I’m Addicted to Heroin. What Should I Do?

I’ve been spending more time answering questions on SuboxForum, and less time writing blog posts.   I’ll share a comment from today in the hopes that someone looking for help will stumble across this page.

A newcomer to SuboxForum posted this succinct question:

Will someone PLEASE help me take the first steps into the right direction? I have been on opiates and heroin for 10 years and it is starting to ruin my life. I don’t know what to do first?

My less-succinct reply, with minor editing:

Sometimes people get too focused on choosing the right approach and end up doing nothing—sometimes called ‘paralysis by analysis.’  Your options are largely determined by your circumstances– so your first mission is to find out what is available.  There are people who put down medication-assisted treatments like buprenorphine (aka Suboxone) and methadone, saying that they are ‘replacing one drug for another’.  But either of those approaches have much better success rates than residential treatment, and they are both easier to start.

Methadone or buprenorphine will each stabilize your situation fairly quickly, allowing you to step back and weigh your options without the daily search for opioids.  With either buprenorphine or methadone treatments you lose nothing by getting started.  If you start buprenorphine and decide it isn’t right for you, you can simply go back to heroin or oxycodone.  The same is true for methadone.    People rarely make that choice– and when they do, it usually wasn’t a deliberate change, but rather the addiction gained the upper hand and pulled them away.  But the point is worth making that you can always go back– because every now and then someone comes here and complains to be ‘stuck on buprenorphine’.  I try to point out that they are stuck on opioids– and they can always go back to where they were before they started buprenorphine.

The question is whether you have access to either medication in your area.  If you Google ‘find addiction treatment’ or a related search, you will get listings of many outdated web sites.  I’m disappointed to see that even the SAMHSA site is extremely outdated, listing programs that are no longer available and not showing newer treatment programs for either methadone or buprenorphine.

I have a web site that lists a number of buprenorphine doctor directories at SuboxDocs.com.  The site is a ‘directory of directories’, and some of the databases are more current than others.

I’m just now noticing how difficult it must be to find a treatment program.  The last time I really looked at the databases was maybe 5 years ago, and I remember seeing a number of sites that were fairly current.  I assumed that the information was only better now– but it appears to be worse.  If anyone reading this knows of good resources for FINDING treatment, leave a comment!

Another option for someone seeking treatment is to call your county health department.  I would think that most counties would have a list of programs in their area.  Finally, many people hear about a treatment program through word of mouth.  I don’t usually recommend increased contact with people who are actively using, but if you are in contact anyway, you might as well ask!

Buprenorphine treatment will have a higher ‘front end’ cost.  In my area, initial costs are $300-$500.  Ongoing costs include the medication (usually covered by Medicaid or private insurance) and the cost of monthly doctor visits.  Things to consider when choosing a long-term provider:  Are doctor visits covered by Medicaid or insurance?  If not, what will the visits cost?  Who pays for drug testing?  How much does that cost?  If you don’t have any insurance at all, will the doc prescribe plain buprenorphine (which is less costly than combination products)?  Are you required to be in counseling?  If so, how often, and where?  Some docs use buprenorphine to fill their counselors’ time slots, which pushes ethical borders a bit in my opinion.  Other considerations… Does the doctor provide other services such as mental health treatment?  Does the doc allow you to be treated with benzodiazepines?  What is the doc’s attitude toward marijuana?  Will you be kicked out if you test ‘dirty’?  Is the doctor ‘punitive’– i.e. will you be tossed from the program if you struggle a bit?  Or will the doctor work with you, if you don’t get it perfect right away?

Methadone programs in my area are covered by Medicaid, making them essentially free for people with that coverage.  But as people do better and find jobs, they often lose Medicaid and have to pay for methadone out of pocket, which can be costly… although never costlier than active addiction, especially when you factor in all of the related costs that come with actively using.

If you do not have access to medication-assisted treatments, you may need to consider abstinence-based treatment programs.  I’m not a big fan of abstinence programs for opioids because of the high relapse rates with those substances, and the high death rate during relapse.  And of course, an abstinence-based program requires detox and withdrawal.  People who lack an understanding of the usual course of opioid dependence see abstinence-based treatment as the best option.  But the only way to see things that way is by ignoring all of the data, or by assuming that in THIS case, things will go differently than usual.  That thought is very seductive to the parents of addicted young people, and I have known a number of people who died after falling victim to that seduction.

Most people who have been addicted to opioids for a year or more have already learned that detox alone provides little value.  If simple detox works for you, you were probably physically dependent, not addicted.  If you have detoxed and then relapsed several times, another detox is not likely to be helpful.  In fact, detox introduces danger into the equation, as many overdose deaths occur after a person has been through detox, either voluntary at a treatment program, or forcibly through incarceration.  Methadone and buprenorphine are both safer options because they keep tolerance high, reducing the risk of overdose.

My bias toward medication-assisted treatment comes across loud and clear, I know.   I don’t intend to assert that residential programs have NO value; I just think that too-often people enter them without understanding the long odds for finding success.  The people who do best with abstinence-based treatments are those who are monitored for a long time and have a lot to lose, such as people trying to regain professional or occupational licenses, or trying to avoid prison.  In all cases, the treatment is just the beginning of a lifetime of working to maintain sobriety.

An aside to the treatment community:  I often give talks about the need to treat addiction as an illness (and I generally accept requests to speak for a couple hours on the topic, in case anyone has need for a speaker!).  For decades, we all envisioned a paradigm where addiction responded to intensive, months-long abstinence-based treatments, followed by lesser-intense ‘aftercare’ and meetings.  Physicians had minor roles, or no role at all.   There is a growing awareness that things need to change.  I don’t claim that doctors understand addiction better than the current treatment community, and in fact I assume that the opposite is true.  But doctors can prescribe medications with the power to preserve life far more reliably than abstinence-based treatments.

There is a saying–  ‘perfect is the enemy of good’.  We are losing thousands of lives in the search for a ‘perfect’ treatment.  For almost all other illnesses, doctors provide medications and recommendations in order to ‘manage’ the illness.   Now more than ever, addiction warrants the same medical approach.