Short-Timers

Another question from a reader:
The current blog brings up the notion of long term use of Bupe or short term detox.  You say you are a fan of long term use, and that is clearly a good thing when the patient is one headed back to a drug culture of life of crime or is obsessed with the drug.  But-  what about patients like me and I think many others who have zero contact with the drug world, have never taken an illegal drug, and yet have taken Ocy C over the years for pain and find it all but impossible to stop the Ocy C.  
 The Suboxone helps with the W/D and just getting through with that is all we want.  NA meetings and the like are like being on Mars, it makes no sense.  There are no drug cravings at all and the goal is just normal.  Or rather, the goal is to make it through the W/D which is so harsh with Oxy C as to be dangerous for older people, whose only source of drugs indeed is the doctors Rx for them  And now that too is unavailable.  This group does not need Suboxone to become a new problem for them.  They just want the help.  It is not critically  important to determine “who” is being treated.  The certification training materials seem to brush over this so lightly that there is only one induction method allowed.  One that a drug company would love, but not always a patient —  pleading, do no harm.
My Thoughts:
I hear you, and watch for those patients.  Frankly I wish I had more of them, so that I could get some movement through my practice—- instead of being stuck with 100 chronic patients and a long wait list.   The financial motivation for the DOCTOR is to push people through, for that same reason.  Of course the drug company gets paid in either case.
The first question is whether buprenorphine even helps in the case you describe.   It is easier, in many ways, to taper with methadone than with buprenorphine, as you don’t have to divide such tiny pills.  It has been suggested that it is easier to taper off a partial agonist than an agonist—and I believe that to be true, simply because I have seen people do the former and not the latter.  But I don’t know HOW much easier it is—or if psychological aspects of the taper were more responsible than the person’s state of misery.
There were several studies a few years ago that showed relapse rates of 100% in people treated with Suboxone for less than a year;  those findings, it seems to me, put a damper on the idea that buprenorphine could be useful for short-term detox.  But I don’t know where those people would have fallen on the spectrum that you are presenting.  I do know that they were people with a primary diagnosis of ADDICTION— NOT chronic pain– so maybe they are not relevant here.
My caveat would be that I HAVE met many people over the years who are convinced that they fall in the pain camp you describe, but who turn out to be just as ‘addicted’ as anyone else.  They describe the process in different terms;  instead of admitting to ‘relapsing on opioids’, they describe ‘deciding the pain was worse than they expected, and that it was a mistake to go off opioids.’  They will claim to be different…. But an objective observer would see the same growing attachment to opioids, the same gradual dose escalation, the same excitement and activity when opioids are ‘on board’, and the same depression and misery if a day passes without using.
I agree with your thoughts, and get your point.  I just don’t know if very many people are as clearly-defined as you describe. One reason is because there are few conditions that cause pain severe enough to require high-dose opioid agonists for an extended period of time– say, a few months– that then go away.  Most pain conditions have residual symptoms—- from chronic inflammation, or even from the set-up of central pain circuits.  In a sense the pain is remembered, even after the original injury is repaired.  The severity of that residual pain is affected by the person’s emotional state, dependency, motivation, genetics…..  and the residual pain becomes a expressway back to using opioids— an expressway that is used often by many people.
Thanks for your comments!

Mean Streak

I guess I do get irritable sometimes…  but I’m getting better at controlling my anger as I get older.  One cool thing about a blog is that I can go back and see what I wrote years ago.  In this case, I was looking for a post about telling the difference  between opioid toxicity (from taking too much) versus opioid withdrawal. In that post I suggested looking at the size of the pupils.  The name of the post, in case anyone is interested, is called ‘abres los ojos’— the name of an old Penelope Cruz movie and spanish for ‘open your eyes.’ 

Penelope Cruz sounds very cool, by the way, when she whispers ‘abres los ojos…’ as you can hear at the beginning of the movie trailer.  The movie was remade and called ‘Vanilla Sky’– again with Penelope Cruz, but this time with her speaking in English.
Am I the only one who cares about this stuff?!
The post BEFORE that one was from a time– 2009– when people often wrote to tell me how misguided I was for recommeding buprenoprhine.  Those comments, at a time when so many young people were dying from overdose, would really get to me.  I’ll share the exchange, for old time’s sake.  For people who enjoyed my older, feisty posts, they are still out there– you just need to keep hitting the ‘earlier posts’ button!
The post:
This guy doesn’t like Suboxone– or the horse it rode in on.  He has been trying to write angry posts under my youtube videos, but I have been blocking them– His feelings about Suboxone popped up on one of the health sites out there this morning, catching my attention through ‘Google alerts’ for Suboxone.  It must be the same guy, because the complaints are the same, the language is the same, and in both cases the screen names are related to frogs(!).  I will go ahead and post his comments, and then my response, so that he can relax– knowing that he has done his part in the epic struggle over Suboxone.
Ive looked all over the internet and still have not found more then 5 people who have quit suboxone like i have. I took it for 12 months tapered down to 2 mg and quit 5 days ago..Basicly i am writing this due to the fact that i am really pissed at the fraud i feel is being commited by the drug maker of suboxone. I was taking 15 10 mg a day of percocet and 10 mg a day of norco a day b4 i got on sub. Anyways the reason i am so pissed is that these last 5 days have been the worse 5 days ive ever had.My Dr says oh youll just feel little tired for a few days is all.. ya right… 5 days of not being able to move,anxiety,depression you name it.. and no i am not crazy i took pills for shoulder injury so i have an idea where these feelings come from and its the good ole subs that all these Drs are making a fortune off. You must remember that out of all My drs patients i am like the only one whos quit totaly and can actually sit here and tell you what its like.. Its terrible and after considerable thought i think people need to know this sub is just another opiate and what gets me is the withdrawls are even worse then reg opiates. I CLOSE WITH ONE LAST COMMENT: ITS ALL ABOUT THE MONEY WHEN IT COMES TO SUBS: Think twice before some slick talking Dr wants you on it.. its far from a magic pill. Just ask the few of us out of 1000000,0000 people who quit the phoney stuff.
There is no magic pill for addiction to pain pills and if you think sub is then think again..One last thing, try and ****** suboxone withdrawls and guess what youll find??? first 50 sites pop up are paid for by the drug maker of sub and you have to dig to find real facts from patients with experience.. Drug maker pays big bucks to keep all the info ” positive” on subs… They are no dam different then the crooks on wal-street !
My Response:
Before my answer, a quick comment–  I do like the ‘crooks on wal-street’ remark;  I haven’t seen that ‘play on trademark words’ before.  I am assuming that he was making a joke–  he had to be, right?
OK, here is my response.  As usual it is a bit ‘snotty’– but you have to remember that I get this garbage all the time, and it gets old:
I am sorry to be the one to break this to you, but you are an opiate addict. Moreover, you will always be an opiate addict; hopefully you will be an addict ‘in remission’. The brain pathways that make up ‘addiction’ are laid down in a manner that involves memory processes; becoming a ‘non-addict’ would be like forgetting how to ride a bike. It cannot happen. Again, you can be in remission, but with opiates, that is very difficult– and unfortunately very uncommon.
Many people write about how they used will power or vitamins or some other silly technique to quit opiates– once they have gone over 5 or 10 years, I am interested in listening to them. It is easy to quit using for a year– it is another thing entirely to quit using for 10 years. I got clean in 1993 and felt pretty proud of myself… I quit through AA and NA, not Suboxone. I worked with opiates the whole time, giving patients IV fentanyl, morphine, demerol, etc in the operating room… but in 2000, thanks to a little market in the Bahamas that sold codeine over the counter, I relapsed. I ended up losing almost everything, including my career, all my money, a vacation cottage, my medical license… ****** ‘mens health’ and ‘the junkie in the OR’ and you will read my story.
There is no ‘fraud’, no ‘slick doctors’. There are doctors trying to help, and some work harder than others to keep people on track. We now know that Suboxone is best thought of as a long-term treatment, just like most other illnesses; we treat diabetes, hypertension, asthma, etc with long-term agents; if you stop your blood pressure meds abruptly you will have ‘rebound hypertension’ that can be very dangerous… Suboxone is similar to any other treatment. The thing is, pharmacy companies never used to care about addiction; the money is in treating other illnesses– just watch the commercials on TV! The money has been in viagra-type drugs! Suboxone is the first generation of opiate-dependence medications; the next wave will have fewer side effects, and so on. That is what happens with every disease. I am glad addiction finally has the attention of pharmaceutical companies. As for ‘slick docs’, there are many easier ways to make a buck in medicine! I am at the ‘cap’ of patients; the money I make treating patients with Suboxone is a tiny fraction of what I made as an anesthesiologist; I could drop the Suboxone practice tomorrow and take one of the 30 jobs in my area frantically looking for psychiatrists and make as much or more money. Yes, there probably are some ‘bad docs’ out there– there are ‘bad everythings’. But a bad doc will make a lot more money treating ‘pain’ using oxycodone than treating addiction with Suboxone! For one thing, there is no cap on pain patients! And when a doc wants to prescribe Suboxone, he/she can have only 30– THIRTY– patients for the first year. Hard to get rich on 30 patients!
Suboxone has the opiate activity of about 30 mg of methadone. When tapering off Suboxone, the vast majority of withdrawal symptoms occurs during the final parts of the taper– the last 2 mg. That is because of the ‘ceiling effect’. But you are not just tapering off Suboxone…
Do you remember when you started Suboxone, how lousy you felt, and how Suboxone eliminated the withdrawal? YOU NEVER FINISHED GETTING OFF THE STUFF YOU WERE ADDICTED TO. There is no ‘free lunch’; Suboxone allowed you to avoid all that withdrawal; if you stop Suboxone, you have to finish the work you never finished before– going through the withdrawal that you ‘postponed’ with Suboxone! Welcome to the real world– you likely abused those pills for years, and if you don’t want treatment with Suboxone, you had better start a recovery program, or you will be right back to using again.
Human nature can be a disappointment at times… When I ‘got clean’ after my relapse 8 years ago, I was just grateful to be ‘free’– even for just a few days of freedom! To get to freedom, I was in a locked ward for a week, no shoelaces (so I wouldn’t hang myself!), surrounded by people who were either withdrawing or being held to keep them from self-harm (it was a psych ward/detox ward combined). After that, I was in treatment for over three months– away from my family all that time, and I couldn’t leave the grounds without an ‘escort’ (no, not that kind of ‘escort’!). Treatment started at 6:30 AM and ended at 10 PM. The rare ‘spare time’ was used to do assignments. After those three months I was in group treatment for 6 years, and also AA and NA meetings several times per week. I still practice and active program 8 years later– I know what happens to people who stop: they eventually relapse, and some of them die. I AM NOT EXAGGERATING ‘FOR EFFECT’ HERE.
I had better stop or I will spend all of 2009 with this post… My final comment: Most of what you are feeling is not ‘Suboxone withdrawal’. I have watched many people stop Suboxone; some have bad withdrawal, some have NONE. When you talk about ‘anxiety’ or other problems facing life on life’s terms, you are experiencing life as an untreated addict. ADDICTS WHO SIMPLY STOP TAKING THEIR DRUG OF CHOICE FEEL MISERABLE!!! That is not withdrawal, and it doesn’t go away! Suboxone held things ‘in remission’ and allowed you to pretend you were not an addict; it is NOT a cure. So now, off Suboxone, you will see what it is like to live life as an opiate addict without treatment– and if you don’t get treatment, you will likely relapse. You will relapse because untreated addicts find life intolerable.
My human nature comment– everyone wants good things, but nobody wants to do the work to get them… (I’m in a bit of a mood today I guess– sorry). Recovery from opiates has always taken work– very hard work. And even then, success was rare– most people had to go back to treatment over and over and over before finally getting it. If people stopped working, as I stopped working in 1997, they eventually got sick again. Enter Suboxone: now you can have instant remission from active addiction! So are people grateful for that fact? That now, instead of years and years of struggle, they can take one pill each morning and hold their addiction in check? NO. Now they complain that ‘I don’t feel good when I stop Suboxone!’. Sorry, but a part of me says ‘poor baby’. You have a fatal illness, and you think you are done with it… you will find going forward that you will either use, or you will take buprenorphine or a new medication along the same line, or you will be attending meetings for life. Those are your three choices– pick one.
If you find a 4th choice, tell me about it in 5 years. I would like to hear how you did it, and yes, I hope you do find it (rather than die using). But I looked for that other path myself for years and never found it, and so did millions of other addicts.
Back to the present…
Phew.  Makes me tired just remembering those days.  Since then the number of deaths have only gone up, but at least there is a better acceptance for treating opioid dependence using effective medications— at least for people ready to accept that help.

Size Matters?

I’ve received several complaints from patients and readers about one of the current buprenorphine formulations.  The primary complaint is that the tablet is ‘not ‘working as well as the other formulations;’ that it seems to wear off earlier, or that people feel compelled to take more than what is prescribed.

buprenorphine formulations
Buprenorphine 8 mg tabs

My understanding, admittedly based only on what people have told me, is that there are three current formulations of buprenorphine.  The brand form, Subutex, comes as a relatively-large, flat-oval tablet, white or off-white in color.  The Roxanne version is a round white tablet, with a diameter of about 0.5 inch.  The tablet people have complained about is from Teva, and is smaller;  about the size of a tic-tac.
In general, I think that generics are as good as brand name medications.  I have never come across a reliable instance, in my practice, of generics being less potent or less active.  I recognize that particularly for psychiatric medications, the placebo effect accounts for significant portions of the actions of medications—so if a person BELIEVES that generic fluoxetine is less likely to work, it IS less likely to work.  But take away the placebo issue, and a molecule of fluoxetine is a molecule of fluoxetine—regardless of where it comes from.
That said, I realize that the delivery of molecules can be affected by the design of capsules and tablets.  I remember a study, years ago, that showed that many of the vitamins sold in the US passed through the intestinal system without even dissolving, let alone getting into the bloodstream. If the active substance is encased inside insoluble resin, there is little to be gained from taking it.
The delivery issue is less of a concern with a medication that is delivered through the oral mucosa, as with buprenorphine.  There are several factors that affect absorption of buprenorphine;  the concentration of buprenorphine in saliva,  the amount of surface area that buprenorphine is allowed to pass through, and the time allowed for that passage to occur.  If the smaller tablet dissolves more slowly, molecules of buprenorphine may have less actual contact-time with oral mucosa, thereby reducing absorption.
On the other hand, I am well aware of the psychological reward that people describe from taking buprenorphine or buprenorphine-naloxone, even in the absence of any subjective sensation.  The fear of withdrawal is relieved by taking buprenorphine—making the dosing experience ‘rewarding.’  It may be that the smaller tablet provides less reward, as the small size engenders less confidence in those unfelt ‘effects.’
In any case, I invite readers to share their experiences, just in case those who have already written are truly onto something.  Please leave comments below—and thanks for sharing!

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?

Cinderella and Snow White Smuggle Suboxone

I’ll often joke with others who have histories of addiction over the ingenuity of addicts when it comes to finding or using drugs.  If that amount of creativity and work ethic were ever harnessed for legitimate reasons, the opportunities would be limitless!
Cinderella at Suboxone Talk Zone
I have similar thoughts when I read the story about several county inmates at a New Jersey jail, who smuggled Suboxone into jail disguised as watercolor paint on cartoon images!The story has a humorous side, of course– but after we stop laughing, we are all sobered by the memories of the living hell created by opioids, detox, and withdrawal.  I’ve met many, many people who went through detox in jail or prison, and I realize that being in such a state is no laughing matter.  I assume that the experience of withdrawal in prison is about as bad as things get;  an experience that will never be part of someone’s bucket list!
The story also reminds us that buprenorphine is a very potent opioid.  One tablet of Suboxone contains 8000 micrograms of buprenorphine– enough to provide about 100 ‘hits’ of 80 micrograms each, which would have significant effects in people not tolerant to opioids. The illicit use of tiny doses of Suboxone–yet significant doses of buprenorphine– has become the most troublesome avenue for diversion of buprenorphine. This diversion is one reason for keeping prescribed doses to only the amount necessary to block receptors– which in the vast majority of people is 16 mg or less.I just had a thought on a different topic… do you think we will ever get to the point of seeing addiction as a disease, where people who are sick, depressed, and dehydrated from withdrawal, in prison, would be treated in a way that reduces their misery?Now THAT’S funny!  Sort of…

Chapter 4, Pt 2: Stages of Addiction

I am always impressed by how similar addiction progresses in one individual versus the next.  The next reader’s comments and my comments afterward demonstrate a pattern that I have observed in one opioid addict after another.  Throughout the book, comments that I receive from others will be italicized.
I started on Suboxone in Feb 08 to get off opioids. It worked very well for me, I lost 20 pounds while on it, got very active, and above all was the happiest I had been in a long time. After 7 months of taking 32 mgs a day I had to wean off it because I had no more insurance and it was very expensive.
I tried to wean the best I could and the end of Oct was it for me. I was down to taking 2 mgs a day then completely stopped because I ran out of Suboxone. About 3 days after I stopped taking it I started withdrawing. I was getting the chills, I felt weak, I had this nervous feeling in my stomach which was very annoying and caused me to not be able to sleep. So what did I do? To get rid of the withdrawal feeling I was getting I started taking opioids again.
I am now on my 3rd day of Suboxone treatment again, I am only taking 1 pill a day and by the 10th day I am going to take 1/2 a day. I will stop at 14 days and stay completely away from opioids by keeping busy, working out, and most of all living a NORMAL life. I am also planning on attending NA classes for support. I will keep you posted and to everyone else doing the same… GOOD LUCK TO ALL OF YOU!!
Early in addiction, opioid addicts believe that if they could only get past the physical withdrawal, they would be done with opioids forever.  During this first stage of opioid dependence, addicts are always fighting for that first piece of sobriety.
They hang out with each other on message boards on the internet comparing tapering plans using cocktails of amino acids or other worthless regimens, hoping to find the one that works– that gets them through withdrawal to become opioid-free.  They are not interested in meetings or rehab; they don’t consider themselves to be the kind of addicts who need THAT kind of help.  They insist that Suboxone be used only short-term, as a bridge to total sobriety.  They have no interest in accepting a life-long illness, and argue that they expect to find a ‘cure’ even as they return to opioids again and again.
Denial is huge during this stage of addiction; addicts minimize the damage opioids cause in their relationships, work, and health.  They can discount the damage in part because they consider their addiction temporary and easily corrected– once they just stop the darn opioids.  They assume– often for a long time– that the right tapering method will come along and things will be fine.  Hooked?  Not them!
Addicts enter the second stage of addiction when they have successfully discontinued opioids and made it completely through withdrawal.  From my vantage point of seeing many addicts over time, the point where sobriety is finally achieved is not associated with any particular taper method or amino acid formula, but rather occurs when addicts have had enough consequences to motivate them to tolerate the entire period of withdrawal.
More and more bad things pile up until they cannot be repressed and ignored; job(s) lost, friendships damaged or destroyed, finances in shambles, legal problems, and marital difficulties are some examples of these consequences.
During the first stage, addicts get to a certain level of withdrawal and say ‘enough of this!’ and resume using.  But during the second stage the drug-related problems are remembered throughout the entire length of withdrawal, keeping addicts motivated to get free from opioids.  Often addicts are so sick of using by this time that they don’t even use a taper, but rather just stop at a moment of self-disgust, without any plan or preparation.  Or perhaps the consequences lead to a jail cell, resulting in sudden and absolute sobriety without the luxury of medication to reduce the severity of withdrawal.
That’s great, right?  They are finally free of opioids!  Unfortunately they are about to enter the third and worst stage of opioid addiction– the stage that can last for years and that totally demoralizes addicts.  The stage begins with relapse — after a week or after a year, but the bottom line is that it almost always happens — even though NOBODY thinks it will happen to him.
I hear the comment over and over — ‘don’t worry, doc, I don’t plan to relapse!’ Or ‘I hear what you are saying — but you don’t understand how motivated I am!’ Many addicts consider themselves too smart for relapse, but I see the AA adage come true over and over: nobody is too dumb for Recovery but some are too smart for it!  The meaning is that every now and then a person will avoid relapse — and it tends to be a person who has a simple take on life who didn’t really shine in other, more competitive areas.
The lucky person who finds recovery to be easy is someone who is well aware of his own limitations, and who never got in the habit of trusting his own opinions or his own abilities.  That person can sometimes simply stop using because he accepts the idea that he has lost the fight — that opioids are much stronger than he is, and that he will never figure out how to take them without disaster.
But most people are far too smart to find easy sobriety.  As soon as things start going well their minds take off again, and at some point they return to using.  I’m not going to spend time on the triggers for relapse, as we will discuss them another time — but there are things common to all relapses, including  rationalization, denial, grandiosity, and the feeling of ‘terminal uniqueness:’ a sense that all of the dangers of relapse apply, for one reason or another, to OTHER people.
During this third stage of opioid dependence, addicts will have repeated episodes of relapse and sobriety.  There is little joy in using, because consequences occur much more rapidly now.  More and more time is spent being sick from withdrawal.  This is the stage that long-time addicts remember and fear the most.
In my case, I could stop using every weekend;  I was away from the operating room and away from the drugs, and I would start the weekend determined that ‘this was the LAST TIME–  come Monday I won’t touch ANYTHING!’  And so I was always sick; the kids would be playing outside and I would be in my bedroom curled up on the bed, hating myself for not being there for them.  And of course, on Monday I would be right back at it again, telling myself that THIS weekend didn’t work because I needed just one more day… or because I had (insert incident here) to deal with.
As I mentioned earlier, during this stage addicts become truly ‘sick and tired.’  This is a dangerous period of time for addicts for several reasons; when addicts use they feel a great deal of shame, which fuels more using — making use more impulsive and reckless and more likely to cause a fatal overdose.  Addicts in this stage become depressed — sometimes extremely depressed — and commit suicide, either actively or by not caring anymore about the risks of taking too much.
Addicts sometime feel such hopelessness or shame that they will do anything to change how they feel — swallowing any pill they come across, or shooting up unlabeled and unknown liquids — anything!  Even a hammer to the head looks good at this point!
This is the time and level of desperation when traditional treatment has been effective; addicts are at ‘rock bottom,’ and no longer feel confident about any of their own abilities.  They are ready to follow anyone or anything — after all, what do they have to lose?  Life is over anyway — so why not listen?
If an addict can keep this attitude throughout one to three months of residential treatment and then keep it into an aftercare program, he has a shot at meaningful sobriety. But if he gets into treatment and quickly finds a girlfriend, or if he tells jokes and becomes the funniest, most popular guy in the facility, or if the counselors are in awe of his wealth, education, or power and tell him how cool he is…  there is a strong chance that the treatment will prove worthless.  To get better, an addict must hold on to the attitude that he knows nothing, for only that attitude will allow change to occur.
The ‘desperation’ issue relates to why, in my opinion, young people have lower success rates in treatment.  Young people often feel too invincible for treatment to take hold.  They also have short memories for painful events; consequences are quickly forgotten and dangerous self-reliance returns.
The true wonder of AA is that the program’s founders understood all of this; the program is about humility and powerlessness, and consists of a series of steps that if practiced completely, will take people to the right frame of mind and keep them there.
The reason treatment tends to work better for older people is because first, more are at the later stage of addiction and are truly ‘sick and tired,’  and second, self-confidence tends to return a bit more slowly after a major blow in us older folks, so we hang onto our desperation a bit longer.  We also tend to remember the bad things that happen because we know that people sometimes die, and that some friendships can be lost forever.  Plus it is difficult to feel immortal when one’s body aches each morning!
In light of what you have read, go back and read the italicized comments from the reader again.  See if you can tell the stage of addiction that the person is experiencing.  I receive similar comments every day by e-mail.  I have watched over the past 16 years as addicts (including myself) repeat these stages over and over again.  Every person is convinced that he is different– only to eventually find that in regard to addiction he is the same as everyone else.
This is why I recommend seeing Suboxone as a long-term medication and seeing AA and NA as life-long programs.  In either case, the natural tendency of the untreated addict will be to relapse and return to the horrible cycle of using and withdrawal.

Withdrawal from Suboxone

I often receive e-mails asking for advice on tapering Suboxone, or asking how long Suboxone withdrawal should last.  People who read my blog know my approach to stopping Suboxone; I see it as an exercise in futility even in the rare cases where the person is successful, because of a relapse rate that verges on 100%.
A couple myths to get out of the way… there is NO evidence that withdrawal becomes more difficult the longer a person is on buprenorphine.  In fact, from my experience the opposite is true.  The feelings and emotions during withdrawal are aggravated by the guilt and shame of active using, and the further from active using a person gets, the less the suffering during withdrawal—and the better able the person is to keep some perspective on what is happening, rather than drowning in despair.  I believe that the severity of withdrawal is subject to a ‘kindling effect’, a phenomenon that affects seizure disorders and other neural activity as well.  In other words, the pathways of the brain that are used the most frequently are the pathways that are most likely to fire again.  So a person who has been through very severe withdrawal is likely to experience withdrawal as very severe, no matter what agent the person is stopping.  It would make sense that the more time that goes by in between episodes of withdrawal, the less powerful would be the kindling effect—sort of like ruts in a muddy road being erased by repeated cycles of weather over time.
Many people write on blogs or forums that Suboxone withdrawal is worse than coming off opioid agonists.  This is simply ‘poppycock!’  I have seen many, many people go through opioid withdrawal, and have experienced it myself (gratefully, many years ago!).  People going through withdrawal from agonists are very miserable; they tend to stay in bed, getting up only to race to the bathroom because of severe diarrhea.  Their legs shake involuntarily—a very uncomfortable experience that is similar to severe ‘restless legs.’  The mental effects are perhaps the worst; most people have severe depression and thoughts of suicide.  Eventually, when the person attempts to get out of bed, he/she faces weeks of profound fatigue and weakness.  During my own detox ten years ago I remember my family visiting after a week or two, and being able to walk about half a block before needing to sit and catch my breath.  Appetite is gone for weeks as well, and most people lose significant weight during detox.
Withdrawal from buprenorphine, on the other hand, rarely forces addicts into bed for more than a day or two.  I’m not saying that they don’t FEEL like staying in bed, but they will still usually get to work and engage in the activities of daily living—eating, showering, getting dressed, etc.  A simple look at the forums shows a profound difference between Suboxone and agonist withdrawal; people coming off Suboxone write about how bad they are feeling, whereas people coming off agonists are nowhere to be found— and are certainly not able to sit at the computer and type!
There are two basic approaches to stopping Suboxone.  One is to taper slowly, and the other is to just ‘jump’ and handle the withdrawal as best as possible, sometimes with the help of clonidine, benzos, or other substances.  Some people find that THC helps, but I can’t really recommend that approach—at least not in states where there are no laws allowing the use of ‘medical marijuana.’  There are a couple taper methods described here and there on the web; I described something called the ‘liquid taper method’ on the forum that uses tiny doses of dissolved buprenorphine, administered by an eye dropper.  As I mentioned in an earlier post there is a new transdermal buprenorphine system hitting the market soon, and that should make things considerably easier.  The main problem with any taper is that the person usually gets to a certain point and then realizes that a full dose would cause a ‘buzz’—and that buzz is almost impossible to say ‘no’ to, especially after being in minor withdrawal for several days or weeks!  The transdermal approach is appealing because it would allow the person to get rid of all tablets that could be used to bail out of the taper.  I can’t imagine that there is much chance of success if the person has 8 mg of tablets stashed away in the house somewhere!
Because of the tendency to bail out of a taper, most people who start out tapering end up ‘jumping’ at some point—raising the question of whether people should just jump from the start, planning to be miserable for a good few weeks, and then just tolerating it.  For those taking that approach, the main thing is to STICK WITH IT.  In order for your receptors to return to normal, you MUST be miserable— that misery is what causes the neurons to manufacture new receptors.  If you take a break from the misery by using for a day, you turn off the forces that are moving you toward feeling better, delaying the process by days to weeks.  To be direct, the quickest way to stop Suboxone and get back to zero opioid tolerance is to avoid opioids completely until you feel better.
Again, in my opinion, all of this is folly because the chance of staying clean is low. At minimum, a person must be completely free of any contacts who are using or who have access to opioids.  The person should be actively involved in some time of recovery program.  The person should have someone in his or her life who can act as a ‘reality check’ to speak up if the person starts to harbor resentments, or if the ego begins to grow out of control.  If you don’t have these things at a minimum, consider just sticking on buprenorphine.  You will save yourself a great deal of money, time, embarrassment, and who knows what else.
If you do stop buprenorphine, expect withdrawal to peak at about 4-7 days after you finally discontinue taking Suboxone, followed by slow recovery that accelerates each week.  By four weeks, you will be done with the creepy crawly legs, and your energy will be starting to return.  By two months, your sleep should be coming back—unless you are also stuck on benzos, which make sleep a big problem if you use them for more than very short-term.
By three months, you should be back to normal—assuming that you did not use opioids at all.  And you will recover fastest if you get some exercise, eat right, and stay as active as possible, even when you don’t feel like it!

Clean Enough: An Educational Process

Clean Enough continues:
An Educational Process
I was able to stop using codeine after returning home and to my job in the operating room.  I dodged a bullet– or so it seemed.  I continued to drink wine, beer, and the occasional margarita, but I had convinced myself that drinking was an isolated vice that was necessary given the stress of my job.  Yes, the AA and NA people said that alcohol would take me back to my ‘drug of choice’, but they didn’t understand my special situation, and didn’t know how smart I was.  The scary incident in the Bahamas faded from my memory.  Looking back, it wasn’t that big of a deal.
About ten months later I was having a tough week.  I had a bad cold, I was feeling depressed (my mood always takes a hit when I am sick), and my wife and I were in one of those low stretches that visit most marriages.  Seemingly out of the blue, I thought about how I had stopped the codeine after my vacation months earlier.  Hey– I must have learned to control my use of codeine!  And since I have control, I can take a small amount of codeine for my cold… and perhaps get a tiny bit of euphoria… but then I will stop just like I did before!   That thought—that I now had ‘control’—would be the end of my career as an anesthesiologist.  Similar to the experiences of many other addicts, my relapse was horrible; much worse than my original addiction.  I was like a rat pushing a lever to get food in a lab experiment, using medications from work, shooting up intravenously, and taking doses that I knew could be fatal.  I even injected contents from unlabeled syringes, hoping they contained something to make the sickness go away, and not the paralyzing agents that would have killed me.  Every Friday I brought home enough fentanyl to cover the weekend, but no matter the amount, it was gone by Friday night, leaving me sick from withdrawal every Saturday and Sunday.  At some point I didn’t even care about getting busted. There is a great line in the movie ’28 Days’:  “this is no way to live…. this is a way to die!” 
I was met by a security officer one Saturday morning as I entered the hospital to scrounge the operating rooms for drugs, and he apologized for having to escort me out of the hospital.  The next morning I met with the my wife, a member of my anesthesia group, and the hospital CEO, telling them that I only needed a minor, outpatient ‘tune-up’, since I knew all this recovery stuff already.  But the CEO pointed out the needle marks on my hands and arms, and said that any possibility of working again required residential treatment.  I left the meeting wondering whether to just put all of us out of our misery or to instead go into treatment.  As an aside, I remember that feeling now when I am trying to get a person to enter residential treatment– my aversion to treatment was so strong that suicide seemed a reasonable alternative!  I did choose treatment over death, but not by a long-shot. 
The night before going to treatment I watched my 12-year old daughter play a piano duet, her teacher playing the part that I was supposed to play.  Laura and I had practiced the piece together for weeks, but with my hands shaking and dripping sweat I was in no condition to play.  I have many shameful memories from my ‘using days’, but memories of that night will always be among the worst of them.
I was in severe withdrawal the next morning, too sick to enter the treatment facility, so I spent some time in acute detox in a locked psych ward.  My shoelaces were taken from me so that I couldn’t hang myself.  I was given a room at the end of the hall where I waited for the pain to stop, minutes becoming hours.  Clonidine was ordered, but was to be held for blood pressure below 90. Every time I heard the nurse I tensed my muscles, trying to push my pressure higher, but I was so dehydrated that I couldn’t get my blood pressure high enough for even one dose!  I will point out that people write on the web that ‘Suboxone withdrawal is the worst;’ in detox I could barely walk for the first few days, and for a month or two I was so weak that I became short of breath after walking 100 feet.  Sleep and appetite took a couple months to return.  After experiencing withdrawal many times, and watching many people go through withdrawal from substances including buprenorphine, I can say with complete confidence that buprenorphine withdrawal can be significant, but is NOT as severe as withdrawing from opioid agonists.  Those who say otherwise are being influenced by the fact that current misery always feels worse than ‘remembered misery.’   People withdrawing from buprenorphine go to work every day and complain about how bad they feel; those withdrawing from oxycodone, methadone, heroin, or fentanyl lie in bed and DON’T complain, as they are too sick to write on the internet!
I eventually transferred to the treatment center where I would spend the next three-plus months of my life.  The program consisted of work from sun-up to bedtime, and included individual therapy, group therapy, art therapy, music therapy, experiential therapy, relaxation training and guided imagery, ropes and challenge course, physical training, and twelve step groups.  One irony of treatment is that a person is ready to leave at about the time when he no longer wants to go.  I now see the experience as a wonderful gift to myself.
I had a number of ‘consequences’; I lost my job and my hospital privileges, and I was disciplined by the licensing board.  I was ordered to attend treatment and twelve step meetings for the next five years, and I was subject to random urine testing at a frequency of at least twice per week.  I did as I was told and time went by.  At one point I decided to repaint the interior of our house, and beige walls were replaced by forest green, golden tan, and light burgundy.  I took up running and got in better shape.  I became active in community theater, something I had always wanted to do but now had time for.  I became more involved in the day-to-day lives of my children.
I had been released from residential treatment the day after September 11, 2001, and I found out a few days after the horrible attacks that my best friend from college, Commander Dan Shanower, had been killed at the Pentagon on that day.  My attention to his tragic death led to finding a job with the Transportation Security Administration providing medical clearance for new airport screeners.   That brought in some money, and we sold our vacation cottage to help pay the bills, but I knew that I needed a new career.  I loved being an anesthesiologist, but I knew that most relapses in anesthesiologists came to light when the addict was found dead in a call room.  After significant sober reflection I decided to return to residency—this time in psychiatry, to get back to my early interests in the mind and brain.
Starting over
It was difficult being a lowly resident again, but things could have been worse.  I know doctors with addictions who never made it back to practicing at all.  I have known addicts who died from their addictions.  Those AA bumper sticker slogans often contain true wisdom; my most appropriate bumper sticker reads ‘Gratitude is the Attitude.’  A common recovery phrase is ‘the Chinese symbol for crisis means opportunity.’  I don’t know whether the statement is true, but the sentiment is accurate.  I have seen recovering people do some amazing things, and I hope to be one of them.
My relapse, horrible as it was, resulted in a wealth of opportunity.  I mentioned my participation in Community Theater; circumstances also led to a position as a columnist for the trade journal Psychiatric Times.  I for years had dreamed of teaching but only now do I participate in that dream, teaching addiction and other topics to medical students and residents.  I appear in a weekly radio show about psychiatry and addiction, and I am, of course, writing this book!  None of these things would have happened if not for that fateful day in Eleuthera seven years ago.  I am not saying that my relapse was a good thing—don’t get me wrong about that!  But addiction– and relapse– do not have to be the end of one’s life.  For me, in many ways they were only the beginning.

Sick from naloxone, maybe?

A person wrote about feeling ill after taking Suboxone, thinking that naloxone is to blame and frustrated that her physician would not prescribe Subutex:
I first read your blog last week as I was going through the despair and misery of withdrawal from Percocet, and considered suicide. I didn’t want to die, or create anymore suffering for my family; I just didn’t see any options or hope. Your well written words (I thank you deeply) about the hell of withdrawal got my attention & brought me to tears. I continued to read, found out about Suboxone, which led me to message boards from others like me. For the first time I felt hopeful. I found a doctor and made an appt, and after the initial, office administered dose I found myself feeling the best I had in years– no withdrawal and no physical pain – wow! At the 2hr follow-up I told (the doctor) that my pain was completely gone, which she disputed, saying it’s not prescribed for pain. What I know now is that she had given me Subutex in the office, and a Suboxone prescription to take home!!I filled the prescription, took the ½ pill dose, and within minutes my stomach hurt/gnawed, and I developed a very strange headache and mild to moderate chest pain. By the evening I’d vomited and the headache worsened. By next morning I had the worst headache ever and started vomiting large amounts of bile, all of which continued throughout the day. My doc insisted I show up for the follow up appt. that day, even though I was too sick to hold my head up. She insisted I was sick from withdrawal.

 


http://suboxonetalkzone.com
Chemical Structure of Naloxone

To date I’m taking 3 Excedrin for migraine within an hour of every Suboxone dose as I get a bad headache every time.  I also wake up with a moderate headache every day. The last few days I’ve noticed I don’t feel emotions, joy, or happiness. I feel depressed & don’t care about things that would typically give me happy goose bumps – my grandkids, my dogs, sunsets.

I asked the sub doc to put me on Subutex which she refused to do. I explained that if someone was this ill from BP or diabetes meds, and there were other options, it would be unethical to not help the patient. I spend $180 for medication that makes me ill- every day.
I’ve spent the day trying to find a doc who will prescribe Subutex, with no success. Ironically, a few years ago my own doc recommended this drug for my back/leg pain.  I don’t know what to do.  I can’t stay on Suboxone or go off. Do you have any suggestions? 
 My answer:
I hope that your weekend is going OK.  I have a few thoughts about your situation, but I don’t know how much help they will be, as ultimately you are dependent on the prescribing doc.  But maybe we will find something that will help.
It sounds like you have a pretty good understanding about buprenorphine and Suboxone, but there are a couple areas that need clarification.  For most people- more than 95% of people in my estimation—there is no difference in the subjective experience from taking Suboxone vs. Subutex.  The active drug, buprenorphine, is present in both, and the naloxone that is present in Suboxone has no significant effect.  The ceiling effect of Suboxone is due to buprenorphine;  naloxone plays no role in that effect.  Both Suboxone and Subutex can be used for pain, and both can be used for ‘induction.’  There are some misguided physicians out there who think that Subutex is a better choice for induction, thinking that naloxone will cause withdrawal during the induction process—but those doctors are wrong.  Both Suboxone and Subutex cause precipitated withdrawal, which comes from buprenorphine, not naloxone.  Naloxone does not pass through the mucous membranes lining the oral cavity, and instead ends up being swallowed, and taken up into the portal vein from the proximal small intestine.  In MOST people, naloxone is then rapidly destroyed by the liver before getting into the systemic circulation.  In a FEW people, though, naloxone causes side effects.  Side effects are of two basic types.  The first type is an allergic reaction to naloxone, causing flushing, wheezing, and perhaps nausea, vomiting, and/or rash.  Allergic reactions can occur from very small amounts of a substance, and so people can have allergic reactions to naloxone even when the drug is essentially cleared by the liver and too little remains to cause symptoms of withdrawal.
A second type of reaction is more common in my experience, and that is where the naloxone is not destroyed well be the liver and instead gets into the systemic circulation and then to the brain and spinal cord, where it blocks the opiate effects of buprenorphine.  In this case the person would have typical symptoms of withdrawal, including headache, depression, anxiety, restlessness, pain, diarrhea, and nausea.  Naloxone is not a long-lasting medication, so I would expect the withdrawal-type symptoms to last only for several hours.
As I mentioned, naloxone is usually destroyed very efficiently by the liver before reaching the systemic circulation, a process called ‘first pass metabolism.’.  There are many medications that interfere with liver enzymes, although I do not know of specific inhibitors of the enzymes that destroy naloxone.  In other cases, people have a genetic background that results in reduced metabolism of certain substances including naloxone.  Your symptoms occur shortly after each dose, which is what we would expect in a person who is not fully metabolizing naloxone.
I do not know why your physician is refusing to prescribe Subutex, but it sounds as if she is concerned about diversion.  In my opinion, concern in this instance is misguided.  Yes, there is a diversion problem with buprenorphine, but there is not a difference between Suboxone and Subutex in this regard—i.e. BOTH are diverted.  Studies suggest that buprenorphine is not generally diverted for the purpose of ‘partying’ or getting high, but rather is taken by addicts who are trying to treat themselves to get off opiates, or who need something to carry them over when heroin or oxycodone are not around.  In either case, the presence of naloxone does nothing to reduce diversion.  As you likely know, naloxone only prevents against intravenous use of Suboxone—a type of diversion that accounts for a very small percentage of cases.
You are welcome to share this with your physician.  Unfortunately there are some thin-skinned doctors out there though, so be careful that you do not get yourself kicked out of treatment!  I have a couple other suggestions that might be safer.  First, you are welcome to send me a list of medications you are taking, and I will check to see if any of them are inhibitors of the liver enzymes that metabolize naloxone.  Prozac, for example, is a potent inhibitor of one group of enzymes, and therefore can affect the half-life of a number of medications.
A second thing you can do has been described in earlier posts.  The idea is to absorb the buprenorphine without absorbing the naloxone.  Since naloxone is taken up only at the intestine, the key is to avoid swallowing the naloxone.  Start with a dry mouth.  Put the tablet in your mouth and bite it into pieces to get it dissolved in a small volume of saliva.  Then use your tongue like a paint brush, and spread the concentrated saliva over the mucous membranes in your mouth for about 10 minutes.   After ten minutes spit out the saliva, which contains the bulk of the naloxone.  Be sure to avoid eating or drinking for about 10 more minutes, as you don’t want to rinse away the buprenorphine that is attached to the surfaces in your mouth.   This method of dosing seems to be more efficient than placing a tablet under the tongue, and allows more control over the absorption of naloxone.   I’ve had a number of patients who initially felt that their dose of buprenorphine was too low, who then felt better dosing this way.  And I have had a few patients who believed they were getting headaches from naloxone, who had fewer headaches after dosing this way and spitting out the naloxone.
One final thought.  I did not address your comments about joy, happiness, passion, or depression because it is usually not a good idea for us addicts to focus on whether we are adequately ‘feeling’ those things.  Opiate addicts tend to spend too much time looking ‘inward,’ thinking about how they feel.  One goal with treatment is to get them thinking about things OUT THERE in the world, rather than about how they are feeling ‘inside’  (Don’t confuse this point, though, with ‘feelings work.’  Addicts tend to have a hard time identifying feelings and recognizing the nuances between one feeling and the next, and there is much to be gained in working on identifying and recognizing feelings during group or one on one psychotherapy.  This work is to be distinguished from the self-obsessed search for happiness that many of us addicts get wrapped up in from time to time).  Once a person decides he/she is not feeling ‘passion,’ the absence of passion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The same holds for feeling sad, lonely, or depressed.  I do not have an explanation for why Suboxone vs. Subutex would result in a lack of happiness or passion, except perhaps by causing low level withdrawal symptoms that affect mood.  I SUSPECT that those feelings are more ‘psychological’ than anything else.   I also do not know why your symptoms on Suboxone last all day long, although I suppose it is possible that for some reason your body metabolizes naloxone extremely poorly, causing it to sicken you for the entire period of time between doses.
If the ‘spitting technique’ works, that is one more bit of data that you can take to your physician.  Hopefully, if that is the case, she will have a change of heart.

Clonidine and Opiate Withdrawal

For those of you who like to do some scientific reading, a recent meta-analysis looked at clonidine’s efficacy in reducing the symptoms of opiate withdrawal.  A meta-analysis, by the way, is when someone takes a number of studies that sometimes didn’t reach significant conclusions and combines the numbers, creating a larger study group that sometimes shows significant results that were missed in the smaller study.  There are limitations to such an approach, but it is still a common approach to looking at infrequent things.    The infamous ‘black box warnings’ on SSRIs about suicidal ideation in children came from meta-analysis of old studies of antidepressants.

Alpha2-adrenergic agonists for the management of opioid withdrawal

SuboxDoc