A Tool, Not a Cure
Please review my prior post, as my comments will refer to an email in that post.
There are many directions that we could take as we review that message. My overall impression, as I read the letter, was of a person struggling to accept the reality of his condition. Over and over, the person repeated the same behavior, starting Suboxone, stopping, and thinking this time will be different.
One thing I’ve learned as a psychiatrist, more than anything, is that change is difficult, and rare. The writer ends with the thought that maybe this time will REALLY be different. I have no idea if it will be, and for his sake, I hope it is… but unfortunately, the odds are that history will repeat itself.
Why, then, bother taking Suboxone—if everything just goes back to how it was? The problem is not that Suboxone “doesn’t work”; the problem is in the expectations of some of those who take or prescribe the medication. The active part of Suboxone—buprenorphine—is not a cure for addiction, but rather is a very useful tool. Buprenorphine is a chemical that essentially tricks the mu opioid receptor.
Because of the ceiling effect—at higher drug levels, effects at the receptor remain constant as drug concentrations vary—the receptors function as if nothing is ‘coming on’ or ‘wearing off.’ That, in turn, eliminates cravings for the drug, and prevents the ‘reward’ for taking the drug.
Buprenorphine appears to work very well for the writer. When on buprenorphine, he is able to avoid using opioid agonists. The problem comes in the expectation that when buprenorphine is stopped, the condition of opioid dependence will somehow be gone, and will stay gone. That is a completely different matter!
Opioid dependence is a complicated condition that can be viewed from different perspectives; behavioral, neurochemical, social, etc. Some factors that contribute to ongoing addiction are addressed by buprenorphine, but most are not. At one point the writer refers to being ‘stabilized on buprenorphine;’ the best way, I think, to view what happens with the medication.
During active addiction, a person finds that unpleasant emotions, thoughts, or feelings can be blunted by taking a substance. In the long run, the consequences of using a substance become more and more negative, but the active addict cannot see beyond the pressing needs of the moment. These pressing needs become worse, once addicted, because physical withdrawal – including depression, pain, and dread—are added to the other pressures of life. Buprenorphine removes the neurochemical pressure to take opioids—i.e. the constant obsession to improve one’s subjective state.
Hopefully, relieving that obsession allows the patient to change the course of his life; to change social networks, to improve occupational standing, to improve self-discovery and personal insight. If a person insists on stopping buprenorphine, the hope is that there will be enough changes in these other areas, so that the person will somehow be able to avoid responding to the urge to medicate the moment.
I think we are at a point where we need to consider the true nature of addiction. Many treatment programs and physicians and treatment programs have an idealized image of how things should proceed after starting buprenorphine. Patients ‘should’ be able to avoid all other substances, and patients ‘should’ be able to taper off buprenorphine at some point. Through a process known as ‘counseling,’ patients are supposed to develop insight into their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, so their lives follow a different course when the buprenorphine is eventually discontinued.
But what if patients CAN’T taper off buprenorphine? What if patients eventually relapse, after stopping buprenorphine? What then? Contradictions are apparent, when one looks for them. We know that opioid dependence is a chronic, relapsing condition. We know that relapse is more the rule than the exception. We know that addiction is a process, not an event—and that ‘cure’ is not an accurate concept. Yet program after program requires people to eventually stop buprenorphine. Talk about a set-up for failure!
To truly understand addiction and the role of buprenorphine, one must realize that addiction is a conditioned or learned phenomenon. Parents of teens addicted to opioids will sometimes tell me ‘I just want my daughter back.’ I’ll ask the parent when he last rode a bicycle— and point out that even if the last ride was 20 years ago, he could still ride today. And even if he hasn’t been to his childhood home for 20 years, he could likely drive straight to his front door. THAT’S the challenge of ‘curing’ addiction!
About the ‘utilitarian’ approach… the way I suggest we view buprenorphine is the best way to consider other psychiatric medications as well, in my opinion. We don’t think of SSRI’s as ‘curative’ for depression; rather they reduce obsession and worry, contributing to changes that allow recovery from depression. Anticonvulsants do not ‘cure’ bipolar; rather they reduce the likelihood or severity of symptoms of mania. Antipsychotics do not ‘cure’ schizophrenia; they prevent or reduce psychotic symptoms.
About anxiety… does the writer REALLY have it more difficult than others? Maybe– or maybe not. It really doesn’t matter. Most patients who I see for opioid dependence believe they were dealt an unfair hand in life, from an emotional perspective. Most feel that their subjective experiences are more difficult than the experiences of others. Many say that they are shy, or that they experience significant depression most of the time. Most say that opioids relieved those uncomfortable emotions or sensations very effectively—at first, anyway—and that is why the addiction started.
Whether our load is truly heavier than someone else’s doesn’t matter, since we only experience our own load. In other words, who would hurt more if his arm was severed, you or me? It doesn’t matter—it hurts both of us ‘enough!’ At the same time, no amount of personal distress logically warrants taking something that only makes things worse. If only addiction was logical!
About being able to choose the course of our lives… ‘Choice’ advocates–people who say that addicts choose to use drugs, and that they should simply choose NOT to use—say that addicts are weak in needing to medicate themselves through life. In reality, there are few discreet ‘choices’ in life. Our behavior flows seamlessly from one thing to the next. ‘Choosing’ consists of a million tiny thoughts, sewn together and spread over a wide range of time. The actual ‘choice’ to use occurs long before a person literally picks up the drug—- in a million subtle decisions and behaviors that the person may or may not have insight into. Avoiding opioids, without the help of buprenorphine, requires constant awareness and engagement of insight. Sober recovery is not effortless, and is not possible for everyone— just as some people cannot avoid depression without using SSRIs, and some diabetics cannot control their blood sugars without using exogenous insulin. There is no shame in having one’s addiction treated!
Comments, as always, are welcome. And to the writer, thank you for sharing your story, and provoking this discussion. I can’t say whether it is time to stop Suboxone, or whether you will ever do well off the medication. But in any case, I encourage you to appreciate life as best you can, and cultivate enough interests so that the buprenorphine issue falls into the background. That, in my opinion, is the best way to use buprenorphine; to allow people to live life as if they had never become addicted, and to learn to tolerate life on life’s terms, as best they can. For some people, maybe that’s “clean enough.”
Tools in pocket photo available from Shutterstock
Junig, J. (2012). A Tool, Not a Cure. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/epidemic-addiction/2012/08/tool/