Service: An Antidote for Addiction

Arguably, no one in Arkansas has more dramatically scaled the peaks and valleys of a life of crime and substance abuse - and recovery - than Jimmy McGill.
Jimmy McGill, director of
Peer Services at the Arkansas Department of Human Services
Jimmy McGill, director of Peer Services at the Arkansas Department of Human ServicesPhotography by Dero Sanford

At age 11, Jimmy first used alcohol and drugs to blunt the pain of physical and sexual abuse. He had never known a happy home; his grandfather was a moonshiner who died an alcoholic. His violent father used drugs and spent much of Jimmy’s childhood in prison.

“I tell people that I got high once, and it lasted 23 years,” Jimmy says. “It went from casual, social use to dependency to full-blown addiction, and I couldn’t stop when I wanted to stop. It became the driving force of my life.”

While that angst may be shared by many others in Arkansas, which ranks third in the U.S. for drug abuse, Jimmy’s recovery and subsequent devotion to the recovery movement catapulted him to receive a full pardon for 19 felony convictions from then-Governor Asa Hutchinson in 2022.

Jimmy is the first parolee to have held a state position and is now director of Peer Services at the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

He helps oversee the training and supervision of peer support specialists and 36 recovery programs operating in jails, prisons, police departments, drug courts, recovery housing, government agencies, community centers, state agencies and even a health insurance company.

He was invited to the White House to advise on policy and reform and has shared his story across the country. He has a term for that sharing: “recovering out loud.”

“Addiction is at an all-time high, and we know what happens when you use – you either die, end up in prison, or go crazy. Those are three guarantees. But people don’t have to spend the rest of their lives trapped in that disease. The recovery movement shares the stories as loudly as they can so people don’t have to die quietly.”

Though he treasures his now eight years of being clean, sobriety is not his goal.

“The goal is having a life so phenomenal you’re unwilling to not stay sober for it,” Jimmy says.


Life shifted for Jimmy when he heard about recovery directly from a recovered person.

He had been in and out of youth homes, prisons and institutions for years, and “a lot of teachers, preachers, mentors and counselors had tried to fix Jimmy,” he says. “Nothing changed about the message, what changed was the messenger: this person had credibility, because they had done the same things I’d done – so the fear of being judged was immediately removed.”

For the first time, Jimmy recognized himself in another’s story of hope.

“My core values had been distorted and twisted, and my idea of what manhood was was tainted and confused. Through a process of recovery, I started learning new ideas, and new thoughts began to emerge.”

Jimmy now tackles recovery by the day

“Addiction is incurable, fatal and progressive. But as long as that disease is arrested, we can continue to be productive and thrive, and be a contribution to the same society that once considered us a burden,” he says.

“I know what I have to do today in order to not return to my addiction. So I do those things. If I ever return to it, it’s because I was irresponsible with my recovery.”

Jimmy defines addiction as “a mental obsession and a physical compulsion.”

“At the core of those two things is my total self-centeredness. Only what I want matters, so I’m willing to go to any length to get what I think will change the way I feel and give me what I need,” he says.

“So when you serve, and you’re of service to others, it takes you completely out of self. Addiction is self-absorbed, so as long as I’m serving others the disease has no footing on me.”

When you serve, and you’re of service to others, it takes you completely out of self. Addiction is self-absorbed, so as long as I’m serving others the disease has no footing on me.
Jimmy McGill


Arkansas boasts more than 500 peer specialists who are trained to help others conquer substance use. Most found their recovery in part through a nudge from a judge, Jimmy says.

“Courts play a huge role. I found my own recovery through law enforcement intervention mixed with recovery.”

McGill’s division at DHS aims to offer peer support in specialty courts throughout Arkansas.

“In the specialty courts, we need people who have successfully navigated the court system and found recovery. They can say, ‘I understand what you’re going through. I am in the system but not a part of the system that’s prosecuting you. I’m here for you.’”

A judge can’t stipulate peer support.

“It has to be a requested service. So the judge would allow a peer specialist to introduce him or herself as someone in recovery to that person, one on one. And that person would have the autonomy to request to work with the peer. The peer specialist may escort that person to a 12-Step meeting, go to a therapist meeting with him, help with a job interview or with building a resume. Services that support a person for success.”


What’s the hardest thing about getting clean?


MCGILL: It’s that most people don’t want to. But a lot of times someone doesn’t know they want recovery until they see it or hear it. So that’s one reason that we share our stories.


What’s the biggest barrier for people trying to get clean?


MCGILL: People, places and things. Odds are, all the people in their life are using. Birds of a feather. You have to change everything; the people you’re around, the things you do.


What are the signs of change?


MCGILL: Enhanced quality of life. All of a sudden I’ve got a few extra dollars here and there. I’m better groomed and smell better, because I’m showering. I think one of the universal symptoms of recovery is that we’re cheerful and happy and laughing. We fought ten times harder for the life we have, so we appreciate it at a level most people will never understand.


Where is Arkansas succeeding?


MCGILL: Arkansas is a leader in recovery; we’ve got some of the largest, loudest recovery movements in the States. We’ve made recovery support services available and accessible. We’ve done everything we can to build and push that infrastructure out there.


Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Smart Justice