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.
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.