Addiction Management Blog

Archive for the ‘Public Policy’ Category

A call for increased treatment and education for those behind bars

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

I have written before about the criminal justice system and addiction, but it has been awhile and my thoughts continue to evolve on this topic. So, time for an update!

First, as a society we should be embarrassed by how many of our citizens are in jail/prison due to problems associated with untreated addiction. We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world with approximately 2.3 million behind bars. If we add those on probation and parole the number jumps to almost 7 million under correctional supervision! And I have not even mentioned the 70K juveniles we are grooming for later prison life. What is so troubling about these statistics is that they are primarily the result of mandatory sentencing laws put in place in the 1980s to enforce the war on drugs (which I have also written about).

US in Prison

Most now realize the war on drugs has been a miserable failure. Putting people behind bars when the drivers behind their crimes are addiction-related is costly and fails to address the underlying problem(s). We know that many will get out and that recidivism rates are quite high. One recent study indicated that more than 1 in 4 offenders return to prison within three years. And we know that when addiction goes untreated it most often returns, leading many who get out of prison right back in.

While I believe we need to evolve our drug sentencing laws, and there is evidence that things are changing for the better, this post is not about that. It is also not about the proliferation of drug courts that offer an alternative to jail/prison. Instead, I want to comment on what we can do for those who are behind bars right now (and will be in the future). In short, I think we should make use of their time in jail to prepare them to succeed in life once they get out. What do I mean by succeed? Here are a few outcomes I think we as a society should support:

  • Stay clean and sober, manage co-occurring disorders, and maintain physical health by working a comprehensive addiction management program (5 Actions!)
  • Use personal talents to benefit society (Action 5) (Dave’s Killer Bread is a good example)
  • Develop a spiritual life
  • Keep learning and growing as a person
  • Obey society’s laws
  • Seek out (or increase) appropriate help when times become stressful (as they do for all of us at times)

I am sure you can add to this list, but it is a good start. How do we accomplish such lofty goals? In short, we develop a technology-based intervention system that individualizes behavioral health treatment and education for a fraction of what it would cost to utilize humans (nothing against humans). The treatment component would be based on the 5 Actions I have outlined on this site, and the educational part of the system would be built by those who have a track record of delivering online education. Why this has not already been done actually surprises me!

The details of how to construct and implement such a system are beyond this post, but I do want to provide you some thoughts on why I believe doing this is more than possible.

  • Studies show fairly consistently that timing is critical for helping people with many problems, including addiction, depression, and other life issues. Those in prison have nothing but time, and are in a place where we can take advantage of a motivational window of opportunity.
  • Computers memory is superior to humans and can track far more information about a person’s life, and leverage points for change.
  • New treatment interventions can be quickly programmed into the system, where there is a much longer learning curve for humans.
  • Delivery of interventions can be more consistent (i.e. therapists stray from intervention protocols fine-tuned by researchers, often thinking they are doing good, but in the end have less than optimal results).
  • Online systems can track outcomes in real-time and make adjustments accordingly. Most treatment today does not include any formal outcome or evaluation of process, let alone changing therapy based on adaptive outcomes.
  • Relationship with a relational online system can last indefinitely, whereas human counselors are less consistent and change jobs frequently (i.e., the turnover rate in addiction treatment programs is higher than in fast food restaurants).
  • Online treatment is significantly less costly than human treatment.
  • Studies show people are more apt to disclose sensitive issues to a computer than a human – issues like:  sexual abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, shaming behaviors (cutting, eating disorders, sexual disorders) – all can be addressed in a user-friendly, less threatening environment than with humans in many cases.
  • An online intervention system can link and communicate more consistently with other important stakeholders in a person’s life, including: primary care physicians, specialty providers, medication providers, legal system, pharmacies, insurance providers, complementary and alternative care providers, mental health and addiction programs (if necessary), and employers. Computer system can keep track of all these relationships, the flow of information between them, and manage information privacy and disclosures.
  • Online systems are flexible and can consult with humans when necessary – so human’s time can be used most efficiently (i.e., expert humans are not replaceable, they are just in limited supply).
  • And perhaps most important, the system can be utilized to manage ongoing treatment and educational goals both in and outside of prison seamlessly, and help manage parole and probation responsibilities.

Would it be easy to develop and implement? No. I think it would require a lot of work on behalf of many stakeholder groups. But I believe it is what we need to do as a society if we care about our future and the future of our children.

I also made a couple of brief videos on how I would utilize the 5 Actions framework in an online system for those behind bars. Excuse the coffee breaks, it is early Sunday morning.


 

The College on Problems of Drug Dependence 2013 – my update

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

For the past half-dozen years, I have been attending The College on Problems of Drug Dependence, better known as CPDD. The conference has been in existence since 1929 and this year is celebrating 75 years! It is the longest running conference on drug addiction problems in the US and is attended by the brightest minds in the field from all over the world (it even has its own blog). This year it was held in San Diego and included poster sessions, oral presentations, and plenty of networking. Usually I go it alone, but this year decided to drag my family along to make up for the year I brought them to the same conference in Reno where, ironically, gambling, drinking and smoking permeated the hotel and conference (yuck!).

There was a lot of great stuff this year as usual, so I thought I would highlight just a few things that really caught my attention.

  • traumafiveAdverse childhood experiences predict later substance abuse and addiction. We have known for a long time that 80-90 percent of those who go down the path of addiction start their journey early in life – during teenage-age years – most often as an adaptive response to coping with one or more adverse childhood experiences. I have written about the ACE study on this site, but what is new are studies that continue to evolve these findings in more detail, and help us really understand just how complex, pervasive, and critical it is to evaluate and treat underlying traumas in those who struggle with addiction. Current stats on abuse and neglect are frightening, and sadly addiction is not the only outcome of these cases. The British Journal of Psychiatry recently published a paper linking childhood adversity to all classes of mental health disorders. At the conference Cathy Spatz Widom presented some of her work that has involved following 1,575 kids from childhood through adulthood. This amazing study included 908 substantiated cases of childhood abuse and neglect processed by the courts from 1967 through 1971, and then matched this group with a control group of 667 children with no official record of abuse/neglect. The results from interviews over multiple decades provides strong evidence that early life experiences make a difference in the trajectories of our lives. Bottom line for those who struggle with addiction: intervention must involve addressing unresolved issues from the past that perpetuate addictive behavior.
  • Legalization of marijuana. I have not written about this topic on this site before, largely because I continue to struggle with exactly how I feel about it. While it is now legal in two states (Colorado and Washington) many other states are moving to legalize recreational use as well. On many fronts I agree that legalization makes sense, as the drug war has been a miserable failure. At the same time, Nora Volkow, the Director of NIDA, in cannabisher keynote address pointed out that marijuana use among teens is at an all-time high, while research findings are absolutely clear about the dangers of THC in young developing brains. This year the public policy forum was dedicated to this topic, and two great speakers from the RAND Drug Policy Research Center – Beau Kilmer and Rosalie Pacula – provided a lot of food for thought. Beau reviewed his seven P’s and Rosalie addressed the four primary public health goals: 1) prevent youth access, 2) prevent drugged driving, 3) regulate product content and form (potency), and 4) minimize concurrent use with alcohol. The “how” of accomplishing these goals is beyond this post, but if you dig into the RAND site you will find a recent publication that provides all the details.
  • Abuse of prescription drugs. If the 80′s were about cocaine, the 90′s about meth, we are now deeply entrenched in a time where “the” object of addiction are prescription drugs. In the past decade there has been a five-fold increase in treatment admissions for abuse of opioids, and overdose deaths related to pills have tripled in the past two decades. In some states more people die of pill overdoses than motor vehicle accidents. It is a problem that has gained national attention by many government agencies (and non-government groups), and was a hot topic this year at CPDD. Much of the focus was on abuse-deterrent formulations, which studies have shown have reduced abuse and diversion. This is a good thing, but at the same time such formulations are not necessarily reducing the number of people who struggle with abuse/addiction – they are just pushing them in another direction to other more easily abusable products or illicit drugs (what we call the “balloon effect”). The key point goes back to my first bullet point. We need to invest far more resources into prevention and early intervention since this is really the origin of the problem for most who struggle.
  • psilocybinPsilocybin and quantum change. Of all the cool things I learned this year, the one that surprised me the most was a workshop focused on the treatment benefits of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic compound from mushrooms that operates mostly on 5-HT-2a/c serotonin receptors. The session, led by Roland Griffiths and Herb Kleber, reviewed studies where psilocybin produced some remarkable mystical experiences for participants that rated among the most important events in their life! Here is a video clip describing one of the studies. The hope for those who struggle with addiction is that psilocybin may be an accelerated way to induce spiritual experiences that result in profound and lasting behavioral changes. The compound, when used appropriately in controlled conditions, appears to be non-physically toxic and virtually non-addictive. While the early findings are intriguing, I am not so sure we will see it on the list of evidence-based practices any time soon.

If you want to read more about the conference, check out the CPDD Blog.

Lastly, I know many of you won’t believe this, but CPDD has workshops that go from 8pm until 10pm at night, even Sunday – on Father’s Day! My wife never believed me until she saw it for herself. This is a dedicated group of people! So, after one of these very long evenings, I ventured out into the evening and did a little picture taking. Here are two of my favorites:

SD-5sd-1-2

 

Hitting Rock Bottom: New docu-drama about addiction needs your help!

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

I don’t think I have ever done this before on a post, but here goes. I need your help.

Not long ago I was contacted by some folks who have been working hard on a show called Hitting Rock Bottom. It tells the real stories of people who have struggled with addiction, hit rock bottom, and found a way out. Unlike reality television that often turns tragic stories about addiction into entertainment, this show has a far more noble and broader reaching aim. The creater and Director, Corey Snyder, who has been in recovery for the past five years and also happens to be a very talented film maker, wants to instill hope (and action) in those who still struggle. He portrays challenges with addiction through docu-drama storytelling that utilizes actors to dramatize real stories. He and his team have already completed the first four episodes of season one which you can watch right now for free on the Hitting Rock Bottom homepage. Each episode is a few minutes, so watching them all will not take you that long.

HRBThe first season tells the story of Daryl Brown, a very likable young man who sets out in life with no idea of what is ahead for him. The show is more than engaging, and realistically captures the underlying risk factors that contribute to going down a path of addiction. It is real, scary, and unfortunately a story that plays out far too often.

Fortunately, the story of Daryl has a positive ending, but that is where I need your help!

The show is need of funding to finish filming the first season and complete the story of how Daryl overcomes addiction. It’s the best part of the story and has the potential to motivate many struggling souls to seek help. To complete the season, the crew are presently running a fund-raising campaign on Indiegogo. The goal is $57,500 which will cover all costs to finalize filming the remaining episodes. Even with these funds, many involved in this project are giving their time and energy to see this project to its successful completion. By contributing whatever you can, be assured that your donation will go towards a project that has the potential to transform how we understand, treat, and address addiction in this country. Also, there are only 13 days left in the campaign, so please contribute now. And be sure to check out some of the cool perks at various donation levels.

Thank you.

Addiction & Homelessness, Part II

Monday, April 29th, 2013

books-stackIt was early summer and I was deep into my counseling internship at the behavioral health clinic. I was lucky enough to have a giant corner office with many windows overlooking downtown Portland – room enough to conduct both my individual sessions and run groups. It was so big that I decided to bring in two of my own bookcases to fill out the space. Lucky for me, a relative who happened to be a retired psychologist, had a ton of books to donate to my cause. I figured my clients would walk into the room and see all those counseling-related books and be less concerned that I was an intern. I just hoped they didn’t ask me whether I had read them all because then I would have to fess up.

I chose a late night to get the books into my office. The clinic had a hand-truck to make life easier, but it was still a lot of boxes to move. As I was unloading books from my car, a young man in his early thirties came strolling up and casually asked me for $25. While I have been asked for money many times, never has someone on the street asked me for $25! I was taken aback, but even more, just really curious. I told him I would consider his request if he explained to me exactly why he needed the money. Without knowing at all what I did for a living, he said, “I have been in drug treatment for the past month…a couple of days ago, was kicked out and have nowhere to go… I’m homeless and need the money to buy a bus ticket to San Francisco where my parents live.”

Made sense to me. “Why did you get kicked out of drug treatment?” I asked.

The question made him squirm. He looked down at the pavement and said nothing. I could sense he felt shame. Then in a soft voice he said flatly, “I was caught on my bed with another man.”

I replied non-judgmentally that it seemed like a dumb reason to get kicked out of treatment, and that I would help him. I gave him my business card from the clinic and said to come see me the next morning when I could access funds to help him. Because he had nowhere to sleep I pointed him in the direction of a nearby shelter. The next morning when I stumbled tiredly into the clinic, he was sitting in the lobby waiting for me. It was a busy day. I had two evaluations back-to-back and the first client was also in the waiting room. I had him come back to my office where we chatted briefly about the money. I said I would make some calls, fill out some paperwork, and we could reconvene in my office around 11am to finalize things. He thanked me for my efforts and said he would be back then.

But he never returned.

preventing-heroin-overdose

Around 3pm that afternoon I got a call from the county coroner. He had a body and the only item found on it was my business card. The man had overdosed just blocks from my office. My heart sank and my mind raced. What had gone wrong? How could this have happened? What had I missed?

I will never fully know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that he overestimated the amount of drug his body could handle after being clean for a number of weeks while in treatment. I don’t think he was suicidal, but perhaps I missed something. To this day I regret not taking more time to assess his risks for relapse and overdose, but I didn’t know then what I know now.

For me, homelessness will always have a face.

 

Addiction treatment system 14 years later….still in need of an overhaul

Monday, July 9th, 2012

This past week The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University released a scathing report of our addiction treatment system: Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice. While the report says nothing new, it does a nice job of summarizing the fact that we have made little progress since the Institute of Medicine released Bridging the Gap Between Practice and Research: Forging Partnerships with Community-Based Drug and Alcohol Treatment on January 1, 1998. Here we are, 14 years later, and well, where are we now?

The new report points out these grim statistics:

  • 15.9% (40.3 million) of US age 12 and older struggle with addiction to alcohol and drugs (the number is higher if we factor in behavioral addictions such as gambling, sex, food, and online activities)
  • 31.7% (80.4 million) of US age 12 and older, while not addicted to anything, engages in risky use of substances that threaten health and safety (again, this number is higher if behavioral addictions are included)
  • 89.1% of those who meet criteria for addiction involving alcohol and drugs (not including nicotine) receive no treatment
  • Of those who do get treatment, about 50% come from criminal justice (only 5.7% are referred from primary care medicine)
  • Over 50% of those who go to treatment drop out
  • Addiction and risky substance use costs our society an estimated 468 billion each year

Not good! I will admit I was a bit depressed reading through the report, but not surprised. Addiction is a problem still very much misunderstood. Take for example this huge 573 page report, that constrains the definition of addiction to substances. How can we possibly make progress evolving our treatment system if we continue to narrowly define addiction. It is not just to substances that people become enslaved, but to food, gambling, sex, and many online behaviors. We now have neuroimaging studies providing empirical support that the brain is an equal opportunity organ that does not care what stimulates it, so long as dopamine provides a nice reward that keeps us coming back for more. In a great book on overeating, cleverly titled, The End of Overeating, by David Kessler (which I plan to blog about soon), he makes the point that animals will work almost as hard for food as they will for cocaine. So, back to my point. How can we make progress in this field when we continue to slice up the addiction problem, and fail to understand that it is not about the objects per se, but the relationships that a person has with these objects – all of these objects?

Accurately defining the problem would be a start, because we could then start building systems of care that leverage interventions for a wide range of chronic conditions, including addiction. But even agreement on a broad definition will likely not be enough. We need big system changes to make big progress. The CASA report provides a list of recommendations for improvement, including:

  • Increasing screening and referral in primary care medicine
  • Improve training on addiction in medical schools
  • Establish national accreditation standards for all addiction treatment facilities and programs
  • Educate non-health professionals about addiction, screening, and referral (dentists, teachers, legal staff, welfare, etc.)
  • Require adherence to use of evidence-based treatments
  • Expand addiction treatment workforce
  • Implement more national public health campaigns

It is a list, but hardly a gutsy one or even close to what needs to be done if we are to make big progress. What would my list look like? Here are my top four suggestions:

  • National Institute on Addiction (NIA): While integrating NIDA and NIAAA into one organization next year is progress, I would like to see an institute called the National Institute on Addiction that puts the emphasis on understanding the relationships people have with all objects of addiction, not just alcohol and drugs. While I know these agencies have invested resources in gambling and food, the money is scant compared to what is spent on substances. One of the primary goals of this organization would be to get all stakeholders (researchers, treatment providers, public) on the same page about how we should define addiction.
  • Leverage the Internet: Over 80 percent of the US population has access to high-speed internet, which means that we have the potential to reach the 90 percent who don’t get care. I am not saying this is easy, but there is a saying in marketing that you go where the customers are – and they are online.
  • Stop criminalizing addiction and treat those who do end up behind bars: The vast majority of folks behind bars suffer from addiction and most don’t get treatment. This needs to change. Because most will get out, why not use their time while in prison to treat their addiction, educate them, and provide them something to live for when they get out? I know, this costs too much money. See my last point.
  • Invest in families/prevention: Addiction is primarily a problem born out of adolescence. Most who develop addictions begin their journey before the age of 15. We need to devote significant resources to helping families flourish. We need programs that help people developmentally obtain the capacities they need for optimal mental health, for intimacy, parenting, and getting along with each other.

What would be on your list?

Interview with Dr. Bruce Alexander

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Last year I dedicated a post to the work of Dr. Bruce Alexander, a psychologist from Canada who wrote a great book about the globalization of addiction. I am now extremely excited that my good friend Jari Chevalier, from Living Hero, recently completed an interview with him that you can access here. There are so many wonderful things in this podcast that I encourage you to take the time to hear what Dr. Alexander has to say about addiction and our society. Just to wet your appetite, here are a few things I found most insightful:

  • Addiction is a problem on the rise all over the world, and the factors perpetuating this problem are similar
  • Addiction is a window into our lives, culture, and the many problems we face day-to-day, and thus can teach us a lot about ourselves
  • Addiction is an adaptive response to the increasing breakdown in community (dislocation) and intimate social ties necessary for a good life
  • There is no formula or recipe for how best to intervene at the societal/community level and reverse the trend of addiction, but we should look to other countries that are further along in their efforts to curb addiction problems (Scandinavia, parts of South America)

Our government is currently very invested in promoting addiction as a brain disease, and the development of medications and psychosocial interventions that can treat the addicted brain. Unfortunately, however successful these interventions may be, they do not move our society in the direction of what addicts so badly need: human bonds, intimacy, and community. What I really get out of listening to Dr. Alexander is a message of Hope that we can change our ways. We can return to a way of life that is more grounded in relationships and not so consumed with materialism.

Also, check out Dr. Alexander’s website and  let me know what you think of the interview!

The end of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood

Friday, October 8th, 2010

As a young boy, I remember venturing out on summer evenings to play hide-and-seek with the other neighborhood kids. We made up teams, sought out secret hiding places, and took full advantage of the local woods that surrounded our corner of the world. Our parents all knew each other, and while we were expending our energy running around in the dark playing games, they were talking around tables and sharing food and drink. There was no internet, cell phones, or other multimedia distractions competing for time. Life was simpler, slower.

Now, more than thirty-five years later, I find myself married with a young son and challenged to provide him the same care-free childhood that I experienced. Despite living in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood, it is rare to see large groups of kids playing together outside. There are no local woods within walking distance, and even if there were, most parents (myself included) would be hesitant to allow their children to play unsupervised. Although everyone I encounter on my daily dog walks is friendly, there is a lack of deep intimacy among neighbors. Some have never even met despite living within blocks of each other for decades.

The stark contrast between life today and just a few decades ago is surreal. The year I was born the handheld calculator was invented, and today, handheld devices are minicomputers capable of video-conferencing around the world. But for all the benefits technology affords, there is a cost that gets lost in the frenzy of Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon.

In 1985, researchers set out to understand the degree to which people have family and friends they can rely upon to discuss matters that are personal in nature. A national survey was done, and in 2004, the same group decided to repeat the study to determine how core discussion networks had changed over two decades. The results are frightening.

  • 25% of all Americans in 2004 reported they had no one in their life to discuss personal issues, compared to 10% in 1985
  • The modal (most frequent) number of discussion partners in 1985 was three, but in 2004 that number plummeted to zero
  • The average social network size has dropped from 3 confidants to 2
  • The number of people who reported that their spouse was the only person they trust with personal issues increased by almost 50 percent since 1985

These outcomes paint a sobering picture of the price we may be paying for our technology-enhanced life. The lead researcher has said, “we know these close ties are what people depend on in bad times. We’re not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on Facebook.com and email 25 people a day, but they are not discussing matters that are personally important.”

Source: Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades, American Sociological Review, June 2006 71:353-375

Uncovering the pervasive roots of addiction: Part 2

Monday, July 12th, 2010

“Addiction in the modern world can be best understood as a compulsive lifestyle that people adopt as a desperate substitute when they are dislocated from the myriad intimate ties between people and groups – from the family to the spiritual community – that are essential for every person in every type of society.”

Bruce K. Alexander, The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit

In the previous post I discussed how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to a large extent play an important role in the development of addictions. Given that over 80 percent of those who develop addictions begin adaptive behaviors to cope with ACEs prior to the age of 15, we as a society need to place a greater emphasis on identifying at-risk kids and intervening as early as possible. But there is another insidious root to addiction that I believe goes beyond individual ACEs and plays an even greater role in the development of addiction – free market society.

Bruce K. Alexander spent decades as a distinguished addiction researcher in Canada before becoming so frustrated by a lack of progress in helping those who struggle, that he completly changed careers and decided to focus on teaching history instead. Despite doing everything he could to avoid topics around drugs and addiction, the more he studied history, the more he discovered insights that began to change his entire perspective on the nature of addiction.

In general, when we think about addiction, we think about it as an individual problem. Individuals are exposed to a host of risk factors, including ACEs, peer group influences, and the availability of objects of addiction in communities. The more risk factors an individual is exposed to, the more likely the chances are that he or she will develop an addiction. Conventional wisdom also suggests that the antidote to addiction is intervention and treatment. But when Dr. Alexander began studying history, he discovered cultures and societies where common objects of addiction were present (drugs, alcohol, sex, food), yet addictive behavior was minimal or nonexistent. ”Addiction can be rare in a society for many centuries, but can become nearly universal when circumstances change – for example, when a cohesive tribal culture is crushed or an advanced civilisation collapses (Alexander, 2008).” Throughout history, the primary factor responsible for the societal change leading to pervasive addiction is the introduction of free market society. Why?

When a society introduces free markets, exchange of goods and services optimally are not encumbered by family ties, cultural traditions, religious values, or anything else that may impede free play of the laws of supply and demand. In other words, free markets create an “every man (or woman) for yourself” dynamic that puts me in competition with everyone else for jobs, insurance, a house, goods, services and Lady Ga Ga tickets. One consequence of this system is that people become dislocated, or disconnected from one another because of the time and energy necessary to keep up with the Jones. Free markets are incredibly profficient at knowing how to keep people focused on stuff over experiences. Flashy ads, mass media, and the latest gizmo from Steve Jobs keeps us always wanting more. In the pursuit of the American dream, what many get instead is isolation, fear, and dislocation, which ultimately leads to compulsive lifestyles where people develop addictive relationships to stuff and get further and further disconnected from nurturing human relationships.

Dr. Alexander’s Dislocation Theory of Addiction is well documented in a paper titled The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Society (highly recommended reading) and a more extensive read: The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit. His work is extremely important in helping us all understand many of our current societal ills beyond addiction, including: divorce, single parenthood, children in poverty, obesity, unemployment, and excessive time in front of the TV. Until we as a society place relationships and experiences over materialism, consumption and stuff, Thoreau’s observation that ”the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” will ring ever more true.

What is the solution to mass dislocation? I believe part of the answer lies in making some tough societal changes including ending the senseless war on drugs (a big topic for another time). But for the individual struggling right now with addiction, the answer is much more about restructuring life in a way that emphasizes relationships over stuff. To do this, one must have the developmental  capacities necessary to know how to initiate, develop, and maintain healthy human relationships.

Uncovering the pervasive roots of addiction: Part 1

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

“For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.”  – Thoreau

In my life there have been many times when I felt isolated, lonely, disconnected, and alone. These times have never  been pleasant, and in the absence of nurturing relationships, close friends to call on a dime, or a tribe of my own, I coped by engaging in substitute relationships with work, money, entertainment, food, hobbies, and exercise (just to name a few). For years I felt shame about many of my behaviors, and my inability to connect in deep ways with others. Now I understand that so much of my adaptive behaviors were a response to underlying root problems, problems that needed resolving and hampered in significant ways my ability to intiate, develop, and maintain intimate and nurturing relationships with people. I also believe that now, more than ever, those who struggle with addiction share similar root causes that need to be addressed if successful longterm outcomes are to materialize.

The roots of addiction go much deeper than the adaptive behaviors that so often are the focus of intervention efforts. This is because dealing with the symptoms (addictions) are easier than dealing with the root causes. I have long believed that addiction is a problem best managed over time like other chronic illnesses. But successful management necessitates addressing what drives the addictive behavior in the first place. It requires knowing how to turn down the flame, dig out the roots, and resolve problems that are solvable. These underlying roots come in many shapes and sizes, but there are two forms that I believe are the primary drivers of addiction today. This post will address the first form: adverse childhood experiences.

Adverse Childhood Experiences
In the mid 1980s, physicians from Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventative Medicine in San Diego made an interesting discovery. Those who were losing the most weight and succeeding in the weight loss program were the ones most likely to drop out and quit. Was it because they no longer needed the program? Nope. Further investigation revealed that the majority of dropouts did not maintain their weight loss and went back to struggling with problems of overeating and obesity. Why did they quit if they were succeeding in the program? A deeper look revealed that overeating and obesity were used as tools to cope with unresolved adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). In most cases, overeating was an unconscious behavior utilized as a protective solution to these unresolved childhood problems.

How was it unconsciously protective? In many cases, the ACEs involved sexual, physical or emotional abuse. Developing a relationship with food was safer than developing intimate or nurturing relationships with people who might abuse again. Being obese unconsciously deterred romantic interests and physically enhanced protection of the body. The finding that most of the participants in the weight loss program had prior ACEs led Kaiser to collaborate with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to explore the link between ACEs and general health outcomes.

The study involved over 17,000 middle-class Americans and has produced over 50 scholarly research journal articles. Among the most signficant findings in the study was that two-thirds of the participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. In addition, the higher a person’s ACE score, the more addictive behavior was utilized as a coping response. For example:

Here you can see that as the number of ACE scores increase, so too does the percent who meet criteria for alcoholism. This finding is detailed in an insightful paper titled The Origins of Addiction by the lead researcher of the study, Vincent Felitti. What the ACE study helps us to understand is that the roots of addiction are real, diverse, and if left unaddressed, will continue to fuel the behavior we are so badly trying to manage (or end).

Dr. Gabor Mate, continued…

Monday, July 5th, 2010

The following interview with Dr. Mate provides additional context for his work and beliefs about addiction. One surprising statement he makes is that less than five percent of his patients overcome their addictions - not the best of outcomes. Of course what “overcome” means and how to define outcomes are messy topics, but I am far more optimistic about  the tenacity of the human spirit to change. Addiction is most definitely a challenge, but one reason for poor outcomes has been the lack of understanding about the nature of addiction, and the need for a comprehensive solution like MRC. Watch the interview, and then let me know your thoughts about Dr. Mate’s conclusions.