Mine has been a long hard “road to recovery”. The good news is (I’ll give you the happy ending first) I am now a Certified Addiction Counselor III. I am happily married to my wife of 40 years, retired from 14 years of service as an Addiction Counselor with the University of Colorado, ARTS Dept., Peer I Therapeutic Community. As of this writing, I have been working with a longtime friend and associate, Robert Johnson, who is the director of A New Outlook Counseling Service in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
My intentions are to share some of my personal and professional experiences with you in hope of providing some insight, and possible inspiration, to any poor souls who may be, or no someone who is, suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction. Just for clarification, the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines addiction, or substance dependence, as “a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress”.
Consider this course of a direction to help your loved one recover
My goal, or purpose, in writing this article is to help provide some direction, or course of action, a person with a substance use disorder, or a loved one of the addicted people, might consider in order to get the proper care and support needed to recover. Oh yes, I said recover didn’t I. But no, you might say, one doesn’t recover from addiction. “Once and addict always an addict.” You’ve heard that old adage. Well, that’s just what that is, an old adage. I firmly believe addicts can change and addicts can recover.
Perils of experimenting with drugs or abusing substances
This brings me to my story before the happy ending. The reason I know an addicted person, or as the DSM-V defines it now, a person with a substance use disorder, can recover, is because I have recovered. I must share my story in order for you to understand my perspective. I won’t bore all of you with my late teen and early 20’s years in the 1960’s and 70’s. Let’s just say I was one of the original “hippies” experimenting with almost all drugs and abusing many substances. I somehow survived the 60’s and 70’s, however, and found myself living a responsible and admirable, by some standards, life.
My wife and soulmate Sandy and I have been together since 1978 and she has been my rock and support through some very trying times. I had determined my professional abilities and business skills to be in sales and marketing and worked in the solar industry in the late 70’s and early 80’s when federal and state tax credits were available to homeowners to purchase solar hot water heating systems. When they eliminated the tax credits in the early 1980’s, I worked as a marketing coordinator for a Canon copier and fax machine retailer. Fax machines were new and Canon came out with the first color copier. I later worked as a realtor and a mortgage loan officer.
I am mentioning these marketing positions because, you see, in order for me to communicate with many people, and convince them to buy my product or service, I had convinced myself I talked better when I had taken prescription pain medication.
I had enjoyed the feeling of euphoria I got taking pain medication
Let me go back to my position with marketing copiers. It was during that period of time that I had a tremendous pain in my side during a sales meeting and went to the emergency room of Lutheran Hospital where I was diagnosed as having a “hot” appendix. I was scheduled to have surgery that afternoon at St. Joseph Hospital, but before I got on the operating table my appendix ruptured and I was very sick. I was put on the “morphine drip” and in ICU for several days. After being released from the hospital, I continued to take pain medication until the doctor cut me off. I had enjoyed the feeling of euphoria I got taking pain medication ever since I was young, and I felt it gave me a sense of wellbeing. When high on opiates I felt I could talk to anyone and do almost anything I wanted to do.
So, needless to say, my drug of choice was opiates. Whether I had a physical need or a medical reason to take pain medication, if I could “cop” pills from someone, I usually did. But, as luck or fate would have it, within several months of the ruptured appendix, I got the most excruciating pain in my abdomen that I have ever experienced. Returning to the Lutheran Hospital emergency room, I found I had a rock pile of gallstones in my gallbladder.
An abnormal increase in desire for pain medication
This required having my gallbladder removed, and another two weeks of pain medication. Once again, after the doctor cut me off from prescription pain medication, I sought opiates on the street. During the time period of both of these medical procedures, and for a month or two after, I had been dealing with teeth issues. I had to have several root canals, requiring pain medication, and eventually had lost so many teeth the dentist recommended I have the remaining teeth removed and get dentures.
By this time I desired the pain medication so much, as I had become opiate dependent, that I welcomed the teeth extractions. So, to get to the nitty-gritty, I ended up using prescription opiates when I had them and coping other opiates and powerful narcotics, such as Dilaudid, OxyContin, and even heroin on the street to the point I became severely addicted.
I knew I needed help
I talked to doctors and other sources for treatment referrals and the treatment preference of most medical professionals for opiate dependency in 1990 was to get methadone treatment. I was very scared and had heard horror stories about methadone maintenance. Desperate for help and to not experience the indescribable withdrawal symptoms I had been dealing with, I went to a methadone clinic. I later realized, as my wise orthopaedic surgeon father had once told me, “if you think you have a monkey on your back with morphine or heroin, methadone is King Kong”. Well, I found out he was right.
Over the next eight years, I continued working in marketing as a realtor and a mortgage loan officer, doing quite well since the methadone continued to give me that euphoria and sense of wellbeing I mentioned which made me feel I could talk better and do most anything.
One day I told my wife I was going to the methadone clinic to get my medicine to be “normal”. She declared to me, “You haven’t been normal in the past eight years”. “I wish I had the old Rick back”. I knew she was right, and I had been kidding myself that I wasn’t really high, I was getting treatment.
Most persons who get on methadone maintenance end up on it for life
Methadone maintenance is not treatment. I learned the hard way that I was now just getting a legally prescribed opiate that medical professionals had decided was a “harm reduction” method of keeping hardcore addicts from committing crimes to get money to buy drugs.
Most persons who choose to get on methadone maintenance end up on it for life. In my professional opinion methadone should only be used by people with chronic long-term pain or a small percentage of adults who after many efforts of addiction therapy and treatment, cannot quit using drugs or committing crimes to buy their drugs. Not the young kid who has gotten dependent on opiate painkillers for less than a year, or even heroin for a few weeks or months. These people should get a professional assessment from a doctor or addiction specialist who can recommend individual addiction counseling, outpatient treatment or therapy, or even a residential program if necessary.
My wife had gotten very discouraged at my futile efforts to detox
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to my wife “wanting the old Rick back”. I made some effort to “go down” or reduce my dosage on the methadone I was taking. They only allowed a patient to lower their dosage by a few milligrams each week, and, I was on more than 100 milligrams daily. I would reduce my dose by 10 or 15 milligrams after a few weeks, and feel the withdrawal effects, and go back up on my dosage in order not to have the discomfort.
My wife had gotten very discouraged at my futile efforts to detox from methadone. One day she gave me the “tough love” treatment that I now know helped to save my life. She said she was tired of seeing me numb to the world, lifeless and just not showing the energy and excitement with the life I had once had. She said that I had not shown her love and affection, as I used to show her, for a long time now. My wife told me that she felt it would be better if I moved out until I could detox the methadone. That if I wanted her and my family back, I needed to get well, get off drugs, and be the person that she knew I could be.
“No pain no gain” was not always the best way to go when detoxing drugs
Subsequently, I moved to an apartment a few blocks from our home in the suburbs of Denver. I continued to go to the methadone clinic and to work, then back home to my empty apartment and no life at all really. I had been very depressed and had tried to “come down” on my methadone dose, but got more depressed and felt like giving up on everything. One day, as I had been home “crying in my methadone” and feeling sorry for myself, my wife stopped by. She said, “Today might be your lucky day”. I said. “What do you mean?” She said, “I have been talking with your mother, and she is very concerned about you too”.
We have found a doctor who says he thinks he can help you detox off of methadone. This doctor is using a new drug called buprenorphine. He says it is a “dual antagonist” and explained that it replaces the opiates on the brain receptors and takes away the withdrawal symptoms from the methadone dependency (or other opiates if that were the case).
She wasn’t sure exactly how it worked but said if I saw this doctor he could explain, and if I completed the treatment, I could come back home. That was the only thing I needed to here. Come back home? I said, “I will do this or die trying”. I saw this doctor at a medical detox clinic, and he explained how buprenorphine worked. He said he used another method of detox from opiates where they put the patient under anaesthesia and administer the drug naloxone, which puts the patient in withdrawal while asleep, and when they awaken their withdrawal symptoms are over.
The doctor explained he didn’t recommend this procedure as most of his patients returned in a couple of months have become addicted once again. He implied that “no pain no gain” was not always the best way to go when detoxing drugs. The doctor sent my wife and me home with prescriptions for the new drug, buprenorphine and medications for nausea, anxiety, and a sleep aid. I stayed in the extra bedroom at our home and my wife acted as my nurse administering the medications as the doctor had directed her.
My wife would give me encouragement telling me that she knew I could do it
During this 30 day treatment, I experienced an amazing transformation. It was no cakewalk mind you, there was some discomfort, but not a painful withdrawal either. There were days I felt like giving up, but my wife would give me encouragement telling me “that she believed in me, and knew I could do it”. The doctor had told my wife that, “the first thing you may notice is his brain clearing up”. We weren’t sure what he meant, but I experienced thinking more clearly. Things like noticing the birds chirping outside my bedroom window. I hadn’t noticed that in years. I felt senses and smells returning that I hadn’t been aware of. I literally felt I was “born again”.
After 30 days on this program, I provided a urine sample which came back negative for methadone. Methadone is a long-acting drug, taking 30 days to get it out of your system. That is why the withdrawal symptoms can last 30 days or more. But, I felt like a new person. I was happy, excited, motivated, and felt I had a new lease on life. My wife Sandy was proud of me and happy she had the old Rick back.
This detox experience inspired me to go take the necessary classes to acquire my addiction counselor certification. I had taken the addiction counseling courses required to be certified, but I then needed to find a position where I could acquire the clinical hours necessary to get certified as an addiction counselor.
I applied and got hired by the University of Colorado. The University had a treatment program under their ARTS (addiction treatment and research) department, which was Peer One Therapeutic Community. I worked in this TC for 14 years and acquired my CAC I after 1000 clinical hours of service, my CAC II after 3000 clinical hours and CAC III after 5000 hours. The experience I got working in this residential treatment program, as well as a few months in their outpatient program, was priceless. Peer I Therapeutic Community had a population of approximately 128 adult male chronic substance abusers who were placed from the Department of Corrections or Community Corrections, in most cases, and had been drug users, mostly drug-dependent persons who had committed felonies in order to obtain their drug of choice. Peer I was a tough treatment program, and the patient needed to be committed to change in order to complete the program and regain his freedom.
The one thing about this population, from a therapist point of view, was that the patient was, in most cases, motivated to change. Most were aware that what they had been doing, obviously wasn’t working in their best interest.
Motivation to change is the main factor for the treatment to be successful
This brings me to the subject of change and how ”motivation to change” is the primary factor necessary in order for any treatment program to be successful. Motivation to change, along with a strong support network from the patient’s spouse, family, and peers, is imperative. The saying “you can make it, but you can’t make it alone”, is so true. I would never have made it without my wife, my family and my peers support.
Use of psycho topic medications to treat bipolar, ADHD and depression
Another huge change in the addiction treatment world today is, the use of psycho topic medications. They are used to treat conditions such as bipolar, anxiety, ADHD (attention deficit disorder), and depression. These are many times co-occurring disorders with many substance use disorders. Most addicted patients, with one or more of these co-occurring disorders, have been using drugs to self-medicate. Having assessment for a co-occurring mental disorder is standard when having a substance use disorder assessment.
The other latest developments for treating opiate dependency, or opiate substance use disorder, is the use of naltrexone, a drug which blocks the effects of opiates. This drug can be taken in pill form or applied as a topical time released patch, and now even an implant.
Buprenorphine is the active ingredient in the pills Suboxone and Subutex. These are an alternative to methadone and offered in most methadone clinics these days.
A huge difference in buprenorphine and methadone is there is very little withdrawal discomfort from buprenorphine and the withdrawal from methadone is difficult and painful without medical detoxification. Well, you heard my story. Therefore, patients now have many other more effective and less addictive drugs to help in “medication-assisted treatment” than the old methadone method.
Support of your spouse or a family member is essential on the road to recovery
In closing, I want to reiterate that I learned through my personal experience and professional experience just how important it is to have the support of a loved one, whether a spouse or family member or both, on the “road to recovery “of an addict. And with all these factors, a treatment program, strong support network, and personal commitment, a person can break free of addiction. Finding a treatment program, such as the one I am working with now, A New Outlook Counseling Service, that treats not only the addicted patient but also offers family counseling, is essential these days since addiction affects the whole family.
Well, that’s the story of my personal “road to recovery” I hope it will help others on theirs.