Cory Monteith, Glee actor, was found dead in his hotel room in Vancouver recently from a heroin and alcohol overdose. He was frank about his long history of struggles with addiction beginning as a teenager, using “anything and everything” by the time he was 16. Most recently, he checked himself into rehab just this past March.
As a doctor who treats opiate addiction every day in my ofﬁce in San Francisco, I see many accomplished people like Cory who are working hard to get and stay clean.
Unlike the myth of addicts being complete train wrecks — barefoot and disheveled — my patients are high-functioning. They are lawyers, computer programmers, housewives, construction workers and entrepreneurs. They work, raise families and contribute to their communities.
I help each of them plan for relapse because the likelihood is so high and the risks are so deadly. After a period of being clean, the body’s tolerance for opiates lowers and doses previously used become deadly.
Sadly, it’s not entirely surprising that Cory’s overdose came after a recent rehab.
Brain chemistry has a lot to do with why relapse is so common. Opiates have an intense effect on the brain. They are engineered to make you feel really good and they do this so well that within a short time of using, it becomes very difficult to feel “normal” without the drug. Even after months or years of being clean people struggle with withdrawal symptoms of depression, anxiety and insomnia.
When the going gets tough, people in recovery need something other than opiates to help them through. Preparation is the key to prevention.
In my practice, I combine medications with mind/body training. There are several FDA-approved medications, like buprenorphine, that can help people get off the roller coaster of opiate addiction. Within a few days of taking the medication, cravings are gone for the vast majority of people.
Buprenorphin, isn’t a cure-all, but it does save lives. It helps the brain to start healing and creates some breathing room for people to learn healthier ways to manage the ups and downs of life.
Relapse is virtually a given unless patients learn skills to reduce anxiety and sleep better, get nutrients that best support brain, body and recovery and develop tools for dealing with cravings, withdrawal and pain.
The brain can heal. It’s not easy, but I’ve found when people understand how opiates work in their brains, they are better able to take their recovery in new directions.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons by Greg Hernandez.