What You Can Do to Help Fight Addiction

“Love, evidence & respect.”
Maia Szalavitz’s answer via Twitter to the question, “What fights addiction?”

When I talk with people about the state of addictions treatment in the Blacksburg, Virginia area, I am increasingly asked, “What can I do to help?”

Here are my suggestions:

1) If addiction is a problem right this moment, take yourself or your loved one to a doctor.

Addiction is a health condition that needs health care. In the Blacksburg, Virginia area, most medical care for addiction is offered by primary care physicians and emergency room personnel. These health care professionals can provide individualized initial care, make recommendations for follow-up care based on that person’s individual needs, and make appointments and connections for follow-up care. (Starting with a psychiatrist might be optimal but wait lists for psychiatric care in our rural area are 6 months or more.)

If challenging experiences with substance use and health care professionals have happened in the past, take someone with you/go with someone who needs help. We’re all still learning.

We can do this

2) Inform yourself.

Addiction is complex and the consequences of insufficient or incorrect information may be dire. Take matters into your own hands and learn as much as you can about addiction and its treatment. To help with getting started, I have compiled a simple list of evidence-based treatment options, reworded much of that page’s content as a personal recovery checklist, and compiled a list of local recovery resources. I also personally and professionally recommend Maia Szalavitz’s work on the science of addiction.

But don’t take my word for it. Start Googling, start asking those who are knowledgeable about addiction, use your powers of discernment, and join the growing numbers of people seeing the difference between evidence-based treatment and belief-based practices.

3) Understand the difference between treatment and  support.

Treatment is direct, personal, expert care for an individual’s unique presentation of symptoms. Support is help from volunteer survivors in adjusting to having those symptoms. To use Maia Szalavitz’s metaphor, going to a cancer support group is not equivalent to going to an oncologist. To use a business metaphor, attending a business networking event is not a “treatment” for a cash flow problem; selling something to a customer is.

Attending support groups can be hugely helpful in providing comfort, reassurance, and practical suggestions for handling having a condition. Attending support groups may be a component of an individual’s comprehensive treatment plan. Some people may find support group attendance all they need to attain their recovery goals. But attending support groups is not availing oneself of treatment.

“Families and loved ones can improve the odds for people with addiction by helping motivate them to get treatment; seeking evidence-based care; keeping naloxone on hand; and treating addicted people with the empathy, support and respect they’d offer if they faced any other life-threatening medical problem.”
Maia Szalavitz

4) Familiarize yourself with 12-step recovery.

Addictions treatment is currently dominated by 12-step recovery, although a recent article from the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics states, “TS [12-step] programs of recovery are a respectable modality to recommend to those seeking help with addiction; however, the effect is not sizeable enough for clinicians to insist on TS for everyone seeking treatment for addiction.” In addition, treatment programs and drug courts receiving federal funding that include 12-step components in their programs or require 12-step meeting attendance of their clients may be violating First Amendment rights. Nonetheless, 12-step recovery will be a direct or indirect component of local addictions treatment.

To begin to orient yourself to 12-step recovery support groups, ask someone you know who attends meetings if you can attend with him or her. If you don’t know someone, go by yourself or with a small group to an open 12-step recovery meeting. Respect those seeking help for this serious condition, observe silence, and, as a humanitarian, citizen and consumer, listen and observe.

If you or or a loved one is considering 12-step meeting attendance, perhaps you can find a way to make 12-step meetings work for you. If the content isn’t a fit, see if you can think about attending meetings for social support. In 1996, Blacksburg was designated “Most Wired Town in America.” My dream for our next accolade? “Most Recovered Town in America.” For now, however, options for addictions recovery support are limited. A SMART Recovery meeting is held in Blacksburg and on the Virginia Tech campus when classes are in session.

Addiction is a bully, very difficult to fight alone. Addictions treatment can feel that way when it mandates 12-step practices. Like the sun and the moon, for now, 12-step recovery will exist in addictions treatment. Try to find ways, personally helpful to you, to work with its existence.

5) Become aware of your feelings, thoughts, beliefs and words about people with addictions.

One of the most heartbreaking features of addiction is that it often manifests in inexplicable words and actions that hurt others. So many people have been emotionally, physically and financially harmed, abused, neglected, or injured by an addicted parent, partner, sibling, family member, community member or complete stranger. It’s understandable to feel hurt and baffled, even to want to hurt back.

To begin trying to see addiction as a health condition rather than a personal problem, try starting small. Maybe try saying “person with addiction” rather than “addict.” Try saying “person with alcoholism” rather than “alcoholic.” Even this small change in thinking about addiction can help others who have it.

6) Hold sober events.

Designate some events in your home, work place, community, and organizations as substance-free. Hold a sober holiday meal, a 5:00 PM alcohol-free business networking event, a gourmet street festival without brews or corks. (It’s just not Thanksgiving without wine, you say? Believe me, I hear you.) Help the 1 in 10 Americans and the 16,000+ in our area with substance use challenges to have something pleasant to do that doesn’t include environmental cues, the “people, places and things” notorious for triggering a return to active use.

7) Support doctors being doctors.

Did you know that in order for physicians to offer the top treatment for opioid use disorder – to prescribe medication for what’s considered a national health crisis – physicians must receive special training and approval and, once they receive it, are limited to treating 30 patients in the first year and must apply to treat a cap of 100 patients in the second and subsequent years? Did you know that wait lists to receive medication-assisted treatment for what’s been termed an epidemic – the supply of which is plentiful and often covered by health insurance – can be months long? It’s madness. More madness is ahead: that 100-patient limit is going to be extended to, wow, 275. Inform yourself, then talk to every influential person you know and ask them to help us get readily available medical care to people who need it.

8) Help watch over people who have what I have.

Having a condition that causes personal suffering, causes suffering for those I love, may cause me to do something that harms my fellow citizens – for me, driving while drinking or burdening the health care system with trips to the ER after falls – that has no cure, for which effective treatments are essentially unknown, of which so few of those uncertain treatments are available in my town, that makes me one of those people, has put me into a place of misery beyond words.

Help. Please help.

Thanks to Rosemary Sullivan, Kelly Shushok, Harry Sontheimer, Lara Hayward, my father, Robert Giles, and thousands of others for the conversations that helped me write this post.

Image credit: iStock

What else would help? Feel free to comment or to contact me and let me know.

If you are a resident of the Blacksburg, Virginia area and you or someone else is experiencing a substance use and/or mental health emergency, call 911 and/or ACCESS, 540-961-8400.

The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the positions of my associates, clients, employers, friends or relatives.

The content of this post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Last updated 8/5/16.

A version of this post originally appeared here.

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