Posts Tagged ‘we are more than our disease’

We are More Than Our Disease

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Imagine you are a diabetic, complaining to your doctor’s office manager about poor treatment you’ve received by the doctor’s staff. How would you feel if the office manager said something like this?

“That’s just your disease talking. Your perceptions are wrong because your diabetes wants you to feel resentment and self-pity. Your diabetes wants to give you an excuse to go back out there and eat a bunch of sweets. Your diabetes has you confused. You really weren’t mistreated. Your thoughts and feelings aren’t real.”

Sounds kind of nutty, doesn’t it? Yet people with addiction are sometimes told similar things by their treatment programs.

While it is true that addiction can damage the structure and function of the brain, patients don’t lose all their higher brain functions and often have very accurate perceptions.

This week I encountered a patient who said workers at his opioid treatment program discounted his legitimate complaints about problems he saw at his program. He said he felt like personnel at this program thought because he was an addict, he didn’t know what he was talking about and had no right to complain.

I listened to him, and what he said resonated with me.

I outed myself a few months ago on this blog as a person in recovery. I’ve been abstinent from drugs and alcohol for over sixteen years, and my recovery is one of the most precious possessions I have. And yet, I do remember similar frustrations with my treatment program.

I went to an intensive outpatient treatment program many years ago. It was highly recommended by other doctors in recovery, so I hadn’t shopped around for treatment programs. Besides, who has any idea what to look for in a drug addiction treatment program? I just followed the recommendations of my state’s physicians’ health program.

I do admit that my brain had been damaged by drugs and by withdrawal. I knew my perceptions were not completely reliable, and yet, sometimes I heard my counselors say things that I knew were not OK, and that were offensive to me. I can’t remember exact words after so many years, but the essence of their remarks was I wasn’t able to think clearly, all my perceptions were wrong, and I had no right to be angry about anything, including disagreements with treatment staff.

Which is a rather convenient position to take if you are treatment staff. Essentially, you win any argument with patients, because you can say the patient’s brain is damaged, yours isn’t, so therefore you are right and the patient is wrong.

I remember when I was in aftercare, I overhead a comment made by my counselor to another counselor about another patient who frequently relapsed: “She can’t come to aftercare because she keeps getting drunk.”

His breach of her confidentiality was bad enough, but when I heard him I thought, “Aha! All this talk of disease, but he doesn’t really believe it or he wouldn’t blame her like this.”

Yes, maybe my brains were still scrambled, but I got that one right.

Now I’m on the other side of the treatment fence, and things look different. I think there is a temptation to take the easy way out when faced with a patient complaint, and dismiss the complaint as being irrelevant.

I’m not rising up on a self-righteous scold of all treatment staff; I’m writing this blog as much for me as other staff.

We must always be able to look honestly at our actions and attitudes as addiction treatment professionals. If a patient complains, we need seriously to evaluate our behavior.

For me, it helps to have a good treatment team around me, who are willing to tell me if I’m off the mark with my thinking. I also do my own mini-inventory at the end of each day (OK most days). Did I treat people the way I’d like to be treated? Did I try to do the best thing for them? Sometimes this means making a decision that angers patients or angers treatment staff.

Most importantly, when I’m with a patient, I want to remember he may have drug addiction, but that’s only one small part of who he is. He’s also other important things. For example, this person may also be a son, father, husband, artist, good provider for his family, have a great sense of humor, etc. Treating the addiction should help him get back to being himself. He is so much more than just an addict. Sadly, many of our patients have family who have written them off as “Just an addict,” and are no longer able to appreciate their wonderful qualities and talents.

Addiction treatment personnel: Let’s not make the same mistake.