” from Kirk Lane and continues to push for expanding peer recovery’s reach.

 

When it comes to filling gaps in the program, McGill points to youth support services and family support services for youth, neither of which yet has a certification path for peer recovery specialists. He said  the situation is especially dire for LGBTQ youth because, “as long as youth don’t have a safe place to identify and feel secure, suicide rates and drug rates are going to spike.”

 

“I want to see community drop-in centers where youth can hang out and be safe together,” he said. “But I want to see family support, too. I want to see the allies; I want to see the mothers and the fathers who lost their children to suicide and mental health crises and to overdoses. Everywhere we see addiction and mental health, I want to see recovery services.”

 

One of the most important improvements to make, McGill added, is to stop using jails and prisons “as a mental health hospital,” and instead turn them into places where people struggling can receive the support they need.

 

Looking to his own future with DHS, McGill has no plans of going anywhere anytime soon. “It’s such a huge part of my story,” he said. “Right now, 49 other states can say, ‘Arkansas did it; why can’t we do it?’ Hopefully, when I leave, I’ll have someone just as good to pass that torch to.”

 

Asked what others can do to support peer recovery and help others on their own journeys, McGill pointed to recovery-focused education and crushing long-held social stigma as two of the most important steps. Nonprofits such as Next Step Recovery Housing could always use donations of time and money, he added.

 

For those who struggle with addiction or know someone who does, McGill again stressed the real possibility of recovery.

 

“Don’t give up,” he said. “Your past is not a death sentence. Despite how bad your past may look — criminal histories, diagnoses, mistakes, hurts — you are never too far gone to find your purpose and pathway. People can and do recover.”

 

Arkansas Addiction, Treatment and Rehab Centers

 

Conway Behavioral Health Hospital • Conway • Adults, 12-17

Inpatient psychiatric care, outtreatment, partial hospitalization, adult inpatient

 

Natural State Recovery • North Little Rock • Adults

Detox, residential rehab, outpatient, sober living

 

Oasis Renewal Center • Little Rock • Adults

Inpatient, partial, extensive outpatient

 

Pinnacle Pointe Hospital • Little Rock • Ages 5-17

Inpatient, sub-acute, partial hospitalization, options for Military families, outpatient services

 

Recovery Centers of Arkansas • Little Rock • Adults

Rehab, long-term housing, Veteran services, outpatient services and counseling

 

Renewal Ranch, Houston, AR • Men •  21+

Christian-based recovery, job training, GED/continued education options

 

Serenity Park Recovery • Little Rock • Adults

Addiction recovery, medically assisted detox

 

The BridgeWay • North Little Rock • Adults, adolescents ages 13-17, and children ages 4 through 12
Electroconvulsive Therapy for Adults

 

True Self Recovery • Rogers and Holiday Island, AR • Adults

Offers medical detox, residential treatment and outpatient + supportive housing; offers adventure therapy; has a specific Veterans track

 

Oasis of Northwest Arkansas • Several locations • Adult Women 

Transitional living, supportive housing for women in recovery, second chance employment program

 

Next Step Recovery Housing • Clarksville (new location, opening in Feb) • Adult Men

Sober living; drug/alcohol screening; must be committed to next step program; faith-based

 

Next Step Recovery Housing • El Dorado • Adult Women

Sober living; drug/alcohol screening; must be committed to next step program; faith-based

 

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