In discussing his son’s addiction, writer David Sheff uses terms many family members of addicts would understand. He says, for example, that his son was a “wild teenager,” and perhaps he’d get better if he was supplied with a little bit of “tough love.” These kinds of terms can help family members to come to grips with an addiction, but unfortunately, they’re not always accurate. In fact, they could be damaging.
People with addictions don’t have a lack of willpower, a deficit of morals or a deep-seated wish to ruin the lives of people around them. Instead, they have a disease that begins with cellular changes inside the brain. These amendments, while caused by a choice to use drugs, can move an addiction from the realm of the controllable to the role of compulsion. When this happens, medications can play a vital role in the recovery process. These drugs can amend imbalances, soothe disconnections and otherwise make sobriety a little easier to attain and maintain. For some people, they can be vital for a full recovery.
Many addictive drugs tinker with neurotransmitter levels inside the brain. Some drugs cause a boost of the chemicals, while others ensure that the released chemicals aren’t processed and removed from the body. These amendments are responsible for the bliss people feel when they take these drugs, but the resulting brain changes caused by a chemical boost can make people feel much worse down the road. Their brains may respond to the drug use by producing fewer chemicals, or the brain may become less responsive to the chemicals. Amended people like this may feel sick or ill at ease when they first attempt to stop taking drugs, and sometimes, the changes persist for months or even years after the person finally stops taking drugs.
Other drugs work by slowing down the brain to such a degree that its normal electrical activity slows down to a crawl. This would be considered an abnormal state in a healthy person, but an addicted person may come to feel as though the sleepy, calm, sedated mind is normal. When these people attempt to stop taking their drugs, they may experience:
These aren’t symptoms caused by a lack of willpower or a deficit of character. They’re caused by chemical changes inside the brain, and these chemical changes could have life-threatening consequences.
Medications in Detox
When people first attempt to stop taking the drugs they were once addicted to, medications can help to soothe their distress and ease the transition between intoxication and sobriety. In an article about the practice in the fight against heroin addiction, published in the journal Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, researchers report that their programs took 90 days to complete, and patients were provided with medications on a tapering dose as their medical professionals monitored them for complications. This is a rather straightforward approach, and it’s likely that many detox centers follow this same protocol.
When detox begins, medical practitioners determine what kinds of drugs the person has been taking and how long the abuse has continued. Then, medical professionals develop a detox schedule. Some people take replacement medications that work on the same receptors utilized by the drugs they once took. Others take the same drugs they were once addicted to, on a tapering dose. This approach is common in people addicted to prescription drugs, for example. Slowly but surely, the body adjusts and people are able to achieve sobriety without experiencing a significant amount of pain or a terrible side effect in the process. It can be an excellent way to deal with an addiction issue, and when detox is through, some people are taking no medications at all.
Ongoing Medication Management
Some people stay on their addiction medications when they’re no longer in detox. These people may feel a deep need to take drugs when they’re not provided with replacement medications, for example, or they may continue to experience physical distress when their medications are removed. The medication use isn’t destructive, as it’s closely monitored by medical professionals to ensure that no abuse takes place, and it can be transformative for some clients.
People with heroin addictions or opiate prescription medication addictions are often provided with replacement medications like methadone or buprenorphine as they fight back against their drug use. In a study of the practice, published in the journal The Lancet, researchers found that people given buprenorphine as part of a treatment program had longer periods of sobriety when compared to people who didn’t get the same medication. They were able to control their urges due to the chemical amendments the medication provided, and they were able to experience a more robust recovery as a result. This kind of study demonstrates how truly transformative long-term medication management can be for some people with opiate addictions.
Other drugs of abuse don’t have the same kinds of routine prescriptions available, but there is some evidence that researchers are finding new ways in which to help their clients who take other kinds of drugs. For example, an article produced by Harvard Health Publications found that these medications might be helpful for cocaine or stimulant addiction, even though the medications have been developed to treat other medical conditions:
Some treatment facilities also prescribe mental health medications to clients in the midst of their recovery process. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help people to deal with underlying mental health conditions that might impede their recovery, and at times, these medications can help to soothe the damage an ongoing addiction can cause.
Part of Comprehensive Care
Medications alone can’t “cure” an addiction. Even when the medications are on board, the person still has all of the thought patterns, habits and opinions that helped to foster the addiction issue, and all of those factors will need to change if the person is to achieve a long-term recovery from an addiction issue. Counseling and support group meetings are key tools that can help people to achieve those goals, and they simply must be part of a person’s robust recovery process.
Some facilities believe so strongly in the power of therapy to elicit change that they don’t offer medication management at all. For example, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, only 24 percent of addiction treatment facilities surveyed offered prescription drugs for an alcohol abuse issue. The rest relied only on therapy. Some people may find this reassuring, as they may dislike the idea of taking a prescription in order to deal with an addiction issue. For people like this, an addiction is best treated without pharmacology, so they can break the cycle of taking medications to help them deal with their problems. But, those who feel medications would help them in a fight against an addiction might need to be sure to ask questions of the facilities they’re considering, so they can be sure to find a program that will provide the treatments they want.
If you’d like help with these treatment decisions, or you just need help in order to convince someone you love to enter a treatment program, please call us. We can put you in touch with a family mediator who can explain the addiction issue in commonsense terms and provide you with terminology you can use to talk to an addicted person you love. Our calls are confidential, and we’re available around the clock. Please call us to find out more.