SAFETY NETS

On August 7, 2018, Rolling Stone reported that Demi Lovato was given Narcan (naloxone) by paramedics in response to a drug overdose after 6 years of sobriety.“I want to thank God for keeping me alive and well,” she said. Yes, God – He works through people and available medications. After 2 weeks in the hospital, she entered rehab. I imagine she has health insurance for hospital expenses and the rehab costs should be no question considering her career.

But how many other Americans battling addiction are not insured – or under-insured – or insured without mental health or rehab coverage, as our son was? And how many can afford the costs of detox, rehab, medications, and long-term recovery programs? Here are some average costs:
Outpatient detox: $1500
Inpatient rehab: 30 days, up to $30,000 / 60-90 days, up to $90,000 or more
Medication: Methadone $5,000 yr / Suboxone $200-600 mo
Sober Living Homes: $500-$2000 mo

Opioid addiction needs detox, rehab, medication, and then – as has been proven time and time again – at least a year of sober living and perhaps a lifetime of medication – along with a 12-step community. Where is a student or an unemployed or under-insured addict supposed to go when there are no safety nets in our society?

The New York Times August 8, 2018 article “Too Little Too Late: Bankruptcy Booms Among Older Americans” – another group for whom safety nets have disappeared. In a study from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, “A three-decade shift of financial risk has occurred from government and employers to individuals – who are bearing an ever-greater responsibility for their own financial well-being as the social safety net shrinks…older Americans turn to what little is left – bankruptcy court.”

We, as a society, should be ashamed of this. Are we so independently minded and lacking in empathy that we cannot accept the need to collectively care for the weak among us – those in need – with social safety nets? In previous generations, families took care of their own – from birth until death. But as modern society has shifted from rural and communal to urban and individualistic, there is a need for we as a society to have safety nets in place.

Our daughter and family live in Australia. They are the beneficiaries of one of the best single-pay health systems in the world. When we tell friends about it, the response is, “They have socialized medicine, right? They can’t get medical care when they need it and people die on the streets.” As the conversation continues, we hear they are a socialist country and lack freedoms we enjoy. None of this is true. They enjoy a very good standard of living and pay higher taxes – taxes that provide a safety net for each and every citizen.

As the opioid epidemic continues to take the lives of so many, leaving families destroyed, we need to not only acknowledge that addiction is a disease that can be treated with medication, rehab, and community, but also fight for a health insurance system – a social safety net – that cares for Americans from birth through death.

 

BLOG: MAT, Part 2

MAT––Medication Assisted Treatment. Dr. Hillary Kunins, a clinical addiction expert, dispels the notion that treating an addiction patient with medication is simply exchanging one drug with another. Here is a link for a 2 min video where Dr Kunins offers a simple explanation of why physical dependence is not the same as addiction.

Here are the drugs that are currently in use for opioid addiction. Methadone has historically been used for heroin addiction, since the early 1970’s, when it was authorized by the FDA but restricted to daily dispensing clinics. Because it is an opioid-like drug, it has tended to only keep addicts alive, but never really able to be drug-free.

Nearly a half-century ago, buprenorphine was developed in England, where chemists were competing to invent a less addictive painkiller than morphine––it turned out to be far more addictive. It is now sold as Subutex and is an opioid partial agonist. An agonist is a chemical that binds to a receptor and activates it, producing a biological response. Like heroin, buprenorphine attaches to the brain’s opioid receptors creating euphoria, but it does not plug in as completely, so its effects are reduced. It is slower acting and longer lasting, attenuating the rush of sensation and eliminating the plummets afterward. But there is still potential for abuse and it can produce side effects such as respiratory depression.

Naloxone (Narcan, Evzio, injectable or intranasal spray) was patented in 1961, and is an opioid antagonist—meaning that it binds to opioid receptors and can reverse and block the effects of other opioids and decreases the desire to take opiates. Whereas an agonist causes an action, an antagonist blocks the action of the agonist. It has been used in hospital “code arrest” emergency situations for decades. It was used on me before a surgery when I had been given too much anesthesia and was beginning to go in to respiratory arrest. It is being carried by emergency personnel and families of addicts because it can very quickly restore normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing with heroin or prescription opioid pain medications.

Naltrexone (Vivitrol, monthly injection) is an opiate antagonist that is more slowly released than naloxone. It is primarily used to manage opioid dependence or alcohol dependence and abuse by blocking neural pathways to the brain for dopamine neurotransmitters. It requires going through complete withdrawals and detoxification first because it will not work until opioids are out of the system. People who try to take opioids after taking naltrexone are at risk for opioid overdose and death since it takes using large amount of opioids to overcome its effects.

Suboxone––four parts buprenorphine, one part naloxone––was approved by the FDA in late 2002. Generally, although not accurate, when the word “buprenorphine” is used, people are referring to Suboxone. In addition to side effects from the buprenorphine in Suboxone, if a person has been taking it for a long time and they no longer receive it, they will suffer withdrawal symptoms similar to those suffered when stopping other forms of opiates. And, suffering from these withdrawal symptoms can worsen underlying mental disorders like anxiety or depression. At times, withdrawal can become overwhelming, which happened to jL, which sends patients into buprenorphine abuse and dependency. This has created a debate over the use of Suboxone and Subutex for addiction treatment.

A new study in The Lancet (January 27, 2018), sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), compared the effectiveness of extended-release naltrexone with buprenorphine-naloxone in the US. The results were both promising and disappointing. While naltrexone is as effective as buprenorphine-naloxone once treatment begins, it is also significantly more difficult to actually start naltrexone because of the prolonged detox period—which can span more than a week—that buprenorphine-naloxone does not.

The biggest regret we have had since our son’s death in 2014 is that we did not take his doctors advice and have John Leif on Suboxone. There were many reasons that went into this decision, but the main one was that our health insurance did not pay the costs for any “mental health” coverage. Since we had so many years of our son’s relapses and recovery expenses, we decided to let him just “try harder” with the 12-steps and a sober living house. Sadly, it was not enough for a young man who desperately wanted to be clean and free of his enslaving addiction––he need MAT and we believe he would be alive today if he had been given that option.

Medication Assisted Treatment – Part 1

Medication Assisted Treatment, or MAT, is finally gaining acceptance as a response to drug addiction in the US––it is a cultural shift from the view that addiction is a “moral failure.” The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, one of the top drug treatment providers in the country, used to subscribe almost exclusively to the abstinence-only model, based on an interpretation of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous popularized in American addiction treatment in the past several decades. But in 2012, they announced they would begin providing MAT. There are four opioid substitutes that are used for MAT in opioid addiction: methadone, buprenorphine, naloxone, and naltrexone. More on these in the next blog.

November 6, 2013, the New York Times did an extensive article discussing the development, use, and risks of opioid substitutes, in particular bupreorphine and the combination drug, Suboxone. The author explaining that “While addiction is considered a chronic, relapsing disease, experts believe that replacing illegal drugs with legal ones, needles with pills, or more dangerous opioids with safer ones reduces the harm to addicts and to society. Addicts develop a tolerance to its euphoric effects and describe themselves as normalized by it, their cravings satisfied. It also diminishes the effects of other opioids but, studies have shown, does not entirely block them, even at the highest recommended doses.”

In a Frontline report in 2016, one of the doctors who specializes in addiction medicine related that doctors are limited by the DEA to treat only 100 patients per year with Suboxone. The thought behind this law is that they don’t want it to be abused––and it can be abused, as a commodity sold on the street to ward of withdrawals or for those who cannot afford the cost of a doctor and the medication. Our family faced the dilemma of the high costs for the doctors visits and the Suboxone because they were not covered by our son’s health insurance. We made the decision for him to not use this option, all hoping that a sober living house and meetings would help him succeed in his desire for sobriety. He was dead from a heroin overdose 7 months later.

The physician on Frontline pointed out the contradiction––the contradiction that has frustrated me and my husband for years––that there is still no limit on how many oxycodone or other opioid prescriptions physicians can write—the very abuse of which is documented to be fueling the opiate epidemic and creating the need for Suboxone. I personally experienced this absurd mentality towards opiates when my oral surgeon sent me home with 60 Vicodin after a root canal––60. I used two. He is the same oral surgeon who did JL’s wisdom teeth extraction and gave him multiple prescriptions for Percocet two weeks before and two weeks after the surgery––which fueled his relapse on heroin and ultimately, his death. He should have his license revoked.

As of a 2017 report by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), physicians who have prescribed buprenorphine/Suboxone to 100 patients for at least one year can now apply to increase their patient limits to 275 under new federal regulations. It is good to see movement in the right direction and I hope there will be more progress soon, especially in terms of making medication options a covered public health care benefit available to addicts who want to get their lives back.

 

 

Finding Help Thru The Maze

My husband and I just returned from a wonder-full vacation in Europe. We felt privileged and blessed in every way. Although we were enjoying our new experiences together, our son’s death from a heroin overdose was never far below the surface. We carry a lingering pain, knowing that although we tried our best to help our son, the three of us could never seem to find our way through the maze of dead ends and wrong turns for the right treatment for his increasing dependence on the substance that would eventually take his life.

While we were in the Netherlands, my husband, a pharmaceutical scientist, was contacted by a client and asked to analyze data from a drug study that was being conducted 15 minutes away from where we were. The human study, in those with opioid addiction and the control group without, is searching for a better medical approach to help addicts when they want to become clean and sober.

Half a world away from home we were reminded of people struggling with opioid addiction. And half a world away, there is still shame and stigma attached to being an addict, and there are parents, families, and friends living with the pain of watching someone they love not actually living life but hanging on from day to day, never knowing when their loved one will be another statistic in the world-wide epidemic in which there are few viable options for help.

The ongoing opioid crisis has drawn attention to the widening gap between the high need and limited access to substance use treatment in the United States. A recent Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report found that of 21.7 million Americans in need of substance use disorder treatment, only 2.35 million received treatment at a specialty facility. This led to a new study recently published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, where several researchers and physicians searched for the predominant barriers for addicts receiving treatment (https://scienmag.com/study-looks-at-barriers-to-getting-treatment-for-substance-use-disorders).

Four broad themes were identified:
Patient Eligibility – Difficulties in determining patient eligibility for a particular and appropriate treatment center.
Treatment Capacity – Even if a patient is eligible, providers have trouble finding out whether space is available.
Knowledge of Treatment Options – Health care providers may not understand the levels of available and appropriate care for substance use treatment.
Communication – Difficulties in communication between referring providers and treatment facilities contribute to delays to starting treatment. The need for direct referral – “from the emergency department to a bed” – is particularly high for patients with opioid use disorders.

“Access to substance use disorder treatment is often a maze that can be difficult to navigate for both providers and patients,” Dr. Blevins and coauthors write. Yes, and it was even more so for those of us who found our teenager using heroin in the early 2000’s. No one was talking, our doctors had no experience with opioid addiction, treatment options were extremely hard to find and expensive, and for many of us, not covered by insurance.

For those of us who tried so hard to maneuver our way through the maze, we continue to live with the pain from feeling that we failed our son in a million different ways, while we tried so hard to get it right. May our being open about our experiences help those of you still living a tension-filled life find the answers you need to get you through the maze quickly so there may be a different outcome for you or your loved one.

GENETICS AND OPIOID VULNERABILITY

Addiction is recognized as a disease by scientists, and now, finally, by most of us. It is no longer considered a moral weakness except by some who, like The Emperor and his new clothes, can’t see their own “moral weakness” but only those of others. Enough said.

As DNA research gains new insights by the day, we are learning how our DNA codes are regulated which will help in opioid treatments and prevention. Tiny differences in a persons DNA called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, SNPs, can indicate whether we have a higher or lower risk for addiction. Some of us have an opioid receptor gene with a single building block change that protects us against substance dependence in general and opioid dependence in particular. This is why the ‘opioid euphoria’ I wrote about doesn’t happen for us. But for others, variations in genes for three dopamine receptors – signaling pleasure – cause increased risk for opioid addiction.

Exposure matters in genetic expression, even across generations, according to how our body’s cells read them. In a recent study of opioids in rats (cited in the Ohio Society of Addiction Medicine’s blog on May 31, where much of this article is referenced from) the parents exposure to opioids changed the way their offspring read their DNA code, lessening their susceptibility to opioid addiction. This shows how one generation’s experiences can change the destiny of the next generation and although it hasn’t been studied in human substance abuse, it has been seen in other complex diseases like obesity.

Research suggests that people born into a culture of drug use may be more inclined to get and stay sober. Epigenetic’s may play a role. How this effects individuals born into a family with addiction issues like alcoholism, drugs, smoking, gambling, etc. is still unclear. For some of us, we observed behavior in our parents or relatives and made a concerted effort to not repeat it. Although our genes may have given us tendencies towards an addiction, a strong repulsion steered us away from it – and in my case, a strong dependence on the Lord.For our son, had we known how many of our relatives had addiction issues and how much power the addictive genes had, we would have been less permissive with our son in regards to drinking at an early age – and certainly more proactive once he was addicted to opioids. It might have changed the outcome for his life. I pray this information will help you, your family, and friends avoid the heartbreak we have had to live with.

Opioid Euphoria

What do you feel when you take a narcotic/opioid pain pill?

There are usually three reactions people have after having being given them for the first time for pain relief: we are disoriented and uncomfortable, even while our sensation of pain is temporarily deadened; we feel ambivalence combined with gratitude for the pain relief and the willingness to have that relief for the next pain-inducing event; or we feel that we have finally found nirvana.The truth about opioids, pain relief, and addiction has long been unclear and confusing. Sadly, this has been purposefully done by the makers of these drugs with one goal: profits. But these statistics are now becoming well known and will hopefully help reverse the trend of opioid addiction and deaths:

Approximately 25% of people who use an opioid will become addicted after a short period of use, which could be once, 3 days or a week.

The longer you use an opioid, the chances will increase that you will be addicted. This is because almost everyone will build up tolerance to them, which leads to addiction.

Genetics play a very important, but as yet not fully understood, role in what type of reaction each of us have to opioids. What is clear is that those families who have tendencies toward addictions – alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex, etc – will be those most likely to be drawn to opioids due to sensing them as pleasurable. There is something in their brain that is wired differently than others.

Our addiction doctor and recovery counselors have explained it to us and this is the essence: There are four areas of the brain that handle the substances and experiences we send it. Very simply put, they are:

Pain center: The PAG, known as the central gray, has cells that produce enkephalin that suppress pain

Emotional center: The amygdala regulates how we process emotions, memories, and rewards

Addiction center: The nuclean accumens, due to neuroplasticity, changes over time and builds up tolerance

Control center: The brain stem, the control center between the brain and the rest of the body, controls basic body functions like breathing, swallowing, heart rate, consciousness, etc.

The first three areas have the ability to build up tolerance, which is what keeps addicts coming back for more – and each time needing more. That is the nature of tolerance. The fourth area, the brain stem, has the least ability to build up tolerance. This is why an overdose – using an amount that is significantly more than what your body has built up a tolerance for – shuts down the respiratory center and you stop breathing.

In our family, and in the families of our son’s friends who are addicts or alcoholics, there are definite genetic predispositions to alcoholism that is traceable back many generations. Other addictions are no so easily identified, but they are there. It is not something anyone initiated or wanted or can change. But what can change is knowing the genetic trait is present and taking preventative steps as early in life as possible.

Talking openly and honestly about our predecessors – and our own – addictions is the first step. Seeking wise informed counsel for what things to avoid, especially while young, may help prevent some of the pitfalls. But for most teens, and especially for those from high risk families, experimentation will be unavoidable. Knowing as soon as possible if your child is moving away from their normal behavior and intervening with proven methods may save them – and you – from the pain that hundreds of thousands parents like my husband and I have now had to live with.

Who Is Dying Today?

In 2017, 16,000 people were killed by gun violence in America: some of them innocent children and young people while they were in school; some while they were just growing up in poor neighborhoods. Our first-world allies are stupefied that we can continue to allow such preventable deaths.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) there were 63,632 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2016 – preventable deaths: 172 deaths per day; 42,249 (66.4%) of those deaths were due to opioids. More deaths in one year than those as a result of firearms, homicide, suicide, or motor vehicle crashes. And more deaths in one year than all the deaths from the Korean or Vietnam Wars.
Why are opioids so addictive – and deadly? One area in the brain that opioids directly affect is the amygdala – the pleasure center. For a large percentage of people, once those receptors that regulate emotions have sampled opioid joy, no other experience compares: not sex, food, sights, sounds. And, as Thomas Aquinas said in the 13th century:

“No man can live without joy.”
I watched the truth of Aquinas’ insight in increasing measure with our son over the years as he fought his addiction to heroin. Heroin, the goddess of fleeting joy, always requiring more of her while she offers less pleasure. It was not just the misery of the horrendous withdrawal symptoms every time John Leif would try to get clean again. After they subsided, it was the flatness in his emotions and the dullness of living life without joy. What could replace the euphoria of a heroin high? How long would it take for that pleasure center to normalize – would it ever return to its pre-opioid state?

Eventually we would see the light return to his eyes … this was especially true during the last 8 months of his life. Clean, sober, awake, in touch with life and with those around him. Enjoying the opportunity to see life “through a child’s eyes” as he played Legos with his 3 and 5 year old nieces: the real John Leif, alive and participating in the joy that life without addiction can offer. But, even this period of recovery ended – as did his life.

There is another part of the brain that opioids directly affect: the nucleus accumbens, which is the addiction center. Opioids change the neuroplasticity in this region so the brain physically craves them. Scientists are not sure how long it takes to rewire the addiction center because even after periods of sobriety, it does not return to normal, and thus the cravings continue. For most people, the cravings are irresistible and the easy solution is to return to using. For some, a strong impetus for freedom along with a spiritual renewal that gives them the strength to do the hard work of recovery with adherence to a 12-step program, is a life-saver.

For a recovery program to actually bring long-term changes to the brain, anything less than 6 months will not work. And the current thought by many professionals now is that recovery programs for opioid addiction should be 6 mo-1year and include a strict sober living program for a year following. Don’t let costs deter you. The Salvation Army has very solid alcohol and drug rehab/recovery programs in many cities and they are free:
https://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/combat-addiction/

If you are struggling with addiction and feel trapped – or if you know someone who is – please do not let another day pass without seeking help. It is urgent – it is more than important – it is essential – it is life and death – your’s or someone you love.