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.

Are you ANXIOUS? Are you SURE?

I’ve been posting more lately, but I’m hoping to slow down by the end of the holidays to let everyone catch up.   I’ve also mentioned ‘my book’ several times in the past year, promising to myself and to others deadline that comes and go.  I wish I could take a month and work on it full-time, but I don’t see much chance of that happening… so I’ll have to just keep chipping away at it.  I can be a perfectionist and everything can be worded just a little better…  I’m the same way some mornings with my electric razor, until  my wife gets sick of watching me ‘make it perfect’ and takes the razor from me.  I came across an article the other day that described a form of OCD that involves exactly that behavior– so at least I know the nature of my problem! 
I want to thank those of you who responded to the ‘here to help’ post, and please, if anyone else has had positive or negative experiences with the Here to Help program run by Reckitt-Benckiser,  let me know.  You don’t have to report anything ‘profound’– just a general comment or two whether it was helpful, whether you stuck with it, etc.
I have written about benzos a number of times and I still have more to say.  I would hope that everyone is familiar with the danger of respiratory depression when combining benzos and opiates.  Most of the deaths involving buprenorphine that I have reviewed or read about had two things in common.  First, the person took buprenorphine along with a second respiratory depressant– often a benzodiazepine, but alcohol acts at the same receptor sites as benzos and so alcohol has similar dangers.  The other commonality is that the person who died was not ‘tolerant’ to high doses of opiates, benzos, or both.    I do not want to say anything that puts addicts at risk, and I am NOT condoning benzo use, particularly the use of medications that are not prescribed by your addiction doc.  Doing so will eventually destroy you– but for the opiate/benzo combination to kill someone quickly generally requires that the person is not tolerant to one or the other chemical.  THIS IS NOT SOMETHING TO RELY ON TO AVOID DEATH!  Did I make myself clear?   Understand that the danger of combining opiates and benzos is not greater than the risk of combining benzos with opiate agonists.  There is nothing ‘more dangerous’ about buprenorphine EXCEPT the false sense of safety that users may have about buprenorphine.  But other than that false sense of safety, combining a pure opiate agonist with a benzo is MORE dangerous than combining similar potencies of buprenorphine with the same benzo.
I wanted to get that issue out of the way so that I could get to the main danger for addicts on buprenorphine when taking benzos, i.e the long-term effects on sobriety.  Opiate addicts will become actively addicted to other drugs when opiate addiction is prevented if no efforts are made to change.    I have written about my opinion that ‘standard AODA counseling’ is not the best fit for many people.  But that does NOT mean that change is not required.   At the very least the addict must find a way to fill the time spent using, and find a way to tolerate the harsh glare of reality when the mind is not constantly occupied with using, coming down, craving, or regretting the use of opiates.   I have had many patiens go through an initial ‘happy honemoon’ stage, and several months later struggle with all of the feelings that were being held at bay by preoccupation with opiates.   That preoccupation burns off a great deal of emotional energy, and suddenly our minds have plenty of time to worry about OTHER things!   There is also the fact that many of us used to dull our feelings and our reactions to life’s challenges.  So opiate addicts often compain of ‘anxiety’ early in buprenorphine maintenance, as they experience unpleasant feelings that should really be considered plain old cravings rather than an anxiety disorder.  I’ve written about what people say when I ask them to describe their ‘anxiety– they feel edgy, there is nothing to do, they are pacing, restless– they sound more bored than ‘anxious!’   But right now, for the sake of  the argument I will accept that some addicts are having real ‘anxiety.’  This is a big thing to accept, since anxiety is fear, and the people with anxiety are generally not the ones taking on new challenges, but rather tend to be the people who are doing nothing but playing video games all day… so I’m not sure where the ‘fear’ is coming from.  But even so– if that person was in residential treatment (before the days of buprenorphine) and complained of anxiety, every counselor would say ‘poor baby…. how HORRIBLE that you feel so ANXIOUS!  And so UNIQUE–  why, nobody has EVER felt like THAT before!!’
Do you get my point?  Sorry to be such an ass about it, but we are dealing with a fatal illness here.  Before buprenorphine, addicts would avoid narcotics after surgery in efforts to avoid risking relapse– now with buprenorphine, some people want to take the easiest way that they can find.  I will tell you straight up– if you are on the verge of finding stability on buprenorphine, you are extremely blessed.  Many people have died before you from opiate dependence, without the opportunity to improve their odds with buprenorphine.  You must do SOME tough things— and one is to learn to deal with life on life’s terms.  If you cannot do that, your chances for avoiding using–even with buprenorphine– are low.   Yes, for a time you are going to be ‘anxious’, or dysphoric, or whatever you want to call it.  You haven’t dealt with life lately, so of course it will be a tough adjustment!  But what do you expect– that you can just be numb and relaxed the whole time, and everything will just fall into place?
People with cancer deal with extreme pain, nausea, surgeries, deformity of body parts…  YOU must deal with your ‘anxiety.’   Why?  It is hard to explain to people who have not been through residential treatment, where a person at least learns some things about what addiction is all about.  Addiction is complicated, and occurs for many reasons– there is not ‘one reason’ for being and staying an actively using addict.  One reason relevant to the benzo issue, though, is that addicts become very aware of their own physical discomfort– we become ‘big babies’, basically.  Benzos only make this worse;  the addict in early recovery feels uncomfortable about many things, and having a pill to take when things get bad enough only makes the addict look inward even more often to decide whether things are  bad enough to deserve a Klonopin.   Another reason people stay addicted is because of distortions of insight, specifically losing the ability to predict what they will do in the future.  The addict says ‘I will take it only for severe anxiety’, but after a few days the addict finds that there is ALWAYS a reason to take another dose of a benzos.  Addicts didn’t know life was so tough until benzos became available, when suddenly EVERYTHING seems like a severe situation–  snowed in, new coworker, lost job, getting a new job, a first date, a break-up, an NA meeting… ALL of these things are great reasons for Klonopin!!
Another problem for addicts taking benzos is that when addicts take a benzo for ‘anxiety’, they don’t focus on the disappearance of their anxiety– they focus on the appearance of the ‘buzz’ from the benzo.  ‘Normal’ people hate that feeling, and so they find benzos to be too sedating or too impairing.   But addicts LOVE that feeling– any feeling– and so they dose until they feel it– not until the anxiety is gone.  And that extra ‘dosing for feeling,’ combined with the fast tolerance  characteristic of benzos, leads to rapid escalation of dose.  And what a surprise– that dose escalation even occurs in people who say ‘don’t worry doc– I don’t plan to raise the dose.’
I realize I’m expressing anger with this post, but hey, I have to express it somewhere!  Part of my anger comes from the repeated behavior of addicts– behaviors that I resent that will always remain within myself as well.  I realize my anger is for the addiction, not for the person suffering from the addiction… but sometimes I am frustrated by the unwillingness of addicts who are at the edge of relapse to ‘step up’ and face the challenges, and to fight for their lives.  I was also angry at what happened on a TV show this AM as I was getting dressed.   I shouldn’t admit this… but I was watching MTV, the show about the teens who became pregnant and had babies, which is now a show about teen moms… and one of the teen moms went to the doctor and complained of her ‘anxiety’.  She is young, bored, stuck at home with a crying baby… and she has ‘anxiety.’ Some mornings she ‘just lays in bed and doesn’t want to get up.’   What a surprise that she isn’t just thrilled to get up every morning!  She sees a doc (who could pass for a beetle if he had the right markings on his back) and the doc prescribes… Klonopin.  The next morning the baby is fussing and the teen mom holds the baby at arms’ length, passes him to her BF, and says ‘I have to take my Klonopins.’   A close shot of the bottle shows instructions to take ‘one tab twice per day’ (clonazepam has a half-life of about 24 hours, so the level in her body will increase over several days to a high steady-state level).  The next camera shot the next day shows her laying on the couch, yawning, saying that the medication seems to be working.  Her one-yr-old, meanwhile, is… somewhere….  not sure where I left him… 
But at least she isn’t ‘anxious’!
I went off on something that I was only going to mention in passing… so I guess I’ll finish the story I intended to write in a few days.  I want to write about a couple studies that looked at the cognitive effects of buprenorphine, methadone, and benzos.  Thanks for letting me vent…    good luck returning to work tomorrow for those of us lucky enough to be working, and I hope those who are looking find somethng soon.
JJ

Please help me

There are so many people who feel like the person who wrote to me today. I remember that feeling so clearly– that there was no solution– but now I see that there is another life, and that some people will find it. And tragically, some won’t.
There are many different levels of ‘insight’– it isn’t the case that I now ‘have it’ and before I didn’t have it. I will always have blind spots– some large, some small; some short-term, and others that will last a lifetime and that I hope won’t trip me up again. I will do my best to share the insight that I have gained with the person who wrote to me– today, and going forward. I don’t know if I will be able to help or not.
Dr Junig;
It is XX am on Sunday, November 29th, 2009. I am supposed to be at a XXXXX party for XXXX.  I am frozen with fear, I have nothing to say, and I have been drinking my wine to numb the fear.
I so wanted to be the one to break this alcoholism….but find myself as I am aging, becoming my Mother!
Please, if you can, tell me how to get control of my fears and the drinking to numb the fears.
Thank you, in advance, for any help you may have for me.
Sincerely;
XXXX
My reply:
XXXXX,
The first step is to realize that the drinking is not ‘medicine’ for anxiety or help for your fears, but rather that alcoholism is a progressive, predictable disease that makes everyone feel the same way.  The standard pattern is for the alcoholic, or addict, to shift from one state of personality to another, back and forth–  one believing that the problem is not that significant and that it can be ‘fixed’ on one’s own with a little bit more will power, and the second feeling horribly shameful, alone, and hopeless.  The problem that I face as a psychiatrist is that a person will call when at that low state of mind, finally realizing that he/she needs help and will do anything to be free from the misery.  But the next morning, the other personality wakes up and convinces herself that everything is fine—decides to throw all the pills or booze down the drain and do the ‘right thing’ next time.
The truth is that both personalities are wrong.  The trick comes in recognizing that your insight will only keep changing back and forth, back and forth, until you do something to change the pattern.  The progression of addiction causes the person to feel worse and worse until finally getting to a ‘rock bottom’ where there is NO way to kid yourself anymore.  We need to get you to that ‘rock bottom’ sooner if we can, so that you can stop the torture.  The challenge for you is to remember how you are feeling now, or when you wrote this message—and keep THAT memory alive for days, weeks, a lifetime.  I can help you with that, but only if you can manage your part- which is to drop the insistence on seeing it how you have always seen it.  I need you to see the alcohol as the PRIMARY problem—not a consequence of something else, like fear.  You also will need to understand that some medications, especially the Valium/Xanax/Klonopin medications, do the same thing as alcohol.
When we first met I suspected this was going on;  I am, after all, in recovery, and I have had the exact same feelings that you are having now.  I still remember when and where the ‘realization’ came to me that I was seeing things wrong, and that I needed to open my mind to the thought that everything I was thinking needed to be dropped and replaced by a new way of thinking.  The change after that moment was remarkable;  I realized that I needed to do drastic things in order to live, and so when I was told I needed to go to an AA meeting, I simply went—there was nothing to argue about and nothing else to say.  If you can get yourself to THAT point, Deborah, we can do wonders to improve your life.  But even if you are not completely there, consider coming in to discuss the situation.  There IS a better life out there—I promise.  But you can’t find it by doing the same things just a little differently;  if that were the case, you would have found it by now!  Consider dropping EVERYTHING and letting go.  Come in soon if you can.
Take care XXXX,
Jeff J

Getting Off Alprazolam (Xanax): The need for Recovery

A comment on my old blog referred to a discussion about the withdrawal from Xanax, or Alprazolam, a short half-life benzodiazepine:
Clonazepam (Klonopin) actually is not the drug of choice used in benzo withdrawal, rather it is diazepam (Valium). Clonazepam It is not a very long-acting drug, with a half-life of only 18-50 hours; diazepam’s half-life is 20-100 hours, with its metabolite hanging around for twice that long.

Absolutely the worst thing about benzo withdrawal (take it from me) is that it never ends. That is why I still take them.

Sadie

My Response:

The ‘drug of choice’ for benzo withdrawal depends on many factors beyond half-life. Diazepam (aka Valium) is absorbed very quickly and so the onset of action is as fast as 20 minutes; this is useful in some situations, but is also thought to contribute to the increased addictiveness of diazeapam over clonazepam (Klonopin). Both drugs stick around long enough to accumulate with repeated dosing; diazepam has active metabolites, making the effective half-life even longer than the pharmacologic half-life. But who cares? In either case the person coming off alprazolam (Xanax) can take the longer-acting benzo four, three, or two times per day– even once per day could be sufficient to prevent seizures with either drug, providing the dose is high enough.

It is very hard for most people to get off Xanax… or any benzo. For that reason, the best medication for alprazolam withdrawal may be a non-benzodiazepine anticonvulsant. I have used valproic acid (Depakote) or phenobarbital in patients for treatment of benzo withdrawal and/or alcohol withdrawal. Pretty much anything that works for alcohol withdrawal will work for benzo withdrawal– which is consistent with the fact that alcohol, benzos, phenobarb, and valproate all have actions at the GABA receptor. Other factors to consider when choosing a medication for benzo withdrawal include liver function– diazepam in particular lasts forever in patients with bad livers. Phenobarb affects the metabolism and plasma levels of many other medications. Valproic acid can cause liver damage and tends to stimulate appetite; is also causes heartburn and nausea in many patients.


The biggest problem with coming off benzos is losing the fuzzy haze that covers life and tolerating the harsh glare of reality. Patients complain of ‘anxiety’– many times they are simply feeling what everyone feels all of the time, but they have lost the ability to tolerate the normal stresses of life. This is where 12-step programs come in; working the steps provides everything that is needed for a person to learn to tolerate reality. After 15 years of going to meetings, I am still amazed at the value contained in the 12 steps. EVERYTHING is there! How to tolerate one’s self; how to deal with others; how to cope with rejection or loneliness; how to begin to understand a purpose for living… the answers to all of these questions– questions faced by most drug addicts on a daily basis– are contained in the steps. I strongly encourage, and invite, people learning to tolerate reality to come to recovery and join the others who are looking for the same thing– and finding it at AA or NA.

SD

Depression again

Hi, I wrote in this morning asking for your opinion on taking suboxone for depression and severe anxiety. I can not find my post or comment, although I had not signed up for the site until this recent comment. I’m just wondering where my comment went and if it was ever received. I am now registered under the name Larsy. I guess what I am really asking is if I should go off of the suboxone and go back to feeling hopeless, sick with headaches and aches and pains everyday, having no ambition, tired and sleeping all the time, feeling constant anxiety and having panic attacks everyday, overwhelmed and feeling like everyday chores were a tackle to face, getting by with doing just the things that “had to be done” and praying for the evening to come so I could just go to sleep, or if I should stay on the suboxone (2 mgs. per day) and feel like my old self, the girl who loves life and is filled with ambition. If anyone saw my first post from this morning Oct. 17, 2008 signed Laura, or if anyone can help me by sending me your comments, I would really appreciate it. Sincerly – Larsy (Laura)
Hi Larsy,
Given what you are saying, why would you want to stop the Suboxone?  My comments about tolerance– the tolerance to buprenorphine develops quite quickly– over a few days.  If you have been on it for awhile and you still benefit from it, I would probably keep taking it– especially if it has the dramatic effect that you describe, and nothing else is working.  Your post leaves me wondering why you are even asking yourself the question!