by Maia Szalavitz

Before Joe Thompson switched treatments for his opioid addiction, he was a devoted stay-at-home father, caring for his infant son after his wife returned to work. His recovery was aided by the anticraving medication buprenorphine. But after over two years free of heroin, Mr. Thompson, a former United Parcel Service worker from Iowa, relapsed and decided to try another kind of treatment program.

Unfortunately, his new counselors insisted that continuing his buprenorphine, though it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, was just as bad as using heroin, according to his wife, Deborah. He wasn’t even allowed to start therapy until he’d been abstinent for several weeks. Stressed by withdrawal, he went to a third center. It, too, banned medication. Within a week of entering the program, he was dead from a heroin overdose. He was 35.

Buprenorphine is one of only two treatments proven to cut the death rate from opioid addiction by half or more. But the programs Mr. Thompson tried viewed abstinence as the only true recovery — even though abstinence treatment has not been shown to reduce mortality and is less effective than medication at preventing relapse.

Unfortunately, Mr. Thompson’s experience is more the rule than the exception.

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When I read it this week, a light went on in my mind telling me ‘Yes, this makes sense and is consistent with my coaching experience and what I’ve learned from families.’ This article from the New York Times has useful information for families trying to make sense of the contradictory information you’ll hear from everywhere, about what works and what doesn’t with Opioid Use Disorder. It is based on scientific research, whereas most advice you’ll hear is not based on any research; it’s merely assumptions and beliefs rooted in an individual’s experience which becomes generalized to everyone. The good news is that outpatient medication treatment for heroin and other opioid use disorders is far more effective and less costly than inpatient beds at a rehabilitation center.

Recovery with medication is every bit as valid as any other treatment. What matters is the level of a patient’s functioning, not the chemical content of your brain or urine. In the words of esteemed University of Toronto School of Medicine Professor David Juurlink, ‘If you hear someone say that taking buprenorphine or methadone is “substituting one addiction for another”, turn and walk away from that person as quickly as possible.

If after reading it you find this article useful; chances are good that you will find my coaching services also useful in helping your loved one battling a substance use disorder. Let me know your thoughts.