Do Interventions Work?

It has been a while, it seems, since I’ve checked in.  I’m at the point in the life cycle of a ‘blogger’ where I feel like I’ve said most of what I came here to say… so help me out by sending your questions, particularly those with broad implications, and I’ll chime in with an opinion.
In the meantime, check out the ‘best of’ page;  I have links there to some of the more popular post.   And for now, I’ll answer a question I received today on ‘’:
Do you believe in intervention of someone who does not ask or desire (to be clean)?
It is hard to predict human behavior; sometimes people rise to the occasion when all appears to be lost, and other times people who have everything going their way make surprisingly poor decisions.  But in my experience, real sobriety requires the addict to feel a profound need to change that comes from within. 

Grandma needs an intervention
More common than you think!

That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that interventions never work—but the intervention should be set up in such a way that the addict or alcoholic—him or herself– comes to the realization that getting clean is the only option. 
For example… let’s say that grandma has a problem with pain pills, taking more than what is prescribed, going to multiple doctors, going to the ER for pain pills, etc.  Her children don’t like her behavior, so they stage an intervention, to show her the problems her behavior is causing.  At the intervention, they tell her how hurt her grandchildren are by her absence at their functions, and they explain the risks of her behavior.  They set her up at a treatment center, and she is shipped off for 30 days.
She may go to all of the groups and meetings in treatment, agreeing politely in every setting that she has a serious problem, and that she really ‘gets it.’  And that would be great for the treatment center; they would collect their $30K, and everyone there would congratulate each other on how compassionate and bright they are. And later, when grandma is doing the exact thing she was doing before treatment, the counselors would put the blame on HER, acting as if SHE has a problem for not sticking to plan—even though almost all of their patients end up the same.
I used to be a bigger fan of residential treatment. But at some point I let go of the fantasy of residential treatment as the ‘gold standard’, and accepted the real numbers.  It is easy to clean a person up for a month in a closed environment.  But in regard to long-term sobriety… residential treatment rarely works.  Sorry to say something so horrible—but that emperor, sadly, has no clothes.
So back to grandma… I would expect her to go back to the same behavior after treatment. Why, after hearing from all the family, would she do that?
Because true change is very, very difficult. 
Besides, she has plenty of reasons to keep things the same.  She will likely think that the problem isn’t the use of pain pills, but rather that she didn’t hide things well enough.  Or she will assume that other people simply don’t understand what it is like to be 70 years old, trying to live with pain. She used to change the smelly diapers of these kids;  what could they possibly tell her that she doesn’t know?
And the major reason she won’t change?  For her to truly realize that her behavior is a problem, she would have to endure the shame for what was going on—and shame is a very strong motivator for denial.
In treatment, the team will try to try to break through that denial and have her admit, to herself, that she has a problem.  But that type of admission is rare, and only comes out when a person is desperate—and when there is no choice but to change.
But there are other ways to manage an intervention.  It would be best if grandma herself decides, at some point, that things must change.  How does that happen?  First, everyone has to stop enabling her.  If the grandchildren are angry that grandma didn’t show up at their birthdays, they should be allowed to express that anger—and when grandma protests, she is forced to hear why people are mad.  If grandma runs into problems with the doctor or pharmacist, nobody should help her sort things out;  she is left to juggle excuses on her own.  If she needs the ER for pain pills, she drives herself—or waits for a cab.
I chose ‘grandma,’ by the way, because I wanted to present the challenge of dealing with a person who deserves sympathy.  Nobody does her a favor by keeping her miserable.  Realize, though, that we are discussing addiction here;  I’m not suggesting that people abandon loved ones struggling with painful conditions!
The doctor should prescribe medications on a tight schedule, with strict refill dates that are maintained without exception.  Doctors are sometimes afraid to let people go into withdrawal, so they order ‘a few extra pills’ to get to the next refill;  medications should be long-lasting, so that withdrawal is uncomfortable, but not dangerous.  A short period of the medication- i.e. a one-week supply—will reduce the period of withdrawal.  If a person struggles to follow limits, the prescribing period is shortened until the person CAN follow it—even to the point of 3-day prescriptions with multiple refills.  If grandma complains about the multiple trips to the pharmacy, she is told that period will be lengthened if she sticks to the schedule— and shortened if she doesn’t.
The point of all of this is to make the person with the problem feel the consequences of their problem.  Too often, everyone else is aware of the need for an intervention, because everyone else feels the consequences—everyone but the addict.  The trick is to make the consequences hit the person who has the problem—and for everyone else to get on with life, until the person with the problem is sick and tired of those consequences.
Of course, every now and then an intervention turns out to be meaningful enough to get a person’s attention, and to spur change.  But in my experience those types of outcomes—the things we see on TV and in movies—are not the norm.

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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.

More about counseling and stigma

One of my patients sent me a link to a Kentucky newspaper article that described the recent surge in cases of opioid dependence and treatment with buprenorphine. The article described the increased costs for medicaid programs because of the need to pay for buprenorphine. The reporter said that the problem was that people are being placed on buprenorphine and only ‘maintained,’ instead of receiving ‘definitive treatment’ to fix the problem.
The reporter’s perspective and conclusions are not unusual, but they are, to put it bluntly, a crock– for a couple reasons. The first problem with the story is the reporter’s bias, caused by stigma. I left a comment after the article asking why the reporter wrote about rising costs for buprenorphine, instead of an article about the rising costs for medications for ALL of the many new diagnoses and conditions treated these days? To name a few, we have new medications for bipolar disorder, for elevated cholesterol, for coronary disease, for impotence and ‘low T,’ for diabetes, and for asthma– and all of those medications have resulted in higher costs as well. Why single out buprenorphine?
In fact, opioid dependence has become the second leading cause of death for young adults in many parts of the country, and if you look at the cost of buprenorphine over a denominator consisting of the number of lives saved by the medication, buprenorphine becomes a real bargain! Medications for other fatal diseases, for example chemotherapy for breast cancer, are much more costly than the $5 per day cost for treating opioid dependence. We also spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for EACH victim of a serious motor vehicle accident, and similar amounts for every transplant recipient– even when most transplants eventually fail, just as many addicts eventually relapse. Why is only ONE chronic illness– one with a relatively inexpensive cost per life saved– singled out? Are some lives less valuable than others?
What about the suggestion that buprenorphine is only a band-aid, and avoids ‘definitive treatment?’ I have written about this situation many times, and (thankfully) more and more data lends support to my position. I have struggled with my own opioid dependence for 18 years, and over that period of time have come to know a great many addicts; people who were colleagues, friends, patients, and acquaintenances. I have worked in residential treatment settings, and have referred patients to treatment programs ranging from one month to over a year in length, costing from $4,000 to $70,000 per month. The simple, shocking truth is that for opioid dependence, residential treatment RARELY WORKS. The issue of ‘addiction treatment’ is an incredible, sad, shameful ruse that has been spoon-fed to the lay-public, and even to medical and AODA treatment professionals. On TV, Dr. Drew does his thing with addicts– and yet nobody ever seems to question why his patients KEEP ON USING! We read that Lindsay Lohan just failed another drug test, and people assume she is pathologically stupid– when the truth is that she is only like so many others. She probably has an ignorant doc, pushing her off buprenorphine and blaming her when her ‘treatment program’ failed…. when in reality her DOCTORS failed, and her COUNSELORS failed, by not reading the literature and saying ‘duh– this residential stuff never works!!’ At the residential treatment center where I worked for the past few years, the counselors get excited when the patients look all shiny and clean after six weeks in the program… but completely ignore the fact that almost all of those same patients are using by the end of the next year. And what REALLY angers me is that many of the patients who the counselors consider ‘cured’ end up dead from their addictions… and instead of looking at themselves in the mirror with shame, they blame the ADDICTS for not following the program. That would be fine if a small percentage failed treatment. But when EVERYONE fails, it is the TREATMENT that deserves criticism, NOT the PATIENT.
Sorry for shouting.
Over 600 people taking buprenorphine were followed in a recent study that you can read about here. The study showed more of the same– that patients taken off buprenorphine universally relapse. But the study showed something that I found interesting, but not all that surprising. You see, everyone always loves to say that buprenorphine is fine, but ‘only if there is counseling too.’ I always get a kick out of how many people think ‘counseling’ is a good idea– as long as it is for someone else! This study of people on buprenorphine compared a control group that had a quick med check each week during the study period, with a ‘counseling group’ that had two one-hour sessions per week throughout the period, talking about interpersonal issues, personality problems, trauma and stress in the patients’ lives, and other feel-good issues. Guess what? There was NO DIFFERENCE in relapse rates between the control group and the addicts that received intensive counseling. None. Nada. Zero.
I have stated many times that opioid dependence deserves treatment as a MEDICAL ILLNESS, a chronic illness, a potentially fatal illness that finally has a chronic and effective treatment available. But now that this life-saving treatmennt is finally here, the insurers have the gall to limit access to treatment for only a year?! The newspapers have the gall to whine about the cost of a day’s medication– all of five bucks?!! And AODA counselors and some misinformed doctors have the gall to mislead patients by talking down the medication that will help people, even while knowing that their own meal-ticket/treatment programs are ineffective?!!
It even appears that the docs who ‘get it’ about buprenorphine are not doing what good medical science usually does– which is to keep an open mind about treatments and follow the data, not ‘PC’ assumptions. One assumption has been that addicts are so ‘faulty’ inside that they cannot be treated without ‘counseling;’ that surely they all need counseling to truly get better. Where is that assumption when it comes to treating other illnesses? And now that we have evidence that counseling was of no value in the latest study, will minds be open to change?
One of the study’s authors summed it up like this:  
“Does putting people on a short period of buprenorphine maintenance combined with counseling lead to reductions in relapse? It’s a great idea, and a wonderful hypothesis, because if it does work then this would be a huge win. We would not have to use extended maintenance. Unfortunately, it did not work, but the study needed to be done.”