No Magic Bullets

Last week here in Tucson, Arizona, some young people were together at a house using heroin. They were unaware it was laced with fentanyl. Friends ran to a nearby restaurant and flagged down police to help one person who was unresponsive from an overdose. He was revived with Narcan (naloxone). The officers were then taken to the house where six others had overdosed. One 19-yr old did not make it. Tucson Police all carry naloxone because they are usually the “first responders” to victims of overdose. Sadly, our Pima County Sheriff officers do not carry it – with the line of reasoning being that it is too costly for the training and they are not usually the first responders.

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 by displacing them from the opioid receptor sites in the brain. 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 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.

But it is not a magic bullet. Statistically, most opioid overdoses happen when the user is alone. By the time they are found, usually many hours later, it is too late for resuscitation. Another reason is that public safety experts are concerned, and rightly so, because addicts may be less motivated to find a way to quit using opioids since they can be revived. Their family and friends will also feel less anxiety and less concerned about urging their addict to get long term help. A recent news special interviewed several opiate addicts who had been revived multiple times with naloxone. One was an older man who is a “career addict”. He has no real desire to get clean and carries naloxone in case any of his friends need it. The other was a young woman who had overdosed and been revived several times and had finally gone through a recovery program and is clean and sober. She is very thankful for the times she did not die because finally, finally she was able to get to the point where she wanted to leave her miserable life of addiction and be free. But let’s remember: she needed a recovery program option. We cannot just turn those addicted to opioids back onto the streets after reviving them.

She is an example of the recent statistics that it takes on average 10-12 recovery attempts before an opiate addict can stay clean and sober long-term. Ten to twelve. It is a fact that relates to the addictive quality of opioids. For many of those addicted to opiates, those 10-12 attempts will never happen without overdoses and then being revived with naloxone. We, as a society, must be willing to offer this chance to those who are trapped by addiction to substances that have poured onto our streets and into our schools at an unprecedented rate. Our son went through several recovery programs and was at the point of really wanting to be free of his addiction. But without the needed medication, such as Suboxone, his last relapse proved fatal. He died of a heroin overdose at 25 yrs old – alone. There was no magic bullet for him.

STIGMA, Part 1: What and Why

In the Greek and Latin worlds, a stigma was a mark or brand, especially for a slave, identifying the person as “inferior”. When stigma began to be used in English, it meant the kind of mark or stain you can’t actually see. (Merriam-Webster). Social stigmas are based on perceivable characteristics, associated with certain behaviors that distinguish a person from other members of society. They convey disapproval and disgrace. Dis-approval. Non-approval. Dis-grace. Non-grace. Being dissed.

In an article on The Stigma of Addiction from Hazelden Recovery we learn: “The stigma of addiction stems from behavioral symptoms of substance use disorder… impaired judgment or erratic behavior, which can result in negative consequences including legal, occupational and relationship problems. Understandably, these consequences cause embarrassment and shame among those affected. They also create stigmatized attitudes and perceptions among the wider public, a response that perpetuates and exacerbates the private shame associated with drug addiction.For generations, this combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and addiction. Today, the stigma of addiction is seen as a primary barrier to effective addiction prevention, treatment and recovery efforts at the individual, family, societal levels. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need.” The article goes on to discuss the irony that many of these stigmatizing behaviors diminish and/or disappear when a person is appropriately treated in recovery.

In my family, and in most others, alcohol and drug addiction is considered private, and “is something only whispered about. Even when the symptoms of the disease are obvious to all around, individuals and families avoid seeking help for fear of even acknowledging the problem. This is one reason only one in 10 Americans with a substance use disorder receives professional care.” (ibid.) When talking recently with some of our son’s friends and former addicts, they are unwilling to let their past drug use become public knowledge because of the potential negative repercussions they justifiably fear in their careers and relationships. What does this say about us as individuals, communities, employers, and society in general?

Hazeldon, with almost 60 years experience treating alcohol and addiction, says “the same undercurrent of addiction stigma keeps addiction under-diagnosed, under-treated, under-funded and misunderstood by many, especially as compared to other chronic health conditions such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes.” Why? The individual is seen as having a moral failure instead of a health problem. I have an anecdote I share with people when we discuss addiction. When I have been given oral opiates when leaving the hospital after surgery, I take one or two and then opt for the pain because I hate the way they make me feel: disoriented, unable to sleep deeply, and not myself. My husband recently had surgery that he was warned would be painful for 4-6 weeks following the procedure. That was an understatement. He was given a prescription for 10 days of opiates. We thought that would be unnecessary. We were wrong. When he was taking the pain meds as prescribed, he was his normal, cheerful self – it was like magic. As soon as they wore off, he was cranky. Of course he was in pain, but it was more than that. Why?

For us, it’s not difficult to understand. He has the “addiction” gene, as we call it. There were alcoholics in both of our mothers’ families. He got the gene that I seemed to have dodged. Did he ask to have that gene passed down to him? Did he decide he would feel good taking opiates for pain? Of course not. And neither did our son. Nobody makes the decision on how their brain will react to different substances. It happens. The issue is what a person does once they know that a mind-altering substance spells “pleasure” to them? Do they keep a safe distance from it as John has done or do they play with fire? For parents with addiction in our family trees, prevention is our best and most powerful weapon. Two books to aid parents in prevention are:
The Teen Formula : A Parent’s Guide to Helping Your Child Avoid Substance Abuse By  Dr Dave Campbell and Drug-Proof Your Kids by Arteburn and Burns.

Had we known then – when our son was an adolescent – what we know now, we would have made significantly different decisions regarding our attitude towards pain medications, drugs, and alcohol – and especially begun discussing addiction in general and in our family in specific. I believe our son would still be alive if we had.

https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/recovery-advocacy/stigma-of-addiction

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.

 

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.