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The treatment of prescription drug and heroin use is one of the most pressing issues facing our country right now. Across the country, opiate related overdose deaths, fueled by prescription pain killers, now takes more lives that car accidents, with nearly 100 Americans dying from an overdose EVERY DAY.

Given the current state of affairs related to opiate use and abuse, current legal, regulatory, and budgetary constraints, federal agencies and the White House have been working hard to develop guidelines for effective treatment  and to generate and direct resource at this epidemic. But, on the frontlines, counselors and treatment professionals are trying to figure out what will really help and what doesn’t.

There is no silver bullet for a disease as complex as opioid addiction. Research does reveal the longer a person is involved in treatment the better the outcomes. There needs to be an alignment of the stars to get all the wheels of treatment and recovery to move in the same direction. It is not impossible but, without the needed resources, it is very difficult. Let’s take a look at what effective treatment looks like.

1. Individualized Treatment Planning
Each individual comes to treatment with a unique set of circumstances. Some are caught in a domestic abuse situation, others at involved with Children and Family Services, yet others are facing serious legal consequences. Most are simply aware that the path they are on will end in death. Because of the myriad variable in each story, effective treatment must be responsive to the individual needs and considerations. That doesn’t mean there aren’t universal skills each person will need, such as relapse prevention skills, it simply means that a cookie-cutter approach isn’t helpful when everybody starts at a different place.

2. Level of Motivation
Besides the unique process that led an individual to seek treatment there is also a unique level of motivation for each that should be considered. Many develop a sense of hopelessness that they can every get this monkey off their back. Others, while drug dependent, haven’t been motivated by the consequences to quit yet. One of the ways humans resolve the cognitive dissonance between what we do and how that impacts our lives and the lives of those we love, is denial. It’s a protective mechanism that keeps us from being overwhelmed with guilt, shame, and remorse, but also enables ongoing drug use. Understanding a person’s level of motivation is key in helping them through the process, when they are motivated.

3. Understanding the Science of Addiction
We have learned so much in the last 10 years about the brain that we struggle with presenting current information because what we are learning is outpacing our ability to integrate it into treatment. But, people desire to know how the brain works and how drugs affect it. The more you understand that science of behavior and addiction and what is happening in the brain the greater the sense of being able to control what is happening. For example, if a person in treatment learned about how the brain is rewired through drug use and what new behaviors will help the brain heal and rewire into healthier behaviors, that is empowering. There is meaning and understanding to the choices they make. Plus, science is cool.

4. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
There is a direct connection between how we think about ourselves and the world we live in and how we behave. If someone is afraid of flying and they believe planes are unsafe, they will not likely fly anywhere. But, when that thinking is challenged with rational thinking, such as how safe flying actually is, and that you are more likely to be injured in a car accident that have your plane fall from the sky, you are more likely to fly. Good treatment helps the individual challenge and replace irrational thinking and evaluate it in the light of reality. When you live under the fog of addiction you live in survival mode. There is so much deluded thinking that is necessary to navigate that world but is problematic once an individual enters recovery.

5. Wellness
The mind and the body and intricately connected. The benefits of healthy habits are well documented. For the opiate dependent sleep, exercise, and nutrition are essential to quality recovery.

6. Family Engagement
Just because the wind from the storm is over doesn’t mean there still isn’t work that needs done. The family has taken a toll because of their loved one’s addiction. Work needs to occur to rebuild trust and habits of relating to each other. Imaging living with someone and you both speak English (the language of addiction/anger/stress) and then someone goes to treatment or seeks out recovery. In recovery they speak French (recovery, therapy). Now, you have two parties trying to co-exist and they can’t communicate because they speak different languages. Both groups need to be speaking the same language if restoration of relationships is to occur.

7. Accountability
Drug use monitoring is an important part of the recovery process. Drug screens and medication counts help bring accountability to the person in recovery. Because old habits die hard, the need for someone to ask tough questions and to provoke honest dialogue is also necessary. This is most effective when there is trust and rapport between the two parties.

8. Co-occurring Conditions
Many times drug using individuals are self-medicating because of a co-occurring condition, such as PTSD, depression or anxiety. Taking opiates, benzos, or other depressants can give temporary relief to an often debilitating condition. If these conditions are not treated, relapse is imminent.

9. Employment Support
Studies show one of the biggest predictors of sustained recovery is gainful employment. Working gives the individual a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and independence. This can be a challenge if you have a felony record or a spotty work history. Having someone trained to walk alongside you while job seeking can be an indispensable source of encouragement and support.

10. Pro-Social Recreation
Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure. This often occurs when the reward center has been hijacked due to years of opiate misuse. When you experience pleasure so off the charts over and over again, the brain rewires to that level as the new default. Anything less than that is no longer experienced as pleasure. Boredom is a HUGE trigger for people early in recovery precisely for this reason. Who wants to live an existence where they experience no or low levels of pleasure in anything. Retraining the brain to enjoy (pleasure) life is also an important part of the recovery process. Developing new hobbies that are not related to using drugs, listening to music without getting high, being sexually intimate without having to use first are all difficult for the person early in recovery.

11. Criminogenic Needs
Do you know what you get when you sober up a horse thief? A sober horse thief. Criminal attitudes and behavior are a part of the lifestyle associated with drug use. The mere fact that someone uses drugs means they are engaged in a criminal act. Along with behaving in a criminal manner means adopting criminal attitudes that support or endorse your behavior. This needs to be undone if someone is going to thrive in recovery.

12. Case Management
Because the person can be caught up in other systems there is a need for effective case management. It is possible that a drug using individual ca be on probation, Children and Family Services, Drug Court, see another therapist for past trauma, or a host of other service, all aimed at helping them get back on the right path. Effectively communicating with these other services is necessary, as is making appropriate referrals to address these needs.

13. Harm Reduction
I won’t say much about this now because I’m designating a future blog to this but Harm Reduction is the idea, that if an individual is not willing or struggling to abstain from drug use, how can we support them where they’re at? For example, providing clean needles is proven to prevent the spread of blood born disease common among IV needle users. This also reduces the associated cost of health care for treating someone, likely without insurance, in the emergency room and ongoing treatment for Hepatitis C, a commonly spread disease among IV needle users. This is a controversial strategy but one that is often misunderstood. We’ll explore this in greater detail.

14. Intersections
Individuals are unique and complex. There are other intersections to consider when providing effective treatment, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability/disability, age, educational levels, and a host of other considerations. All which need to be addressed when providing individualized treatment.

15. Recovery Community
Yes, addiction has biological hooks. The pleasure is such a powerful reward that it draws a user back with powerful cravings. But, more often that not it is reinforced by the community of peers we surround ourselves with when using. Recovery is no different. Creating the community we crave, that was denies by our addiction, is one of the most powerful reinforcers of remaining clean or returning after a relapse. Recovery has more to do with being connected in meaningful ways than just about anything else. The pain of alienation and isolation, the pain of being marginalized and feeling outcast, the deep hurt of feeling utterly unloved and unlovable will drive addiction to dark places we never knew existed. If we are going to heal our those addicted in our communities we must be willing to venture into those dark places and lead them out.

We are constantly learning more about what it means to be a person dependent on opiates every day. In spite of the progress we are making, not everyone who needs treatment can access it when they need it or are motivated to seek it. We’ll address barriers to treatment in our next post. 

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