Addiction research – Who are we studying?

I teach a class on the psychology of addiction (Psych 477 at California State University in Long Beach) and as I have been preparing the lectures something has become very clear to me – textbooks patently gloss over important details about the addiction research they cite. One of the most obvious gaps I’ve noticed this semester concerns the population of research subjects most addiction research is conducted on. An example will clarify:

A student group in my class had to read a study assessing the residual effects of methamphetamine on mood and sleep. They were amazed that no changes in mood were observed and that participants slept a full 6-8 hours the night after being administered meth! Would you have been surprised with these results given that we all have been told that crystal meth improves mood and causes insomnia?

Would it matter at all if I told you that the participants in the study were current meth abusers who use an average of 4 times every week?

For anyone not aware of the tainted history of health research in the U.S. (I’m including psychological research in this group), go ahead and read about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment (video here). There are other examples including Stanley Milgram‘s obedience studies, and more but as exciting as the discussion of these studies is, it’s time to get back to my main point.

It is mostly due to the ethically-questionable, psychologically damaging, research above that research institutions are now required to vet proposed research studies using Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to assure that human participants in studies are consenting to participate of their own free will, are not coerced, and are not suffering undue damage. This is also true of addiction research. Rarely does the public consider this fact however when they are being reported on research relevant to addiction. I know this because the kids in my class never gave it a second thought.

When reading about addiction research, think about the subjects participating in itNearly all addiction research, especially studies utilizing “hard” drugs like cocaine, meth, opiates, etc., are required to make use of a very limited part of society – drug using individuals with a history of use of the specific drug of interest who are specifically not interested in treatment. Individuals who have never tried the drug or who want to be treated for drug abuse or dependence (addiction) are excluded due to ethical concerns. In most studies, participants can not qualify if they are addicted to drugs other than those being studies (except smoking, for which exceptions are usually made since we’d be able left with no participants otherwise) or have any associated mental health disorders, which are very common among addicted individuals. I would further assert that for at least a substantial portion of these research participants, the term “addicts” may not be appropriate since many addicts would not willingly give up using their favorite substance for a week or two to be replaces with a hospital bed and an experimenter controlled dose of drug or placebo. Taken together, our research subjects are pretty obviously not representative of all drug users, or all addicts, or all anything else. They make up a very specific group – less than perfect, but what we have to work with.

In some studies that attempt to make a direct comparison between controls (or drug naive participants) and drug users, this is likely less of an issue. This can happen when researchers try to examine brain structure differences, or performance on a specific psychological or physical test. In such cases researchers can at least statistically identify contributions of length of use, method of use, and other relevant data on differences between people who use and those that don’t. There are probably still some serious differences between “true” addicts, recreational users, and semi-chronic users that would be important to understand here, but we can’t so we don’t. But when it comes to assessing mood effects, or indeed any of a number of subjective effects of drugs, drug cravings, and withdrawal, this limitation in the population to be studied is something that often needs to be made explicitly clear to most public consumers of research. Since we can’t assess changes in mood, absorption rate, anxiety, or any other such measure (some exceptions for very low doses in very specific circumstances) among people who are new to the drug, we end up assessing them among people with a lot of experience, but not enough of a problem to want addiction treatment. Again, this should be considered a pretty specific type of drug user in my opinion.

There are other types of studies – those conducted with abstinent ex-users or addiction treatment intervention studies utilizing addicts who want, or who reported to, treatment on their own or in response to advertisements. While these studies make use of populations that can be considered at least closer to the individuals they are specifically aimed at – assessing the return of  cognitive function after short or long term abstinence or testing a new intervention on those who want treatment – they still bring on limitations that need to be specifically considered.

An important point – most researchers recognize these issues and make them explicitly part of their research publications, in a specific section called “Limitations” but what seems troubling is that the public doesn’t have any awareness of these issues. So when someone tells you that “they just found out meth doesn’t actually make people lose sleep,” take a second to ask “for who?”

A3 Verified – Matrix Institute on Addictions

A3 is doing its RehabFinder work this month and we have a brand new and exciting addition to our Verification roster – The West Los Angeles clinic of the Matrix Institute on Addictions (they can be reached at 310-935-1322). We’ve already featured one of the amazing founders of Matrix, Ms. Jeanne Obert, but during these past few weeks, we’ve gotten to have a more in depth look under the hood…

Matrix Institute on Addictions – Research based outpatient treatment

The Matrix Institute’s treatment protocol, manual, and method, were developed under a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which we have mentioned many times in our writing on All About Addiction. Research  using the Matrix Institute manual has shown it to be successful enough that SAMHSA lists it on it National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP), a prestigious list of effective treatment approaches.

The Matrix Institute on AddictionsMatrix Institute is nationally and internationally recognized for its structured, outpatient treatments and research-supported elements and is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF). The Matrix Institute is also a proud member of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP). One of the best things about the Matrix Institute addiction treatment program is that they accept almost all insurance carriers and have an amazingly affordable cost of treatment of only $1,900 per month! For a treatment program with such a track record, these are amazing statistics.

The Matrix Institute and ongoing training and research

Matrix Institute is absolutely one of the leaders in the field of addiction treatment when it comes to working with researchers to  find new, effective treatments for substance abuse.  Research at Matrix has helped in the development of new treatments that keep patients in treatment longer, and help them have greater success.  Some of the research we have participated in has resulted in new medications for alcohol dependence, (Campral and Revia) and opioid dependence (Suboxone or Buprenorphine).

Currently, Matrix is working with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to find a medication to help people with methamphetamine dependence.

The Matrix Model has been developed, refined and evaluated through research over the past 25 years. This is why All About Addiction (A3) is proud to stand together with The Matrix Institute on Addictions in improving the kind of addiction treatment available by making standardized, affordable treatment a reality.

(Disclosure – Dr. Jaffe is a group facilitator and educator at the Matrix Institute in West Los Angeles)

Before we jump to Whitney Houston conclusions

I’ve had numerous calls from media outlets who want to talk about Whitney Houston and her celebrity drug problem since this past Saturday. It seems as if everyone wants to jump to conclusions that I’m simply not ready to make yet. Given Ms. Houston’s drug abuse history and her involvement with Bobby Brown, it seems as if every aspect of Whitney’s personality is written off as having to do with her addiction.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what killed Whitney Houston yet. Was it accidental drowning after being drowsy and possibly under the effect of a sedative? Was it a dangerous combination of alcohol and benzodiazepines? Was it an intentional or accidental overdose? Or was it a simple accident in which a tired celebrity, too stressed and too tired, drowned in her bathtub in a fancy hotel?

The point is that for any professional to begin proclaiming anything specific about Whitney’s death is unprofessional and unbecoming. We, as a society, chase the famous consistently for some vicarious living and pleasure. I hope that at least those among us trained in emotional care-giving can take a step back and wait until it’s appropriate to make any real conclusions. Otherwise, we’re really no better than Entertainment Tonight or a British tabloid, are we?

When it comes to discussion Whitney Houston’s struggle with drugs, I believe the cat is already out of the bag (and probably out of the cage and yard as well). Still, as I’ve pointed out numerous times in writings, a struggle with addiction does not itself mean any specific outcome. Many, actually most, addicts do recover from their addiction and a whole slew of them recover to full, exciting, and fulfilling lives. Until Saturday evening there was no reason to believe Whitney wasn’t going to join that company.

So while we ponder the events that led to the loss of one of America’s singing sensation, let’s respect her memory by taking our time and drawing conclusions that are informed, not ill-formed.

A3 Verified – KLEAN West Hollywood Addiction Treatment

The A3 Rehab-Finder is happy to announce the full verification of The KLEAN Treatment Center in West Hollywood (call them at 323-391-4032).

The KLEAN Center is a licensed residential addiction treatment facility and detox working with those suffering from alcohol and drug addiction as well as related co-occurring disorders. KLEAN’s clients receive the best of care with three weekly individual sessions with licensed staff including a psychiatrist, psychologists, and other clinical staff. For clients interested in the program, KLEAN offers a variety of residential treatment and aftercare alternatives including, Intensive Out Patient (IOP) addiction treatment, alumni networking and a family education program. KLEAN’s mission is to create a safe environment, provide each resident with a unique continuum of care, and ensure a healthy transition into a sober life.

Nestled in the heart of West Hollywood, KLEAN is an urban sanctuary. Clients live in beautifully decorated private and semi-private cottages with no more than two people per room. KLEAN even allows clients to bring their pets along onto their dog friendly grounds!

During the day, KLEAN clients attend psycho-educational groups led by prestigious clinicians and group facilitators. KLEAN’s groups are grounded in evidence-based modalities, including cognitive-behavioral, psycho-dynamic, motivational interviewing, and somatic experiencing.

Each KLEAN client is assigned a case manager, a licensed clinician who provides them individual counseling sessions, as well as contact with referral agent, family members, physicians, and more. In addition, clients receive a weekly counseling session from our Director of Recovery Services.

KLEAN also places an emphasis on spirituality, through daily reflections and meditation, yoga and other health-wellness activities.

The KLEAN Center is an excellent place to get well mentally, physically, and spiritually, and is now as an A3 verified provider, which means addiction treatment seekers can rest assured that Klean’s programs, facilities, and clinicians are able to provide the high quality of care they expect and need.

Negative self-talk and addiction recovery

Everyone has internal beliefs about what they are, or aren’t, good at. For many these have become an implicit reality – facts about life that are rarely examined and never questioned. The “gravity” of our lives.

Negative self talk is often unecessarily self-defeatingWhen I review these internal beliefs with clients, especially those in early recovery but also others who don’t have trouble with addiction per se, we often find that they are packed full of negative self-beliefs and self-talk. Phrases like “I’m impatient/rude/stupid,” “I’m not good at doing _____,” or “I can’t handle _____” are so commonplace in psychotherapy circles that restructuring them can often become the focus of many sessions. And negative self-beliefs are a huge source of shame, and you know how I feel about that.

Inevitably these negative self-beliefs and the associated shame are often the remnants of past experience, whether personal or “other” inflicted. Poor performance in some childhood activity, ridicule by peers, or harsh words from misguided parents can lead to seemingly permanent imprints on the world-view of the young, and then the older. Ironically, even seemingly self-assured views like “I am in control of my life” can become defeating when they turn into “I am a failure because I can’t handle this on my own.” We get that one a lot in addiction treatment from clients who think that they are weak because they’ve found themselves needing help. Again, this thought pattern leads to shame and often resistance to receiving the necessary addiction help.

As usual, a big part of dealing with these issues, from both a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) point of view and a humanistic one, is to examine their sources and test their appropriateness. It’s rare that these statements prove universally true and it’s even more infrequent that they turn out to have no connection to a small set of past hurts that happened long ago. In recovery from addiction, I often have clients look at how many other things in life they’ve needed help with – learning how to read, how to play sports, or how to do well at their job. We’re constantly relying on others for help, but when it comes to our psychological functioning we believe that we should be masters regardless of our level of training – a belief that I see as having no basis. But then again, I am a psychologist…

How to break negative self-talk and self-belief cycles

For readers who want to test their own beliefs and the existence of their own negative self-talks it helps to keep a written journal. Make a list of such negative self-beliefs that you are already aware of and try to be as aware as possible of negative self-talk as it happens over the course of one whole day. Write those down too. Now, using a whole line on a piece of paper (or a spread-sheet if you want to be super organized about this) create little spaces (columns) to write down a single situation in which those thoughts and beliefs come up for you in everyday life. In the nest column put down an objective assessment of what actually happened. In the last column write a short assessment of how close your initial internal dialog was to the “truth.”

Let’s use an example – Imagine getting an upset email from your boss that brings up your good old “I’m never going to succeed” negative self-belief. When you go to your journal and find the line for that specific negative belief you write “got upset email from boss” in column one and “boss was upset that I forgot to send out update email yesterday as expected” in column two. Now examine your current level of functioning at work in light of this specific mistake, past work occurrences, and the very near future.

If you’ve been held back from advancement repeatedly and been scolded, fired, or nearly fired for forgetting these sorts of things in the past, the belief might be a sign that you need to become active about finding ways to improve on this sort of forgetfulness in the future. But if such occurrences are relatively rare and haven’t caused negative consequences at work or other environments, then it sounds like the belief is an exaggeration of a much less frightening reality along the lines of “I don’t always perform perfectly at work.” I don’t know about you, but that sort of internal belief I can live with.

Now go on and do your homework – or are you a slacker?!

Naltrexone the addiction cure?

CNN released a news article a little while back titled “With anti-addiction pill, ‘no urge, no craving‘” that seems to suggest that a cure for addiction has been found. As usual, news reporting on these sort of topics revolves around a kernel of truth, with nice window dressing an a serving of embellishment.

While naltrexone, and topiramate, have been shown to improve outcomes in addiction treatment, they have by no means revealed anything that would warrant giving them the title “anti-addiction pills.”

Indeed, there are now a few different preparations of Naltrexone, including a long acting version called Vivitrol that while relatively expensive, has been shown to be relatively effective at cutting relapse rates for both alcoholics AND heroin (or opiate addicts). Note the difference though here between my language and that used by CNN; Naltrexone has been shown to reduce relapse rates, not eliminate them, and current research seems to show that it is most effective only for specific groups of alcoholics who have a specific type of Mu opioid receptor.

As the article points out, a combination of therapies, including behavioral therapies, medications, and social-support, are still the best option when it comes to addiction treatment.

We’re a long way off from finding anything that can be considered a cure for addiction, no matter what some treatment centers like to claim, but these pills should help us stem the tide while we keep looking…

Rubber-band addiction recovery – No shame

There’s a specific issue that keeps coming up with nearly every addiction client I work with who is in early recovery. Regardless of whether they’re trying to stop unhealthy alcohol or drug use, sex or gambling behavior, or anything else, this issue keeps returning. It doesn’t even seem to matter if this is their first attempt at addiction recovery or if they’ve already been here many times before.

The issue: Shame about a desire to return to old behaviors and stopping their recovery.

At the Matrix Institute on Addiction where I see some clients, they call this “The Wall” suggesting that it usually comes right after a relatively easy period of recovery in which clients are self-assured and confident that they’ve got their addiction beat. “The Wall” is supposed to be marked by anhedonia, depression, severe cravings, irritability, and more fun stuff like that. After the wall is the promised land of long-term recovery. By identifying the specific stages of recovery addicts are supposed to gain more understanding of their process and experience less shame. I love the Matrix method, but I see things a little differently.  The way I see it, “The Wall” is far from a single point in time, but is instead part of a larger pattern I like to call Rubber-band Recovery.

Rubber-band Recovery in Addiction

Addiction recovery is similar to letting go of a stretched rubber bandI’m sure everyone reading this has at some point played with a rubber band, stretching it and letting it snap back to its original state or pulling it between two fingers and playing it like a string (another name for this approach could be String Recovery, but that might get confused with theoretical physics and we don’t want that). When pulling the rubber-band one way, its internal structure pulls back, trying to get back to its natural state. The body can be thought to do the same when placed under chronic alcohol and drug use in addiction – it has a slew of internal processes that work hard to keep the body in its natural state, at homeostasis. Naturally, due to the pharmacological mechanisms of alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and many other drugs, these systems usually fail at setting everything back to normal especially during the use itself, which is why we get high. However, their work in a body that consumes drugs on a regular basis is obvious – reductions in the production of specific chemicals (like relevant neurotransmitters), changes in the structure of the brain itself (like producing less receptors or even removing some from the brain’s cells), and production of chemicals that combat the drugs’ actions.

All in all, the body and brain of a long-time, chronic, heavy user of alcohol and drugs are different from the body and brain they started with in important ways that specifically relate to their alcohol and drug use. They are like the stretched rubber band, similar but obviously not the same as it was in its relaxed state.

Individuals in early recovery from addiction essentially experience what happens when that taut, stretched, rubber band is let loose. Hurrying up to get back to its natural state, to homeostasis, it releases all that pent up energy and rushes through its original state, overcompensating and stretching a bit in the other direction. For the addict in early recovery, this is the process of withdrawal. As we’ve spoken about numerous times before when discussing withdrawal, a brain that has reduced its own production of dopamine because of large amounts of methamphetamine that flood its dopamine reserves will still be left with very low dopamine when the crystal meth stops coming in. Low dopamine will bring about many effects that look exactly like the opposite of a methamphetamine high – a large appetite, low energy, and reduced movement and motivation. For heroin addicts, the drug that’s caused them to feel no pain and become constipated will cause their bodies severe pain, diarrhea, and trembling when it’s removed from the equation. Some withdrawal is actually life threatening due to the extreme changes in body chemistry and structure that happen after long term use. In addition to all of the direct effects of the drugs and alcohol, those internal processes that have been working hard to counteract the effects of the drugs (they’re called “opponent processes” by some addiction researcher like Dr. Christopher Evans from UCLA) are still turned up to 10 and are going to take a little time to get back to their original state as well. All in all, that leaves addicts feeling pretty crappy to say the least during withdrawal, the worst part of early recovery from addiction.

But like that good old rubber-band addiction recovery than quickly turns around. Having overcome the worst part of withdrawal, addicts in early recovery often experience joy, confidence, energy, and clarity they probably haven’t felt in a long time. That along with the environmental influence of loved ones who are extremely happy to see an addict quit (especially the first time around) give those in very early recovery a feeling of great well being and happiness, like a nice pink-cloud they get to ride on for a bit. Remember, the rubber band is moving back in the direction it came from during active addiction and it’s likely that brain processes are doing a little overcompensating the other way now too, turning down those opponent processes and flooding the brain with the chemicals it’s been missing.

But alas, this little turn doesn’t last too long and back we go into the darker place of negativity, low energy, anhedonia, and more. But instead of calling this stage “The Wall,” I understand it as one of the inevitable turns in what is sure to be a back and forth, seesaw like trip of recovery ups and downs. Periods of confidence in our ability to overcome our demons are followed by others that make us feel week and irritable. The good news is that just like with a rubber-band, each successive cycle on this seesaw gets a little less intense, which means that confidence, elation, depression, and anger turn into comfort, contentment, and ease – our new homeostasis. After a ride like that most addicts really need a little rest and when we reach this stage (no matter what it looks like specifically for each person), long-term recovery feels like the norm instead of an effort. This is the real end goal of recovery – a state of being that feels normal and that doesn’t involve unhealthy alcohol or drug use, sexual acting out, or gambling.

At the end of the rubber-band game we get back to just a good old unstretched rubber-band, and it feels good. In the process, it makes little sense to feel guilty, or ashamed, at all the intermediate stages. They’re part of the game of recovery and they’re essentially impossible to avoid completely. Intense cravings come during specific parts because of internal, biological, and external, environmental influences. Being ashamed of that would be essentially the same as being ashamed of extreme hunger when you haven’t eaten in 5 hours and see a commercial for your favorite food – silly and useless. I can guarantee that the rubber band doesn’t feel ashamed about they way it behaves when snapping back…