Do-it-yourself detox programs make lofty promises, assuring addicts they can get clean ultra-fast, ultra-cheap. While easy fixes are difficult to resist, especially when it comes to a challenge as great as addiction, anyone who promises a painless, quick and permanent transition from addict to non-addict is deluded about the nature of this disease.
Detox, the process of eliminating drugs and alcohol from the body, is the first step toward recovery. For all our disagreements, one of the areas in which addiction specialists are nearly unanimous is that drug detox should take place in a licensed detox facility where the process is monitored and supervised by medical professionals.
Why the Where Matters
Resistant to seeking help, some addicts ask, “As long as I’m getting off drugs, what does it matter where detox happens?” Actually, it matters quite a bit. Detox is a complex medical process with significant risks. Abruptly stopping the use of drugs (also known as going “cold turkey”) can bring on painful withdrawal symptoms such as shakiness, chills, anxiety, depression, sweating, irritability, muscle and joint pain, diarrhea, insomnia, nausea, seizures and hallucinations. These symptoms may last just a few hours but more often a few days, and in some cases up to two weeks or more.
Withdrawal symptoms vary in duration and intensity based on the length and severity of the addiction, the individual’s physical and mental health, and other factors, but they are difficult to predict until they’re experienced firsthand. Even for those who can get through the discomfort, withdrawal from certain drugs can be dangerous, even life-threatening. A supervised medical detox is critical for individuals addicted to alcohol or benzodiazepines, and is well-advised for many undergoing opiate detox.
The Right Start
So what does professional detox provide that home detox doesn’t? In professional drug detox, the entire process is closely monitored by nurses, physicians and other health care providers with specialized training in drug detox. A physician can prescribe safe, well-researched medications, such as Suboxone and buprenorphine, which minimize withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings and make detox more comfortable. The medical team may also recommend nutritional supplements, pain relievers and non-addictive medication to address body aches and other complaints.
Supervised detox isn’t just about granting yourself the “luxury” of less pain, it is about staying committed to your program of recovery. When temptations inevitably arise, being in a supervised facility with other addicts undergoing the same process can help remind you why you’re going to all this effort in the first place and combat the tendency toward isolation.
A Long-Term Commitment to Recovery
Detox is an important first step, but it’s just that: one step in a longer process. It takes months, not days, for the brain to return to normal functioning and for drug cravings to become more manageable. Building a fulfilling life in sobriety requires the development of new skills, which takes place in one-on-one counseling, group and family therapy, support group meetings, and other treatments tailored to the individual’s needs.
Skipping these steps typically leads right back to drug abuse. A 2012 study from Johns Hopkins found that ongoing treatment following detox dramatically increased addicts’ chances of remaining drug-free six months later. Whereas relapse rates for people leaving detox range from 65 to 80 percent one month after discharge, people who continued on with treatment were up to 10 times more likely to stay abstinent.
It’s not surprising that many people think they can stop using drugs on their own. It’s the nature of addictive thinking to believe, “Other people may not be able to do it on their own, but I’m different. I can.” Many people can withstand the pain, many can summon the courage to take a step into the unknown, but few will go on to achieve long-term sobriety without some form of help.
Of course, the same types of treatment may not be right for everyone, but for most, detoxing on your own is just another setback, not a solution. Those that relapse over and over again feel hopeless and defeated when perhaps the cycle could’ve been avoided with a bit of professional support from the get-go. If you’ve made the important decision to stop using drugs, give yourself a real chance at a better life by making another bold choice: asking for help.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Addiction Medicine and Addiction Psychiatry. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees such treatment programs as Clarity Way in Pennsylvania, Journey Healing Centers in Utah and Arizona, and Promises Treatment Centers in California and Texas.
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Last reviewed: 28 Feb 2014