Chapter 2: Different Pathways to Recovery

Everybody’s path to recovery is different. It seems like common sense to me now, but for a long time I was led to believe otherwise.

As I’ve mentioned before, I first started trying to quit heroin within four months of starting. I went to a doctor, which was a total failure. This was the same doctor who less than a year earlier had offered me a “free sample” box of Wellbutrin for what was obviously more than just a case of mild depression.

Most of my attempts at quitting heroin for the next two  years involved buying various different types of prescription painkillers to ‘taper down.’ When the withdrawal symptoms disappeared, I imagined I was cured. Then, I convinced myself, if I just cut back to using once every 2 or 3 days I’d be good. You can guess how well that turned out.

Eventually my habit became so expensive I gave up on my well-paying software job and developed a fairly lucrative career as a petty thief. At one point I was bringing in over $500, almost all of which went toward drugs, and the occasional ‘Debbie Cake’ for nutritional sustenance.

When you’re stealing all day, every day, even when you’re really great at it, statistics are bound to catch up with you. And so began my many run-ins with the law.

My first offenses were met with probation and suggestions I go to twelve step meetings. As I racked up more offenses, the 12-step meetings became mandatory.

The mere fact that I was being forced to attend made me less-than-receptive to their message. I just went to get my sheet signed to keep from going to jail.

But eventually I started listening. And I wanted to try. But their message just didn’t click. “Try a different meeting,” folks would tell me. And so I did. Didn’t work. None of them spoke to me. And, given that I had a crippling fear of talking with strangers when I wasn’t taking drugs, there’s no way I was going to get a sponsor.

Twelve-step programs work for some people, but the number is substantially smaller than advocates have led us to believe. Their response is that, well, they just weren’t working their program. They haven’t hit their bottom. And so on. The logical fallacies in this approach–and that so many people blindly accept them–are mind boggling. To me, those meetings just seemed like a place to gossip and share stories about our awful pasts, not the hope we had for a brighter future.

Before I was ever introduced to twelve step programs, I’d heard about methadone. And almost everything was negative. “Liquid handcuffs.” “Worse than heroin.” “The withdrawals last for months.” “Trading one drug for another.”

More than six years after I first started using I entered a methadone program. Within a few I discovered much of what I’d been told were myths. For me, methadone was a miracle. By that point I’d given up hope of ever quitting. I was simply counting the days away until it was all over; me dead in some gutter, lost and forgotten, and missed by no one. Methadone turned my life around.

Methadone won’t work for everyone–and that’s OK. For me, a long-time heroin user ready for a change, it did. After about three years I switched to Suboxone. The great thing about Suboxone, and I won’t get too scientific here, is that it binds to your brain’s opioid receptors more strongly than just about any other opioid. For me, that was great. It meant when I was on Suboxone and I did a shot of dope I felt nothing–NOTHING! If I wanted even a little buzz I had to skip my dose for a day or two. Eventually I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. My love affair with heroin quietly faded away. I don’t count my non-using days because I don’t even remember the last time I used. It was unremarkable in every way, although it was a major milestone in my life.

Once I was on Suboxone I was finally able to get treatment for everything I’d been self-medicating with heroin: anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD, emotional trauma, the list goes on. The unbelievable thing is that through all my tries at recovery, getting proper mental health care (not just handfuls of useless antidepressants) rarely came up. It never came up at twelve step meetings, although my SMART facilitator did gently suggest I consider it more than once.

My story is packed with twists and turns, as are most stories of those struggling with substance use disorders (SUDs). Most of us try to stop using when we’re ready, but unless we have the proper support and guidance, it’s just like Sisyphus, pushing an unbearable load up a mountain we’ll never scale.

If you have a loved one struggling with substance misuse, here are a few pointers, based on my experience and the stories I’ve gleaned from others. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but I think they do deserve consideration:

  • We need a loving, non-judgmental support system. Too often parents and loved ones impose their own thoughts or preferences, with the best of intentions, which only pushes us further away. We need someone to support us, someone we can lean on, someone who loves us unconditionally. It’s maybe the most important factor to successful recovery. (Community Reinforcement and Family Training [CRAFT] is great at teaching family members these skills)
  • Sometimes we’re not ready to stop using, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t thought about it. Until we’re ready to stop, harm reduction approaches can keep us alive. Harm reduction approaches look to engage more people in treatment by taking judgment out of the equation, acknowledging that people move through stages of change, they meet us ‘where we’re at’, and encourage small positive steps. I wasn’t exposed to harm reduction until after I stopped using–and I ended up with hepatitis C because I was sharing needles. I still have scars on my hands, arms, and feet from reusing the same needle–sometimes for as long as a month. Harm reduction keeps us alive and more healthy, but it also makes us think about our using in a different (safer) way. Harm reduction practices can break down barriers we often don’t even notice.
  • The Internet is packed with myths and misinformation about drugs and drug treatment. You might be amazed what getting the right information into the hands of a loved one with an SUD can accomplish. If I’d known the truth about methadone when I was first exposed, I might have been spared that two year prison sentence. If I’d known where to get clean syringes, I might not have contracted HCV or have to wear long sleeves in the summer to hide the reminders of my dark dance with heroin.

There’s no shortage of alternatives to abstinence-based approaches out there. Here are just a few treatment and support options, but it’s by no means comprehensive. Feel free to chime in with comments with on what’s worked for you:

  • Methadone-maintenance treatment (MMT)t: sometimes patients can come off opiates entirely this way, but sometimes they’ll need methadone the rest of their lives. And that’s OK. The decision should be up to them and their doctor. The CDC has declared the most effective treatment for heroin use, but the stigma around treatment remains a critical barrier to treatment.
  • Suboxone treatment: similar to MMT. It’s recommended long-time opiate users stay on suboxone at least a year before trying to taper off. Some of us might need suboxone the rest of our lives. I’m one of those people and, while I’m cool with that now, it took a long time to accept it because of the stigma.
  • SMART Recovery: Self Management and Recovery Treatment (SMART) is an evidence-based recovery recovery program that uses cognitive-behavioral therapy and other proven methods. Most importantly for me, they accept medication-assisted treatment (MAT), like methadone, suboxone, and anxiety medications. That’s something many twelve step groups look down on, marginalizing some attendees to the point they take their medicine (even antidepressants and antipsychotics) in secret.The SMART terminology helped reduce much of the stigma I’d internalized and helped me realize I wasn’t using because I had character defects, but because I had mental health issues that weren’t being addressed.
  • Moderation Management (MM): For decades the dominant position in the recovery community was that total abstinence from drugs and alcohol was the only way to recover. “One is too many and a thousand is never enough,” the old saying goes. We’re powerless over our addictions and even one drink or hit of weed constitutes a relapse. Recent research suggests that, for some people, this isn’t necessarily the case. Some people can reduce their drinking to healthy levels. With drugs, the case is a little cloudier. Can one use moderate amounts of heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine successfully? I’ve know a handful who can, but I can’t say for sure.

One thing is certain: The old mantras the rehab industry and much of the recovery community have propagated for decades are being called into question. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to recovery.

Now, what can we do from a policy perspective to insert these alternatives into a justice system and rehab industry that are slow to adapt? Many drug courts won’t even consider allowing clients to participate in MAT or twelve-step alternatives. That’s slowly changing, but not nearly fast enough. The abstinence-only position of many rehabs and drug courts are not only likely to fail, they can be fatal. When opiate users leave a 30-day program, get kicked out of rehab, or leave drug court, they’ve lost their tolerance for opiates. When they go back out and use, they’re at a significantly higher risk of overdose. This has to change.

The evidence is out there that we’re all different and, as such, all our needs are different. With that in mind, what will it take to find people with SUDs the treatment that’s most effective for them? What steps are we willing to take to make sure rehabs and courts don’t treat our loved ones as just another statistic, or a cardboard cutout capable of being “cured” by a one-size-fits-all approach?

These are important questions, and how we respond to them will determine the course of substance misuse treatment–and the lives of our loved ones–for years to come.

Chapter 1: Opening Pathways and Breaking Down Barriers at Home and In the Legal System

I began using heroin when I was 26. First drug I’d ever tried. Not your typical story, but then, everyone’s story is different. So, too, is everyone’s path to successful recovery.

Within 4 months, and realizing I needed it every 8 hours just to keep away the heebie jeebies, I looked for help. I went to my family, thinking they could help me get back on track. That was a mistake.

They meant well, but they didn’t know where to begin. So they turned to the Internet, which offered nothing useful and plenty that reinforced dangerous myths that derail people like me from seeking treatment in the first place. Mom wanted to send me to inpatient rehab for 6 months, which I refused to even consider.

After that I went to my doctor (because I had a good job and insurance, something many of us don’t have). I asked about methadone and Suboxone, but instead the doc wrote me a prescription for trazodone and wished me luck. I was back to using within two days.

Two years later I called a methadone clinic, despite the stigma tied to methadone maintenance treatment and the promise from my mom that she wouldn’t support a “legal heroin” habit. The intake fee was $175, which equaled about three days of using at the time. Needless to say, I never made my intake appointment.

I tried outpatient programs, inpatient programs, and went to countless twelve-step meetings, both willingly and by court order. Twelve-step works for some people. It never resonated with me. In fact, I feel like some of what I learned there (especially about relapse) helped me sabotage several later attempts at recovery.

It wasn’t until I met my spouse that I found someone willing to support me in my recovery on my own terms, with help and guidance when I needed it. She urged me to stop using, but didn’t set strict rules. Within a couple weeks I was in a methadone program.

Methadone-assisted treatment was a game-changer for me. I don’t hesitate to say it saved my life. It wasn’t the “liquid handcuffs” I’d been promised by so many people who failed to comply with their treatment and later went back to using. It didn’t eat away my bones or make me gain 300 lbs. It was medicine and I took it in a clinical setting, which changed the way I thought about using and took away the rush I got from finding ways to get drugs every day — which was a good thing.

I slipped a few times. When I thought I could get around a drug test, I would use occasionally. But a few months into it, I stumbled into SMART Recovery. SMART is an evidence-based alternative to twelve-step programs. It clicked with me from the start. The greatest benefit was that it taught me when I did slip up and used once or twice, I didn’t have to start over at the beginning (“here’s your white chip” as he surrendered once again and hung his head in shame). As long as I kept moving forward and worked to address what caused my slip, it wasn’t a big deal; which took a world of pressure off my shoulders.

Eventually I switched to Suboxone, which carries less stigma, but is still considered “trading one drug for another” by detractors and, especially, by many journalists and politicians who unfortunately still have a lot to learn.

It was then that a therapist suggested I seek treatment for mental health issues. In all my twelve-step meetings, stays at rehab, and encounters with “addiction specialists” not once had anyone suggested something so obvious.

Now I’m getting the care that I need. I’m still on Suboxone and I have no problem accepting I might be on it the rest of my life. It’s medicine for me and, to be frank, I don’t give a damn about the stigma people attach to it. That’s their problem, not mine — but it is a barrier we need to eliminate for other people seeking help.

My story is my own, but there are thousands just like it. Statistics show that when those who misuse substances find their way to recovery, they do it on their own terms, not when they’re coerced by courts or forced into it by families with interventions or a misguided “tough love” approach.

With that in mind, what can we do to tear down those roadblocks that make getting treatment so difficult? I spent ten years trying to quit heroin, and for most of that time I sincerely wanted to stop. The problem was I didn’t know how — and the folks who wanted to help me didn’t know how either.

To break down those barriers we need at least these three things:
1. We must eliminate the stigma around medication-assisted treatment (MAT). MAT is the most effective method for getting opiate users to reduce the harms associated with their use and to take positive steps toward healing. That’s proven.

2. We need effective educational materials that are accessible, appealing, and easy to follow. When someone finds out their child, spouse, or friend is using, how do they approach the situation? How can they be supportive? How can they keep their loved one alive until they’re ready for help? There is an evidence-based family therapy approach–Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT)–proven to be an effective intervention, based on compassion and the strengths and resources of families, and empowers family members to take care of themselves and the safety of their family

3. We need to break down barriers to treatment. Most heroin or pain-pill users won’t spend 200 bucks to enter a methadone program, then spend $12 to $20 a day just to not be sick — especially with the stigma and myths that exist. Some methadone clinics are great (I went to one) and some are awful. How to we establish standards that don’t create more barriers? If medication-assisted treatment is readily-accessible, I believe (and statistics likely bear this out) those with substance use disorders who do want to quit will find their way into them.

From a policy level, let’s get this out of the way first: “Nothing about us without us!” If you’re going to make laws that affect drug users, you need to include us in the process. We’ve been excluded for decades and that’s part of the reason our system is so awful now. We’re people. Our lives matter. And we’re a helluva lot smarter than you give us credit for.

Furthermore, how do we make lawmakers see that this is a problem that affects us all? Drug use can lead to property crime, which leads to jail, and probation, and prison, and more drug use, and more crime, and so on. Even if we don’t know someone who’s using, we’re paying a price for the failed “War on Drugs.” Members of groups like FSDP are empowered to use our collective energies to push drug policy toward a treatment-based model, not the punitive, prison-based model that’s given our country the world’s highest incarceration rate.

That’s a lot to take in, but we have a lot of work to do. I don’t have all the answers. None of us do. But I do believe that when we put our minds together, and put our thoughts into action, we can make changes that save lives and keep our friends and loved ones off drugs. I’ve seen it happen and I know we can do it.

What do you think it will take and how far are you willing to go to make it happen?

FSDP is the Voice of the Family at UNGASS 2016

ungass2016_0Families for Sensible Drug Policy (FSDP) is representing the voice of families impacted by substance use at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem in New York City on April 19-21, 2016.

UNGASS 2016 is a meeting of the United Nations member states to assess and debate global issues such as health, gender, or in this case, the world’s drug control priorities.

The last time a special session on drugs was held, in 1998, its focus was the total elimination of drugs from the world. UNGASS 2016 Today, political leaders and citizens are pushing to rethink that ineffective and dangerous approach.

Why this summit matters

International debates on drugs are rarely more than reaffirmations of the established system. But 2016 is different because never before have so many governments voice displeasure with international drug control approaches. Never before, to this degree, have citizens around the world have put drug law reform on the agenda and passed regulatory proposals by referenda or popular campaigns. Never before have the health benefits of harm reduction approaches—which prevent overdose and transmission of diseases like HIV—been clearer. For the first time, there is significant dissent at the local, national, and international levels.

Why the family voice in drug policy matters

The role of the family is what is missing from much of the drug policy debate. Substance use doesn’t takes place in a vacuum but in the normal context of family life and relationships as well as the wider culture that the family resides in. Families are in a unique position to directly influence the development or resolution of substance use problems.

UNGASS 2016 held an Informal Interactive Stakeholder Consultation in February 2016 to give nonprofit and civil society organizations from around the world an opportunity to submit their statements and recommendations for drug policy reform. With the input and support of our diverse community of stakeholders and advocates, Barry Lessin made this statement at this meeting on behalf of the families of FSDP.
UNGASS Flyer

We will co-sponsor this Day of Protest and Action with the Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, The Center for Optimal Living and Help Not Handcuffs culminating in a workshop that bridges the gap between public policy and our homes, between parents and children, and connects the voices of diverse impacted communities.