Archive for the ‘12-Step Recovery’ Category

Recovery Means…

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It’s nearly Thanksgiving, so to celebrate, I wanted to re-run a post about what recovery means to me. Hopefully my readers can add to this list:

Recovery means…

….taking the worst and most embarrassing thing in my life and turning it into my greatest asset.

….becoming less judgmental of other people.

….remaining teachable.

….having more free time, after the burden of looking for the “next one” has been lifted.

…looking in the mirror, and feeling content at what I see.

….being satisfied with the small pleasures in life.

….developing a thicker skin for judgmental people. They aren’t going to ruin my day.

….re-connecting with the human race.

….re-connecting with the God of my understanding.

…reconnecting with myself.

….doing what I need to do for my well-being, even if other people don’t approve.

….being happy when I make progress, no longer expecting perfection.

….talking frequently with other people who share my passion for recovery.

Recovery goes beyond 12-step programs or medication-assisted treatment. Recovery can apply to issues other than drug addiction. It can apply to eating disorders, co-dependency, gambling problems, sex addiction, or any other compulsive activity that is bad for our health. We can be in good recovery in one area of our life and be in active addiction in other areas. We have good and bad days. We relapse, and we try again, and we stop listening to the voice of addiction that tells us we should give up because we will always fail. We learn from our failures and come to look at them as opportunities for growth. We turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones. We lift up our fellow travelers when they weaken and they do the same for us.

We do recover.

 

Peaceful Coexistence

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For years, I’ve asserted that patients on medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction can find benefits in twelve step recovery meetings. Many of my readers have disagreed with me, vehemently at times. I was surprised and pleased when one of them forwarded me a reference to an article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment that showed participation in 12-step recovery increased retention in buprenorphine treatment. (Thank you Zac). Of note, coercing patients to attend 12-step meetings was not found to be helpful. [1]

I know 12-step meetings work for my buprenorphine patients because I’ve seen it. However, I do think I have unusual patient population in my office-based buprenorphine practice.

I inherited many of my patients from a doctor for whom I worked for several years, until he retired in 2010. He was well-known and well-respected in the recovery community of the city where we worked.

Some people, already in recovery from alcohol addiction, were members of Alcoholic Anonymous when they sought treatment for chronic or acute pain conditions. These patients were prescribed opioids for pain by doctors who underestimated the risk of developing opioid addiction, in these patients with a personal history of addiction to another substance. Some of these patients were dismayed to discover they developed addiction to opioid pain pills, meaning they were misusing them by taking too many and running out early, or having obsessions and compulsions to take ever more pills.

Baffled and angry, those patient sought care from my doctor friend. He started buprenorphine and got them off the pain pills, and directed them back into 12-step recovery.

When he retired, I was fortunate that many of them followed me to my new practice.

Around twenty-five percent of my office-based buprenorphine patients are in this category. Most still go to 12-step meetings, though the frequency of meeting attendance varies widely. Some patients go a few times a month, and some a few times per week. I have one patient who goes two times per day. My patients have varying levels of attachment to the 12-step meetings and their participation at the meetings. All of them say they learn and are reminded of important tools of recovery. They say applying concepts like acceptance, tolerance, and kindness enhances the quality of their lives.

These patients, with very few exceptions, are doing very well in their recovery. They are also delightful people.

For these patients, being on medication like buprenorphine has stopped being as issue. Most of them say they know their recovery is better since starting buprenorphine. They don’t tell people they’re on medication, but neither do they hide it. They don’t really care what other members of 12-step meetings think about their medication; it works for them and improves the quality of their lives, while not causing euphoria or the compulsion to take more and more of their medication.

Let’s present 12-step programs as options for our medication-assisted treatment patients on methadone or buprenorphine. As this study shows, and as I see in my own practice, these two options can benefit our patients. Also, as I tell my patients, you can’t beat the price of 12-step meetings, since they are free.

I know 12-step fellowships aren’t for everyone. Though 12-step fellowships don’t endorse one religion over another, these fellowships are intensely spiritual. Not all people are comfortable with such things, or are uninterested in the spiritual side of life. But for those who don’t object to spirituality, or even enjoy or embrace it, 12-step meetings can be a haven of recovery.

1. Monico et al, “Buprenorphine Treatment and 12-step Meeting Attendance: Conflicts, Compatibilities, and Patient Outcomes,” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, May, 2015.

Combining Medication-Assisted Treatment and 12- Step recovery: One Patient’s Success Story

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A few weeks ago, I posted a few articles about 12-step recovery. Several readers became very upset, even saying that if I was pro-12-step, I couldn’t really be an advocate for medicated-assisted treatment of opioid addiction. That’s their opinion, and I honor their views, though I heartily disagree with them.

Now I’d like to present an interview I did with a very successful Suboxone patient who did find help from 12-step meetings.

JB: Please tell me about your experience with pain pill addiction and your experiences with buprenorphine (Suboxone).

XYZ: For me, my opiate addiction got so bad, I was taking two hundred and forty to three hundred and twenty milligrams of OxyContin per day, just to stay normal. It had gotten really, really bad. And it started out with a reason. I had kidney stones, and I was in all this pain, but then it got to the point where it solved some other problems in my life and it got out of hand. I tried a lot of different things. I went to detox, and they helped me, but it was…it was almost like I never came out of withdrawal.

JB: How long were you off pain pills?

XYZ: Even after being clean for thirty or sixty days, I would still feel bad. Bowels, stomach…really all the time.

JB: Did it feel like acute withdrawal or just low grade withdrawal?

XYZ: No…I’d try to fix it myself, sometimes, and I would just put myself back where I was. It got to the point where I was making myself sicker and sicker and sicker. And then I got off of it, and stayed off of it for a hundred and twenty days, I guess…but still just sick. Just miserable, and not feeling right. I was miserable. I wouldn’t eat, I was losing weight…

It [buprenorphine] gave me something that replaced whatever was going on in my head physically, with the receptors. It took that [prolonged withdrawal] away, to the point that I felt well. All that energy I would spend getting pills…and I was going to the doctors almost daily. Because taking that much medicine, nobody would write me for that much, so I had to doctor shop.

My only life was going to the doctors, figuring out what pharmacy I could use. I had a whole system of how many days it could be between prescriptions, what pharmacy to go to. It was sick. I was just trying to not get sick.

JB: And you were working during that time?

XYZ: Yeah! I was working, if you want to call it that. I wasn’t a very good employee, but I held a job. I was a regional vice president for “X” company. I traveled a lot, so I had new states where I could see new doctors. That was bad. When I came off the road, I owed $50,000 in credit card bills.

JB: And your wife didn’t know about it?

XYZ: No. It all came tumbling down. And I had gotten into trouble, because they were company credit cards, and they wanted the money back! So, all of the sudden my wife found out that not only do I have a pain pill problem, but we’re $50,000 short, and I wasn’t very ethical in the way I got the money, because it really wasn’t my credit, it was my company’s credit card.

JB: So addiction made you do things you wouldn’t do otherwise?

XYZ: Absolutely. I lied to people, I took money from people, I ran up credit cards tens of thousands of dollars, and really put my family in serious jeopardy at that time. But buprenorphine took away that whole obsessive-compulsive need for pills, made me feel better, and took away all the withdrawal symptoms at the same time. I didn’t worry about it.
To be honest, I was such a hypochondriac before. I haven’t been sick in years now. I haven’t had a backache or headache that ibuprofen didn’t cure [since starting recovery]. I was fortunate it was all in my head. I would milk any little thing. I had two knee operations that probably could have been healed through physical therapy, but I was all for surgery, because I knew I’d get pain pills.

JB: That’s the power of addiction!

XYZ: Yes. Finally I did some research about buprenorphine, online. Actually, I had some good family members, who did some research and brought it to me, because they were concerned for me, and they brought it to me and said, “Hey, there’s a medicine that can help. Call this number,” and I found places out there that would do it [meaning Suboxone], but my concern was the speed that a lot of them were doing it. A lot of them said, OK come in, and we can evaluate you, and after a week you’ll be down to this, and after a month you’ll be down to this.

This was in 2005. And when I asked them what their success rate is, it wasn’t very high. It was something like twenty percent of the people who were doing it [succeeded]. So when I’d finally gotten a hold of “X,” [receptionist for Dr. H], she saved my life over the phone. Because she said, you can come tomorrow, and she said that whatever it takes, they’ll work with you. And I felt good about going to a place where it wasn’t already determined how long it would take. Because I already knew how I was feeling after I would come off of opiates. I didn’t want to do that again.

I saw Dr. H. and felt better within twenty-four hours, although it took a little while to get the dosage right. I think we started off at a lower dose, then we went up on the dose and it kept me so level. I had no symptoms. It cured my worst withdrawal symptoms, my stomach and my bowels.

There’s always a kind of stigma in the rooms [12-step recovery meetings] because I’d been in NA for a little bit of time then [he’s speaking of stigma against medication-assisted treatment]. You realize who [among addicts in NA] is die-hard, one way to do recovery, and who is willing to be educated about some things and understand that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
And I was fortunate that I had a sponsor at that time, and still do, who was willing to learn about what exactly it was, and not make me feel guilty about it. It wasn’t necessarily the way he would do it, but he was a cocaine addict, so he didn’t understand that whole part of it.

He said, “Your family’s involved, you’ve got a doctor that’s involved, your doctor knows your history. If all these people, who are intelligent, think this is an OK thing, then who am I to say it’s not going to work?” He was open-minded. And there are not a lot of people I would trust right off the bat [in recovery], that I would tell them. [that he’s taking Suboxone]. I’ve shared it with some people who’ve had a similar problem, and told them, here’s something that might help you. I always preface it with, [don’t do] one thing or another, you’ve got to do them together. You have to have a recovery program and take this medicine, because together it will work. Look at me. I’m a pretty good success story.

One of my best friends in Florida called me, and I got him to go see a doctor down there, and he’s doing well now. He’s been on it almost eleven months now and no relapses.

To me, it takes away the whole mental part of it, because you don’t feel bad. For me, it was the feeling bad that drove me back to taking something [opioids] again. Obviously, when you’re physically feeling bad, you’re mentally feeling bad, too. It makes you depressed, and all of that, so you avoid doing fun things, because you don’t feel good.

Once I trained myself with NA, how to get that portion of my life together, to use those tools, not having any kind of physical problems made it that much easier to not obsess.

JB: So, how has your life improved, as a result of being on buprenorphine?

XYZ: Well, the most important thing for me is that I’ve regained the trust of my family. I was the best liar and manipulator there was. I’d like to think of myself as a pretty ethical and honest person, in every aspect of my life, other than when it came to taking pills.

JB: So, you regained the trust of your family, felt physically better…

XYZ: I gained my life back! Fortunately, I had enough of a brain left to know it had to stop. Once I started on buprenorphine, it gave me back sixteen hours a day that I was wasting. That’s when I decided I really don’t want to jeopardize my recovery, by going out and looking for a job again [he means a job in corporate America, like he had in the past], because I’ve got this thing, this stigma…they’re going to check a reference and I’m screwed. I’m not going to get a job doing what I was doing for the same amount of money.

My brother had enough faith in me that it was worth the risk of starting this business [that he has now] together. My wife and I started on EBay, making and selling [his product], and slowly grew it to the point that, three years later, I’m going to do over two million dollars in sales this year, I’ve got [large company] as a client, I’ve got [large company] as a client, I’m doing stuff locally, in the community now, and can actually give things back to the community.

JB: And you employ people in recovery?

XYZ: Oh, yeah. I employ other recovering addicts I know I can trust. I’ve helped some people out who have been very, very successful and have stayed clean, and I’ve helped some people out who came and went, but at the same time, I gave them a chance. You can only do so much for somebody. They have to kind of want to do it themselves too, right?

JB: Have you ever had any bad experiences in the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous, as far as being on Suboxone, or do you just not talk to anybody about it?

XYZ: To be honest, I don’t broadcast it, obviously, and the only other people I would talk to about it would be somebody else who was an opioid addict, who was struggling, who was in utter misery. The whole withdrawal process…not only does it take a little while, but all that depression, the body [feels bad]. So I’ve shared with those I’ve known fairly well. I share my experience with them. I won’t necessarily tell people I don’t know well that I’m taking buprenorphine, but I will let them know about the medication. Even though the information is on the internet, a lot of it is contradictory.

It’s been great [speaking of Suboxone] for someone like me, who’s been able to put a life back together in recovery. I’d tell anybody, who’s even considering taking Suboxone, if they’re a true opioid pill addict, (I don’t know about heroin, I haven’t been there), once you get to the right level [meaning dose], it took away all of that withdrawal. And if you combine it with going to meetings, you’ll fix your head at the same time. Really. I didn’t have a job, unemployable, my family was…for a white collar guy, I was about as low as I could go, without being on the street.
Fortunately I came from a family that probably wouldn’t let that happen, at that point, but who knows, down the road… I had gotten to my low. And that’s about it, that’s about as much as I could have taken.

It [Suboxone] truly and honestly gave me my entire life back, because it took that away.

JB: What do you say to treatment centers that say, if you’re still taking methadone or Suboxone, you’re not in “real” recovery? What would you say to those people?

XYZ: To me, I look at taking Suboxone like I look at taking high blood pressure medicine, OK? It’s not mind altering, it’s not giving me a buzz, it’s not making…it’s simply fixing something I broke in my body, by abusing the hell out of it, by taking all those pain pills.

I know it’s hard for an average person, who thinks about addicts, “You did it to yourself, too bad, you shouldn’t have done that in the first place,” to be open minded. But you would think the treatment centers, by now, have seen enough damage that people have done to themselves to say, “Here’s something that we have proof that works…..”

I function normally. I get up early in the morning. I have a relationship with my wife now, after all of this, and she trusts me again. Financially, I’ve fixed all my problems, and have gotten better. I have a relationship with my kids. My wife and I were talking about it the other day. If I had to do it all over again, would I do it the way I did it? And the answer is, absolutely yes. As much as it sucked and as bad as it was, I would have still been a nine to five drone out there in corporate America, and never had the chance to do what I do. I go to work…this is dressy for me [indicating that he’s dressed in shorts and a tee shirt]

JB: So life is better now than it was before the addiction?

XYZ: It really is. Tenfold! I’m home for my kids. I wouldn’t have had the courage to have left a hundred thousand dollar a year job to start up my own business. I had to do something. Fortunately, I was feeling good enough because of it [Suboxone], to work really hard at it, like I would have if I started it as a kid. At forty years old, to go out and do something like that…

JB: Like a second career.

XYZ: It’s almost like two lives for me. And if you’re happy, nothing else matters. I would have been a miserable, full time manager, out there working for other people and reaping the benefits for them and getting my little paycheck every week and traveling, and not seeing my wife and kids, and not living as well as I do now.

I joke, and say that I work part time now, because when I don’t want to work, I don’t have to work. And when I want to work, I do work. And there are weeks that I do a lot. But then, on Saturday, we’re going to the beach. I rented a beach house Monday through Saturday, with just me and my wife and our two kids. I can spend all my time with them. I could never have taken a vacation with them like that before.

JB: Do you have anything you’d like to tell the people who make drug addiction treatment policy decisions in this nation? Anything you want them to know?

XYZ: I think it’s a really good thing they increased the amount of patients you [meaning doctors prescribing Suboxone] can take on. I’d tell the people who make the laws to find out from the doctors…how did you come up with the one hundred patient limit? What should that number be? And get it to that number, so it could help more people. And if there’s a way to get it cheaper, because the average person can’t afford it.

The main thing I’d tell them is I know it works. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve achieved. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that, had I not had the help of Suboxone. It took me a little while to get over thinking it was a crutch. But at this point, knowing that I’ve got everybody in my corner, they’re understanding what’s going on…it’s a non-issue. It’s like I said, it’s like getting up and taking a high blood pressure medicine.

I originally interviewed this patient in 2009, for a book that I wrote. Since that time, he and his family have moved to the west coast, but I’ve stayed in contact with him. He’s been in relapse-free recovery for over eight years, he’s still on Suboxone, and still happy. He has excellent relationships with his wife and children, and his business has thrived and continues to grow.

He’s an excellent example of how a recovering addict’s life can change with the right treatment. For this person, Suboxone plus 12-step recovery worked great.

Story of a Recovering Addict

Following is an interview that I did with a recovering addict. He now has over 13 years in recovery, and has a master’s degree in addiction counseling.  His history demonstrates how NA can help an addict, and illustrates some of the main tenants of 12-step recovery.

JB: What kinds of drugs did you use?

ML: Everything. I shot cocaine, Dilaudids, heroin, quarter-grain morphine tablets, and always alcohol. Alcohol and marijuana were just a given. They were daily.

JB: Can opioid addicts get clean just using NA?

ML: Yeah. My sponsor did, and other people [have].

JB: What percentage of people in NA used opioids?

ML: Back in1982, when I entered recovery, it seemed like seventy-five percent of people in NA used opiates. Then in the 1980s, more people addicted to crack came into NA, so now I’d estimate about fifty percent or less. But there’s no numbers [statistics kept by NA].

JB: How else has NA changed?

ML: Back in the early days of NA, most addicts hit a low bottom, before coming to NA, but now, with the growth of treatment centers, drug courts, information on the internet…when my father told me I had to leave the house unless I got help, I looked in the phone book and there were only two numbers to call for help. I called the Council on Alcoholism and got directed to AA. There’s been such a growth in [addiction treatment resources]. Every family has had experience with some kind of addiction. There’s more acceptance and knowledge now. People get to NA before they hit the kind of bottom that I did. That’s a good thing.

JB: How effective is NA? Some people say that only two percent of people who go to a twelve step meeting stay clean. What do you say to that?

ML: (laughs) I’d like to know where they got their numbers.

A lot of people get their start in NA and find other means to recover…other fellowships, churchs,…it’s an individual thing. It depends on what kind of living situation the individual is in, how willing the individual is [to get clean], and what kind of recovery the people at those [NA] meetings have. It depends on how deeply they get involved in that fellowship [NA].

In my case, I went to meetings for more than a year, but I didn’t work any steps. But I stayed clean, by going to meetings and getting support from the people at the meetings. Then I moved away and didn’t have that support. It didn’t take long for me to relapse. I was around old friends I used with, old sights and sounds…It takes more than just going to meetings to be successful. There are always exceptions, though. Some people have stayed clean for years that way.

In my case, the seed was planted. I wasn’t at a point where I could honestly look at my situation. So after I skinned my ass up [experienced consequences from using drugs], I went to inpatient treatment and then a halfway house. Plus meetings [Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous]. I had a little more honesty, a little more willingness. But that second time, I didn’t work all the steps. I had three and a half years clean, got to the fourth step, and I relapsed. That relapse happened when my priorities shifted from going to meetings five or six times per week to relationships, working twelve hour days, hunting and fishing. Looking back, being surrounded by people in recovery was carrying me along.

It wasn’t long. I hadn’t experienced the change that comes from working all of the steps. It was only a matter of time before the self-deception set in. How in the hell could I talk myself into thinking I could sell dope, without using it? I was dissatisfied with my job, went traveling, and met “X.” He knew I’d hauled dope out of Florida in the past, for my brother in law. He asked about my connections and asked if I could help him move some kilos. I told him I still knew a few people, but I can’t be handling the stuff. I talked myself into believing I could sell that stuff and not use it. Insane.

That led to two and a half years in state prison. This put me in a controlled environment. I knew enough about recovery and the twelve steps and the change that can happen. I’d heard enough about it that I reached out and asked people I knew in NA to get me some [recovery reading] material. That was in 1988. They didn’t have as many 12-step meetings or substance abuse programs [in jail] then like they have now. I had to reach out and ask for help. I paid “Y” [an inmate] a candy bar so he would allow me to have an NA meeting in his cell, because it was the biggest. I paid a candy bar to him each meeting. He’d never been to a meeting in his life. This was in the county jail.

When we both got to state prison, they had NA meetings there. He got real involved. He got clean and is still clean today! He has twenty-one years in recovery, works in construction, and travels the world. I went to an AA meeting a few years ago, when I was visiting a town in Alabama, and it turned out he was speaking that night. He pointed to me and said, “That man is one of the reasons I’m here.” (At this point, ML tears up and takes a pause).

I had regular correspondence with friends, who sent me recovery literature. There was a “black market” step working guide. I used it and that’s the first time I did a “fearless and searching moral inventory” of myself. I didn’t have anyone to do my fifth step with [this is the step where the addict admits to God, himself, and another human being the exact nature of his wrongs].

At this point, I was in the county jail, about to go to state prison. This guy from Minnesota was in jail for thirty days for old warrants. It turns out he had a few years of recovery. He heard my fifth step and guided me through step seven. He mentioned his dad got [was sentenced to] forty years for murder. In the late 1970’s, when I was bringing cocaine out of Miami, the guy who set me up with the Columbians was named “Z”. I would meet him in a field [to exchange drugs] and he had a young boy with him. The guy who heard my fifth step was his son!

I’d been going in the front door of this state prison for six years, as an NA member, bringing meetings to the prisoners. Now I was in that prison. I progressed on through the steps, and experienced a change in my being…a real deep change that I can’t put into words. I recognized it was the beginning of a change that would continue to occur over a lifetime.

I relapsed once more, after nearly ten years clean. I got away from people in recovery, quit doing all the things I’d done on a regular basis, like prayer and meditation, meetings, contact with people in recovery. That relapse lasted a year. I was rescued by the Macon County Sheriff’s Office. I knew I was going to die. I was waiting for the overdose, the gunshot, whatever. I had no hope.

An addict always has the potential for relapse. I don’t care who they are, where they are, how long they’ve been clean or whatever. But once I experienced change on a deep level, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and then used drugs again…you’re not the same addict. You don’t have the hustle. You can’t be as thoughtless, selfish, and solely self-focused as you were, before you experienced that change. I knew I couldn’t use drugs successfully, and I knew it was going to kill me. But when I lost that support, when I pushed away that foundation, that God of my understanding…That allows self-deception. It might be only momentarily, but you forget. You forget who you are, and if you’re where substances are available, you’re deceived.

JB: How’s your recovery now?

ML: Awesome. If you’d asked me in 1999 how I’d be doing now, I wouldn’t have gotten close. My life today is better than it’s ever been. I’m extremely blessed and grateful to be where I’m at today. I’m blessed to have the work, the people, a wonderful fiancée … I’m blessed to be able to share my life with the people I have in my life.

JB: What kind of work do you do?

ML: I work as a counselor. I work in a jail’s substance abuse treatment program. Looking at what they have available in jails now…fully staffed treatment programs, right in the county jail! From having to pay a candy bar to hold a meeting to where they have whole dorms in the county jail to treat addiction…the change has been awesome to see.

            This addict, ML,  described how his recovery progressed over time, and how he had setbacks and relapses. Obviously, given the morbidity and mortality of active addiction, treatment professionals and addicts prefer relapse-free recovery, but for many, relapse is part of the recovery process. Many fortunate addicts are able to get back into recovery, before catastrophe occurs.

ML is also a good example of how 12-step recovery meetings can help. Addiction treatment professionals should always inform addicts seeking recovery about these meetings, and encourage addicts to go to at least a half-dozen meetings, before deciding if 12-step recovery is right for them or not.

There are many recovering opioid addicts who used 12-step resources or other counseling to become completely opioid free and were able to get through both the acute physical opioid withdrawal and the more prolonged post-acute opioid withdrawal. Therefore, it does appear that drug-free recovery may be a reasonable goal for some opioid addicts who are motivated to do the work of recovery. For addicts who find the spiritual theme of 12-step recovery unacceptable, secular recovery groups are available.

            12-step recovery is free, widely available, and proven to work. It’s still the best deal in town.

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.

Cotton Fever

An addict still using heroin recently asked me what “cotton fever” was, and how he could tell if he was sick with it.

 Cotton fever is caused by bacteria commonly found on cotton plants, initially named Enterobacter agglomerans, later changed to Pantoea agglomerans. Most intravenous drug addicts filter heroin through cotton filters, to remove particles that could clog both their injection needle and their veins. Sometimes fibers of cotton break off from the filter, carrying the bacteria with it. These bacteria in the bloodstream cause fever and chills, but in a healthy person, this usually resolves on its own. It’s rare to see it cause serious infection. However, doctors still recommend addicts with cotton fever seek medical care and receive appropriate antibiotics. (1)

At least one study isolated an endotoxin produced by this bacteria, so it’s possible that the fever is actually caused by this toxin, released from the bacteria, and not from an actual infection.

 Enterobacter species, while found in feces of both animals and humans, are also found in the plant world. Usually, these bacteria aren’t a particularly vicious, which is why they rarely cause sepsis (overwhelming infection) unless the individual has an impaired ability to fight infection. In the 1970’s, some medical products (blood, IV fluids) were found to be infected with this species, and caused significant infections, but this was probably due to a large amount of the bacteria infused into patients.

 Cotton filters become more fragile with use, so addicts using new filters probably have a lower risk of cotton fever. After cotton filters are used, they remain moist and can become colonized with all sorts of bacteria, especially if they are kept warm, as happens when they are stored in a pocket, close to the body. This bacteria can cause infection when injected. Cotton filters can transmit hepatitis C and possibly other infections, if they are shared with other drug users. (2)

 Filters also retain some of the injected drug, making them of some value in the world of intravenous addicts. It’s considered a gesture of generosity to offer another addict your “cottons” because the addict will get some small amount of the drug. (3)

 Even in view of all of the above, it’s still better to use a filter than to use unfiltered heroin. A new cotton cigarette filter has been shown to remove up to 80% of particulates in heroin, and reduces the risk of thrombosis of the vein from particles. Other makeshift filters are made from clothing, cotton balls, and even tissue paper.

 Syringe filters are manufactured for medical and laboratory use. They can be designed to filter particles down to 5 micrometers. Besides being more expensive and difficult to obtain, studies show these filters retain more of the drug than other makeshift filters, making them less desirable to some addicts. (2)

 Cotton fever itself usually isn’t fatal. The biggest challenge is knowing if the addict has cotton fever or something worse, like sepsis. Sepsis is an infection of the blood stream, and even heart valves can become infected, causing serious and life-threatening problems. 

I asked a former IV drug addict about his experience with cotton fever.

 Me: What does cotton fever feel like?

 Former Addict: You get a fever that kind of feels like withdrawal. You know there’s something bad wrong, and you don’t know what to do about it. I’ve laid on the floor and thought I was going to die. A lot of times people get it when they’re rinsing, and that means they’re coming down anyway. When the dope got short and I was rinsing cottons, that’s when I got it.

 Me: How long does it last?

 FA: It seems like it lasts a long time, but the intensity is bad maybe an hour or two. You shake, you sweat; it feels just like the flu.

 Me: Ever go to the hospital with cotton fever?

 FA: No, no! (said emphatically) I was usually wanted by the police. Only time I went to the hospital is with severe trauma.

Me: I don’t understand what you mean by rinsing.

 FA: Rinsing’s when you squeeze that last little bit of drug out of the cotton [filter]. You rinse the spoon and cotton with a little water. I would save all my cottons. That was my rathole for when the dope ran out. I would actually load the cottons into the barrel of a syringe then draw water in to the barrel of syringe, then squeeze until they were bone dry. I squirted that on to a spoon, and used a new cotton to draw that into a syringe.

 Me: Why do you use cotton filters? Do you use it with every drug you injected?

 FA: I used cotton to strain any dirt that may be in the product, that might get up in the syringe. I didn’t want no dirt. Didn’t have to be cotton. [If you don’t use a filter, you] shoot a bunch of trash up in yourself, and get trash fever.

 I used an itty bitty cotton. Some people would use a quarter of cigarette butt. That was wasteful to me. It got too saturated, could hold too much residue, or dope.

 I didn’t have to use cotton with quarter gram morphine or Dilaudid. Not enough trash to stop it up. If there’s trash in the syringe, I used a cotton.

 Thankfully, this person has been in recovery from addiction for more than thirteen years. When I asked him how he was able to stop, he said Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

 Recovery is the best way to avoid cotton fever. You never have to go through that again.

  1. Rollinton, F; Feeney, C; Chirurgi, V; Enterobacter agglomerans-Associated Cotton Fever,  Annals of Internal Medicine 1993; 153(20): 2381-2382.
  2. Pates, R; McBride, A; Arnold, K; Injecting Illicit Drugs, (Oxford, UK, Blackwell Publishing, 2005) pp. 41-43.
  3. 3.       Bourgois, Phillippe; Schonberg, Jeff; Righteous Dopefiend,(Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 2009) pp8-9, 83-84.

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.

Top Ten Books for Methadone Counselors

I have a fair number of methadone counselors who read my blog. I’m often asked by these counselors what books I recommend, which is like asking me what kind of dessert is good. The list is so long. But here are the ones all methadone counselors should read:

  1.  Medication-assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction in Opioid Treatment Programs, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This is better known as “TIP 43,” because it’s the 43rd book in the series of treatment improvement protocols published by SAMHSA. You can get any book in the series for FREE! Yes, this book and several others are free resources. The website is: http://store.samhsa.gov. While you’re there, order TIP 40: Clinical Guidelines for the Use of Buprenorphine in the Treatment of Opioid Addiction, and TIP 35: Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment. Then browse around, and see what else interests you. This is a great website, and all addictions counselors should be very familiar with it. There’s great material for counselors and their clients.
  2.   Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope, by….me. Hey, it’s my blog, so of course I’m gonna list my book. At least I didn’t put it at number one. But seriously, I do think my book describes what opioid addiction is, why this country is having such problems with opioid addiction now, and the available treatments for this addiction. I focus on medication-assisted treatments, which means treatments with methadone or buprenorphine, better known as Suboxone. After reading my book, any substance abuse counselor should be able to talk intelligently with patients and their families about the pros and cons of medication-assisted treatment. I tried hard to base this book on available research and not my own opinions, though I do state some of my opinions in the book. My book also has summaries of the major studies done using medication-assisted treatments, so that if you need resources to prove why methadone works, you’ll have them. OK. I’m done blathering. Order it on EBay and you’ll save some money.
  3.      Motivational Interviewing by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick. This is a book all addiction counselors should have… and read. I’ve learned so much about how to interact with people as they consider if, how, and when to make changes in their lives by reading this book. The authors demonstrate how the Stages of Change model easily fits with this style of counseling. There are some solid examples of how to incorporate MI techniques.
  4.      Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse, by Aaron Beck et. al. This is a venerable text describing cognitive therapy as it applies to substance abuse. The book is relatively concise, but it’s still dense reading. Get out your underliner because you’ll want to find some parts to read again. The dialogues in the book that serve as examples are instructive. This book has been around for some time, as texts go, since it was published in 2001.
  5.     Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text, by Narcotics Anonymous World Service. Now in its sixth edition, this is one of the books that serve as a foundation for 12-step recovery in Narcotics Anonymous. If you are a counselor who’s in recovery, you’ve probably already read it. If you’re not, you need to get it, read it, and be able to talk intelligently about the 12-step recovery program of this 12-step group. The AA “Big Book,” which is AA’s version of a basic text, has much of the original old-time words and phrases, and speaks mostly of alcohol. For these reasons, some addicts won’t like the Big Book as well as the NA Basic Text. However, the Big Book does have a certain poetry that will appeal to others. (….trudge the road of happy destiny…) You can order it at http://na.org or go to that site and download it as a pdf.
  6.  The Treatment of Opioid Dependence, by Eric Strain and Maxine Stitzer. Written in 2005, this is an update to a similar title written in the 1990’s. This book reviews the core studies underpinning our current treatment recommendations for patients in medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction. I don’t know why more people haven’t read this book, because it’s relatively easy to understand. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it will be too advanced for you. Get it and read it.
  7. Addiction and Change: How Addictions Develop and Addicted People Recover, by Carlo DiClemente. This book describes the paths people follow as they become addicted and as they recover. It’s focused on the transtheoretical model of the stages of change, so named because it can be used with many counseling theories. I think this is a practical book, and easier to understand than some texts.
  8.  Diagnosis Made Easier: Principles and Techniques for Mental Health Technicians, by James Morrison M.D. This is an improvement of his earlier book, DMS IV Made Easy, written in 1992. At any work site, addictions counselors will have to be familiar with the criteria used to diagnose mental illnesses. Since around 30 – 50% of addicts have another co-occurring mental illness, you need to be familiar with the criteria used to diagnose not just addiction, but these other illnesses as well. And this book makes learning relatively painless. It’s practical and easy to read, and based on common sense. It contains many case examples, which keep it interesting.
  9. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, by David Musto. This book has been updated and is on its third edition, but so much has happened since this last edition in 1999 that the author needs to write an update. This is an interesting book, and it moves fairly quickly. This information puts our present opioid problem into the context of the last century or so. As an alternative, you can read Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America, by David Courtwright in 2001. I included this book, but be warned it’s heavier reading. This author is an historian, so maybe his writing style didn’t resonate with me as much. Still, he has much good information. You can’t go wrong with either book. You could also read The Fix by Michael Massing, which is another book about the history of addiction and its treatment in the U.S… This last book doesn’t focus on just opioid addiction, but still gives all the pertinent history. This book is written by a journalist and will keep your interest. It was written in 2000.
  10.  Hooked: Five Addicts Challenge Our Misguided Drug Rehab System, by Lonnie Shavelson. This book, written by a journalist, follows five addicts through the labyrinth of addiction treatment. You’ll see the idiotic obstructions addicts seeking help are asked to negotiate in our present healthcare system. I was angry as I read the book, seeing obvious simple solutions that couldn’t be enacted for one administrative reason or another. Let this book make you angry enough to demand change from our system. Be an advocate for addicts seeking treatment.

 Have I left out any? Let me know which book have helped you be a better counselor or therapist.

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.