Critical Facts You Should Know If A Loved One Is Addicted To Painkillers
The latest report from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention revealed that more 33,000 persons in the U.S. died from an opioid overdose in 2015 – these deaths were related to use of prescription painkillers, such as oxycodone, as well as heroin and it’s much more powerful cousin, fentanyl.
The CDC estimates that roughly two million Americans are currently addicted to painkillers. Also, up to 80% of new heroin users report they began their habit after first becoming addicted to prescription drugs. Finally, more than 12 million U.S. residents report using prescription opioids for non-medical purposes in the past year.
Opioids, regardless of potency, have the potential for tolerance, dependency, and addiction. Powerful drugs like fentanyl can cause life-threatening central nervous system depression even in small doses.
When opioids are used with other depressants, such as anti-anxiety medication or alcohol, the combined effect is multiplied, making them even more dangerous.
According to the National Safety Council, there are several critical facts you need to know if you believe someone close to you is addicted to painkillers.
1. Addiction is a disease, not a moral shortcoming.
Addiction, like other chronic diseases, can cause a wealth of health conditions and has a high mortality rate if not treated. Many people will addiction struggle against it, and deserve to be treated with empathy and dignity.
Conversely, when addicts are shamed or told it’s their fault, they are more likely to retreat in isolation, and not seek help for their condition.
But many addicts and alcoholics have recovered, and there are many different evidence-based approaches that have good success rates. Any effort made toward recovery should be applauded, even if it leads to relapse, which is extremely common.
2. Traditional treatments don’t always work.
Some addiction “cures” focus on abrupt cessation of drug use and don’t include support from addiction specialists. Unfortunately, even those privy to evidence-based treatment in a recovery center may relapse, and often do so in the first year.
Again, addiction is a chronic disease, and like any other lifelong disease, such as diabetes, sufferers may need continual treatment and support for as long as they live. And therapy that doesn’t involve medication specifically intended to treat the very core of addiction (cravings, withdrawals, and reward-seeking behavior) is lacking a very fundamental aspect of treatment.
2. Medication-assisted therapy is available.
There are several medications that are available that can help opioid addicts recover. They are most effectively used as part of a comprehensive treatment program that includes individual therapy and group support.
For example, buprenorphine helps to restore brain chemistry by reducing the effects of cravings and withdrawals, and naltrexone blocks the euphoric effects of opioids, so the user doesn’t experience the same “high” feeling or reward that he or she is accustomed.
4. A solid support system is essential.
Many people go through detox, therapy, and then relapse. This perceived setback often leaves the sufferer feeling like a failure, helpless and hopeless. While addiction specialists and therapists are important, but having a supportive network of well-educated family and friends is equally critical.
5. Both patients and their support system need to understand addiction, that it IS a disease, and be able to identify methods help manage it.
Moreover, it’s not enough to rely on counselors and 12-step programs – all affected parties should seek to educate themselves and explore different options. For example, programs such as SMART Recovery can serve as an effective alternative for those who aren’t helped by 12-step programs. Just because one person swears by an approach, certainly doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.
Finally, I’d like to add that recovery is not based on sheer willpower. Addicts are not morally bankrupt, and no one chooses to be an addict, no more than diabetics chose to have diabetes. Think about all the mental and medical conditions that could be cured if so-called “willpower” worked alone, such as obesity and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Furthermore, there is a dangerous trend afoot that could be devastating for those who are addicted to painkillers. Last year, the CDC released guidelines for prescribing opioids, and although they are not mandatory, some states are in the process of legally adopting them, which will leave physicians no choice but to cut patients off.
These guidelines work great to keep new patients from becoming addicted to painkillers. But for those who are already addicted and don’t receive treatment, there is a high probability of turning street drugs such as heroin if when the drug of choice is not obtainable.
But this unfortunate truth is one reason why medication-assisted treatment and therapy is so important, and that it is critical to begin seeking help NOW before the situation deteriorates further.
In conclusion, recovery is not just about the patient’s capability to abstain and the desire to get well. It’s about the having a consistent, solid support system and access to therapies, medication, and tools that can make long-term sobriety attainable. There are no quick fixes, and relapse is often, unfortunately, a normal part of the process.
Blaming, shaming, and treating those with substance abuse disorders as less than human only serves to perpetuate stereotypes and keep those who suffer in the throes of suffering. Being empathetic and supportive is not the same thing as enabling. It takes a balance of tough love, unconditional support, and an array of medicinal and therapeutic tools to best promote and manage sustained recovery.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology