Morgan Fawcett calls himself an alcoholic who is about to celebrate two decades of sobriety -- on his 20th birthday.
Even though he is a non-drinker, the Anchorage-born Tlingit blames alcohol for a host of ailments, including constant headaches, learning disabilities and constricted muscles.
He was born with fetal alcohol syndrome after his mother drank as much as 100 days during her pregnancy, he told Alaska Natives, American Indians and others who gathered Thursday in Anchorage for a two-day conference on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
"Everybody is affected by alcohol," Fawcett said. "Nobody is immune. And we all have to deal with the effects every day."
State officials say Alaska Natives have greatly brought down the prevalence of the most severe form of FASD among Native newborns -- fetal alcohol syndrome. The rate of fetal alcohol syndrome, however, remains significantly higher among Alaska Natives than non-Native newborns in the state.
Nationally, the incidence of FASD is more than two times greater among indigenous newborns than in non- Native births, according to information available for a problem that is underreported in Native and non-Native populations alike, said Candace Shelton, a senior Native American specialist with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA is the sponsor of the conference.
Fawcett, a Native flutist and advocate for public awareness of FASD, was among people directly affected by fetal alcohol syndrome who spoke at the conference. He said his goal in life is to share his story, not because it's unique but because it's common and he has the gift of public speaking.
"I can come from a place that offers you the truth as I know it," he said.
Another speaker was Mary Andrews of Bethel, who said she struggles with the anguish of being a mother to a 14-year-old boy with FASD. "It was very hard to talk about at first," Andrews said, fighting back tears. "I was guilty for what I did to my boy."
Andrews said a stepson who had FASD died a few years ago, at age 20. He helped her see how little she knew about what the condition feels like, she said.
He helped her deal with the challenges of her younger son being different from his other siblings, who lose patience with him, calling him stupid. "It hits me hard when I hear him labeled like that," she said.
Other participants in the conference include behavioral health specialists, policymakers and tribal leaders from around the state and Lower 48.
Patricia Getty, one of the SAMHSA officials in attendance, said that alcohol- exposed pregnancies are not a stigma unique to Native communities -- alcohol is consumed globally.
Getty told the crowd she is Irish and noted the recent St. Patrick's Day holiday, which for many is nothing more than a celebration of drinking and intoxication.
"It is a universal, human population problem," Getty said. "It's not just Native populations."