The Transylvania Times -

Drug Addiction Solution: Connection

 

October 16, 2017



More than 100 people attended a program entitled “Everything You Think You Know About Drug Addiction Is Wrong” at the Unitarian Universalist Church Wednesday evening.

“Tonight, we are going to try to undue some of the myths about addiction and about addicts,” said Jim Hardy, who moderated the event. “We demonize people with addiction. We’re going to try to put a human face on addiction tonight.”

Hardy said drug addiction is a very “complex issue,” but that much of the information disseminated in the past was wrong. The goal of the presentation and three more presentations to follow is to inform people about addiction and inspire them to advocate for humane drug policies based on science.

Hardy said that after serving in the Air Force from 1967-71 and returning to rural New York as a high school teacher and father, “I saw drugs coming into the school. I was all for the drug war.”

Teenagers, whose brains are not fully developed and are susceptible to peer pressure, are more likely to become addicted than adults. Hardy said if a person first tries drugs in his teens, he has a one in four chance of becoming addicted. If a person does not try drugs until after age 21, the chances of becoming addicted are one in 25.

“Our teenagers are definitely at risk,” he said.

Over the years, however, Hardy changed his mind about the War on Drugs as more information became available and the scale of drug abuse has increased.

“A lot of what we have been told is just not accurate,” Hardy said.

Hardy said the deadliest drug is tobacco, which in 2013 was responsible for 480,000 deaths in the U.S. Alcohol was responsible for 88,000 deaths that year. All other drugs combined were responsible for 59,176 deaths in 2013.

Of that last number, approximately 38,000 deaths were attributed to prescription drugs and opioid pain relievers.

There were no deaths due to marijuana, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

“Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”

Hardy said some drug habits cost $500 a day. Since drug users receive only about 10 percent of what a stolen item is worth when they “fence” it, they would have to steal about $5,000 worth of goods a day to financially support their addiction. As result, drug users often turn to either prostitution or selling drugs.

“That (selling drugs) is where the money is,” said Hardy, who added that in order to make more money, drug dealers try to expand their market by getting more users.

“Addiction is addiction” said Hardy, adding that people can become addicted to drugs, phones, sex, sugar, running, etc. The rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes is the result of sugar addictions.

He said addiction is the result of stimulating pleasure centers in the brain.

“Most drug use is about people trying to feel better,” he said.

Hardy then showed a short film that discussed a study of rats.

A rat isolated in a cage preferred water laced with heroin instead of just pure water.

But when other rats and objects that rats like were added to the cage, the rats almost exclusively drank the pure water and rarely drank the water laced with heroin.

A similar human experience occurred after the Vietnam War. The movie stated that 20 percent of the troops in Vietnam used heroin. Experts thought that when those troops came home, there would be a heroin epidemic. Instead, once those troops returned home, 95 percent of them just stopped using heroin.

“It’s not the chemicals; it’s your cage,” that contributes to addiction, according to the movie.

The movie said humans need a bond and if there is not a bond with other human beings, then people will bond with something else – TV, phones, drugs, etc.

The solution, according to the film, is for people to get out of unhealthy bonds and into healthy bonds. But American society has been moving in the opposite direction.

The film stated that since the 1950s, the number of close friends people have is declining while the size of homes is increasing. People are choosing floor space over friends, stuff over connections.

According to the film, the previous ways of resolving addiction have failed because people who need to make meaningful connections are being isolated and imprisoning them makes people who are not well feel worse.

“We are going to have to change the unnatural way we live and rediscover each other,” said the movie. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; the opposite of addiction is connection.”

Panel members Larry Goodwin, Dr. Dale Nash and Stephanie Prejean then spoke about their roles in supporting recovery efforts for people addicted to drugs.

Goodwin, who has worked in the field of drug addiction recovery for more than 45 years, some of it with the U.S. military, said people have always used chemicals to alter their physical and mental states.

Society chooses which chemicals are good and which are not.

“We define addiction based on that. The problem is we’ve been sold a bill of goods,” said Goodwin. “We don’t have the whole picture.”

He said the current opioid crisis is nothing new because it has been affecting the black community for decades.

“It’s been here. We looked the other away,” he said, adding that opioid abuse was not a crisis until it affected white, middle class families.

Goodwin said it is not actually the drug or the amount of drugs a person takes that defines addiction, but “what happens to you when you do.”

He said some people have a genetic predisposition toward drug addiction while others can use the same drug and never become addicted.

He said that environment also plays a contributing role. He said some people, like the troops in Vietnam, who are in a “hopeless, helpless situation get into trouble.”

Goodwin said a lot of people believe “addicts are pretty stupid people. That is a total falsehood. Some of the most brilliant people I have ever met were addicts.”

He said addicts are just responding to the reality available to them. He then took a rectangular red block and showed it to three segments of the audience, with each segment viewing the block from a different perspective.

Even though it was the same object, each group saw something different. As a result, some people can see problems where others are unaware of them.

“We all have life filters,” he said.

The problem is compounded for addicts because the drugs affect their perception of reality.

“The deception in reality is complete,” he said. “They cannot see what they are doing to themselves. They are not seeing what you are seeing.”

He said people often view drug addicts as criminal, dirty, irresponsible and manipulative.

Goodwin said people have to realize that those addicted to drugs are still human beings and people need to connect with that aspect of a person.

“There’s a human being under there we need to help draw out,” said Goodwin.

Goodwin said incarceration fails as a remedy because it isolates a person who needs community and it makes a sick person feel worse.

From an economic viewpoint, the cost of incarcerating a person is 10 times greater than the cost of treating an addict.

He said, however, that even with that knowledge, people overwhelmingly still want to criminalize addicts.

Nash, who volunteers twice a week at a methadone treatment clinic in Asheville, said the treatment center has 800 patients, half of whom come from Tennessee. He broke down the drug addicted into three groups: those born “in a sea of opiates” who do not know anything else; those who were prescribed opiates by doctors, and those who were seduced by the recreational use of drugs.

Nash told the story of one veteran who had started his own successful company, but then had a serious back problem. He said the VA gave the man “obscene quantities” of medications for his pain. Eventually the man had back surgery, but the man realized after the surgery that he had become addicted to the drugs.

Nash said the man had hired two employees whom others had warned him not to hire. But as the man’s life kept getting worse, the two employees addressed him directly about his addiction because they had the same problem and he could not hide it from them.

“They knew what was going on and they brought him to where he could get some help,” said Nash, adding that the two physically brought the man to the methadone clinic.

Nash also spoke of a woman whose mother had sold her for cocaine.

“I didn’t know what she meant. It was exactly what she said,” Nash said, explaining that her mother arranged for her to have sex with men in exchange for her mother getting cocaine. “I was shocked and speechless.”

Nash said the young woman eventually became addicted but moved back in with her mother who had an abusive boyfriend.

The boyfriend later shot and killed her mother. The younger woman told Nash she came to the methadone clinic because she wanted to help her niece, who had no one to help her and is about the same age she was when her mother prostituted her.

Nash said the woman asked if he wanted to see a photo and she took out a well worn photo that she had obviously shown many times.

“That’s me, and oh, that’s my mother,” she told him.

“I still can’t grasp the closeness and importance of the relationship that persisted until her mother was shot despite the fact that her mother had sold her for cocaine,” said Nash.

Stephanie Prejean, who is employed by Meridian Behavioral Services, works at the county public safety facility as a jail diversion clinician and helps people from the time they are brought to jail until their time is served.

She said about 75 percent of those brought to jail initially say “I shouldn’t be here.”

A few days later, however, she said they say “I am so thankful that I am here” because they have a chance to step away from the drug environment and clear their heads.

She said the third phase is planning to leave jail and to seek assistance through rehab.

Prejean said one of her favorite exercises is to have the inmates list their three favorite relationships, three most precious objects and three most honored values. Then, by going through difficult experiences that seem to build one upon another, they lose – one by one – all of those relationships, objects and values.

She then asks them what they must do to retrieve or rebuild those values, objects and relationships.

Most of them answer that they need to become sober.

But Prejean said what they need is “something to live for.” She said it is difficult for addicts to become motivated if they have no job, no reason to get out of bed in the morning and that the community needs to help them find reasons for living.

“It’s not sobriety, it’s connections,” she said regarding the solution to addiction.

During a question and answer session following the presentation, the panel members were asked if physicians and others in the medical profession are being more responsible about prescribing opioids. Goodwin said that a year ago patients could to the VA and get a 30-day supply of opioids. Now they cannot.

Nash said the situation has improved some, but “most doctors are not where we need to be.”

Nash said the success rate at methadone clinics is not very high.

“I bet it’s not 15 percent,” said Nash.

Nash said he said not know how many veterans have come back from combat in Middle East as addicts, but the number of homeless veterans from those conflicts is “disgraceful.”

He said the mental health care system in the country is so ineffective that “substance abuse is the only affordable mental health care they can find.”

Prejean said some addicts find it difficult to re-connect with the community because of shame and guilt for their addiction and possible crimes.

One former inmate in the audience said it was not just shame or guilt that isolated former addicts, but also “laws that put us down as individuals.”

He said former inmates are disenfranchised because they cannot get student loans or lose out on jobs because they are required to state they had committed a crime.

“You are totally right,” said Prejean, who added that there are certain reform efforts underway to help former inmates re-assimilate into society.

Prejean said he best thing people can do is be supportive and non-judgmental.

Hardy agreed. He said that at a previous meeting on drug addiction a former addict and inmate said he was able to break his addiction because of “one person who never gave up on me.”

Several times throughout the evening Hardy encouraged people to read “Chasing the Scream” by British journalist Johann Hari.

“It’s a powerful book,” he said.

(This presentation was the first in a four-part series of presentations on drug addiction and recovery support services. The series continues this Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church with “The Tragedy and Damage of the War on Drugs.” The following two Tuesdays the topics will be “Enlightened, Compassionate, Accessible Treatment for Opioid Addiction” and “Into the Light: Locals Sources of Hope and Compassionate Support for Those Dealing with Drug Abuse and Addiction. The series is being sponsored by the Transylvania NAACP and the Unitarian Universalist Church.)

 
 

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