Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book Review: “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” by Sam Quinones


I’m happy to tell my readers of a great new book. Published in 2015, this book is about the pain pill epidemic in the U.S., and how black tar heroin from Mexico quietly filled the void when pain pills became less plentiful.

The story of how this nation found itself in the middle of an opioid addiction epidemic isn’t a new tale, but the scope of the story has rarely been told with the completeness found in this book. The author talked to, or attempted to talk to, key people in all the realms affected by addiction: pain management experts, drug company leaders, addicts, parents whose children died from opioid addiction, doctors who prescribed OxyContin, everyday members of drug rings, prominent leaders of drug rings, law enforcement personnel, and addiction treatment personnel.

This book covered the pain management movement of the late 20th century, and how pain management experts grossly underestimated the risks of prescribing opioids long-term for chronic pain. Those experts taught other doctors that the risk of triggering addiction was almost zero, and that physicians had an obligation to relieve pain in their patients. Pain was described as the “fifth vital sign,” with the implication that a patient’s reported pain level was as objective as their pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate.

All of these recommendations were based on thin evidence. Some of the pain management experts were also employed by drug companies marketing powerful opioid pain relievers, creating at the least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The author described the inappropriate marketing of pain medications in general, and then focused on Purdue Pharma’s criminally inaccurate promotion of OxyContin. Purdue taught its young and attractive drug representatives to say things about OxyContin that were not true. These drug reps pushed their product with fervor, using falsified material provided to them by their company (p. 265). Purdue wasn’t the only drug company to oversell its products, but they did the best job of it. Ultimately, their marketing strategy lead to a criminal case brought in Southwest Virginia, and resulted in Purdue Pharma, along with their three top executives, pleading guilty to a felony count of misbranding. They were ordered to pay a fine of $634.5 million…but the company’s profits have been estimate to exceed three billion dollars thus far.

For me, the most interesting part of the book described the Mexican drug dealers. In a relatively small, agricultural area of Mexico, sugar cane farmers switched to growing opium poppies. The crop was easier to harvest, and much more profitable. Then young men from the area were recruited to travel north to the U.S. to sell the semi-processed heroin known as black tar. This was not a centralized drug unit, but rather multiple small organizations of growers, transporters, and driver-salesmen. Many of these groups were from Xalisco, a city in the Mexico state of Nayarit.

Each group had a handful of drivers located in smaller U.S. cities, ready to deliver black tar heroin to young addicts who called them on the phone. By delivering the product, middle and upper class addicts didn’t have to travel to bad neighborhoods for their drug. The drivers carried only small amounts of black tar heroin with them, in balloons which they carried in their mouth. If stopped by the police, they could swallow the evidence. Even if they were caught, the amount of heroin was so small that they were only deported, not jailed.

The drivers-dealers didn’t use the product, so they weren’t tempted to dilute the product for personal use. Drivers were paid by the hour, so that also gave no financial incentive to dilute the product. These young Mexican men were polite, and taught to give the best possible customer service, to keep the business of the addicts. In fact, they frequently ran sales on their product, as an incentive for customer loyalty.

This heroin was cheap and potent. Opioid pain pill addicts who were desperate to avoid opioid withdrawal switched to heroin because they could get high with less money. Because the tar could be snorted, the stigma of IV use was avoided – at first. Ultimately as the addiction progressed, addicts who started using intranasally eventually switched to IV use.

Groups of heroin sellers competed with each other to sell the most heroin, but they didn’t engage in violence. Since they were all from the same relatively small area of Mexico, and violence in the U.S. would bring repercussions from relatives back home. The drivers delivering the product were cautioned to stay away from blacks, since the Mexicans believed blacks to be more violent.

Because these heroin-selling groups avoided all violence, they were able to concentrate of profits. They didn’t call attention to themselves, making it easier to pass under the radar of law enforcement.

Groups of heroin dealers from Nayarit settled in mid-sized cities. They avoided cities where established drug cartels controlled the sale of heroin, such as New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Detroit, fearing there would be violence from the cartels. Instead, they settled into cities like Salt Lake City, Portland, Oregon; Columbus, Ohio; and Charlotte, NC. They needed cities where other Mexicans worked in order to blend in with the populace. The book tells of opioid addiction in Huntington, WVA; Denver, Colorado; Boise, Idaho; Santé Fe, New Mexico; Nashville, TN; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

These Mexican farm boys returned home with money and spent ostentatiously in order to impress their neighbors and friends. They hired bands, threw parties, and built houses with the money they earned from selling heroin. In a relatively poor area, young men saw there was a way to make their fortunes, so recruiting new drivers wasn’t difficult. In fact, the supply appeared to be inexhaustible.

The author makes the point that all of this happened slowly and without much publicity, but I question this conclusion. He says that it was only when Phillip Seymour Hoffman died that the U.S. sat up and took notice.

Maybe I have a different view since I’ve been treating opioid addicts since 2001, and saw a rapid rise of opioid addiction in my state since then. At conferences we seem to talk little about anything else – but then, I go to Addiction Medicine conferences.

The book has its flaws. It was a little repetitive, and many chapters were short, giving the book a choppy feel, but this was because the author described events chronologically, and described what was happening in multiple areas to multiple people.

He described drug abuse in Portsmouth, Ohio, which he called the birthplace of the pill mill. I don’t agree with this. Ever since doctors could prescribe medications that caused euphoria, there have been pill mills. Sadly there are always a handful of unscrupulous doctors who prescribe freely to patients willing to pay. I don’t think Portsmouth was the location of the first pill mill, and sadly it won’t be the last.

The most distressing thing that I read was how the Mexican drug families would move into a new city and go to the methadone clinics to recruit its first customers. From there, word of mouth via the addict grapevine resulted in plentiful business for the Mexicans.

That’s appalling. I’m sure it seems like no big deal to people wanted to make money off of addicts, but to target people who are in treatment to get well, and then tempt them into a relapse…that is low down. The book also describes how drug rings would pay more attention to an addict if he said things about quitting heroin. The dealers would offer this person an exceptional deal to remain a customer.

I know this is good business. But this business breeds death and misery.

I struggle with how to provide security at opioid treatment programs. I don’t like it when an armed guard in the parking lot makes it feel like a police state, but then I want our facility to be safe, and free from interlopers such as these described in the book.

I was also disappointed about the lack of information about treatment. Granted, the title implies only coverage of how the opioid epidemic emerged and evolved, but it would have been nice to add even a small section to readers who are addicted themselves, or who have relatives who are addicted.

Aside from the few nit-picky flaws, this book is great – it’s well-written, informative, and entertaining. It’s one of the best books I’ve read about this country’s story of opioid addiction. It picks up where “Pain Killers,” by Barry Meier left off.

This book should be read by anyone interested in our pain pill epidemic. Addicts should read it so they can realize where their money goes. Families of addicts should read it to better understand the compulsion of addiction. Law enforcement personnel should read it to hear the stories of the addicts, and come to see them as people with a disease, not just as criminals. Every doctor should read it, to better understand risks to patients who are prescribed heavy opioids. Treatment center personnel should read it to get a better idea of the milieu of addiction in the U.S.

New Book About the War on Drugs


I’ve got a great new book to recommend to anyone interested in the U.S.’s failed war on drugs. It’s “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” by Johann Hari. Published in 2015, I heard about this book at an Addiction Medicine conference when it was highly recommended by one of my colleagues.

As the title implies, the first part of the book describes how the war on drugs was initiated, not by the Reagans, but by Harry Anslinger, our first drug war general, back in the 1930’s. Anslinger is portrayed as an arrogant man, close-minded, filled with hubris, and lacking in compassion. He played on the public’s worst prejudices in order to get draconian drug laws passed, and showed no mercy enforcing them. He fanned the flames of public fears of drug-intoxicated minorities in order to expand his scope of power and prestige. His statements, preposterous from a medical point of view, still echo in the mouths of politicians today.

The author says Anslinger helped to create U.S.’s first drug lord, Arnold Rothstein, who is only the first of many ruthless gangsters to follow. Demand for drugs in the face of strict drug laws creates irresistible opportunities for criminals. The book describes how the war on drugs re-incarnated Anslinger and Rothstein with each generation; the names change but the tactics and destruction remain the same.

It’s an interesting concept.

Part Two of the book describes the lives of drug addicts. The author shows how people with addiction are forced to behave like sociopaths in order to maintain their supply of drugs. For example, many addicts deal drugs on a small scale to help finance their own drug use, an action they would be unlikely to undertake without the strong motivation of their own addiction.

The author goes on to illustrates how police crackdowns on drug dealers actually lead to increased gang violence. When top drug-dealing gang members are jailed, it creates a power vacuum, which leads to increased violence as rival gang members jockey for positions of power. Ultimately, the amount of drug dealing remains the same.

His reasoning does make sense, and is backed by interviews from urban bystanders in the violence of drug wars, both in the U.S. and Mexico.

This section of the book also discusses the inequalities of the drug war. The war on drugs is really a war on people who use drugs, and minorities are much more likely to targets of the drug war. Black drug dealers are more likely to be arrested than white dealers. People with money and influence aren’t targeted, while police go after the downtrodden, less likely to mount legal defenses if treated unfairly. Police do this in order to meet arrest quotas with less trouble from those targeted.

I could believe this, but then in the same section, the author also accuses police of expanding their budgets by confiscating high-dollar cars and homes from the rich people caught in the drug wars. So that was a little contradictory.

The author points out how a youngster who gets arrested for a drug offense is unemployable for the rest of his life, and how he can’t get student loans or public housing. To me that sounded a little overblown, since I know people who have managed to go to school, get their GED, then get a college education and even an advanced degree. I’m sure having a crime in one’s background makes this more difficult, but not impossible. That makes me question the accuracy of the author’s other assertions. For example, I have no idea if a drug charge eliminates all possibility of public housing.

Part three of the book is hard to read. In it, the author describes inhumane treatment of addicts who have been jailed. Arizona is noted for being a particularly brutal state for addicted inmates.
Inmates in general in the U.S. are treated horribly but no one seems to care, since few people have compassion for criminals.

This same section of the book also describes the horrible violence in Mexico brought about by the U.S. demand for illicit drugs. With so much profit to be made, drug cartels become ruthless. The author says in order to make sure other potential rivals stay in fear, dealers must engage in ever-increasing violence and depravity.

The fourth section of the book presents interesting ideas. First of all, the author claims the desire to get high is nearly universal. Far from being a deviant desire, the author advances the theory that the desire for intoxication is found in all humans in all civilizations at all times of human existence. He questions the goal of eliminating all drug use, and says it isn’t realistic.

I agree with him. The desire for euphoria is hard-wired into humans. When that urge runs amok, we may seek to satisfy that desire incessantly with drugs or other destructive behaviors.

The author then describes how life events affect the risk of addiction as if this were something new, but we’ve known for years that stress affects addiction risk. People who have experienced abuse and deprivation as children are more susceptible. But then the book connects our society’s present method of dealing with addiction, which is to shame addicts and cause them more pain. This approach is, predictably, counterproductive.

He says the more drug addicts are stressed, forced to live in poverty, are ostracized and shamed, the less likely they are to be able to find recovery.

Then the book goes into a weird tangent, saying that opioid withdrawal really isn’t all that bad, and the withdrawal is mostly mental in nature. He quotes some scientists who say that people living interesting and productive lives don’t get addicted, because they are happy. The book implies that the biological model has been overblown and scientists ignore the psychosocial components that cause addiction.

He’s wrong. Experts in addiction and its treatment haven’t forgotten the psychosocial components of addiction. But for decades, people have argued addiction is just bad behavior. They say addicts need punishment, rather than coddling in treatment programs. These people completely denied scientific components of the disorder. As a result, scientists interested in treating addiction poured money, time, and energy into proving the scientific portion of the disease. But now the same people who said there was no science to support addiction as a disease complain that scientists ignore the role of psychosocial factors that cause addiction.

In reality, both biologic AND psychosocial factors influence who becomes addicted. It isn’t either/or but both/and. It isn’t productive to argue about which is more important, because both types of causative factors need to be addressed in the disease of addiction.

The fifth part of the book is the most interesting. Chapters in this section describe the changes that occurred when drug addiction was treated more as a public health problem and less like a crime.

In a grass roots organization in Vancouver, Canada, a heroin addict managed to mobilize people to approach heroin addiction in a completely new way. This addict unified addicts and the people who care about them to create political pressure. This group attended town meetings, protested, and organized people who cared about the marginalized addicts of Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Eventually, this organization managed to create such a stink that the mayor of Vancouver met with this addict-leader, and was so impressed by the insights and arguments that he authorized the establishment of a safe injection house.

Ultimately, Vancouver had one of the most progressive and harm-reduction oriented policies on drug addiction. Their overdose death rate plummeted. Health status of addicted people improved.

Similar harm reduction policies were enacted in Great Britain and in Switzerland, with similar reduction in overdose death rates and in improved health status for drug addicts. In Great Britain, physicians could legally prescribe heroin for opioid addicts for a period of time, from the mid-1980’s until 1995, when this program was ended. All of the health gains – reduced overdose deaths, reduced crime, reduced gang activity, and improved physical health for the addicts – were instantly reversed as soon as the program was stopped.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the changes seen in Portugal, where drugs are now decriminalized, but not legalized. This means thought drug use is not a crime, selling these drugs is still illegal. This chapter describes the changes that happened in Portugal, where harm reduction and public health strategies were enacted beginning in 2001. The nation has one of the lowest rates of illicit drug use in the world, though it’s important to understand that heroin has traditionally been the main drug of this country. Addicts’ lives are more productive and death rates are down. Crime rates dropped, and now the whole country supports these harm reduction strategies to the draconian drug laws that Portugal had in the past.

Near the end of the book is a chapter about what is happening in Uruguay, a small South American country where drugs are now not only decriminalized but legalized.

Anyone interested in the creation of a sound drug policy needs to read this book. It’s extensively researched, and the author spoke with many of the key individuals responsible for changes in drug policy all over the world. I haven’t critically researched all data he quotes in his book about the results of drug decriminalization and legalization, but he gives references for much of what’s contained in the book so that any interested reader can do so.

This book is uniquely interesting because the author combines data and statistics with personal stories of various addicts and their families. This technique combines the power of individual story with the facts of a more objective and detached view.

I don’t agree with all of the authors conclusions. For example, when he tries to say addiction is more about a person’s socioeconomic and emotional status rather than about the drugs…nah. Addiction is not all about the addictive nature of the drug itself, but it is a major factor. When you discount the euphoric attraction of opioids, cocaine, and the like, you risk misunderstanding a huge part of addiction. When a substance produces intense pleasure when ingested, it’s more likely to create addiction. After all, we don’t get addicted to broccoli…

It’s important to know this author has been in hot water in the past, accused of plagiarism. Knowing this made me a little distrustful of his interviews with people throughout the book, but I think the ideas illustrated by the interviews are still valid.

It’s a book filled with food for thought.

Harm Reduction


I just read a wonderful book, “Coming to Harm Reduction Kicking and Screaming: Looking for Harm Reduction in a 12-Step World,” by Dee-Dee Stout. The book is as delicious as its title. The first part of the book describes a little bit about what harm reduction is, and the latter parts of the book are interviews of treatment professionals. Half are from the “old timers” of harm reduction, including Bill Miller of Motivational Interviewing fame, and the famous Alan Marlatt. The other half of the interviews are from “12-stepping harm reductionists.”

It’s a fascinating read. These professionals describe their mental journey from believing abstinence-only recovery should be the goal for every addicted person, to believing whatever works is a much more practical approach. I’ve made a similar journey in my own mind, so I can relate.

Lately I’ve been reading, thinking, and talking to other professionals about harm reduction. This is an interesting topic because it inspires very strong feelings on both sides. Indeed, just the fact that there are two sides is somewhat remarkable. Who wouldn’t be enthusiastic about harm reduction?

It turns out that these two innocent words are laden with veiled meaning. A harm reductionist’s definition of the term may be something like, “Strategies for drug users and drug addicts, intended to reduce the harm caused by drug use.” But an anti-harm reductionist may see the term to mean, “Strategies which may reduce some harm to drug addicts, but that also prevent them from finding real recovery from drug addiction.”

The desire to get into recovery exists on a continuum. Some addicts want to stop all drugs and learn to live life drug-free. Those patients may embrace abstinence-only addiction treatment and feel comfortable with that approach. Other people may want to stop problematic use of one drug, but see no need to stop another. I see this often at my opioid treatment program. Some people want to quit opioids because of all the negative consequences, but don’t have any desire to stop marijuana, since they can’t see that it causes them any problems.

Other addicts don’t wish to stop using drugs at all, but prefer not to develop some of the negative consequences.

Here are some examples of harm reduction strategies:
 Needle exchange programs (NEPs). Clean needles are distributed to intravenous addicts, sometimes exchanged for used needles. NEPs have been shown to reduce transmission of HIV, and of other infectious diseases. Additionally, patients are less likely to get skin infections like cellulitis and abscesses when new needles are used
 Distributing information about safe injection practices. This can involve things like telling IV addicts about strategies like never using alone, and staggering injection times so that if one person has an overdose, the other one can summon help or use naloxone. It may include instructions on how to use a test dose, in case the product is higher purity than expected.
 Safe injection sites. You won’t find these in the US, but Canada and European nations have sites staffed with medical personnel where intravenous users can come to inject. If they have an overdose, personnel are immediately available to revive them.
 Naloxone kits. These kits can revive people who have had opioid overdoses. I have written much about them in the past, and it’s becoming more main stream to distribute these kits to opioid addicts and their families. Some pain management doctors and OTP doctors also prescribe these kits for their patients, in case of an overdose.

An astute observer will notice I did not list medication-assisted treatment among harm reduction strategies. This is because treatment of opioid addiction with methadone and buprenorphine should be considered a primary and definitive treatment of opioid addiction, not merely as one stop along the road of recovery. Some patients may wish to transition to drug-free recovery in the future, but it shouldn’t be required. Many patients will do better with less risk of relapse if they stay on MAT.

A false dichotomy between the ideas of “abstinence-only” and “harm reduction” proponents has been set up. Instead, we should view all treatment options as complementary to each other. All evidence-based addiction treatment options should offer improved quality of life for the people who use them.

Why not offer options to people who want to reduce the risk of drug use?

As a person with a strong twelve-step background, I found it difficult to embrace all of the harm reduction measures when I entered this field ten-plus years ago. Time, experience, and the medical literature have been my teachers, along with vivid human examples. Most of all, my patients have revealed to me how recovery from addiction rarely happens in a miraculous flash. Mostly, it involves small changes over long periods of time, with some setbacks along the way.

Book Review: “Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink-and How they can Regain Control,” by Gabrielle Glaser


This book disappointed me. The title suggests a book of interesting research and conjecture about the reasons women drink. I was hoping for new insights that I could use in my practice with patients who drink alcohol. As it turned out, most of the book wasn’t about what the title implied. That topic was lightly touched on in the beginning, and there was a bit of summary at the end, but way too much of the book was about why AA sucks and why women don’t get the right treatment.

I liked the first third of the book, as it was basically history of alcohol and history of addiction treatment. She wrote about the shame women feel about having alcohol addiction, but that was brief. Overall, that portion of the book was mildly interesting, if a little tedious.

Then the next third of the book felt like an attack on AA. I admit I’m sensitive to AA bashing. I know AA works for many people, and I also know AA has never claimed to be the answer for every problem drinker. Given AA’s stance of “we will help you if you want help,” I don’t think it’s productive to berate the organization if you don’t want to go to their meetings.

My own opinion is that if you don’t like AA or don’t think it works for you, then fine. Take your ass on out of the meetings and go find another way that helps you. After all, AA members are under no obligation to help anyone; they help only because they want to, because it helps keep them sober. They don’t recruit new members, and they don’t ask for any money.

The author’s logic isn’t consistent. First she says AA isn’t helpful for women because it tells them they have to admit powerlessness and that interferes with women’s recovery process, rather than helping it. She says it’s insulting for women to be told that “your best thinking got you here,” and the slogans are too trite or hackneyed to help intelligent female problem drinkers who have problems with alcohol. She says women should be told they do have the power to make changes and stop drinking.

But then the next section, she says women are often victimized by men in meetings who have more time in sobriety, and thus more able to take sexual advantage of the fragile newcomer women. So which is it? Are the newcomer women tender blossoms with have no idea how to thwart a creepy man’s advances? Or are these women so powerful and capable that the simplicity of AA is insulting to their intelligence and capabilities?

Alcoholic Anonymous is made up of humans. Humans with drinking problems. It seems disingenuous to expect these humans to behave better than people in other human organizations (Catholic Church, for example). Also, I suspect some alcoholic women may have encountered creepy male advances in bars.

What kind of treatment does this author say works best? She correctly champions cognitive behavioral therapy and Motivational Enhancement therapy.

As an example, she describes an excellent treatment program that consists of treatment sessions from two therapists, with the addition of other services as needed (primary care consult, mental health provider). This treatment is done as an outpatient, where the person stays in a nice hotel close to the therapists’ office.

It costs ten grand. Ten thousand dollars.

This author gushes about how these therapists are so caring and dedicated that they even eat lunch with the patient. I would hope so. If I were paying ten thousand dollars for a few weeks of therapy, I’d expect my therapists not only to eat lunch with me, but also tuck me in at night and tell me a bedtime story!

So overall, I don’t think the ideas in this book extend to any new territory. Twelve step bashing has been done by many authors, so that’s dull. I found much of the book to be derivative, containing ideas from earlier books about women and addiction. Plus, I was surprised by how little time this author spent describing real barriers many women face when they are seeking help for alcohol addiction. For example, women are the primary caregivers for their children. Male partners may not want to take over childcare responsibilities while the woman gets treatment. Many times the woman’s partner is also in active addiction, and seeks to deter or undermine her efforts to get help and to stay in recovery. Transportation is a big problem, especially in rural areas with no public transportation. She may not have a car she can drive to treatment each day.

These issues were not addressed at any depth.

If you want to read a book about women and addiction, I highly recommend you read, “Substance and Shadow,” by Stephen Kandall, or “Women Under the Influence,” by the CASA program. Both are better written and with more information.

Addiction Fiction: “All Fall Down” by Jennifer Weiner


Sometimes the greatest facts can be transmitted by fictional stories.

My bookshelves at home are groaning under the weight of all sorts of written material about addiction. I have textbooks, journals, and SAMHSA publications about addiction and treatment. I also have numerous autobiographical memoirs written by people with addiction issues, which seems to be a whole new exploding genre, with more books coming out each month. I’ve read The End of My Addiction; More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction; Pill Head; Rolling Away; Drinking: A Love Story; Dry: A Memoir; Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction; Tweak; Leaving Jersey Dirty; Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption; Lit: A Memoir; Parched: A Memoir; Hit Hard; The Adderall Diaries; Junky; and probably many others that don’t come to mind at present.

But I can’t think of any fiction I’ve read about addiction, probably because I tend towards non-fiction in my reading life. So this new book I recently read was unusual for me, and I enjoyed it. I also found many truths contained within the fictional story.

In this novel, All Fall Down,” the protagonist, Allison, narrates the arc of addiction from occasional pain pill use to compulsive and uncontrolled use, and then through the bad consequences that follow. The book gives a fresh and accurate account of the protagonist’s stay in an inpatient rehab, and ends by describing her life in early recovery.

I am particularly impressed by the way the author describes the thoughts of Allison, the protagonist. The author has great insight into the mind of someone in active addiction. Allison lies to herself about how many she takes, about the reasons she takes the pills, and that she functions better with the pills than without. I found the author’s description of Allison’s thought process and self-deception to be accurate and believable. I hear the same self-deceptions in my work. Allison tells herself she deserves a few extra pain pills because she’s under emotional stress dealing with a difficult family situation. She tells herself everyone uses something to get through the day. She resolves again and again to cut back on her pill use, and then has moments of clarity when she realizes she’s using more than ever.

When Allison has these moments of clarity, the author accurately describes her confusion and self- blame. Allison realizes she’s doing things that are against her personal beliefs, resolves to stop, and yet can’t. The author truthfully describes the self-reproach and shame an addict feels when she can’t control her drug use.

Eventually, she admits she needs help, but still has to be forced into treatment by her family.

Buprenorphine makes a brief appearance, and I’m not too happy about how it was portrayed. In desperation because her pill stash was gone, Allison goes to an urgent care to get a prescription for pain pills, so a made-up reason. She surprises herself by being honest to the doctor about how much oxycodone she’s using. Even more surprising, the doctor is knowledgeable about opioid addiction and prescribes Suboxone. But in the book, the doctor doesn’t set her up in an addiction treatment program. Then Allison goes into precipitated opioid withdrawal after she takes the Suboxone, and has to go to the hospital. The hospital talks to her family and Allison is eventually admitted to an abstinence-only treatment center called Meadowcrest.

Meadowcrest gets harsh treatment from the author, but the details are amusingly accurate. Allison is dismayed that most of the treatment center staff have few counseling credentials, other than being past graduates of the treatment center themselves. She also illustrates the petty meanness some people are capable of when given power over other people. She describes Michelle, an overweight recovering addict who delights in thwarting Allison’s plans to use the phone or go to her daughter’s birthday party. She describes how some of the treatment center staff talk down to patients they are supposed to be helping, by calling them selfish and lazy.

This author does such a great job of describing all of the facets of early addiction and treatment that I can’t help but think she must either have personal experience or has a close friend or family member who went through opioid addiction and recovery.

I appreciate the honesty of the Allison character. She thinks the slogans of 12-step recovery are dumb and trite, and that she’s different from all the other patients because she never injected opioids or was homeless. She feels out of place around patients who have obviously gone much farther down in their addiction. She resents the twelve step program and finds some of the steps to be shaming. She has a difficult time with the idea of a higher power.

Then gradually, as Allison slowly starts bonding with other patients, she acknowledges she has the same feelings as they do, underneath the addiction circumstances. She comes to see that when she was stopped from driving by a teacher at her daughter’s school when she was impaired, that was her bottom. For other people, stealing or prostitution constituted the low of their addiction, but the feelings of shame and self-reproach were the same.

Allison starts to focus on her similarities to other addicts, rather than her differences. She starts to feel empathy for other addicts and wants to help them recover. Her own healing begins.

By the end of the book, Allison is going to 12-step meetings and she feels connected to the other people there. She sees that the slogans do have value, even though she finds them trite. She still struggles with any concept of a Higher Power, and is honest about that. She often doesn’t want to go to meetings but still goes, if only to see how the other addicts are doing. She develops a focus outside of herself, and begins to do things that are helpful for her and her recovery. Her marriage may be over, but she’s able to tolerate not knowing what will happen, allowing things to play out on their own.

This book will resonate with all people who have addiction, but especially with the relatively well-to-do opioid addicts who didn’t experience the low-bottom consequences of jails and institutions. I think the author accurately described the inner experience of the opioid addict. She certainly illustrated the failings of the Meadowcrests of the world while still showing how they can help people.

After I read the book and wrote this blog entry, I went to Amazon and read the book’s reviews. The people who liked it and gave the book five stars seemed to be either life-long fans of the author, Jennifer Weiner, or to have had some previous encounter with addiction. The readers who didn’t like it, and gave it one star, said the book was boring and depressing, or that it wasn’t like the author’s other books and they were disappointed. A few of the one-star readers said they were in recovery themselves, or worked in a treatment center, and they didn’t feel the book gave a realistic portrayal of addiction.

It’s always fascinating to me how two people can read the same book and come away with such opposite views.

I recommend this book for people with opioid addiction, in recovery or out, and for those who love them. It’s a great book for anyone who has been puzzled by the weird behavior of the addicts in the world.

I’d like to see more addiction fiction like this…

Bibliotherapy: Women and Addiction

aaaaaaaaagood book

I’m sorry to post another re-run this week, but i just moved, and my time and energy have been taken up with unpacking. I haven’t made time to write a fresh blog entry this week. Meanwhile, here’s an entry from a few years ago:

If you’ve looked at my blog before, you’ve likely seen that I like to recommend books. I prescribe books as medicine. Looking over my sagging bookshelves, I saw a number of my favorite titles that are specific for women and addiction. While some are a bit dated by now, even those contain information that’s helped me better understand how women, especially pregnant women, have unique needs in their recovery from addiction.

For example, in the past, when I talked to a pregnant patient who was still using drugs, I would tell her every awful thing her drug use could possibly be doing to the fetus. I thought I could scare her into sobriety.

Studies show this approach is associated with a worse outcome for baby and mother than a compassionate and hopeful approach. Pregnant addicts carry a tremendous burden of shame and guilt, as arguably the most stigmatized people in our society. Even other addicts look down on pregnant addicts. So when physicians add to their shame, they tend to run. They leave treatment (physically or mentally), and everyone suffers. With a gentler approach, these women tend to participate in their own treatment.

Duh. Don’t we all do better with gentler approaches?

Anyway, here’s a list of books about women and addiction. Some I have mentioned before, like Women Under the Influence, by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia. This is maybe the most comprehensive book, full of references, about addiction in women. Happy Hours by Devon Jersild is more conversational, with excerpt from interviews with women addicted to alcohol, but it also contains solid information. One of the most entertaining, because it is a well-written story told by a female alcoholic is Drinking: A Love Story, by the late Caroline Knapp.

Parched, by Heather King, is similar to Ms. Knapp’s writing, and also worth a read. This book is a well-written, entertaining documentation of an intelligent woman’s descent into alcohol addiction. Thankfully, she also describes her recovery. This is a better-than-average addiction memoir, and hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves.

Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice, by Nancy Campbell, written in 2000, is an unusual and fascinating book. It describes how society has viewed female addicts throughout history and how they are frequently judged more harshly than male addicts. Throughout the decades, addicted women don’t do what’s expected of them by their society, and society’s expectations often shaped U.S. drug policies. The author contends that female addicts cause more outrage because they stray so far from assumed female roles. The book is filled with cool black and white photos of sensationalized news stories from the girl addicts of the 1950’s to the crack moms of the 1990’s.

Women, Sex, and Addiction: A Search for Love and Power, by Charlotte Davis Kasl, PhD, 1989, focuses more on the way the inequities of power in relationships shape female behavior with sex and drug use and addiction. The author discusses all sorts of addiction, not just sex or drug addictions. For many female addicts, codependency and sex are strongly intertwined. The book also has sections of lesbian and bisexual lifestyle and addiction, and male codependency and addiction. Some sections were interesting and helpful, and others…not so much. The author uses older terminology, from the time when codependency was more in vogue.

Women on Heroin, by Marsha Rosenbaum, 1981. This book follows the careers of 100 female addicts in a street study. The author talked with a hundred women of many ages and various races to hear what their lives are like, being addicted to heroin. One theme of the book is that initially, drug use gives the illusion of empowering the women, but eventually the need to support their habit steals their power. Women resort to criminal means to support their habits, and this is more difficult for women caring for small children. Treatment programs often don’t consider children can be a strong motivating factor for a woman to get clean, but not if she loses her kids while she goes off to treatment. Lots of quotes from the women she interviews are scattered through the book.
All counselors working with female patients need to read this book to more fully understand how effectively to engage women into treatment. Besides containing useful information, it’s just a really interesting book.

Crack Mothers: Pregnancy, Drugs, and the Media, by Drew Humphries, 1999. Here’s a book bound to stir controversy. The book describes how the “crack baby” was a media invention, not a medical reality. While some children born to women addicted to cocaine had medical issues, we now know these kids didn’t grow up to be the permanently and hopelessly damaged human beings as conjured by the media. This book talks about the racist prosecution of pregnant minority addicts, and how they tended to be the ones to be jailed, while middle and upper class pregnant addicts were able to use their resources to avoid prosecution. In some cases, pregnant women had asked for treatment but were turned away because it wasn’t financially accessible, and they were jailed instead. I thought this book was very interesting and I read it in just a few days.

Substance and Shadow: Women and Addiction in the United States, by Stephen Kandall, The author is a renowned neonatologist, and this book is scholarly, filled with references. I’m reviewing the book from memory, since I loaned it to a friend and I can’t remember who has it. The author talks about the paternalistic methods of physicians in previous centuries, and how their attitudes increased the risk for female addiction to opioids. Then he traces the history of drug policy in the U.S., paying special attention to how women were treated – or not treated – differently. This book is a bit more intense, and not as light or quick reading as most of the others listed.

A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps, and A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps Workbook, by Stephanie Covington, 2000. Compared to the method of working the twelve steps outlined in either AA’s Big Book, or NA’s Step Working Guide, this workbook is a little “fluffy.” It’s a softer way of looking at the steps, and may be quite beneficial for women who have been traumatized by abuse in the past. For some women, harsh rhetoric occasionally heard in 12-step meetings can triggers memories of abuse, verbal or physical. For women who are turned off by more traditional steps guides, this book and workbook offer an alternative. I liked the book better than the workbook. For some people, this could be a great resource.

A Really Good Book – For Free


If you haven’t read CASA’s (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, at Columbia University) masterpiece publication from June, 2012, titled “Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice,” you should do so. This publication can be downloaded for free, and has essential information about addiction and its treatment.

Casa also has other free and informative publications about other issues, like how to reduce the risk of addiction in teens (“The Importance of Family Dinners” series), the cost and impact of untreated addiction on society (“Shoveling Up”), substance abuse and the U.S. prison population (“Behind Bars” series), and the availability of drugs on the internet ( “You’ve got Drugs” series). All of these contain useful and thought-provoking data.

“Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice” outlines all aspects of what is wrong with addiction treatment in the U.S., along with recommendations about how we can fix this broken system. When it was published in June of 2012, I thought it would be would be widely read and discussed. However, I’ve only heard it mentioned once, and that was at an ASAM meeting. I wish popular press, so eager to write sensationalistic pieces about addiction, would write more fact-based information.

Every politician should read it. Every parent should read it. Physicians and treatment center personnel should read it. Anyone who is concerned about the extent of addiction and its poor treatment in the U.S. should read it.

CASA describes their key findings of the drawbacks of the U.S. system – or non-system – of addiction treatment. This nation is doing many things wrong, to the detriment of people afflicted with addiction, their families and their communities. Our mistakes are based on ignorance, misperceptions, and prejudice. All of these impede our ability to help our people with addiction. The CASA report describes these factors and how they have contributed to our present situation.
Our nation hasn’t waged a war on drugs, but rather on people who use drugs.

The CASA report describes how public opinion about addiction isn’t based on science. Science proves addiction is a brain disease, yet this fact is still debated. We know that continued use of addicting substances alters the structure and function of the brain, affecting judgment and behavior about the continued use of drugs even when bad consequences occur. We know that half of the risk for developing addiction is determined by genetic makeup. Yet surveys show that about a third of U.S. citizens still feel addiction is due to lack of willpower and self-control. Why are public attitudes so disconnected from science?

Addiction is a complicated diagnosis, existing as it does at the end of the continuum from occasional drug use to regular use to compulsive use. People often compare a drug user with a drug addict. They say that since the drug user was able to stop when he wanted that the drug addict should be able to stop when he wanted. This compares apples to oranges. If someone can comfortably stop using drugs when given a good enough reason to do so, this person isn’t an addict. They may be a drug abuser, a problem user, and at high risk for addiction, but they haven’t crossed the line into uncontrollable use.

The CASA report pointed out that most addiction treatment and prevention isn’t done by physicians and health professionals. Most addiction treatment is provided by counselors who, for the most part, aren’t required to have any medical training. Only six states require a bachelor’s degree to become an addiction counselor, and only one (Alabama, go figure) requires a master’s degree.

Even when physicians are involved in the treatment of addiction, most of us have very little, if any, training in medical school or residencies about addiction prevention or treatment. Ironically, most of our training focuses on treating the consequences of addiction.

In medical school and residency, I spent countless hours learning about the proper treatment of cirrhosis, gastritis, anemia, pancreatitis, dementia, and peripheral neuropathy from alcohol addiction. I had little if any training about how to treat alcohol addiction, and none about how to prevent it.

We know brief interventions by physicians during office visits can reduce problem drinking and are an effective way to prevent problems before they occur. Yet few physicians are trained to do this brief intervention. Even if they are trained, primary care physicians and physician extenders are being asked to do more and more at each visit with patients, and asked to do it with less and less time. Primary care providers may not be adequately paid for screening and brief intervention for problem drinking and drugging, and valuable opportunities are lost. Yet that same patient may consume hundreds of thousands of healthcare dollars during only one hospital admission for medical consequences of problem alcohol use.

When I practiced in primary care, I often thought about how I never got to the root of the problem. I would – literally – give patients with serious addiction strikingly absurd advice. “Please stop injecting heroin. You got that heart valve infection from injecting heroin and you need to quit.” I could see it was ineffective, but I didn’t know any better way at the time. I assumed if there was a better way to treat addiction, I’d have learned about it in my training.

Wrong. The doctors who trained me couldn’t teach what they didn’t know themselves.

In my Internal Medicine residency, I admitted many patients to the hospital for endocarditis (infected heart valve) contracted from IV heroin use. Each time, this required six month of intravenous antibiotics. Back then we kept such patients in the hospital the whole time. You can imagine the cost of a six week hospital stay, not that these addicts had any money to pay. Just a fraction of that amount could have paid for treatment at a methadone clinic, the most effective way to treat heroin addiction, and prevent dozens of medical problems.

But I never referred them to the methadone clinic available in that city. I didn’t know anything about methadone or the medical-assisted treatment of opioid addiction, and apparently my attending physicians, responsible for my training, didn’t know about it either. It was a shame, because in those years, the late 1980’s, we were making new diagnoses of HIV almost daily among IV drug users. Since then, a study showed a patient using IV heroin drops his risk of contracting HIV by more than threefold if he enrolls in a methadone clinic.

I didn’t learn about the evidence-based treatment of opioid addiction until I agreed to work at a methadone clinic for a few days, covering for a friend of mine when he wanted to go on vacation. I was amazed to learn about decades of evidence showing the benefits of such treatment.

Most addiction-related medical expenses are paid for from public funds. In fact, over ten percent of all federal, state, and local government dollars are spent on risky substance use and addiction problems. Sadly, over 95% of this money is spent on the consequences of drug use and abuse. Only 2% is spent on treatment or prevention.

Untreated addiction costs mightily. People with untreated addiction incur more health care costs than nearly any other group. An estimated one third of all costs from inpatient medical treatment are related to substance abuse and addiction. Untreated addicts (I include alcohol addicts with drug addicts) go to the hospital more often, are admitted for longer than people without addiction, and require more expensive heath care than hospitalized non-addicts. The complications these people suffer could be from underlying poor physical health and lack of regular preventive healthcare, but most of the cost is incurred treating the medical problems directly caused by addiction and risky substance use.

Family members of people with untreated addiction have higher health costs, too. Families of people with addiction have 30% higher health care costs than families with no addicted member. I presume that’s from the stress of living and dealing with a loved one in active addiction. Often family members are so caught up in trying to control the chaos caused by active addiction that they don’t take time for routine health visits.

The costs of untreated addiction aren’t only financial. Addiction and risky drug use are the leading causes of preventable deaths in the U.S. Around 2.9 million people died in 2009, and well over a half million of these deaths were attributable to tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. Overdose deaths alone have increased five-fold since 1990.

We know addiction is a chronic disease, yet we spend far less on it than other chronic diseases.
For example, the CASA report says that in the U.S., around 26 million people have diabetes, and we spend nearly 44 billion dollars per year to treat these patients. Similarly, just over 19 million have cancer, and we spend over 87 billion for treatment of that disease. In the U.S., 27 million people have heart disease, and we spend 107 billion dollars on treatment.

But when it comes to addiction, we spend only 28 billion to treat the estimated 40.3 million people with addiction, and that includes nicotine!

Most of the money we do spend is paid by public insurance. For other chronic diseases, about 56% of medical expenses are covered by private payers, meaning private insurance or self-pay. But for addiction treatment, only 21% of expenses are paid from private insurance or self-pay. This suggests that private insurance companies aren’t adequately covering the expense of addiction treatment. Indeed, patients being treated with private insurance for addiction are three to six times less likely to get specialty addiction treatment than those with public insurance such as Medicaid or Medicare. Hopefully we will see a change since the parity law was passed. (which told insurance companies they had to cover mental health and substance addiction to the same degree they cover other health problems)

In the U.S., we don’t treat addiction as the public health problem that it is. Some people still don’t believe it’s an illness but rather a moral failing. Doctors, not knowing any better, often have an attitude of therapeutic nihilism, feeling that addiction treatment doesn’t work and it’s hopeless to try.

Families and medical professionals often expect addiction to behave like an acute illness. We may mistakenly think addiction should be resolved with a single treatment episode. If that episode fails, it means treatment is worthless. Families want to put their addicted loved one into a 28-day treatment program and expect them to be fixed forever when they get out. They’re disappointed and angry if their loved one relapses.

This reminds me of an elderly man I treated for high blood pressure many years ago. I gave him a month’s prescription of blood pressure medication, and when he came back, his blood pressure was good. I was pleased, and I wanted to keep him on the medication. He was angry. He said he was going to find another doctor. He thought the one prescription should have cured his high blood pressure so that he would never have to take pills again, and was disappointed with my treatment.
If we keep our same attitude toward addiction treatment, we are doomed to be as disappointed as my patient with high blood pressure. Addiction behaves like a chronic disease, with period of remission and episodes of relapse.

We have a lot of work to do. As this CASA publication shows, we have to change public attitudes with scientific information and do a much better job of training physicians and other health care providers. We should pay for evidence-based, high-quality addiction treatment, rather than spend billions on the medical problems caused by addiction as we are now doing.

Check out this landmark publication at CASA’s website:


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