Archive for the ‘Relapse’ Category

Suboxone: Miracle Drug or Manacle?

Yesterday in my office, I saw patients for whom I prescribe buprenorphine (better known under the brand name Suboxone). It was not my typically pleasant day. Usually, I see the positive changes occurring in the lives of my patients: they are getting families back, getting jobs or better jobs, getting health and dental care needs addressed, and overall feeling happier and more productive.

 But yesterday I had two patients who were bitter about being on Suboxone. Both were having great difficulty tapering off of Suboxone. Both had also been reading materials on the internet that described the hopelessness of ever tapering off this medication.

 This frustrates me for several reasons. First, not everything you read on the internet is correct. Second, people don’t appear in my clinic requesting Suboxone for no reason. All of my Suboxone patients were addicted to opioids before I ever prescribed Suboxone. Even assuming no patient ever gets off Suboxone, it’s still so much better than what they were doing before. Third, I’ve never said it’s easy to get off Suboxone. It can be done, but it’s still an opioid. When you stop opioids, you will have withdrawal. There’s no way around that. 

Overall, most people say withdrawal off Suboxone is easier than other opioids. But people and their biochemistries are different, and I accept that some people have a worse withdrawal than other people. I’ve had a few people say methadone withdrawal was easier than Suboxone withdrawal. I have to believe that’s their experience, but I think that’s unusual, and not the experience of most people. 

Some doctors think patients on maintenance medications, like methadone or Suboxone, should always stay on these medications, given what we know about the rates of relapse and even death for patients who leave these programs. And some patients have continued sub acute withdrawal symptoms for weeks or months off opioids, and just don’t feel right unless they are on maintenance medications. These people seem to do better if they stay on maintenance medication. 

And on the other hand, many people are able to taper off opioids and remain off of them, and lead happy, healthy lives. I keep thinking about two groups of recovering opioid addicts who do well off of all opioids, on no maintenance medications: members of 12-step recovery groups, and recovering medical professionals.

 Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen recovering opioid addicts who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, and who aren’t on any maintenance medications. They feel fine, and have been abstinent from opioids for years. If you don’t believe me, go to an open Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Ask the recovering addicts there if they have been addicted to opioids in the past. Chances are that around a fourth of the people you talk to are recovering from opioid addiction. There may be a few people who are on methadone or Suboxone, but many are completely free from opioids.

 Look at doctors in recovery. Opioids were the drug of choice for many addicted doctors, and they are “real” addicts, having used remarkable amounts of opioids before getting into recovery. But doctors have one of the highest rates of drug-free recovery. This isn’t because we are so smart or special, or because we have Charlie Sheen’s tiger blood. It’s because we are held tightly accountable by our licensing boards. If we want to practice medicine, we have to participate in recovery. Licensing boards often hold our licenses hostage unless we do the work of recovery. This may mean three to six months of inpatient residential treatment, after a medical detoxification. It may mean four recovery meetings per week for the first five years of recovery, along with monthly random drug screen, and a monitoring contract for five years.  (1,2)

If every addict seeking recovery could have that degree of treatment and accountability, I suspect relapse rates would be uniformly low. Sadly, that’s just not possible for most opioid addicts, because of financial constraints, and because there’s less leverage with most people than with licensed professionals. 

Not all opioid- addicted doctors do great off opioids. Many have multiple relapses, and would probably be much healthier and happier if they got on maintenance medications like methadone or Suboxone, but isn’t allowed – at present – by the licensing boards in most states. Again, one type of treatment doesn’t work for everyone.

 My point is that it is possible for many people to get off Suboxone, and live a happy drug free life. And for other people, lifelong maintenance is probably the best and safest option. At present, we don’t have a way to predict who might do well off of Suboxone (or methadone). We do know that a taper should be slow, and probably takes four to six months for a taper to give best results.

 I believe in Suboxone. It’s saved many lives, just like methadone has. I wouldn’t prescribe it if I didn’t know it works. I think what I’ve been hearing and reading is a normal backlash against the unrealistic expectations many people had for Suboxone. It’s been called a miracle drug, but it’s not. It’s still an opioid, and there is still a withdrawal when it’s stopped. It’s a great medication for many people. It can allow many opioid addicts to get their lives back and enjoy a normal life, except for having to take a daily dose of Suboxone. But isn’t that still drastically better than active addiction? 

  1. Ganely, Oswald H, Pendergast, Warren J, Mattingly, Daniel E, Wilkerson, Michael W, “Outcome study of substance impaired physicians and physician assistants under contract with North Carolina Physicians Health Program for the period 1995-2000,” Journal of Addictive Diseases, Vol 24(1) 2005.
  2. McLellan, AT, Skipper, GS, Campbell, M, DuPont, RL, “Five Year outcomes in a cohort study of physicians treated for substance abuse disorders in the United States,” British Medical Journal,2008;337: a 2038.

Use of Prescription Monitoring in Suboxone Patients

I enthusiastically use my state’s prescription monitoring program. This database is available only to physicians who have applied and been approved for access. It records all controlled substance prescriptions filled by a patient, the prescribing doctor, and the pharmacy where they were filled. This means it records prescriptions for opioids, benzodiazepines, anabolic steroids, most sleeping pills, and prescription stimulants. Any prescription medication with the potential to cause addiction will be listed. Medications such an antibiotics, blood pressure medication, etc, aren’t controlled substances, and aren’t list on the website. 

I use this database in several ways.

It can help me decide if a new patient is really addicted to opioids, and appropriate for treatment

If a new patient has a urine drug screen that’s negative for all the opioids, and has no record of getting prescriptions for opioids, I’ll have to see objective evidence of addiction before starting to treat him with Suboxone. But if the urine is negative, and I see monthly oxymorphone prescriptions (sometimes missed on urine drug screens) have been filled, it’s more likely this patient is appropriate for Suboxone treatment. Rarely, a misguided, misinformed person might claim to be addicted to opioids in order to be prescribed Suboxone. This happened once to me, with a patient who was addicted to Xanax, and was convinced Suboxone would cure her. I referred her to more appropriate care.

Using the database can help detect a relapse sooner

Most of the patients in my Suboxone practice (around 80%) are pill takers, not heroin users. When they relapse, it tends to be to prescription opioids, obtained from a doctor unfamiliar with their history of addiction. I check each patient on the state’s database just prior to each visit, and if there are medications on the site I didn’t know about, that will be the main topic of our visit. New medication on the database doesn’t always mean a relapse, so I need to listen to their explanation.

 When it does mean a relapse, the patient and I decide what to do next. Often, the patient decides to allow me to call the other doctor, agrees to increase her “dose” of counseling, and possibly her dose of Suboxone, if it was an opioid relapse. If there are repeated relapses, I may decide Suboxone, as an outpatient, doesn’t provide the support a patient needs. Then, I refer to another form of treatment. Usually this means to a long-term inpatient drug rehab, or to an opioid treatment center, where the patient comes to the clinic every day. Either way, I believe I’m able to address a relapse more quickly using the database.

 Frequently, Suboxone patients get prescriptions for benzodiazepines. That’s a problem for me. For a person without addiction, benzodiazepines can be helpful, mostly used short-term. But for people with addiction, they usually cause problems, sooner or later. People with a previous addiction to any drug, especially including alcohol, need to regard prescription benzodiazepines as high-risk medications.

 I try to be flexible, too. If a traumatic event has occurred in the life of a patient, I may OK benzodiazepines short-term, provided I can see the patient more often and have good communication with the doctor prescribing the benzodiazepines.

  I also have to remember the body reacts the same to a mixture of opioids and benzos, no matter why they’re taken.  Even though Suboxone is safer than methadone, it’s still not safe when mixed with benzos, when taken for any reason.

If this sounds wishy-washy, that’s because it is. So many situations arise in the lives of patients that one hard and fast rule just doesn’t exist. That’s the art of medicine.

 Is the patient filling Suboxone on time?

The database also shows me when patients are filling the Suboxone prescription. If I write a prescription today, but the patient doesn’t fill it for two weeks, what’s going on there? Has he relapsed for several weeks? Did he have a stockpile of Suboxone from a previous prescription? Was he unable to afford it until now? All these questions and their answers are important to guide treatment.

 It makes me happy.

It warms my heart to see a patient who had a long list of opioid prescriptions from multiple doctors before starting Suboxone, then after entering treatment, see only Suboxone. This occurs in the majority of my patients.

My state’s prescription monitoring program is one of the best tools to help patients that I’ve ever seen. I believe it’s saved many lives. I think it’s just as important as drug screening for my Suboxone patients. Of course, the best tool for recovery is the counseling. I prefer 12-step recovery, as that provides ongoing support even after Suboxone treatment, but any kind of counseling helps. The patients I see doing the best are the ones involved in both formal counseling, in group or individual settings, along with 12-step meetings.

Opioid Blockers: Do They Take All the Fun Out of Life?

According to an interesting article in the most recent copy of the American Journal on Addictions, the answer appears to be, “No,” at least for some people. (1)

 This article described a study where researchers asked patients on the extended-release opioid blocker naltrexone to rate the amount of pleasure they obtained from things like eating good food, sex, and exercise. These patients were on naltrexone for the treatment of alcoholism, but of course, the information may be helpful for opioid addicts who are treated with opioid blockers to prevent relapse back to opioid use. The subjects were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, the amount of pleasure they obtained from activities such as sex, eating good food, exercise, talking with friends, and other usually enjoyable things in life. A score of 1 meant they felt no pleasure at all, and 5 meant they felt much pleasure.

 The good news is that pleasure scores for these patients were relatively high. For example, the average score for pleasure from eating good food was 4.14, out of a possible 5. For listening to music, it was 4.00 out of 5. For sex, it was 3.92. For drinking alcohol, it was only 2.57 out of 5, which supports the use of this medication for alcoholics.

 In summary, the study found that subjects on extended-release naltrexone still experienced a good amount of pleasure from life.

 There were limitations to this study, however. We don’t have a pre-naltrexone baseline for these patients. In other words, we know pleasure ratings were fairly high while on naltrexone, but it’s possible these subjects had even higher pleasure scores before naltrexone. Also, there was no placebo control in the study. Maybe people getting pretend, or sham, treatments would have had higher pleasure scores, but we don’t know. 

In my mind, the biggest weakness was that the study enrolled 187 patients, but only 74 completed the intended survey. That means about 60% of the subjects dropped out of treatment, and the article doesn’t say why they dropped out. Maybe the drop-outs were the ones to feel a lack of pleasure in their lives from being on naltrexone, and the ones who stayed on it didn’t have this same side effect. If so, this would obviously skew the results.

 But even with these admitted weaknesses, and even though the study was paid for by the company that manufactures the sustained-release naltrexone (Vivitrol), this article gives hope that Vivitrol may work for opioid addiction. It may help prevent relapses, without interfering with life’s pleasures. And we need every tool we can get to fight addiction.

  1. 1.      O’Brien, Charles; Gastfriend, David; Forman, Robert; Schweizer, Edward; Pettinati, Helen, Long-Term Opioid Blockade and Hedonic Response: Preliminary Data from Two Open-Label Extension Studies with Extended-Release Naltrexone, American Journal on Addictions, Vol. 20 (2), March/April 2011, pp106-112.

The Story of a Recovering Addict

Following is an interview with a successfully recovering opioid addict. He received treatment at methadone clinics off and on for years, and finally achieved medication-free recovery after going to an inpatient treatment program for 42 days. Later, he began to work in the field of addiction treatment as a methadone counselor. He was promoted multiple times over the years to his present position as director of the narcotic treatment program at his clinic. This is his perspective about his own experience and what he’s seen with methadone treatment.

JB: Can you tell me your title at the opioid treatment clinic where you work?

KS: Director of Narcotic Treatment, which is our opioid treatment program. [He supervises counselors working at multiple clinic sites, with a total census of around thirty-four hundred methadone patients]

JB: Can you please tell me about your own opioid addiction, and how you got into recovery, including what kind of substances you may have used, what kind of treatments, and your experiences with them?

KS: I started out using pain killers, mostly Percodan tablets, back in the late 70’s, which lead me to using heroin. Heroin wasn’t easy to get [where I lived], so I started using Dilaudids [a name brand of the drug oxymorphone]. I started using Dilaudid on a regular basis in the county I lived in. That was the primary drug I used for quite a few years.

[My] first experience with methadone treatment started in 1978, with a brief episode of treatment, a matter of a month or so, with no success. Pretty much during the 1980’s, I was on and off methadone programs with little or no success, because I refused to participate in group or individual sessions. At the time, there was very limited counseling going on [at methadone clinics]. If there was a problem, you saw your counselor, and that didn’t happen a whole lot. Patients were simply trying to get more methadone. At that point, the methadone dosages were very low. I think the average dose back then was somewhere between forty and fifty milligrams. And we [patients on methadone] didn’t know that. We didn’t know that. We just found out through….

JB: You didn’t know what dose you were taking?

KS: Oh, no. We didn’t know what dose we were taking, for a number of years. As a matter of fact, that didn’t change until right before 2001.

JB: Wow

KS: Yeah.

JB: Could the patient find out if they wanted to? [the dose they were taking]

KS: We were blind dosed then. That didn’t change until just before 2001.

JB: Was that unusual for methadone clinics to do?

KS: To my knowledge, I think we [the clinic where he now works, and previously was a patient] were one of the last ones to keep doing that. It was just something we had done over the years and never changed it. [The patients] didn’t know what their dose was.

Through the 1980’s, I was on and off methadone programs, sometimes for a few years at a time, and sometimes had some success. The biggest benefit I had from taking methadone and being on the program was that I was able to work. I held a job the entire time, and I wasn’t doing anything criminal.  It served the purpose it was supposed to serve there, because I had to work, and I was able to function fairly normally. But I never moved into actual recovery, and still used some opiates from time to time. So that was pretty much the 80’s. Two good things happened in the 80’s. In 1981 my son was born, and in 1989, I got clean.

JB: Big things.

KS: Two monumental things in my life. So, I went through that period of time I had talked about, when I started using opiates, in about 1974. Then I started getting on the methadone programs, on and off, [starting] from ’78, but I continued to use. I was using Dilaudids on a daily basis for a number of years. When I got on the methadone program, I would curtail that, but always wanted to go back to Dilaudid. That [Dilaudid] became my drug of choice.

I was on the methadone program in 1989, and having some problems with alcohol. Prior to getting on the program, I was told, “We’re not going to allow you on the program, unless you go on Antabuse.” So I did that and I was successful at stopping drinking, and had some success with methadone. I decided I wanted off the methadone, started detoxing off, and had a series of positive drug screens for a variety of opiates: morphine, Dilaudid, and several different things I had access to. The methadone center said, “We’re going to make a recommendation that you enter residential treatment.” And I said, “Sounds great to me, I’ll do that in a couple months.” And they said, “No. We’re going to make a recommendation you do that… pretty quickly.”

And that’s what happened. I said, “I don’t think I can do this. I’ve got some things to do.” And I remember it like it was yesterday. The counselor got up and walked out of the room and he left me sitting there by myself. Then he walked back in, said, “We’ve got you a bed.” And that’s what lead me to [inpatient treatment].

So I went to forty-two days of residential treatment, and actually entered that program ready to quit using and get into recovery. And from that point on, recovery has been the most important thing in my life….family, of course…but I’ve pursued recovery since May 3, 1989. I followed all the suggestions. [I’m] still really involved with 12- step meetings, and still really involved with some of the same things I did when I first came in [to recovery]. Obviously, I don’t go to as many meetings, but still go to meetings on a regular basis

JB: Do you have any regrets about either type of treatment? The forty-two day inpatient or the methadone?

KS: I do believe that in my case, I needed to be taken away from my environment, simply because of the people I was associated with. That’s not the case for everyone. In my case, I needed to be away from my environment. So the detoxing from the methadone and going into a residential program, that’s what worked for me. Obviously, people can do that other ways. But I still had people in my life that were negative influences.

JB: If you had an opioid addict who presented for treatment for the first time, what would you recommend? If money were no object?

KS: I’d recommend that individual seek inpatient treatment. Now, if they had an extended history of opiate dependency, then that person’s success rate in residential treatment is obviously going to be limited….and…it would just depend on the individual. Methadone treatment might be the way for them to go. I know that’s kind of teetering on the fence. I’m going to be somewhat….I’m going to hold on to how powerful residential treatment was for me. But I had failed at methadone treatment. And, there again, it was a different time, the methadone doses weren’t enough at the time.

JB: Did you feel normal on your dose of methadone or did you [still] feel withdrawal?

KS: I was feeling normal, however, I could still feel drug use [other opioids].

JB: So it wasn’t a blocking dose?

It was not a blocking dose. You knew if you got medicated at 7:00 am, at 5:00 pm you could fairly well feel somewhat of a rush and feel the effects of [other opioids].

JB: How did you get started working in the field of addiction treatment?

KS: I came out of treatment, worked for a family business for a couple of years, and always, from day one, I thought, “What a fascinating thing….if I could somehow do this…to get into that line of work [meaning addiction counseling].

 I started, after two years, as an evening counselor at a residential treatment program, and saw that I really wanted to do that. There was an avenue for non-degreed people to come in to a counselor position. You didn’t have to have a degree in substance abuse or anything like that, so I pursued that, and followed the certification process. I didn’t work in residential treatment but nine months, and then moved to methadone counseling. From that point on, I had found what I wanted to do. And I’ve been offered a promotion at the treatment center to another department when I was over the methadone program, and turned it down to stay with that population [meaning opioid addicts in treatment on methadone].

JB: So you obviously enjoy it.

KS: Oh yeah.

JB: What did you like about it?

KS: I think my ability to relate to that population, without having any thought or putting any real effort…I don’t have to think about it. I know I can talk to that population, and I know I can make them feel normal, by just holding a conversation with them….it might not be about drug use. It might not be about anything pertaining to the treatment episode, but I feel like…that I know exactly where they’re coming from, and I can give them some hope that they don’t have to keep living that way. Just an identification with that population.

JB: That’s a precious gift.

KS: I agree.

JB: Do you believe that your background in addiction helps you when you talk to patients?

KS: I do. I believe wholeheartedly that you can’t teach that. I’ve had some people work for me who had a graduate degree, have never personally had an incidence of opioid addiction or any addiction in their family, and they’re absolutely fantastic clinicians. And you know they’re in that line of work for a reason. So [personal experience with addiction] does not need to be a criterion; in my case, it helps. I find it fascinating to watch someone work who has no self-history of addiction. They can be very effective.

JB: What are the biggest challenges you face now at your work?

KS: That would be…documentation. [The demand for] documentation in this field has really overcome the interpersonal relationship. I can’t help but think as time goes on, that’s going to continue. We don’t have twenty or thirty minutes to sit down with a client, and get into one issue after another, or whatever [the client] may have on their plate. And in opioid treatment, a lot of times it’s brief therapy. They [patients] don’t want to talk to you for twenty or thirty minutes. But you don’t have time to do that, because of the documentation. [The counselor has] three people waiting in the lobby, and you’re kind of selling that person short.

The documentation standards continue to rise, and in methadone treatment, I don’t know how that can go hand in hand with a fifty to one case load. Whereas, someone else might have the same documentation required in the mental health field, but they might have sixteen people they’re seeing.

JB: So you’re saying that the state and federal regulations about documentation actually interfere with the amount of counseling the patients get?

KS: Right. Right.

JB: That’s sad.

The clinic where you work has eight different sites. Can you tell me about what sort of interactions you’ve had with the community leaders, local police, and medical community?

KS: Overall, with any opioid treatment program [methadone clinic], there’s going to be a negative stereotype associated with it in the community, as you well know. Local law enforcement has a bias [against] the [methadone] program. What we’ve found is, any interaction we have with them, and the better understanding that they have [of what we do], the better. And I believe we can make a difference in what law enforcement, and other areas of the community [think about methadone programs].  It’s going to have to happen one person at a time.

An example of that would be when I got a call, a couple of weeks ago, to one of the clinics at ten o’clock at night. An alarm is going off. So I meet the police out there, and we go in, make sure nobody’s in the building. I’m trying to give him some information about it [the methadone program].

He says, “Is it true they come in every day and ya’ll shoot ‘em up?” (laughter) So he thinks that’s what happens.

            So, I educated him on what we do and followed that up with, “Why don’t you stop by and get coffee any time you want to and we’ll give you information.” They were very receptive to that. That’s how you’ve got to approach it. Be willing to talk to people and give them information. [Do the] same thing with community leaders. They’re just not educated in outpatient opioid treatment. Once they get some information, they seem to have a different take on it.

JB: Can you tell me what you’ve seen, particularly over the last seven years, about the types of populations that are coming to the clinics, and if that’s changed any?

KS: I started working in methadone treatment seventeen years ago. We used to have statistics on the methadone program. The average age of a person coming on the program was thirty-four years old, at that time. We had eighty or ninety people on the program and that was it. And they were long term users, primarily heroin as drug of choice. We’ve seen what’s happening over the years.

Heroin has decreased somewhat. Prescription medications went wild. I just read information that forty-four percent of patients entering methadone programs in the nation were on prescription opioids. The age of the person coming on the program has dropped from thirty-four into their late twenties. I don’t have that exact number. But we’ve seen them get younger, and we’ve seen prescription drugs take the place of heroin, in driving people into treatment.

JB: What seems to be the main type of prescription drug, or is there one?

KS: OxyContin changed the landscape in our setting. It’s still a driving force, as far as putting people into treatment. We have an increase in heroin here, but the western part of the state…OxyContin and morphine are on the scene….and any painkiller.

JB: Do you have any opinion about why that happened? Why the incidence of pain pill addiction seemed to rise over the last seven to ten years?

KS: If there’s a reason for it….I think it’s generational. It’s passed down. It’s easy. You’ve got doctors giving the mother and the father painkillers for whatever reason, legitimate or not. It gets passed on…obviously there’s a genetic link for some kinds of addiction or alcoholism. I think you know what you’re getting there [meaning a prescription pill]. People addicted to opioid drugs have very few avenues to get quality heroin in those regions of the country. [Pain pills] are a sure bet. Patients say, “I know what I’m getting when I get that pill.”

JB: If you had the ear of policy makers in Washington D.C., what would you tell them? What would you like to see happen in the treatment field for opioid addiction?

KS: I’m going to refer back to what I said earlier. In methadone treatment, there should be some kind of review, as far as what needs to be documented. Obviously, there needs to be accurate documentation, but not to put methadone or opioid treatment into the same mental health arena for documentation requirements. Because you’re dealing with a different environment, a different population, and a different caseload.

JB: Would you like to see buprenorphine play a role [at the methadone clinic]?

KS: Yes, there’s a need for it. You’ve got such a stereotype against methadone facilities, that’s another avenue for people to be in treatment [meaning buprenorphine]….whether it’s administered in the methadone facility or [community] doctor-based, there’s a need for that.

This interview was with one of the many wonderful people I’ve had the honor of working with at methadone clinics. In my years of work in the medical field, I’ve never been surrounded by as many quality people, who had passion for their work, as I have in addiction medicine. I don’t know if I’ve been extremely lucky, or if all addiction treatment centers draw dedicated individuals to work within their systems. Many of these workers try hard to dispel the stigma and social isolation that addicts feel.

Bibliotherapy: More Addiction Memoirs

If I Die Before I Wake, by Barbara Rogers

Anyone struggling with addiction to drugs including alcohol can get something out of this book. The author describes what her addiction was like, what happened to get her into recovery, and what it’s like now. And she went further than that. She described the trials she faced while in recovery, and how she applied the spiritual principles of the twelve steps as she went through these trials. This book is like going to a really good speaker meeting. It will resonate with both newcomers and old-timers in recovery. I will be recommending it to my patients.

Pill Head, by Joshua Lyons

I was envious as I read the book, because he did such a great job of writing an interesting, engaging book, while also educating the reader with (mostly) accurate facts about the disease of opioid addiction. It’s more interesting than my own book, Pain Pill Addiction, though I have more science in mine. Anyway, the author shows the dividedness of many addicts. He wants to be in recovery, and hates the negative consequences that are occurring as a result of his addiction, but he still wants to use pain pills. I don’t think people newly in recovery should read it because it may trigger cravings in the places he describes drug euphoria. His story isn’t one of hope, and I wish he’d waited until he was further into recovery to write the book.

 

Loaded, by Jill Talbot

            Ugh. I didn’t like this book. It was false advertising, for one thing. It was more about her unhappy love life than it was about her alcohol addiction. For the first two-thirds of the book, she laments about how dating married men made her lonely. Duh. Then toward the end she does talk of some sticky situations due to alcohol, and describes her fellow patients at a drug rehab. But then she is vague about her relapse back to drinking, and if she was able to do controlled drinking, or if she went back to her former state.

Wired: the life and Fast Times of Jim Belushi, by Bob Woodward

            It could have been cut in half and been a much better book. The renowned author put in a great many details of the days and nights during the years leading up to the star’s death from drug overdose, and it felt like too much after a few chapters. We get it. He was a wild and crazy guy. He did outrageous things and was tremendously talented and deeply flawed. Maybe knowing the ending made it sad from the start. Another big talent obliterated by addiction.

Broken, by William Cope Myers

            He’s the son of the famous journalist William Myers, and now a spokesman for Hazelden recovery center in Minnesota. This memoir is one of the better ones. He does a good job of describing the guilt that comes after a drug binge, and about his family’s disappointment in him. With a famous father, the press of expectations was an added stress that may have pushed his addiction further.

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous

I came across a paperback copy in a bargain bin at a thrift store, and bought it to re-read. I read it as a teen, and at that time suspected it was written by an adult to scare kids away from drugs. I wondered if I’d think differently reading it as an adult. I didn’t. I certainly didn’t sound like it was written by a fifteen year old. It’s a fair book, but probably fictional.

Can’t Find My Way Home, by Martin Torgoff

I’ll re-read this one. It’s a comprehensive history of drug addiction in the U.S. from 1945 until 2000. Focused on the various political movements and popular trends of different years, it puts drug use into cultural context. It also gives some specifics behind some famous drug users and drug legalization proponents. It was fascinating. At the end, the author unexpectedly described his own recovery. Anyone wanting to read more about the 1960’s and 70’s drug culture should read this book.

“The End of My Addiction,” by Dr. Oliver Amiesen

            I only got this book because a few patients mentioned it. I pre-judged this book, thinking the author must be a pompous doctor, hater of Alcoholics Anonymous, who wrote a lame book on a half-baked theory about addiction treatment, just for his self-glorification. I was completely wrong. The author writes about his own addiction with self-awareness and humility. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but presents a credible treatment that may benefit alcoholics. He started himself on high-dose baclofen, a muscle relaxant that’s been around for years. It quenched his thirst for alcohol. He presents a good enough argument to justify a large randomized controlled trial to test the theory that high-dose baclofen suppresses alcohol cravings. The book is well-written and interesting. Dr. Amiesen describes his own travails with addiction in some detail.

The Narcotic Farm: A Bit of History

We don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel.

We can investigate the success rates of addiction treatment methods used over the past century, see what worked, and what didn’t work. We can use programs of proven benefit or we can continue to spend money on programs repeatedly shown to have little benefit.

From 1935 until 1962, drug addicts were treated at a unique facility, part jail and part treatment hospital. Initially named the United States Narcotic Farm, it was later changed to the U.S. Public Health Service Narcotics Hospital. Even after this name change, most people still called it the Narcotic Farm.

This facility was located on twelve acres of Kentucky farmland. The facility was created by the Public Health Service and the Bureau of Prisons, meant to serve a dual purpose. It was a treatment hospital, where drug addicts could voluntarily be admitted for treatment of their addiction, and it was also a federal prison, where drug offenders were sent to serve their sentences. About two thirds of the inpatients were prisoners and the other third were addicts, voluntarily seeking help for opioid addiction. Both types of patients were treated side by side. For over forty years, it was the main drug addiction treatment center in the United States, along with a similar facility in Ft. Worth, Texas, which opened in 1937.

            The Narcotic Farm was a massive institution for its time. It had fifteen-hundred beds, and housed tens of thousands of patients over its forty years of operation. It was located in a rural area of Kentucky, which gave it space for numerous operations to engage the prisoners – now called patients – in all types of job training. (1)

             The Narcotic Farm really was a farm. Besides growing many types of vegetables, there was a working dairy, and livestock including pigs and chickens. These operations provided food for the patients and staff of the facility and provided work for the patients. The patients provided the labor to keep the farm going and it was hoped they would simultaneously learn useful trades. In addition to farming, they learned skills in sewing, auto repair, carpentry, and other trades. Besides teaching new job skills, it was hoped that fresh air, sunshine, and wholesome work would be beneficial to the addicts. (1)

            For its time, the Narcotic Farm was surprisingly progressive in its willingness to try multiple new treatments. For the forty years it operated, many different treatments were tried for opioid addicts. It offered individual and group talk therapies, job training, psychiatric analysis, treatment for physical medical issues, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, art therapy, shock therapy, music therapy, and even hydrotherapy, with flow baths to soothe the nerves. Despite these options, the Farm apparently retained many of the characteristics of a prison, with barred windows and strict security procedures. (1)

             The Narcotic Farm had its own research division, the Addiction Research Center (ARC), which became the forerunner of today’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The Narcotic Farm did pioneering work, using methadone to assist patients through withdrawal, and helped establish the doses used to treat opioid addiction. Methadone was used only short term, for the management of withdrawal symptoms, and not for maintenance dosing at the Narcotic Farm. The Farm also trained a dedicated group of doctors and nurses, who were pioneers in the field of addiction treatment. It provided new information on the nature of addiction.

             Admission to the Narcotic Farm allowed an opioid addict some time to go through opioid withdrawal, eat regular meals, work in one of the farm’s many industries, and have some form of counseling. However, after leaving the hospital, the addicts were entirely released from care and supervision, with no assistance to help re-enter their communities. Most times, they returned to their same living situation and old circumstances encouraged relapse back to drug use and addiction. As a result, two follow up studies of the addicts treated at the Narcotic Farm showed a ninety-three percent and ninety-seven percent relapse rate within six months, with most of the relapses occurring almost immediately upon returning home. Many addicts cycled through the Public Health Hospital multiple times. (1)       

            The Narcotic Farm was eventually turned over to the Bureau of Prisons in 1974, as the treatment for addiction was de-centralized. Since the studies found high relapse rates for addicts returning to their previous communities, it was hoped by moving treatment centers into communities, these addicts could have ongoing support after they left inpatient treatment.

  1. Nancy P. Campbell, The Narcotic Farm: The rise and fall of America’s first prison for drug addicts, (New York, Abrams, 2008)

 

This is an excerpt from my new book, “Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope.” 

Available at http://prescriptionforhope.com

 and on Amazon and Ebay

and many bookstores

Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope

Finally, here’s the cover of my book about pain pill addiction and its treatment. It’s available at http://prescriptionforhope.com or you can order it from Amazon, and soon from Barnes and Noble.

My book contains much of what I’ve been blogging about. I wrote the book because there are so few sources of reliable information about the treatment of opioid addiction (pain pills). It seems  that abstinence-based programs don’t like to talk about medication-assisted programs, and some methadone clinics don’t let their patients know about other options. Methadone and buprenorphine can be life-saving when used appropriately, but they have some drawbacks, as well.

There’s not one single right answer for all opioid addicts. Some treatments work for some patients, but no treatment works for all patients. In my book, I present the data supporting treatment methods, so opioid addicts and their families can chose the best course.

If you like this blog, you’ll like my book. I also have a chapter in the book about the unjust stigma patients face when they are treated with medication-assisted methods. It takes a strong person to stay on a treatment that helps them, despite criticism from friends, family, law enforcement, and even unenlightened medical professionals.

Judges Behaving Badly

When a valid form of addiction treatment is criticized by someone who knows next to nothing about it… I nearly always go into a dither. I’m better than I used to be, but not much.

Recently, a patient at one of the methadone clinics where I work said he appeared before a judge for offenses committed prior to entry into treatment at the methadone clinic. The patient says the judge ordered him to get off methadone as part of his sentence, which also included public service, intensive probation, and monetary fines. I’m going to make sure the patient’s report is accurate before I begin my literary assault by letter. But I suspect the judge actually said what my patient reports.

It amazes me a judge would foolishly practice medicine, by dictating what an opioid addict, ill with a disease, can or cannot do to get treatment for their disease.

It’s not like methadone is a flash in the pan. It’s been around for 45 years. It’s one of the heaviest evidence-based treatments in all of medicine. Plus, we have several studies showing opioid addicts who leave methadone treatment have a death rate at least eight times higher than opioid addicts who stay in methadone treatment. (1, 2)

 That’s death rates. And dead addicts don’t recover.

If other equally effective options were available to this young man, I wouldn’t be as upset by the judge’s ruling. If the patient could afford to stay in a medical detoxification unit for seven to ten or more days, followed immediately by prolonged inpatient residential drug rehabilitation of thirty to ninety days, I might agree with the judge. But this young man can’t afford that kind of treatment. State funded treatment exists, but usually patients can stay a week in a detox and one, maybe even two weeks in rehab, which is rarely enough for an opioid addict. Outpatient treatment, without replacement medication, results in relapse rates consistently shown to be in the range of 96%.

In my letter to the judge I’m going to try to gently educate, which seems to be the best approach to the law and order type people. In my letter to the judge I’m going to cite several studies, and direct the judge towards an excellent NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) website with all essential information regarding treatment of opioid addiction with methadone: http://international.drugabuse.gov/collaboration/guide_methadone/index.html

This wonderful tool, in a question and answer format, contains valuable information about methadone and its use in the treatment of opioid addiction. It contains references to all of the best and most commonly cited studies about methadone. If you have questions, check it out.

1. Scherbaum N, Specka M, et.al, Does maintenance treatment reduce the mortality rate of opioid addicts? Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr, 2002, 70(9):455-461.

2. Zanis D, Woody G; One-year mortality rates following methadone treatment discharge. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1998: vol.52 (3) 257-260.

Interview with a Methadone Counselor

I met a skilled drug addiction counselor, previously addicted to heroin, who became abstinent from all drugs, by going to meetings of Narcotics Anonymous. She had been a patient of methadone clinics off and on for many years, prior to getting clean. I met her after she had more than ten years of completely abstinent recovery, yet she happily works at a methadone clinic, helping opioid addicts. I interviewed her because of her personal experience and her striking open-mindedness to different approaches to the treatment of addiction. Here is what she had to say about her experiences with methadone, and her perspective:

JB: Can you please tell me your personal experience of opioid addiction?
RJ: Well, my personal experience began at the age of…probably eighteen….and I was introduced by some people I was hanging out with. I was basically very ignorant about those kinds of things. I wasn’t aware of that kind of stuff going on, ‘cause I was raised in this real small town and just didn’t know this kind of stuff happened.
My first experience was with a Dilaudid. Somebody said we had to go somewhere else to do it, and I really didn’t understand that, because I certainly didn’t know that it would be injected. That was my first experience with a narcotic, with opiates, and….I fell in love!
I loved it. I injected it, and the feeling was…..like none I had ever felt. And even though I did get sick, I thought it was what I was looking for. It was the best feeling in the world.
Obviously, they didn’t tell me about getting sick, [meaning opioid withdrawal] and that after doing it for some days consecutively, when you didn’t have any, you’d get sick. I never will forget the first time I was sick from not having any.
And that lead to a habit that lasted twenty-some years. My experience and my path led me down many roads… with addiction, going back and forth to prison, because I obviously didn’t make enough money to purchase these drugs that I needed to have in my body, to keep from being sick. This lasted for twenty four years. I ended up doing heroin and I liked it, because it tended to be stronger. Morphine I liked a lot, but it wasn’t easily accessible, so I switched over to heroin at some point. Which I liked a lot.
JB: What role did methadone play in your recovery?
RJ: I’ve been in numerous methadone clinics. I typically would get on methadone when I got a charge [meaning legal problems] and I wanted to call myself being in treatment. I never ever got on methadone with any expectations, hopes, or thoughts of changing my life. I got on because it kept me from being sick. And it kept me off the street for a period of time. If I had a charge, I was in treatment and I always thought that would help me in my journeys with the legal systems. That was the part methadone played in my life, it was just to help me get through it.
JB: Did it help you?
RJ: At the time, it did. My problem with methadone was, when I would get on methadone, I would tend to do cocaine, because I could feel the cocaine, and I wasn’t about changing anything. I just wanted temporary fixes in my life. I’d switch to cocaine while I was on methadone. And it [methadone] worked for a time. I never got any take homes, because I continued to test positive for other substances while I was on methadone, but I thought I was doing better, ‘cause I was not doing narcotics. In that aspect it did help.
JB: And you’ve been in recovery from addiction now for how long?
RJ: It will be fifteen years in June.
JB: Wonderful!
KS: Yes, it is wonderful.
JB: And tell me where you work now.
RJ: I work at a methadone treatment facility.
JB: How long have you been working there?
RJ: I’ve been there for almost fourteen years and in this [satellite] clinic for a little over two years, and I’ve been in methadone [as a counselor] for five years.
JB: How do you feel about methadone and what role it should play in the treatment of opioid addiction?
RJ: I believe in methadone. Our [her clinic’s] philosophy certainly is not harm reduction but I believe that’s what it’s about. And I do believe that those people on methadone, and are doing well, have a home, have a life, I think that’s all they aspire to. For them that’s enough, you know, they’re not out ripping and running the roads, they’re not looking for drugs on a daily basis. They come and get their methadone, they go to work, they have a life, they have a family, they have a home, and for them that’s good enough.
JB: Do you think it keeps them from getting completely clean [I purposely chose to use her language to differentiate being in recovery on methadone from being in recovery and completely off all opioids]?
RJ: No. I think they know they have a choice.
JB: OK
RJ: I really believe that a lot of them don’t think that they can ever do anything differently, and I know from personal experience that can be very true. I think that you just get so bogged down in your disease that you don’t see any way out. I think if you can find a place where you can get something legally and you’re not using the street drugs, and you’re not out copping [buying drugs] and you’re working and basically having a life, then that becomes OK, and that becomes good enough.
And addicts by nature are scared of change, and they get in that role and they get comfortable and that’s good enough for them. So I don’t believe they think that they can do any better.
JB: What percentages of your patients have already used street methadone by the time they get to the clinic?
RJ: I’d say seventy-five percent. Very rarely do I do an assessment [on a new patient] that somebody hasn’t already used methadone on the street. Very rarely.
JB: What are your biggest challenges where you work?
RJ: Actually my biggest challenges where I work are internal challenges. Fighting that uphill battle of no consequences for clients. There’s no consequences. We allow them to do basically what they want to do. [She is speaking of her methadone clinic’s style of interaction with patients].
JB: Do you think patients did better when there were a few consequences?
RJ: Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, when certain clients can continue to have the same behaviors, like use benzos [meaning benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax] and there are no consequences, certainly they are going to continue doing those behaviors. And those are the things that are challenges now, for us, for me.
I can’t enforce any consequences because we’re not allowed to, because it’s called punishment. The powers that be, they see it as punishment, where I work. Being that I come from living a life of doing the wrong thing always, I’m a big believer in consequences. And I believe that if you don’t have any, you continue to do those things. That’s the kind of stuff, the inadequacies where I work at.
JB: What do you like most about your job?
RJ: (pause) The light…. in somebody’s eyes every now and again. It might not happen much, but now and again the light comes on, and you have that “ah ha” moment. They have it, and you’re like, yes! Or when somebody comes and tells you they have that little spark of hope. Yep. That’s what I like most about my job.
JB: If you could make changes in how opioid addiction is treated, what would you do? If you could tell the people who make the drug laws, what would you recommend? How would you change the system, or would you?
RJ: I don’t know that I would change the system. I think the system works. I think it’s individual facilities that don’t work sometimes. Yeah. I think – methadone’s been around a long time – I mean, obviously it’s worked for a lot of years or it wouldn’t still be in existence. I think methadone maintenance programs work, but each individual facility maybe needs to make changes. You know, that’s just my opinion.
JB: If you were the boss of a methadone treatment center, how would you handle benzodiazepine use by patients?
RJ: They wouldn’t be tolerated. At all.
JB: Why is that?
RJ: Because I think they kill people. I know they kill people.
JB: How about alcohol?
RJ: Alcohol wouldn’t be tolerated either. I mean, obviously you would be given a chance to straighten it and rectify it and clean it up, with help, if you need it. But that would be it. You would get that opportunity and then [if the patient couldn’t stop using alcohol] you would be detoxed from that program. I believe that’s the route to go. We’ve had too many deaths. And there’s nothing to say that it’s not going to continue to happen…so, yeah, if I had a facility it would not be tolerated. There would be zero tolerance, period. There just wouldn’t be any.
JB: What do you say to people that say that’s keeping people out of treatment?
RJ: There are other types of treatment; maybe you need a different level of care. Maybe methadone’s not the answer.
JB: So you don’t think methadone’s the answer for every opioid addict?
RJ: No. No I don’t.
JB: What do you think about people on methadone coming to Narcotics Anonymous?
RJ: I think they have a right to come to Narcotics Anonymous.
JB: Do you think they should share?
RJ: I wish they could share, but I know, there again from personal experience, how methadone is viewed by people in Narcotics Anonymous. And I think that if that person does share [that they are on methadone], they are treated differently.
JB: Do you tell your patients to go to NA?
RJ: I do.
JB: What do you tell them about picking up chips?
RJ: That’s their personal call, because I feel like it is. But then I don’t view methadone as using. See, I look at it as treatment, and somebody taking medication because they’re sick, and trying to get better. So I don’t view that as getting up and doing dope. Therefore if I were on methadone and going to meetings, I’d pick up chips.
JB: Can you think of anything else [you’d like to say]?
RJ: I believe in methadone. I really do. I just believe that it works. I know people who have been on our program for twenty years, and granted, those people will never get off methadone, but they have a life today. And twenty years ago they didn’t have one. They’re not perfect but I’m not either, you know, just ‘cause I don’t use dope any more. But they’re still suffering addicts, just like I am. So I just believe that methadone works, and if you want to make changes in your life, that there are people at every facility who are willing to help you make those changes.

Treatment professionals can also make the mistake of dismissing non-medication treatment of opioid addiction as ineffective, when clearly this is not true. Though treatment with methadone and buprenorphine can provide enormous benefit, so can the other medication-free forms of treatment. And as we have seen, methadone can cause great harm when used inappropriately, and some opioid addicts don’t do well on methadone.
There’s no one best treatment path for every addict. Every evidence-based treatment helps some addicts.

Is Your Recovery Portable?

Today I listened to a friend talk about the difficulties of keeping her recovery program going after she moved to a new area.

 From what my patients tell me, this is a common problem. Last week I had yet another patient say that her relapse started when she moved to this area from another state. She had more than eight years of good recovery, but when she moved to North Carolina, she stopped doing all the things that previously made up her recovery program: 12-step meetings, calling a sponsor, and helping other addicts. Gradually, staying clean off alcohol and other drugs lost its priority, and addiction was a distant memory. She listened to the old lie of addiction: she could use drugs now, and it would be different. Her disease told her she’d been clean so long, she knew how to keep from going back to active addiction.

 This was, of course, not true. I saw this patient shortly after she lost her job because of intravenous opioid addiction.

 Why does moving to a new area seem to begin a downward slide toward relapse for some people?

 My friend in recovery who just moved was able to describe it to me. She says it’s a starting over process, and she feels like she’s on the outside. She feels like she did when she was a newcomer to meetings. She misses the feeling of being at home in meetings, surrounded by people she knows who love her. She says getting involved in meetings in a new area is the hardest thing she’s ever done, more difficult than coming to meetings for the first time.

 She says, “I’ve done this before, and I think to myself this should be easy. It took me by surprise. The loneliness is super-dangerous. I have these dangerous feelings, like I don’t belong. It’s just like my first few months of recovery, except now I keep thinking that it should be easier, and I shouldn’t be having these feelings. In early recovery, I had that gift of desperation. I was acutely aware that the drugs brought me to that point and I had to come to meetings to stay clean. I had willingness to do whatever it took. Now I don’t feel that desperate, and have a hard time making myself go to meetings. It’s hard as hell.”

 “Plus, I don’t know who in these new meetings is working a program of recovery, and whose life is just full of drama. I don’t know who the winners are. And the formats are different, though I like them. They have topic meetings and everyone who shares stays on the topic!”

 My friend seems to be doing better than she’s feeling. The last I saw her, she was surrounding by laughter and hugs. She says she’s getting through this difficult time by sharing about her feelings, and listening to the experience of other recovering people who have moved to a new area and new meetings. She stays in touch with her old friends from previous meetings, and travels the four hours to visit these friends once or twice per month during her transition.

 I think my friend will be fine, so long as she continues to do what she needs to. Going to new meetings is difficult and staying at home would be easier, but not in the long run. Given the havoc addiction has caused in her life, she’s not willing to risk a relapse with all the heartache it brings.

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