2014’s top posts: #2

“He’d still be alive”

CANADA TORONTO FILM FESTIVALMuch has been said this week about the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

I’ve heard two recurring themes. First, that he might still be alive if he had been “treated with an evidence-based” treatment, like buprenorphine. Second, that he might still be alive if he hadn’t been inculcated with the disease model, which purportedly fosters learned helplessness.

The buprenorphine argument

I know nothing of the treatment he received and most of these people admit that they don’t either.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that their assumptions are correct.

One problems is that most of these writers fail to deal with the issue of falling buprenorphine compliance ratesThis recent study of 6 month study found a dropout rate of 76% for those without chronic pain and described the compliance rates as consistent with other studies.

Early studies of buprenorphine reported outstanding compliance rates. Those numbers need to be viewed with suspicion and one should wonder whether the promulgation of those numbers is a success of science or marketing.

Their premise seems to be that people prescribed buprenorphine don’t OD. I don’t doubt that people currently taking buprenorhine are at lower risk for OD. However, I’m not aware of any good studies of survival rates that consider real world compliance rates.

Now, we learn that buprenorphine was reportedly found in his apartment. I have no idea whether it was prescribed to him or whether he bought it on the street. If it was prescribed to him, it suggests that prescribing the drug may not have the protective properties that advocates claim. If he bought it on the street, it points to the issue of diversion, which raises questions about patient compliance with the drug.

Besides, this was someone who had maintained some sort of remission for 23 years, had been in relapse for one year and had only one, brief detox episode during that period of time. Seems a little rash to assume that that path that had worked for 23 years would be a bad path to try to get him back to.

The disease argument

There’s ample evidence that addiction is a disease and, kind of like the climate change debate, though there is a noisy group of dissenters with high visibility, there is widespread agreement among experts that it’s a brain disease characterized by loss of control.

One of the most common arguments to question the disease model is the existence of natural recovery–that fact that large numbers of “addicts” recovery without any help.

The quotation marks in the previous sentence signal my response. Vietnam vets who returned with heroin problems are a frequently cited example. Most came back to the states and quit heroin on their own. Reports indicate that only 5% to 12% were unable to quit or moderate.

Hmmmm. That range….5 to 12 percent…why, that’s similar to estimates of the portion of the population that experiences addiction to alcohol or other drugs.

To me, the other important lesson is that opiate dependence and opiate addiction are not the same thing. Hospitals and doctors treating patients for pain recreate this experiment on a daily basis. They prescribe opiates to patients, often producing opiate dependence. However, all but a small minority will never develop drug seeking behavior once their pain is resolved and they are detoxed.

My problem with all the references to these vets and addiction, is that I suspect most of them were dependent and not addicted.

So…it certainly has something to offer us about how addictions develops (Or, more specifically, how it does not develop.), but not how it’s resolved.

Why is it so frequently cited and presented without any attempt to distinguish between dependence and addiction? Probably because it fits the preferred narrative of the writer.

It’s worth noting that this can cut in both directions. There’s a tendency to respond to problem users (people who drink too much, but are not alcoholics.) and dependent non-addicts (most pain patients or these returning vets) as though they are addicts. This results in bad treatment for those people, bad research and it manufactures resentment toward treatment, mutual aid groups and recovery advocates.

We run into the same problem when recovery advocates (who I love and generally agree with) report that there are 23 million Americans in recovery. These kinds of statements tend to be based on surveys asking people something to effect of, “Have you previously had a problem with drugs or alcohol and no longer have one?” That kind of question is going to get a lot of false-positives for what we think of as recovery. It’s a little like asking people if they once had a chronic cough and no longer have one, then inferring that all of those people are in recovery from TB.

We know that relatively large numbers of young adults will meet criteria for alcohol dependence but that something like 60% of them will mature out as they hit milestones like graduating from college, starting a career or starting a family. Are these people addicts in recovery? Or, were they people with a problem of an entirely different kindan acute alcohol problem rather than the chronic brain disease of addiction?

We need to do a better job distinguishing addiction/alcoholism from dependence and look at improving DSM criteria to help with this distinction. Loss of control, over an extended period of time that returns after periods of abstinence is the key to me. Addicts/alcoholics are not people making poor decisions about their drug and alcohol use, they are people who have lost the ability to make execute decisions related to drug and alcohol use.

It’s apples and oranges and these statements about the prevalence of recovery do real damage to the cause. People with addiction shouldn’t be treated with expectations constructed around the experience and pathways of people who do not have the same disease. AND, people who do not have addiction should not be subjected to treatments for people who do have the disease.

A better argument

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog responding to arguments that pharmacological treatments are better than drug-free treatment. And, I’ll admit that I feel defensive when I hear treatment being attacked. However, when I step back, I have to admit that there’s a lot of bad treatment out there. With and without medications.

These arguments about drug-free vs. drug maintenance miss one really big and really important point. Whichever kind of treatment a person ends up receiving, there’s a really good chance that they will not get the long term monitoring and support that is appropriate for a life-threatening and chronic disease.

Two models that have outstanding outcomes are treatment programs for health professionals and programs for pilots. Both have long term success rates in 90% range. Both of them happen to be drug-free, but the point I want to focus on is that they both provide intensive long term monitoring and support with rapid re-intervention in the event of relapse.

Shouldn’t we have a system that monitored Philip Seymour Hoffman in the same way we monitor people with heart disease? One other example that comes to mind is my dentist. I mean, I don’t even get cavities–there’s nothing urgent going on in my mouth. BUT, my dentist corners me into scheduling another appointment before I leave the office and they start calling and texting me to remind me AND even ask me to reply that I will make my appointment.

If my dentist can deploy the strategies to promote continuity of care, why can’t addiction treatment programs?

6 thoughts on “2014’s top posts: #2

  1. I wish there was better training in rehab centers for diagnosing co-occuring disorders. My family member has had severe observed and diagnosed disorders since pre-school. One rehab center did not want to hear about her history and told us that she was in therapy 6 hours/day. One month, no follow-up. Another told us that despite reading her history, they were not going to do an evaluation because they believed her behavior had been “attention-seeking.” Digging into your skin to the bone around every nail is attention seeking? That is the least of it. She left three rehab centers with the best of intentions but has relapsed every time. For numerous reasons, she is not a good fit for AA and stopped going. She didn’t get along with other women and left sober living. The Intensive Outpatient Programs did not help. She might be a great candidate for a Recovery Coach if we could find one. She has finally been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and is being treated, which is the best result so far. She also was diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency and thyroid disorder and with treatment is getting stronger. I drug-test her frequently based on the pilot program. She is on Vivitrol. We pray. We are trying to keep her alive to give her some brain healing. I feel like there are no resources available that REACH OUT to her that are a match to what you describe. It is a sickening and sad situation.


    1. I am sorry that you have had to deal with this kind of care for your family member. I hope that she continues to get better and, it sounds like she may be on a better path. Best of luck to your whole family and your loved one.


  2. Jason, thanks so much for being one of the few commentators who is willing and able to interpret the Robins Viet Nam heroin study properly. Almost everyone seems to get it wrong. The stubborn 10-15% IS the story, but harm reduction commentators prefer to concentrate on the majority as evidence that addiction is a lifestyle choice. Or, as we are being called upon to view it, a disorder of learning. The disease denialists will have their day and get their say—some heavyweight books coming up shortly that promise to annihilate that pernicious disease model once and for all. Good luck with that.


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