Help for Heroin Addiction

A couple comments for regular readers…  first, watch for an upcoming change to a new name.  For years I’ve debated whether to adopt a name centered on ‘buprenorphine’, rather than the more-recognizable ‘Suboxone’.  I believe that time has come.   Second, I’m going to ‘reset’ with some introductory comments about the proper approach to treating heroin addiction, intended for those who are seeking help – starting with this post.
I’m addicted to heroin.  Which treatment should I use?

I’ve treated heroin addiction in a range of settings, including abstinence-based programs and medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone. My education prepared me for this type of work, and my personal background created empathy for people engaged in the struggle to leave opioids behind.

The first barrier to success is on you. Are you ready to leave opioids behind? How ready? Are you so ready that you will be able to end relationships with people who use? Are you ready to stop other substances, especially cocaine and benzodiazepines? You will find help during treatment and you don’t have to take these steps entirely on your own. But you must at least have the desire to get there.

If you’re ready, the next step is deciding the treatment that is likely to help you. Many people see abstinence-based treatment as a ‘gold standard’ – the ultimate way to escape opioids. Unfortunately, that belief has fueled many deaths over the past ten years, as desperate people paid large sums of money for themselves or loved ones expecting programs to alter personality over the course of three months. It doesn’t work that way for most people!
During several years working in abstinence-based programs, I helped fix people who were broken by addiction. After a couple months, people left treatment with healthier bodies, cleaner complexions, and better hair. But over 90% of those people returned to opioid use, some within a few days. Some of them died because of their new lack of tolerance to opioids. In each case, counselors said the same thing: ‘he/she didn’t really want it’. But I remembered that they DID ‘want it’ when they were in treatment. In fact, some were considered star patients! At some point we must hold treatments responsible if they fail over 90% of the time.

My perspective changed. Now I wonder, why does anyone expects those treatments to work? A person is removed from a life of scrambling and drug connections and poverty, placed in a box and shined up for a few months, then put right back in the same using world and expected to act differently?
I eventually learned about medications that treat opioid addiction. I realized that opioid addiction truly is a medical illness that should be treated like any medical illness. Think about it – we treat high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes over time. We don’t cure any of them. In fact, the only illnesses that we can cure are infectious diseases, and even that accomplishment is fading as organisms develop resistance to current medications. Given that we can’t really cure anything, why do we expect anyone to cure addiction – in 12 weeks?!

Medication-based treatments for addiction represent a transition to normalcy. Doctors and nurses were removed from treating addictive disorders decades ago because of historical events that I’ll eventually write about. Clearly, it’s time for health professionals to take a role in treating addiction. In the next article I’ll discuss the medications currently available, and the reasons that one might work better than another for certain individuals.

In the meantime please check out my youtube videos under the name ‘Suboxdoc’, where I discuss the use of medications, primarily buprenorphine, for treating addiction to heroin and other opioids.

DA Asks Why Still On Suboxone?

First Posted 10/13/2013
A person in my practice was stable on Suboxone/buprenorphine for several years, until he developed a painful injury.   During the time the injury was treated, the person experienced significant pain.  I worked with his surgeon to provide adequate pain relief, which for patients on buprenorphine or Suboxone  consists of a high dose of an opioid agonist, to ‘out-compete’ the buprenorphine.
As an aside, an NIH consensus paper from a couple years ago described the proper approach to patients on buprenorphine who require surgery or analgesia after injury.  Their top recommendation?  Have the person ‘hold’ their buprenorphine for a couple weeks before surgery.  That idea sounds reasonable for a moment or two, but anyone with any experience treating opioid dependence knows that whoever came up with the idea has very little experience working with addicts.  Just ‘hold’ the buprenorphine for two weeks?  Gee… OK…..  do you have any HEROIN I can take in the meantime?!  A little oxycodone maybe?  ‘Cause otherwise, the ‘holding’ isn’t going to work so good….
Every now and then I’ll read a recommendation or comment from someone high in addiction-society circles that shows that what it takes to get high in those circles is something other than a good working relationship with people who have suffered with addiction.
Following the tangent a bit further…. I find that reducing the dose of buprenorphine is a better idea;  people find that they can reduce it to 4-8 mg per day without experiencing withdrawal, and in my experience that is enough to allow 15 mg of oxycodone access to the mu receptor.  The other advantage over ‘just holding’ the buprenorphine is that when the agonist is eventually discontinued, the full dose of buprenorphine can be resumed without going through a period of abstinence, yet without precipitating withdrawal.
Back to the story—- the person continued to complain of severe pain, despite using the 3-day supply of oxycodone that I prescribed, all on the first day.  I had him stop by the office, and given his pinpoint pupils, slurred speech, and slowed respiration, I couldn’t provide more agonist without putting his life at risk.
It is always hard to judge the pain tolerance of someone else.  He said that the pain was unbearable;  I suppose it is obnoxious for a doctor to tell a person in that situation ‘your pain isn’t all that bad.’  I don’t think I said those words, but I think that many people who have gone public with histories of opioid dependence feel that medical professionals never take their pain complaints seriously— that they are forever condemned to suffer through more pain than people who’ve never lost control of opioids.  I think that the patient had that attitude, which didn’t help the situation, even though I tried to explain that I wouldn’t give more agonist no matter WHAT his prior history;  he was simply too narcotized.  In retrospect, what should have happened was that his surgeon should have admitted him to an ICU or SICU, for PCA while on oxygen and on pulse oximetry.  But for whatever reason, that did not happen.
Instead, he found his own supply of opioid agonist.  A bit later, he was found unresponsive and not breathing by a friend, who luckily knew how to do CPR.  (the actual story is that his friend was outside his room, and heard a thud as a head hit the floor).  He woke in the ambulance with an intact noggin, thank heavens.  But the police swung by his room to drop off their best wishes, along with a summons to appear for felony drug charges.
Enter me.  The DA had a concern about the case and wanted me to ‘clarify’ something.  The issue– why, after several years, is this guy STILL on buprenorphine?  Why hasn’t he been ‘tapered off’?  Why hasn’t he been definitively treated, rather than just ‘maintained’?
So I spent the day writing an explanation to the DA that I’m hoping they will find helpful.  It occurred to me that since I’ve been asked this very question before, there are likely other people who have wasted a day writing similar explanations, so I figured I’d just put it here—- so that if YOU are ever in the same shoes, you can either print it out, or refer people to my site– whichever works for you.  I tried to block of specifics– like names, etc– but if you find one, please send me an email and let me know so I can take it off.
My Letter:
To Whom It May Concern:
I was asked to describe the medical and treatment history of XXXX, and to explain why he continues to be prescribed buprenorphine/naloxone (brand name Suboxone).  The decision to continue or discontinue buprenorphine is individualized and complicated.  Sometimes the decision is impacted by non-clinical factors. The decisions, and the science behind the decisions, are complicated, and difficult to explain. I will attempt to explain the basic issues faced during buprenorphine treatment in general, and then describe the specific considerations in XXXX’s case.
Background
Those who work with opioid dependence have known for decades that opioid dependence is a lifelong, potentially-fatal illness that is highly-refractory to treat. In the 1970s, methadone clinics were set up as a response to this recognition.  Methadone clinics are even more prevalent today, providing opioid maintenance for patients over the course of years, and often decades.  Long-term treatment of addiction has come and gone under different names over the years. In the 1990’s, many treatment programs adopted the concept of ‘harm reduction’ after recognizing the low success rates of total sobriety programs.  Harm reduction strategies focused less on the number of consecutive sober days, and more on reducing the most harmful aspects of the patient’s addiction.
There are misconceptions among the general public that people with addictions can be sent to residential treatment and freed from opioid dependence, or that counseling alone can stop active addiction. Sadly, these are misconceptions. I have worked extensively in the field of addiction, including serving as medical director of Nova Treatment Center in Oshkosh for several years. During typical residential treatment, counselors discuss ‘planting a seed’, i.e. treat patients with the knowledge that relapse is inevitable, and that patients will likely return for another round of treatment. Is not uncommon for patients from any residential treatment program to relapse on the day of discharge, or die within 24 hours of discharge with a clean bill of health. Those who work with opioid dependence know that sustained remission from opioid dependence is the exception to the rule. The issue is under-researched, but I would estimate that 5% of entrants to residential treatment programs with opioid dependence remain sober a year after discharge.
In 2000, Congress passed DATA 2000, a law allowing for the use of buprenorphine for treatment of opioid dependence. Buprenorphine has considerable safety advantages over methadone, including a ceiling effect that makes overdose less likely. Buprenorphine treatment programs were initially designed to follow one of two paths, using buprenorphine either for detox or as a chronic maintenance agent. Over the past 10 years, numerous studies have shown relapse rates approaching 100% for patients who are simply detoxified using buprenorphine.  Because of the low rate of meaningful sobriety after detox, buprenorphine is rarely used for detox except as part of a longer (usually residential) treatment program.
Buprenorphine is Different
This topic alone could fill chapters, but I will highlight the salient features.  Buprenorphine was used in microgram doses for the past 30 years to treat pain.  Buprenorphine is a ‘partial agonist’, meaning that after a certain amount is taken, additional doses will cause no greater effect.  The goal of treatment is to keep the patient’s blood level above a critical point—the ‘ceiling effect.’  If the blood level remains above that level, the patient will receive a constant amount of mu-opioid-receptor activation, even as the buprenorphine wears off between doses.  The brain becomes completely tolerant to that activity, and the patient ‘feels’ completely normal.  I prefer the term ‘remission therapy’ over maintenance therapy, because a patient taking proper amounts of buprenorphine feels completely normal, as long as they stay on an amount of buprenorphine that keeps them above that ceiling effect.  Dosing efficiency can vary, so that dose ranges between 4 mg per day and 16 mg per day in most patients.
Patients on buprenorphine feel no desire to take other opioids.  Unlike untreated addicts, they do not experience the frantic search for pain pills or heroin every 4 hours that drives much of the illegal behavior associated with addiction.
Studies examining the long-term use of buprenorphine have found that buprenorphine treatment yields sustained remission from opioid use in about 50% of patients maintained on the medication.  Relapse rates are between 94 and 97% within one year of discontinuing buprenorphine, even in patients who were maintained on buprenorphine for over a year. The clinical data has demonstrated very clearly that when buprenorphine is discontinued, 90% or more of patients relapse at some point, usually within one year.
Doctors require additional certification to prescribe buprenorphine for addiction. Doctors who prescribe buprenorphine must counsel or refer to counseling, patients treated with buprenorphine who need additional help. But studies of the the impact of counseling on relapse rates have shown virtually no impact on relapse in groups who are counseled versus those who are not. I believe counseling is an important part of the picture for patients needing guidance toward education and gainful employment.
Some doctors arbitrarily stop buprenorphine or Suboxone at certain intervals of time, for example after one or two years. There are insurance programs that arbitrarily limit coverage to one year or two years, including some state Medicaid programs. These limits are not based on any evidence that people will do better if they stay on buprenorphine for that length of time. In fact, the opposite is true; people do well while maintained on buprenorphine, but generally relapse within a year after buprenorphine is discontinued.  But there are non-clinical motives to remove patients from buprenorphine which I will describe below.
XXXX’s Case
XXXX struggled early into buprenorphine treatment, which is relatively common in young patients. But during recent years he has done well on buprenorphine, avoiding illicit opioids and other substances. As with any illness, the response of an addict to treatment is rarely perfect. Patients with diabetes have flare-ups caused by alterations in diet that they know they should avoid. People with heart disease who are instructed to exercise often fail to follow that advice, and have a second or third heart attack.  Patients with mood disorders will stop their medications, or stop doing the things that they have been told to do to reduce the risk another mood episode.
For patients maintained on Suboxone, painful illnesses or injuries are particularly challenging. When XXXX had ( ), I coordinated care with his urologist. XXXX had a large stone that clearly warranted opioids to manage the pain according to his urologist.  I took over XXXX’s pain management and prescribed oxycodone, the standard practice in such situations.  XXXX complained that the pain was unbearable, but his respiratory rate was depressed by the pain medications to the point that I could not safely prescribe greater amounts of opioids, particularly to someone outside of the hospital.
The active drug in Suboxone, buprenorphine, has both activates and blocks opioid receptors.  When treating pain in patients on buprenorphine, the dosage of buprenorphine is often decreased, to allow other narcotics greater access to receptors in the brain.  At some point, XXXX obtained fentanyl, a very potent pain medication.  The pain that he was experiencing, combined with the reduction in buprenorphine made to allow for greater pain relief, resulted in a situation that he was unable to avoid taking the fentanyl.  I realize that it is difficult for people with addiction to accept the idea that he was ‘unable’ to do the right thing, but addiction is a major problem exactly because of that fact; that some people are unable to avoid taking certain substances in spite of knowing that the substances are causing significant harm to their lives.
I do not believe that XXXX had any interest in getting ‘high’, or feeling a ‘buzz’ from fentanyl.  XXXX believed that he could not tolerate the pain he was experiencing without taking additional narcotic, and the fentanyl was all that was available for him to use.  I also believe that like many people treated for opioid dependence, XXXX believed that he was deliberately under-treated for pain because of his history of addiction—making it all the more difficult for him to tolerate the pain.  XXXX realizes that he was lucky to survive the incident, and he has done well since the ( ), back on his regular dose of buprenorphine.
Should buprenorphine/Suboxone be discontinued?
Going forward XXXX and I will discuss when and whether he should discontinue buprenorphine, as I do with all of my buprenorphine patients. There are multiple factors to take into account before making such a decision, including patient age, stability of patient’s relationships, presence or absence of physical pain, nature of patient’s occupation, intensity of cravings and time since active use, relationships with work colleagues who are actively using, whether any other members of the patient’s household use pain medication, presence or absence of children, sleep and work schedule, etc.  As of now, XXXX is NOT in the position to discontinue buprenorphine.  I do NOT foresee him being an appropriate candidate for discontinuation of buprenorphine in the near future.
My decisions about the continuation/discontinuation of buprenorphine/Suboxone have been shaped over years by discussions with other physicians, and by experiences while treating opioid dependence with buprenorphine.    I have a number of patients who have been treated with Suboxone for many years, as do many other physicians who treat addiction.  Over the years I have had at least six patients who I am aware of, who insisted on their own, or through encouragement from friends, relatives, or doctors, to discontinue Suboxone against my advice.  I read obituaries for each of those patients over the next few years.  Not all patients who chose to stop buprenorphine ended up dying from overdose, but the frequency was high enough that I noticed six cases in the local newspaper over a period of seven years.
As stated earlier, there are factors that encourage discontinuation of Suboxone that are not necessarily in patients’ best interests. The DEA enforces limits on buprenorphine-certified physicians to treat no more than 100 addiction patients at one time. The limit creates financial incentives for doctors to discharge patients after some period of time, since unstable patients are seen more often than stable patients. And the financial incentives for state Medicaid and health insurance companies to place arbitrary limits on buprenorphine treatment are obvious.
With my background and training, I am convinced that I understand opioid dependence about as well as any physician. Opioid dependence is a chronic, relapsing, potentially fatal disorder. I counsel most of my patients on buprenorphine to take the medication appropriately and to get on with their lives, growing in areas that were blunted by their active addictions.  I do not place arbitrary time limits on treatment. I note that opioid dependence is much like every chronic illness, as doctors treat far more illnesses than we cure. We don’t ask how long our patients will take blood pressure medication. We don’t ask how long our patients should take cholesterol-lowering medication. We don’t ask how long those with diabetes should stay on insulin. Only with addiction do we entertain the thought that patients should expect only a limited period of treatment. I have been happy to see those attitudes change over time, as more and more doctors see buprenorphine/Suboxone as long-term treatment.
In regard to XXXX ’s specific case, he was doing well, fully complying with treatment.  He developed ( ), and I consider what followed to be a complication of illness. I understand that a crime was committed. But I believe that after several weeks of severe pain, combined with the lower dose of medication used to treat his addiction, XXXX reached a point of desperation where he was not capable of making the right decision. He has done well since that incident. I believe in holding people accountable, but in XXXX’s case, I do not believe it in anyone’s interest to make a hard-working individual unemployable. I know that XXXX has worked very hard to improve himself over the years, and I believe that he will continue to do the same going forward.

Addicted to Suboxone

First Published 7/23/2013
I hear from the anti-buprenorphine people now and then, less than I used to.  I also hear from fans of this blog’s early days, when I routinely lost my temper in response to those people.  Their general line was that things on heroin weren’t all that bad, but now, on buprenorphine, things are miserable.  Starting buprenorphine somehow removed an opportunity to be clean that they used to have, that they would have used if not for buprenorphine.
They somehow miss the obvious—that they could ALWAYS go back to the heroin addiction that worked so well for them.  They’ll say they could stop heroin any time they wanted (you know the joke—‘It is so easy to quit that I quit a hundred times!’), but act as if someone is forcing them to take buprenorphine.
If it is so easy to stop heroin, why not go back to heroin and stop?
For the record, I don’t advise people on buprenorphine to change to heroin.  It is difficult to wean off any opioid, including buprenorphine.  But I do have patients who have tapered off buprenorphine; something I’ve never witnessed with agonists like oxycodone or heroin (i.e. tapering outside of a controlled environment).    Most people who read my blog know that I don’t recommend tapering off buprenorphine for most people, an opinion I’ve come to after seeing many people relapse, and some people die, after stopping buprenorphine.
I received a typical anti-bupe message yesterday; the message and my response are below.  There are a few typos that I can’t decipher….
Errors of logic, anyone?
Subutex was the worst mistake I ever made. I was an off and on heroin user for 5 years. I was clean for over a year and relapsed that when I survived Subutex first I was getting it off the streets then my wife ego had the insurance got a script. She was pregnant so the doctor prescribed Subutex. She told her that her brain would never be the same from her opiate use and would need Subutex most likely for the rest of her life. We both were quickly using it IV IT killed our sex life. It made me feel like a woman or something I have no libido at all. I quit using it IV for 9 months then started again which caused me to have a full blown relapse I’m in 12 step recovery. I lost our home shortly after our new born son was born forcing her to move in with her parents and I moved into an sober living house. We are now both trying to taper off this drug that it’s overly prescribed. The doctor put her on 26mg a day mind you we shared but the doctor doesn’t know that. I do believe in short term low dose setting this drug has a therapeutic value. But I believe it’s been designed to get money lost to drug dealers into the pockets of our government. I kicked Heroin and Oxycontin more then once. Getting off Subutex has been the toughest one yet the physical and mental withdraws are horrible. The best bet for addiction treatment is 12 step meetings. All Subutex or Suboxone does is give you a crutch and prolongs actual recovery from the disease of addiction. They don’t tell you about all the terrible side effects behind this medication its marketed as a miracle drug. A wise man once said if it sounds too good to be true then it’s probably not. Rant done hopefully this helps someone. The answer to recovery is the 12 and staying sober 1 day at a time, most important a relationship with a higher power.
My Response:
An interesting comment… You’ve taken heroin for over five years as an ‘off and on user’.  You then illegally obtained buprenorphine, and injected it (!)… illegally shared what a physician prescribed for your wife… but it’s all buprenorphine’s fault that you are experiencing problems?  Part of the 12 steps that you favor includes taking responsibility for what happens in one’s life, yet I don’t hear a lot of that in your narrative.
I don’t know about ‘miracle drug’, although it probably has saved the lives of both you and your wife, since IV heroin addicts don’t tend to do well beyond 5 years.  There is nothing in your history to suggest that your ‘on and off use of heroin’ would have somehow come to an end, had you not changed your drug of choice to buprenorphine.  But one aspect of buprenorphine is the ‘ceiling effect’, which makes overdose much less likely.
Likewise, I don’t see a government conspiracy, and I disagree with your comment about ‘low dose use’.  Buprenorphine HAS been used in low dosage for treating pain for the past 30 years, but everything about buprenorphine that makes it a good addiction treatment relies on the person taking a dose that assures a high blood level, i.e. above the ceiling level for the drug’s effects.  In low doses, buprenorphine acts like any other agonist– i.e. causes the same up/down mood, cravings, and obsessive use pattern.
Your problem is that you became addicted to opioids, and your opioid addiction has cost you a great deal.  You misused buprenorphine by injecting it, but luckily for you the drug has certain safety features that helped keep you from overdosing– something heroin doesn’t have.    But now you blame buprenorphine for all your problems.
I certainly do not suggest that you do this, but for the sake of making a point—-  you could easily go right back to where you were, before you met buprenorphine, if you returned to your addiction to IV heroin.    If you started heroin tomorrow, the buprenorphine would be out of your system in a week or so, and… voila….. you would be ‘cured’ from this horrible affliction that you claim to have, i.e. an addiction to buprenorphine.  Or are you going to suggest that taking sublingual buprenorphine was somehow WORSE for you than doing what you were doing before finding a doctor, when you were injecting foul solutions of heroin into your veins?!  You were FINE with the heroin, but BUPRENORPHINE has ruined your life?
Sorry– I don’t buy it.  Most people who stop ANY opioid– buprenorphine, oxycodone, or heroin— end up using again.  Buprenorphine, as a partial agonist, relieves cravings in a way that opioid agonists can’t.  And taking buprenorphine certainly doesn’t make anything ‘worse’;  a person addicted to heroin, who doesn’t like taking buprenorphine, can always go back to heroin!  I don’t recommend it, as the overdose risk is very high with heroin, and people on heroin suffer from constant obsessions to take more and more– a life far worse than the person properly taking buprenorphine.
This is where I come in… THESE are the patients I see on a regular basis.  The doctors who used to call them ‘good patients’ now call the same people ‘drug addicts.’  And the pain doctors—the ones who create so many addicts—give lectures on ‘how to prescribe opioids.’   I can spare you the need to attend the lecture— the main message is that after you make the patient an addict, you must do everything that you can to separate yourself from the patient before the consequences of that addiction become apparent—so that your hands appear sparkly-clean!

Withdrawal from Suboxone or Buprenorphine

I received a question from a reader about withdrawal symptoms from stopping buprenorphine. My answer has relevance to opioid withdrawal in general, and to a common misconception about the duration of withdrawal symptoms.
The message:
Basically I quit Suboxone about 18 days ago. When I decided to quit I was taking about 8 to 12mgs per day. I got into taking Suboxone from trying to quit a Percocet habit that developed after a car wreck. I was stuck on Suboxone for near 3 years before I finally realized the person I thought I was really wasn’t the person I expected myself to become. So I decided I had enough and quitting Suboxone should be easier than quitting Percocet. I still laugh over that because I should have educated myself better before I landed myself where I am now. I am starting to feel marginally better but I have zero energy and my depression is off the charts. . . My question is because Suboxone has such a strong half-life being a partial instead of full agonist, how many more days weeks months do I have to suffer through before I can expect to return to normal? I am terrified of relapsing and have set a zero tolerance for myself. Hopefully I am strong enough and smart enough to stay away but is there anything extra I can do to help ease anxiety and the depression? Honestly I feel like I live in a personal hell no one gets or understands. I was just hoping u could give me some advice. Thanks for reading my message.
My answer:
There are many misconceptions about withdrawal and buprenorphine. Many people make the mistake of thinking that the long half-life of Suboxone lengthens withdrawal. The long half-life of buprenorphine reduces the intensity of withdrawal, but has a very minor effect on the duration of withdrawal symptoms.
Before going there, though, I’ll comment about where you are, and where you came from. I admit to feeling a bit annoyed when people write about being ‘stuck on Suboxone.’ I’m not sure why it bothers me as much as it does; I don’t receive kickbacks from Reckitt Benckiser, and I certainly had no part in inventing Suboxone. If I put words on my annoyance, it would be something about looking a gift horse in the mouth—a saying that nobody seems to say anymore.
Suboxone didn’t cause your problems; YOU caused your problems, or perhaps Percocet did. Suboxone bailed you out; it allowed you to live to fight another day, rather than go down the tubes and end up in prison or dead, from oxycodone addiction. People often write the same thing— about being stuck– on my forum, and I have the same reaction there. It seems to be so unappreciative or irresponsible, to blame the very thing that kept you alive.
For the people who write ‘I should have just stopped oxycodone without taking Suboxone’, I point out that it is clearly easier to stop Suboxone than oxycodone. How do I know? I know because we are having a discussion about tapering Suboxone! Nobody addicted to opioids tapers off oxycodone (everyone tries, but nobody is successful). At least SOME people CAN taper off Suboxone. Don’t believe me? Think it would have been easier to taper off oxycodone? Then you can just change to oxycodone and get on with the taper! NOTE—I do NOT recommend doing so; oxycodone is MUCH more addictive than buprenorphine, and much more likely to kill you!
The other reason the attitude bothers me is because after treating people addicted to opioids for the past 7 years, I’ve watched so many people from utter despair to stabilized on Suboxone, and then become convinced that they aren’t ‘clean enough’ on Suboxone. I’ve watched them taper off, and I’ve seen their obituaries a few years later, or received desperate emails describing the loss of a 70 K per year job because of a recent felony conviction. Meanwhile I have a number of patients who are content to treat their addiction for years, as their lives get far better than they ever dreamed.
For those still reading, I’ll explain why half-life is not a big contributor to the duration of withdrawal. If we took any person on any opiate, then suddenly and completely removed the opiate from the body, the brain pathways that are stimulated by opiates (the endorphin pathways) would suddenly become quiet. As those pathways stop firing, the person feels horrible. After all, the pathways help keep everyday-sensations from being painful and help elevate mood, so the opposite happens when they stop.
As the person used higher and higher doses of opioids over time, tolerance developed at the receptor level. In essence, the receptor for opioids became less sensitive to ALL opioids. Receptors that are not sensitive to oxycodone, are also not sensitive to hydrocodone, and not sensitive to the brain’s own opioids—endorphins. In a withdrawing person, there is little or no activity in opioid pathways because the receptors, where endorphins usually act, are no longer responding to endorphins.
In order for withdrawal to end, the body must make NEW receptors, and implant the receptors in the cell membrane. That takes weeks to occur. The process is initiated by withdrawal itself. When the neurons in endorphin pathways are not firing at their normal rate, the neurons respond to that lack of firing by turning on the machinery involved in making new receptors. In other words, the pain of withdrawal MUST occur, if receptor renewal is to be triggered.
The duration of withdrawal is a function of how long the body takes to make new receptors– NOT the amount of time to clear the body of the substance. Some people mistakenly think that withdrawal ends when the drug is gone– and that it is ‘stuck in the bones’ or things like that. All of that makes interesting reading, but it is not what is going on. It takes 8-12 weeks for the body to make new receptors, so that is how long opiate withdrawal usually lasts.
Suboxone DOES have a long half-life. That long half-life causes the initial withdrawal to be less severe because instead of turning off instantly, the opioid pathways become less and less active over days. So instead of the sudden onset of severe symptoms, the misery takes several days to peak. This may result in the entire process lasting an extra day or two, but that extra time is not relevant compared to the weeks that it takes to generate new receptors.
I imagine that people get different impressions of withdrawal because of the different patterns of misery from different opioids. When I came off fentanyl, I was very, very sick for the first few days. I could not walk, literally, and my systolic blood pressure never got above 90. A week later, I could walk, and so things seemed a lot better. But I still got winded after 20 feet, and I couldn’t eat for many weeks. I lost 30 pounds in the process, and I was skinny to start! Buprenorphine withdrawal starts more slowly, but then ramps up higher after a few days, and then slowly goes down. I see people come off all sorts of opioids; the pattern of misery varies, but the total misery is about the same in each case.
Specific to the writer, one should anticipate 2-3 months of fatigue and loss of appetite after stopping buprenorphine, similar to other opioids. The first few days are a bit less severe with buprenorphine than with, say, oxycodone, because the drug is leaving the body more gradually.
A final comment—I worry whenever I read that a person’s strategy for staying sober involves being ‘smart’ or ‘strong’. The only way I know to stop opioids is by coming to the full realization of one’s powerlessness over them, as in the first step of AA/NA. Being too strong or smart only gets in the way of that realization. In my opinion fear is the best approach, as in ‘if I try, even once, I will die— and it will ALWAYS be that way.’
I wish you well,
J

A Save with Suboxone?

I’d like to share a recent email exchange with a reader. The post is long, but there are several interesting aspects to the discussion. I’ve removed the conversational parts, as well as the identifying information.
The initial message:
I was an intravenous heroin user for three years. After treatment I was able to stay clean for 6 months… Well apparently to most people I was not clean because I was on Suboxone, but to me I was clean. People are so very discouraging when you tell them you’re clean and they find out you are on Suboxone. It hurts because of how much hard work you put in. I did well for six months, but then I relapsed and used for 5 days. After a short binge I again stopped, continued Suboxone and used once more for one day alone.
All of these relapses were with my girlfriend, and she used one extra time while I was working. She overdosed all three times she used. Her mother found her the second time in her room almost lifeless, and I was with her the other two times. I acted very quickly, giving her CPR immediately and calling 911 without the least bit of hesitation, as did her mother.
My girlfriend) is not on Suboxone, but I stayed on every day other than the times we used. I am pretty educated about opiates in general and I understand that she overdosed because of her lack of tolerance. I have read something you said before: A person on Suboxone maintenance has the tolerance of someone who takes 100mg of oxycodone a day. I need to know, for the sake of her life, my life or someone else’s life, if ever in a dire, life threatening situation and for some crazy reason 911 isn’t an option, could you melt down a Suboxone strip and inject the overdosed person and use it like Narcan if you absolutely had to? Or do you think I’m nuts for even asking?
One more topic… I obsess over heroin every day. It’s so bad that I sit with a calculator and tell myself, “alright, if I stay clean for these next two years and I finish my degree and start my career making this much salary then I can spend this much a day on heroin and it will total x amount of dollars a year and subtracted from my salary I will still have more than enough to survive.” How sick is that? It’s disgusting. It’s an absolute obsession of the mind. I seriously convince myself that with the right amount of steady income I could actually be a functioning addict.
Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it so much.
My Reply:
Your email shows the incredible danger associated with use of intravenous opioids. I remember how impressed I was, when I was a resident in anesthesiology, over how the human body is SO strong and restorative, that we can survive and recover from horrible injuries… yet how fragile we are, that a lack of oxygen for only several minutes can cause death. Injecting opioids is a very effective, targeted way to kill a person. Doctors and nurses do not inject narcotics unless the patient is being monitored, usually using a ‘pulse oximeter’ to monitor the level of oxygen in the blood. Yet people with far less training are injecting the same drugs, not only without monitoring, but even in the absence of a non-impaired observer. It is no wonder that there are so many deaths from opioid dependence.
You probably know how I feel about being ‘clean’; people on buprenorphine are clean enough, in my opinion, to be considered sober. People on buprenorphine become fully tolerant to the effects at the mu receptor; there might be very minor effects at the kappa receptor, that may or may not have very minor cognitive effects…. but people take chronic medications for MANY illnesses, and some degree of sedation occurs with most of them, including medications for high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and seizure disorders. Should we consider all of THOSE people to be ‘not really clean’ too?
The question about using Suboxone to reverse overdose is very interesting– and shows that you have a good understanding of what is going on with medications like buprenorphine (in Suboxone).
One of my patients has described how he saved his girlfriend’s life by injecting Suboxone. He says that she was unresponsive and barely breathing, and out of desperation he put an 8 mg tablet of Suboxone in her mouth. When she didn’t respond after a minute or two, he quickly dissolved a tablet of Suboxone and injected it into her arm. He claims that she woke up 30 seconds later.
I’m glad his girlfriend survived, but I do NOT recommend that anyone rely on this approach to save a life. The most appropriate action, of course, is to do whatever one can to find appropriate treatment, and stop accepting the huge risks associated with IV injection of opioids. If a person has overdosed, call 911 immediately. The brain starts to die in about 3 minutes. Some parts of the country have instituted programs that provide naloxone injection kits for people addicted to opioids; injecting a pure antagonist like naloxone (Narcan) is much safer than injecting the partial agonist, buprenorphine.
The outcome after injecting Suboxone depends on a number of factors, including the person’s tolerance level and the presence or absence of other respiratory depressants. If a person has only used opioids– no benzodiazepines or barbiturates or alcohol— then in theory, injecting Suboxone would rescue the person from overdose. Both parts of the medication would contribute to reversing the effects of opioids; the naloxone (to a small extent) and the buprenorphine, which would have most of the effect. The ceiling effect of buprenorphine should prevent respiratory arrest in any person, as long as no other respiratory depressants are around.
But– one CANNOT expect the ceiling effect’s protection in the presence of other respiratory depressants. If other depressants are present, opioid tolerance becomes a big issue. I’ll describe two cases to demonstrate:
– Let’s take the low-tolerance scenario, with a person who has never used opioids or benzodiazepines, who ‘sniffs’ 40 mg of oxycodone and 10 mg of alprazolam. The risk of overdose would be high in that situation. And if, during overdose, someone injected Suboxone, the opioid effects of buprenorphine would be as great, or greater, than the opioid effects of oxycodone— so the person’s condition would likely worsen. (Note that I’m ignoring the effects of naloxone. Naloxone’s clinical effect last only about 20 minutes. That effect might help the person in this scenario, but it is hard to predict whether the naloxone would out-compete the buprenorphine that is also being injected. People who have injected Suboxone in the past tell me that they found are no difference between injecting Suboxone vs. injecting plain buprenorphine. That wouldn’t surprise me, given the high-affinity binding properties of buprenorphine.
– For the high-tolerance case, let’s take someone who is using 150 mg of oxycodone per day, but on this occasion took an amount of heroin equal to 300 mg of oxycodone. Let’s assume that there are no other depressants on board. In this case, injecting buprenorphine would be expected, theoretically, to block the effects of heroin, and not only wake the person, but precipitate withdrawal. Even if other respiratory depressants are on board, the buprenorphine would likely save the person from overdose, because the opioid effects of buprenorphine are significantly BELOW the person’s tolerance level, and below the effects of the heroin that is causing overdose.
Essentially, the high-affinity binding of buprenorphine displaces other opioids, causing an opioid effect equivalent to 60-100 mg of oxycodone. If the person’s tolerance is higher than that, the result will be precipitated withdrawal. If tolerance is lower, the result will be greater opioid intoxication.
I will stress, again, that the thing to do in case of overdose is to call 911. An even better thing to do would be to get help for anyone you know who is injecting heroin, and get help NOW—as the risks of IV drug use are very high, and nobody believes that he/she will be the next person to die. If you are in a situation where someone else is overdosing, and you inject that person with Suboxone or any other substance other than Narcan, you will likely be prosecuted, and convicted, for manslaughter.
The obsession described in your message is typical, and is the hallmark of opioid dependence. In my opinion, we (psychiatrists) should see ‘obsession’ as the primary defect in cases of addiction, as obsession is what destroys personality, undermines self-esteem, and crowds out other interests and interpersonal relationships. As I’ve written before, buprenorphine’s unique properties allow it to reduce or eliminate the obsession for opioids. Buprenorphine, I believe, is an effective, targeted way to treat opioid dependence.
His message back:
Being a psychiatrist, what are your thoughts on that obsessive thinking? I hate meetings and the 12-step programs. I lived in a half-way house for a month and a half that required 3 meetings per day. I agree with you that they create a fabricated sense of happiness and self-worth. Do you recommend staying on Suboxone for an extended period, especially during a time where i am still having these thoughts? And because of the way I feel toward meetings should I seek a psychiatrist and try to explain my thought process in order to try and change it? What would you recommend to someone in my situation who obsesses to that degree, and hypothetically plans his future around heroin?
Me Again:
I have seen SO many people who stopped Suboxone, then relapsed years later and lost a great deal. I’ve seen obituaries of former patients who used to be on Suboxone. If a person can take the medication without too much hassle— i.e. has a doctor who allows ‘remission treatment’ without making the person feel like a second-class citizen– then long-term Suboxone provides for the best chance of doing well in life, in my opinion.
Other than buprenorphine, the best ‘treatment’ for the obsession, in my opinion, is fear. Step programs tap into that fear, by emphasizing powerlessness— the realization that using even one time will definitely, without a doubt, lead to your destruction. Every thought about using should be confronted with that reality— that if you use, you will die. Relapse often starts with the idea that maybe the person can get away with it, maybe just once… so to stay sober, the person must KNOW that there is no way to try it, even once. That is a bummer, but not the end of the world! Humans love to feel powerful, but attendance at meetings helps reinforce the reality, and the value, of powerlessness. I’ve written about my own experiences back in 1993, when the realization of my powerlessness caused my desire to use to suddenly disappear. If only I could have remembered that powerlessness, even as my life got better!
I do not think that psychotherapy is all that helpful for obsessions. In fact, I think that psychotherapy can be dangerous, if it leads to the thought that you have everything figured out— a thought that the addicted personality loves to run with!
The challenge when treating with buprenorphine is to instill and reinforce the knowledge of powerlessness, even while treating the obsession for opioids with a highly-effective medication. The thought process becomes a little more complicated, but not impossible to grasp.

Kratom, Recovery, Elections

I received a question about Kratom, and searched for a earlier post about that plant/substance.  That post came shortly after Obama’s inauguration, after someone wrote to compare his experience at that event to his experience taking opioids.  Funny how every ‘high’ has its own ‘morning after!’
That Post:
On a message board called ‘opiophile’, a person wrote about being a long-term opiate addict, then taking methadone for a couple of years, then going on Suboxone for a couple of years.  He eventually stopped Suboxone, and had a miserable period of withdrawal… which never, by his recollection, ever totally went away.  He works for the Democratic Party (not secret info– it was in his post) and eventually used opiate agonists again (hydrocodone and oxycodone)… during his time in DC for the Obama inauguration.  He described how wonderful he felt, experiencing the opiate sensations while at the same time ‘being part of history’.
He returned to normal, boring, miserable life… until discovering a source for ‘Kratom’.  Kratom is a plant imported from Thailand that has opiate and other effects;  like many other ‘exotics’ it has not yet been scheduled as illegal by the DEA.  My understanding is that it is hard to find in pure form, and is expensive… there is also the risk of ingesting something (maybe toxic) that was substituted for what you think you are using.
In his post, the person asked if he is ‘clean’– whatever that means.  I don’t mean to be difficult here– I just mean that being ‘clean’ is different to different people.  Some people consider themselves ‘clean’ as long as they avoid their ‘drug of choice’…. the use of marijuana not a concern as long as they are depriving themselves of the Oxycontin that they REALLY want!  I don’t agree with that definition, but I can see the point of at least avoiding the things that are the most likely to cause problems.
He also asked if he was running the risk of returning to the same problems that have been a part of his life for many years.  I think the answer to that question is obvious to everyone reading this blog!  As for my other thoughts, I copied them below.
My Reply:
Kratom contains chemicals that includes mu receptor agonists– the chemicals do not show up (yet) in drug screens, but taking them is no different from activating mu receptors with anything else, legal or illegal. And the fact that Kratom is a plant should not make you think it is somehow ‘different’; if the chemicals in Kratom prove safe enough, they will eventually be extracted, identified, manufactured, and marketed in pill form– and will likely be DEA scheduled at that point.
Please read my article on the relationship between Suboxone and traditional recovery. I am aware of the anger some people have toward buprenorphine, but I think your case is the best argument for Suboxone that one can make.
You have had this endless malaise off opiates, and you seem to blame Suboxone (or if you don’t, I know that many people do– they use opiates for years, then go on Suboxone, then when they stop Suboxone they blame it for endless withdrawal symptoms). But the brain doesn’t work like that; tolerance occurs from agonist or partial agonist stimulation of a receptor, and the tolerance is reversible– at least on the ‘neuronal’ level. There is no reason that one drug, say buprenorphine, would cause a more ‘permanent’ state of tolerance than another drug.
I HAVE seen people with an almost permanent state of opiate withdrawal; I have not seen this so much in relation to specific drugs, as to their degree of ‘addiction’. Listening to your experience with opiates, one thing is clear– opiates are a huge part of your life. Even watching your dream candidate be inaugurated is not ‘enough’ of a kick in life; you wanted more. In fact, by your description, I don’t know which would have been a bigger bummer– seeing someone else getting into the Presidency or being deprived of that ‘buzz’! I’m not taking ‘pot shots’ here–I’m trying to add some insight, and I hope you take it as intended. The ‘person’ that you have become… PERHAPS that person just cannot exist without some level of mu receptor activation. Perhaps that whole ‘psyche’ requires the pleasant warm fogginess of an opiate– and without that, the psyche is miserable. If that is the case, of course you will be miserable off opiates— whether the missing opiates are heroin, methadone, Kratom, or Suboxone. The problem is that at least with the first three of these agents, there is no way to take them without ever-increasing tolerance, which eventually leads to cravings, compulsive use, and greater misery.
We know without a doubt that SOME addicts do recover, most often by using a 12 step program. How do THEY do it? I see the answer as consistent with the idea of a ‘psyche’ that needs opiates vs one that doesn’t need opiates. People who ‘get’ the 12 step programs can live without opiates because they have become completely different people. Treating addiction, we know that a person who simply sees the treatment as ‘education’ is not going to do well; people really need to change who they ARE– completely!
To put it into math form: Person ‘A’ plus opiates = an intact person; Person ‘A’ minus opiates = a miserable person; Person ‘A’ + NA = Person ‘B’ = an intact person. Maybe this last bit was a bit over the top… but hopefully you see my point.
I realize that some people will just never ‘get’ NA or AA; the question is, can those people ever be happy without exogenous opiates? I should add that there are other recovery programs out there that do, or intend to do, something like AA and NA, without the religious dimension– I am including them in the same way as AA and NA, although I don’t know as much about them. But knowing what I know about addiction and recovery, I doubt ANY program will make an addict ‘intact’ through education alone; in all cases I would expect the need for that person to change in a significant way.
In my opinion, the answer to the question is ‘no’– that a using addict, minus the object of use, without personality change, will always be miserable. Enter Suboxone… or more accurately, buprenorphine… and there now is a fourth option besides ‘sober recovery’, using (and misery), and ‘dry misery’. Buprenorphine provides a way to occupy mu receptors at a static level of tolerance, therefore preventing the misery that comes with chronic active addiction. And it allows a person to feel ‘intact’ without the need to change to a different person.
Buprenorphine fits well with the ‘disease model’ of addiction; the idea that an addict needs chronic medical treatment, and that if the treatment ceases, the addiction becomes uncontrolled, resulting in either active use or in your case, miserable ‘sobriety’. As for those who are ‘purists’– who think that every addict needs to get off everything and live by the 12 steps– I am glad that works for you, and others likely will envy you. But note that many, if not MOST, opiate addicts in recovery will relapse at some point in life– maybe multiple times. Recovery programs are not ‘permanent’; they need ongoing attention and activity, or they tend to wear off. There is no ‘cure’ for addiction; we ‘maintain’ addicts either through recovery programs, or now, through medication.
One last comment– I do know a person who was stable on Kratom for several years until suddenly going into status epilepticus with grand mal seizures over breakfast one day, in front of his wife and children. An extended work-up showed damage to multiple organ systems that seem to now be getting better after a couple of years. The studies never determined whether the organ damage came from the Kratom itself, or from some additive or pesticide used in Thailand. Use foreign substances at your own (substantial) risk!
JJ
Suboxone Talk Zone (dot com)

Clean Enough

In regard to my last post
There are many directions that we could take as we review that message.  My overall impression, as I read the letter, was of a person struggling to accept the reality of his condition.  Over and over, the person repeated the same behavior, starting Suboxone, stopping, and thinking this time will be different.
One thing I’ve learned as a psychiatrist, more than anything, is that change is difficult, and rare.  The writer ends with the thought that maybe this time will REALLY be different.  I have no idea if it will be, and for his sake, I hope it is… but unfortunately, the odds are that history will repeat itself.
Why, then, bother taking Suboxone—if everything just goes back to how it was?  The problem is not that Suboxone ‘doesn’t work’; the problem is in the expectations of some of those who take or prescribe the medication.  The active part of Suboxone—buprenorphine—is not a cure for addiction, but rather is a very useful tool.  Buprenorphine is a chemical that essentially tricks the mu opioid receptor.   Because of the ceiling effect—at higher drug levels, effects at the receptor remain constant as drug concentrations vary—the receptors function as if nothing is ‘coming on’ or ‘wearing off.’  That, in turn, eliminates cravings for the drug, and prevents the ‘reward’ for taking the drug.
Buprenorphine appears to work very well for the writer.  When on buprenorphine, he is able to avoid using opioid agonists.  The problem comes in the expectation that when buprenorphine is stopped, the condition of opioid dependence will somehow be gone, and will stay gone.   That is a completely different matter!
Opioid dependence is a complicated condition that can be viewed from different perspectives; behavioral, neurochemical, social, etc.  Some factors that contribute to ongoing addiction are addressed by buprenorphine, but most are not.  At one point the writer refers to being ‘stabilized on buprenorphine;’ the best way, I think, to view what happens with the medication.
During active addiction, a person finds that unpleasant emotions, thoughts, or feelings can be blunted by taking a substance.  In the long run, the consequences of using a substance become more and more negative, but the active addict cannot see beyond the pressing needs of the moment.  These pressing needs become worse, once addicted, because physical withdrawal – including depression, pain, and dread—are added to the other pressures of life.  Buprenorphine removes the neurochemical pressure to take opioids—i.e. the constant obsession to improve one’s subjective state.
Hopefully, relieving that obsession allows the patient to change the course of his life; to change social networks, to improve occupational standing, to improve self-discovery and personal insight.  If a person insists on stopping buprenorphine, the hope is that there will be enough changes in these other areas, so that the person will somehow be able to avoid responding to the urge to medicate the moment.
I think we are at a point where we need to consider the true nature of addiction.  Many treatment programs and physicians and treatment programs have an idealized image of how things should proceed after starting buprenorphine.  Patients ‘should’ be able to avoid all other substances, and patients ‘should’ be able to taper off buprenorphine at some point.  Through a process known as ‘counseling,’ patients are supposed to develop insight into their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, so their lives follow a different course when the buprenorphine is eventually discontinued.
But what if patients CAN’T taper off buprenorphine?  What if patients eventually relapse, after stopping buprenorphine? What then?  Contradictions are apparent, when one looks for them.  We know that opioid dependence is a chronic, relapsing condition.  We know that relapse is more the rule than the exception.  We know that addiction is a process, not an event—and that ‘cure’ is not an accurate concept. Yet program after program requires people to eventually stop buprenorphine.  Talk about a set-up for failure!
To truly understand addiction and the role of buprenorphine, one must realize that addiction is a conditioned or learned phenomenon.  Parents of teens addicted to opioids will sometimes tell me ‘I just want my daughter back.’  I’ll ask the parent when he last rode a bicycle— and point out that even if the last ride was 20 years ago, he could still ride today.   And even if he hasn’t been to his childhood home for 20 years, he could likely drive straight to his front door.  THAT’S the challenge of ‘curing’ addiction!
Other thoughts…
About the ‘utilitarian’ approach… the way I suggest we view buprenorphine is the best way to consider other psychiatric medications as well, in my opinion.  We don’t think of SSRI’s as ‘curative’ for depression; rather they reduce obsession and worry, contributing to changes that allow recovery from depression.  Anticonvulsants do not ‘cure’ bipolar; rather they reduce the likelihood or severity of symptoms of mania.  Antipsychotics do not ‘cure’ schizophrenia; they prevent or reduce psychotic symptoms.
About anxiety… does the writer REALLY have it more difficult than others?  Maybe– or maybe not.  It really doesn’t matter.  Most patients who I see for opioid dependence believe they were dealt an unfair hand in life, from an emotional perspective.  Most feel that their subjective experiences are more difficult than the experiences of others.  Many say that they are ‘shy,’ or that they experience significant depression most of the time.  Most say that opioids relieved those uncomfortable emotions or sensations very effectively—at first, anyway—and that is why the addiction started.
Whether our load is truly heavier than someone else’s doesn’t matter, since we only experience our own load.  In other words, who would hurt more if his arm was severed, you or me?  It doesn’t matter—it hurts both of us ‘enough!’  At the same time, no amount of personal distress logically warrants taking something that only makes things worse.  If only addiction was logical!
About being able to choose the course of our lives… ‘Choice’ advocates–people who say that addicts choose to use drugs, and that they should simply choose NOT to use—say that addicts are weak in needing to medicate themselves through life.  In reality, there are few discreet ‘choices’ in life.  Our behavior flows seamlessly from one thing to the next.  ‘Choosing’ consists of a million tiny thoughts, sewn together and spread over a wide range of time.  The actual ‘choice’ to use occurs long before a person literally picks up the drug—- in a million subtle decisions and behaviors that the person may or may not have insight into.  Avoiding opioids, without the help of buprenorphine, requires constant awareness and engagement of insight.  Sober recovery is not effortless, and is not possible for everyone— just as some people cannot avoid depression without using SSRIs, and some diabetics cannot control their blood sugars without using exogenous insulin.  There is no shame in having one’s addiction treated!
Comments, as always, are welcome.  And to the writer, thank you for sharing your story, and provoking this discussion.  I can’t say whether it is time to stop Suboxone, or whether you will ever do well off the medication.  But in any case, I encourage you to appreciate life as best you can, and cultivate enough interests so that the buprenorphine issue falls into the background.  That, in my opinion, is the best way to use buprenorphine; to allow people to live life as if they had never become addicted, and to learn to tolerate life on life’s terms, as best they can.  For some people, maybe that’s ‘clean enough.’

Jerk Counselor

Every now and then I hear about a therapist or addiction doc who is doing such a disservice to the practice of addiction medicine as to deserve special mention.  This week’s award goes to a certain counselor at a treatment program in Oshkosh, WI, who I’ll refer to as ‘This Jerk.’
I’ve made no secret, over the years, about my hope for addiction to eventually be treated with the same respect for patients and attention to medical principles as for any other illness.  I certainly try my best to work according to those ideas, and find that doing so really helps when it comes to making treatment-based decisions.  In other words, I’ll ask myself—if this person had diabetes, what would an endocrinologist do?  Or better yet—if I had diabetes, what would I want MY endocrinologist to do?

Some Jerks advocate punishing patients who struggle.
This Jerk Counselor

We all know that certain professions attract certain types of people.  Some of us have been pulled over by the cop who was the kid subject to playground taunts, now all grown up, determined to make life a living Hell for anyone with a loose seat-belt.  When I worked in the state prison system, I worked with guards who belonged in the same category; men and women who loved to carry keys to cages that held real people.  It’s the power trip, I suppose.
This Jerk apparently loves the power trip of ‘treating’ people who are sent back to jail for ‘failing’ his treatment.  He doesn’t have to worry about being a lousy therapist; he has a captive audience, and likes it that way.  One difficult aspect of being a therapist is treating patients who don’t like us for one reason or another, or who don’t kneel every time we enter the room.  But when This Jerk feels disrespected, he picks up the telephone and calls the patient’s PO to report ‘noncompliance with treatment’– then gloats about sending the patient to jail.
Treatment professionals who are in a position of unusual power over a patient must be particularly careful to empathize with their patient’s position.  In medical school, we were placed on gurneys and wheeled around by fellow students, to emphasize the vantage of patients coming to the emergency room.  We were taught to sit at the same or lower eye-level of our patients, as speaking down to people creates an unsettling power differential.
The power to prescribe or withhold buprenorphine (let alone the power to send to prison!) comes with an obligation not to abuse that power.  Withholding buprenorphine causes patients to go into withdrawal—something dreadful to people addicted to opioids.  Worse, withholding buprenorphine places patients at very high risk of relapse—which in turn places them directly in harm’s way from overdose and legal repercussions.
This Jerk, I’ve been told, takes issue with psychiatrists who continue to treat patients on buprenorphine who struggle with sobriety.  He considers it ‘good care’ to withhold buprenorphine from an addict who uses, supposedly to punish the patient into sobriety.
In case This Jerk (or a similar ethically-challenged counselor) is reading, I’ll point out the obvious:  when a doctor pulls the rug from under a patient by withholding medication, that patient might easily join the ranks of other dead addicts.  On the other hand, when I work with a patient who is struggling with sobriety, keeping the person on buprenorphine and working to identify triggers for using, that person almost always ‘gets it,’ eventually.
I’ve been working with people addicted to opioids, using this approach, for so long that the other approach—the punitive, ‘cut ‘em loose for struggling’ approach—seems barbaric.  I don’t understand how people identified as healthcare workers (nothing professional in his behavior!) rationalize the dismissive approach.  I suppose, if This Jerk views addicts as the scum of the Earth, or as people with weak characters, or people who lack ‘will power,’ punishing relapse by withholding treatment feels about right.  But most of us leave that world behind when we commit to helping people suffering from illness.
What’s This Jerk’s excuse?  Is it that he just doesn’t get it?  Or are there other motives at play?  With the current cap on patients on buprenorphine, the most lucrative way to practice is to keep turnover high, rewarding practices that hire therapist-idiots like This Jerk.
Or is it the power trip– that people with difficult addictions are an affront to therapists?  I’ve met therapists with this attitude before, who seem to have a form of codependency with their patients. They take credit for any success by their patients, but think the patients who fail are not worth their time, and should be dumped, expunged, or kicked-out to relapse and die.  I suppose This Jerk would say ‘not my problem!  I did MY job!’
Readers may suspect that this topic irritates me—and they’re right.  Maybe I’ve seen more death, up close, than the typical counselor.  I’ve attended autopsies; I’ve reviewed post-mortem photos from overdose scenes; I’ve pushed IV fluids into people with fatal injuries who presented for emergency surgery.  I have spent hours with the parents of young patients who died from overdose.  I’ve seen the parents’ faces as they struggled with the thought that they could, or should, have done something else—just one more thing to save their child.  Death, to me, is not ‘theoretical.’ It is not something to toy with, and certainly not something to invite into the life of a person who made me angry, for not recovering at MY pace.
I suspect that the Jerks of the world will continue to justify their sadistic approach to ‘treatment.’ But patients—at least SOME patients—don’t have to put up with that behavior.  People like This Jerk hold power over an individual with an addiction history, but there is power in numbers.  It is not appropriate to use one’s power vindictively, or to gloat over a patient’s struggle.  It is not appropriate to humiliate a patient in front of others.  If you see that behavior, collect witnesses, and bring it to someone’s attention.  Maybe that ‘someone’ will write a blog post about it!
Doctors in particular should treat patients with ALL diseases—including addiction—with respect.  It is not respectful, or ethical, to deprive a patient of life-sustaining medication—especially out of spite.  I look forward to the day when the thought of ‘kicking someone off Suboxone’ is viewed as similar to kicking a poorly-compliant teenage diabetic off insulin.
Would THAT make sense— even to This Jerk?

My Book

Ah yes…. another post about my book…
Over the past few years, I’ve taken posts from this blog, posts from other sources that I’ve written, some sections of a ‘memoir’ that I have not gotten around to writing… and combined them in a book about addiction. The book does not hold together as well as it should, and it is way too long– so instead of a ‘sit and read’ book it is more like a reference, similar to the blog itself. If you like this blog, you’ll like it; I’ve taken the more important posts and cleaned them up and organized them. I’ve added some new material as well, including a section about my own background. If you have a loved one on Suboxone, or have an interest in the medication yourself, you will know as much about the buprenorphine as anyone should you finish this book– particularly about the use of buprenorphine by addicts, the controversy over buprenorphine, the relationship between buprenorphine and methadone, etc.
There are some chapters that are dated– i.e. where my opinion has changed or softened over the years. I was much more ‘anti-methadone’ when I wrote most of the book; now I see methadone as something that some people simply need in order to survive. I am not a fan of how some clinics are run– but that is a topic that I don’t get into in this book.
Finally, you’ll notice how I have changed over the years; in early posts I would become angry and sarcastic with some writers. In part, that is because I was being attacked on a daily basis by the ‘anti-sub’ movement– which has largely disappeared. But I think I have also aged a bit, and I now tend to pick my battles more carefully.
The book (note- this is an e-book) goes for $14.99, and runs around 250 pages– long enough to occupy most of your summer! Proceeds continue to support this blog, and SuboxForum as well.
Thank you very much, to those of you who purchase it and check it out. I would be most grateful if you would leave comments about it– for me, and also for others– by writing them in response to this post. At some point I will get a page set up, and tranfer this promo and the comments to that page.
The book is called ‘Dying to be Clean’– and can be purchased using the links at the left of this page– or right below this post.
NOTE: Because I don’t want it simply passed around freely at this point, you need a code to open it– and it cannot be printed. The code will be included with the download link. Please understand why I take those actions.
Thanks again,
Jeff J
Buy Now

Almost Ready to Get Help?

Another chapter from my untitled book, ‘Clean Enough,’ begins with comments from a reader of my blog.  The picture has nothing to do with anything, except that the Packer win was pretty awesome.  The view is from my seat at Lambeau during a game this season.

Lambeau Field club seats at night
Lambeau

I have been using various opiates for the past 2 years.  I’m sure it has affected my life in numerous destructive ways, but at the same time I feel that it has given me hope.  As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety and depression I have always looked for solace, and found it in books, art, music etc. But as I got older I got into drugs, in my case a path leading straight to opiates. As soon as   found them they were solution to all of my problems; I felt secure, safe, confident, sociable, and adventurous.  I found myself taking the risks socially, academically, and spiritually that I always wanted to. The doubt, insecurity, contempt for myself and others were rendered inconsequential. I felt I had attained a balance in my mind that allowed me to be who I really was.
On one hand the opiates must correct something that is defective in my physiology—they are the solution to my problems. This is not to say that I attain some sort of elevated state of consciousness by ingesting them, but that the opiate boost to my system allows me to function in a way that is actually healthier than my “natural” state.  But on the other hand I am afraid that my addiction is about to come to a head. I can no longer go more than a day without a dose, and all I do is think about pills. To cover up my use I drive great distances and spend thousands of dollars. The lying is increasing, and so are my withdrawal symptoms. I have tried to stop my use, but I am absolutely dejected without them.  I want to do something before I have ruined my life. But unfortunately it seems that the system is not receptive to people who are on the brink of ruining their lives–just those that already have. I have seen shrinks for the past decade, been on every anti-depressant/anxiety medication known to man all with little to no success. Is there any other, less dramatic way to detox or begin some kind of maintenance therapy without checking into an in-patient rehab center? Would buprenorphine make sense for this situation?
This letter that captures the thoughts many addicts have as they get close to seeking treatment, and I will use the letter as a backdrop for a couple broad points. My intent, as always, is not to ridicule the writer, but rather to challenge some of the writer’s perspectives.
Remember that addiction is a disease of insight, and realize that a person cannot ‘analyze himself.’  A person may see some patterns in his thought processes and make educated guesses about his unconscious motives, but he cannot ‘know’ his own unconscious—by definition, for one thing.  And if a person’s unconscious contains a conflict that affects behavior, the same unconscious mind will easily keep the conflict from conscious awareness.  So I consider it to be a waste of time for an addict seeking early recovery to try too hard to figure himself out.  A much better use of time would be to work on accepting his limitations in this regard.  In fact, one of my favorite sayings is ‘a good man knows his limitations;’ recovering addicts should have version of that idea at the ready at all times, in order to quickly end those dangerous moments when we think that we ‘understand ourselves.’
The same point is made at a meeting when someone reminds a particularly-intellectual addict the ‘KISS’ principle:  for ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid.’   I am making the point when I interrupt a patient in my office from explaining all of the reasons he relapsed, to tell him ‘it doesn’t matter.’   That’s right– IT DOES NOT MATTER.   When I write about unconscious factors that contributed so someone becoming an addict, I am writing for the sake of thinking about how the mind works—not to suggest a path to a cure.  Reflective, self-analytic thinking will not generally keep a person clean.
The writer also makes a common claim that opioids serve a purpose by medicating some troublesome psychological symptom.  Maybe someday science will support the idea that some people have ‘endogenous opioid deficiency syndrome,’ but for now the idea is not taken seriously by the addiction-treating community.   Even if the writer does have some type of deficiency, opioids are not likely the solution.  See my next paragraph for more on this issue.
All opioid addicts have the fantasy that they will find a way to keep using.  Early on, that fantasy fuels a great deal of frustration and broken promises.  “I know… I will only use on Thursdays!” we say to ourselves.  But there is NO way to make it work. End of story, period. I am a smart guy, and I tried every way possible to make it work.  And thousands of people smarter than me have tried and failed as well.  The only people who can take opioids without being destroyed are… people who don’t like taking opioids.  How is THAT for a messed up situation?  For example, my wife had kidney stones in 1993 and was given a bottle of Percocet tablets.  She took one, hated how it made her feel, and put the rest in the back of the cupboard for me to find a year later.  I decided, upon finding them, that I would take one each day to self-medicate my depression and my social anxiety.  Unlike my wife, I LIKED them.  And they were all gone two days later.  I know where the writer comes from when he says there MUST be a way to take those wonderful pills that provide safety, comfort, security, and adventure.  But smarter people than he or I have proven, many times over, that there is no way to have those good things without having the other stuff as well–   the lying, depression, and self-loathing.
My final point refers to the writer’s complaint that care isn’t present at the time, or in the form, that he needs it.  Such complaints used to be more common, and I would have answered the question ‘is there a less dramatic way to enter treatment?’ with a resounding ‘no!’  But buprenorphine has increased the options for addicts seeking treatment.  Successful treatment used to require the near-total destruction of the addict, which in turn caused sufficient desperation to fuel adequate motivation.  Buprenorphine allows treatment before the addict loses everything, provided the addict is truly sick and tired of using.  The availability of buprenorphine for treatment is an amazing step forward, but it is not a miracle.  The addict must truly want to be clean in order for buprenorphine to be effective.  But it is a far cry from the situation ten years ago, when an addict had to be at death’s door in order to ‘get’ recovery.