Rehab is easy, Recovery is hard – Making addiction treatment work

Here’s another article from Sarah Henderson, one of our readers who’s recovered from a long battle with eating disorders and is living with bipolar disorder. She’s very candid about her experiences with addiction treatment, which I like a lot, and her unique view on food addictions (or eating disorders) fills a nice gap  in my own knowledge. In this piece, she discusses issues about addiction treatment setting, independence, and the involvement of others in recovery. We’ve all heard that you can’t make someone overcome their addiction, and Sarah’s story shows that sometimes what does the trick is making them confront their own problems. As I’ve talked about in the past, I had a similar experience when I decided to own up  to my problems and asked my father to let me take care of finding treatment myself. It was the first time I’d really internalized that I was the final piece in this puzzle.

Rehab is Easy. Recovery is Hard.

At least, that’s been my experience. Throughout the the years I struggled with anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, drug abuse, and bipolar I had a very distinct pattern: get sick, make people worry, get very sick, go to therapy, get extremely sick, go to residential treatment. Once there, I’d battle the people who were trying to help, then slowly acquiesce, then start to be semi-okay, get my weight up, get my symptoms down, and get discharged. Then, I’d get sick.

And around and around we go.

I did this for about ten years. I went to hospital after hospital, RTC after RTC, therapist after therapist. I was kicked out of treatment in several places for various reasons: not cooperating, hindering other patients’ recovery efforts, refusing therapies or medications. At one point, I was even kicked out of my small private high school because I was so sick I was “disturbing” the other students.

There is a time in my illness when I would have been proud of these things. I would have seen them as showing how tough I was, how strong in my cause, how determined to go down fighting. Now, however, remembering these things only brings a sense of sadness, and heart-wrenching compassion for the pain that this girl was in, how much she had to have been hurting to continue to put herself in that situation.

At a certain point though, the cycle stopped. I had been to this one treatment center twice in one year- and been asked to leave both times. Finally, the person who had been funding my psychiatric revolving door decided that was the last time he was paying for inpatient care. The next time I decided to get super sick, I was on my own.

After getting out of inpatient that very last time, I continued to relapse. However, knowing that no one was going to swoop in and save me, toss me in treatment, and keep up my game, created a shift in my thinking. I didn’t really have the option of continuing to get sick; at least, if I wanted to live. Wanting to live was something I went back and forth on often. I went through two very uncomfortable, joyful, horrible, painful, gratifying, terrifying, and ultimately life-saving years in outpatient therapy stumbling my way towards recovery. That time was like a dance, getting sicker then better, back and forth, until little by little the better days outnumber the sicker ones. I don’t have a “clean date” like many people; I couldn’t tell you the last day I skipped a meal or purged or cut myself. All I know is that I’m recovered.

It took a long time and a lot of work to get here. And all those years that I spent in addiction treatment did NOT go to waste, despite how it may sound. I think for me- for many people- inpatient treatment lays foundation for recovery, plants the seeds of new behaviors, thoughts, and coping strategies. But it’s not until you leave that safe, rarefied environment that those seeds will sprout, and recovery can begin to flower. I always had this idea that RTC was supposed to cure me; that I should be able to walk out all whole and healed, no problems at all. And I was always pissed when it didn’t happen that way. Finally I figured out that’s not how it works. Treatment just gives you the tools and materials for recovery. YOU are responsible for building it.

I wish someone had told me that the very first time I went to inpatient. It’s an important thing to remember throughout the treatment process; the more you understand that you alone are accountable and responsible for your own health and recovery, the more likely you are to achieve it.

Final thoughts from Adi

Like I said in the beginning, I appreciate Sarah’s truthfulness about her experience. Additionally, I share some of her story, especially as it pertains to having to own up to her condition and lose some of the guidance, or maybe crutch, that had been there for so long. However, I think that this story is a great example of why it is true that while addiction stories can offer great inspiration and hope, addiction research looks at patterns in data that can offer insight no given story can give us.

For instance, Sarah says she that outpatient treatment let her truly put the tools that she learned about in residential treatment to use. In fact, she suggests that this is the role of outpatient treatment. In actuality though, addiction research shows that people do better if they’ve been to residential treatment, especially among more difficult cases, and that a structured transition, like moving from a residential treatment facility to sober-living or to outpatient, increases the chances of long-term sobriety.However, I don’t know of any research that shows that past experience at residential treatment predicts greater success at outpatient treatment. Everything I’ve seen shows that past failure at rehab predicts future failure, not success. That’s not to say that Sarah’s story doesn’t repeat, but as a rule, more difficult cases do better in residential, not outpatient.

These sort of research findings can help guide us towards the most probable path to success, after which point individual variability sort of takes over and works its magic. The hope is that as we get better and better at it, our addiction research will guide us towards more customized initial treatment selection. It’s how we make things work in our A3 Rehab-Finder.

Is anonymity the final shame frontier in addiction?

I’m a drug addict and a sex addict, and as far as I’m concerned, staying anonymous let’s me remain buried in shame, and a double life, that keeps me always one step ahead of those close to me. Did I say too much? Did I give away my secrets? None of those  questions matter when everyone knows everything there is to know about you. For a disease couched in anxiety, obsessions, and compulsive behavior, there’s very little that can be more triggering.

The difficulty of confessing addiction

Obviously I’m not naive to the consequences of confessing to others, and I’ve had a few very uncomfortable conversations that ended in people losing my number or superiors telling me they didn’t need to know. When it comes to the former, it’s their choice, and it might be a wise one, but having those who stay close to me know my truths keeps me safe by making me accountable and protects others from being hurt. And I can hurt with the best of them. Maybe that’s why when it comes to physician treated addicted physicians, there are no secrets, no anonymity, the family and employers are made part of the process. Some notable addiction providers (like Journey Healing Centers and others) have programs that explicitly involve the family in the treatment process as well. Getting the secrets out works to break away from the shame.

We’re only as sick as our secrets, even together

On an organizational level, I understand the need for anonymity to avoid having any specific member represent the group. But that logic only holds when everyone is told to remain anonymous. Otherwise, the entire group represents itself, which is, if nothing else, truthful. If one person slips, relapses, or goes into a homicidal rampage, it only makes the rest of us look bad if no one knows that millions others are “the rest of us.”

Over and over I hear people talk about the secret of their addiction and the lies they have to tell to cover up their shameful acts. Unfortunately, that only contributes to the stigma of addicts and makes it all the more difficult  to get some perspective on the actual problem: We do things we don’t want to over and over regardless of how much they hurt us or those around us

If you’ve read anything on this site, you know that I believe in many factors that contribute to addiction, including biology, environment, experience, and their interactions. Still, when it comes down to it, the misunderstanding of addiction is often our number one problem. And anonymity does nothing to reduce that misunderstanding.

How we can make a difference

Media portrayals only exacerbate the problem as they show us stories of addicted celebrities who are struggling but then leave the story behind before any recovery occurs. That way we only get to see the carnage but have to look pretty hard to see anything more.

But we can change all this with a small, courageous, action. We can let those around us know that we’re addicts, that we’re doing our best to stop our compulsive behavior and that we want them to hold us accountable. If we slip, we can get back up because we don’t compound the shame of a relapse with lies we tell, and those around us know that even a relapse can be overcome because they’ve seen those examples over and over in all the other “confessed” addicts around.

It’s time to leave the addiction “closet” and start living. We may not be able to change who we are easily, but we can change the way we go about living and make it easier on ourselves and on others. By breaking our anonymity, we can help assuage our own shame and let everyone know that addiction is everywhere and that it can be successfully overcome.

Just a thought…

Criminal health care – Why we should care.

For most people, the discussion of health care within the prison system is a philosophical one. Not for me.

Inmate health care is a disgrace

While in jail, I got to see the conditions firsthand. I saw the guy coughing his lungs out for days asking deputies to send him to the infirmary only to be laughed at. I saw him struggling to catch his breath night after night, gasping for air in between coughs, making it hard for everyone in the 200 person dorm to sleep. I saw him collapse onto the floor, blood dripping from his mouth and collecting as we all started screaming at the officers to send someone in. They did, finally, and we never saw that guy again. I hope he made it.

After many years of doing little, our government is finally recognizing that leaving inmates to die by attrition within their walled caves is inhumane. In California, there’s a plan to ease crowding and therefore relieve inmate health services to the point they can actually function. Maybe Arnold will do something worthwhile after all. Two birds.

What are prisons for?

The thing is that fiscally responsible conservatives can’t have it both ways. Incarceration is not cheap and as our prison population mushrooms it gets exponentially more expensive requiring support services, the construction of whole cities, and bigger, more secure prisons. The U.S. now has the more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world. Forget China’s human-rights violations, we’re imprisoning ourselves.

Prisons are meant to keep our most dangerous criminals away from society. They’re not meant to be the places where drug users die, or where thieves, cheaters, or dead-beat-dads, go to rot (I met them all there). At least not in my book. Addicts and heavy drug users need help, thieves most often need food or some rehab themselves, dead-beats need a good collection agency and a lien on their income. None of these things are performed in inmate housing facilities. All everyone is trying to do there is stay alive in the mess. Since when was the threat of imprisonment our national parenting device?

Why we should care

“Do onto others” is supposed to be our golden rule, right? Christians proclaim it feverishly, as do my fellow Jews, and as far as I can tell, all other religions have their own versions. Even moral atheists recognize that society functions better when people treat each other with respect. So let’s do it.

When someone is hurting so much from drug use, poverty, and discomfort that they’re willing to steal, let’s give them a hand rather than tossing them to the curb. If they do it repeatedly, let’s figure out a better way to help them. If they seem incapable of stopping, we can revisit this argument. My guess is that those initial steps will greatly reduce the frequency of crime in general. “Bad people” will forever exist in the world, evil will stick around, no doubt, but we can’t live our lives in constant fear of it, jailing anyone who seems to cross paths with it.

Anyway, that’s my opinion.