I have had numerous patients who have been pressured by their families to "go away" to some residential treatment program, usually it seems in another state (than Minnesota). Florida, Arizona and California seem to have a concentration of these, especially "Executive Programs" with gourmet food, precious handling, "equine therapy," "golf therapy," yoga, life coaching, and of course first class accommodations. They run from $20,000 to $70,000 for a month. These are people who have severe, recurrent addictions, usually to alcohol but some are addicted to opioids like heroin. Almost all have been through some sort of rehab multiple times before. Many but not all have money. Often enough, it's a family member who is coughing up the big bucks.
What do they get? One patient relapsed on the plane on the way home. Not a single one had any lasting benefit. Almost all relapsed within weeks, often days after returning home. In other circumstances, patients and families, and in Minnesota, state government, will pay for lengthy stays, 90, 120, 180 days in some "recovery environment." Again, it's plenty costly. But do they get any benefit? The vast majority do not.
It's an uphill battle to try to convince family members that sending their loved one away for some period of time to some "special place" is very unlikely to change their long-term outcomes. People just do not want to believe it. And admittedly, it's a hard pill to swallow. After all, the chemical dependency treatment industry has done a commendable job of spreading the idea that anyone can recover "if they really want to." And of convincing people that they have some unique answer to an ancient problem that defies easy resolution. The really difficult fact is this: all of our treatments (yes, that includes 12 Step treatment programs and AA) have modest effects at best. (The exception to this generalization is for opioid maintenance therapy with Suboxone or methadone for addiction to opioids such as Oxycontin or heroin. Opioid maintenance therapy is extremely effective and more cost-effective than almost any medical intervention other than vaccination.) Too many people do not respond to any available treatment. And they die of their illness. They die of a hereditary, brain-based behavioral disorder that makes them vulnerable to compulsive use of alcohol, opioids, cocaine, meth or cigarettes. It's not that they aren't motivated to change. I have to say, this is one of the cruelest things that rehabs do: people are told they could stop the process if they wanted to. But guess what? Some people can't. No matter how hard they try to "work the program." No matter what they do. Even if they go 90x90, or attend 1000 12-step meetings a year. They are mystified. "Why do I keep doing this? I'm not stupid! I know what will happen, but I do it anyway." This is the mystery of addiction.
In other chronic severe diseases, health care providers constantly experience failure of available treatments, and are able to accept it. People die of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, multiple sclerosis, dementia. But in the rehab industry, staff members are protected from experiencing treatment failure. First, treatment is time limited. So, instead of having to live with patients who come back with recurrent illness when the treatment doesn't work, staff members don't have to live with (and struggle to help) people who don't respond to treatment. Second, the entire industry (and unfortunately, too many 12-step program members) believe without doubt that "treatment doesn't fail patients, patients fail treatment." Try telling that to someone with metastatic cancer, end-stage liver failure, Parkinson's disease or chronic obstructive liver disease. But because we continue to stigmatize people with addiction, we get by with it, we are told to reject them, to use "tough love," to let them "bottom out." In my experience, in too many people "bottom" is 6 feet under ground. We condemn family members who don't abandon their loved ones as "enablers." What could be more cruel than this?
As a healer, one of the hardest things I do is to stay engaged with someone who dies of addiction. To not reject them. To not condemn them. To understand they are in the grips of something neither they nor I nor anyone else can control or stop, short of imprisoning them (and even then, prisons and mental hospitals are usually full of drugs.) To accept the limitations of our available treatments. To be compassionate even as death approaches. In the last year alone, in my part-time clinical practice, I have lost 6 patients to addiction.
It's not actually different than dying of diabetic renal failure, or of multiple sclerosis, or cancer. We can accept those illnesses as "not the person's fault." But when it's a brain-based disease, we cannot fathom that a brain can become dysregulated to the degree that someone loses control of their behavior to such an extent that they die from it. It's too frightening. We can't stand the thought that we aren't in full control of our lives. That we can't control our own behavior completely.
And yet, we all know better. We all have areas of problem, non-optimal behavior. We smoke. We drink too much. We don't exercise enough. We can't get our behavior right with our spouse or partner or children. We lose it. We shop too much. We can't handle money. We eat too much. We don't take good care of ourselves when we have a chronic illness. We lose our tempers. We work too hard, or not hard enough. We ignore important things. We procrastinate.
Yet we cling to the illusion of control. Of self-determination. We control our fates. Why can't "they"?
Just to be clear, I am not advocating that people with brain-based behavioral disorders not be held responsible for their behavior. For example, I am not advocating that people who commit crimes while intoxicated should be found innocent because of their addiction. As we move further into understanding the brain mechanisms underlying destructive and/or illegal behavior, this question looms large. But I have concluded that even though brain dysregulation might underlie much of this type of behavior, society only works if we hold people responsible for their behavior in spite of that fact. Individual responsibility for behavior is a social and political necessity that cannot be sorted out by science. In this blog, I am addressing how to provide health care for people with addiction and nothing else.
It's terrifying to think of having a behavior so out of control that it kills us. Anorexia nervosa. Depression. Bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia. Addictions. Antisocial and borderline personality disorders. All have substantial mortality rates. People with serious mental illness die 25 years early on average! Is it because people don't care if they die? I know that's not true, I've worked with too many of them. No, it's because the brain is a flesh-and-blood organ that can get sick, dysregulated, in specific ways that the individual cannot have insight into and cannot control. And it kills them. We have to come to grips with this grim reality if we have any hope of overcoming these dread diseases.
One thing I do know is this: some short-term high-end expensive rehab program is not going to change anything. The best hope is long-term care management with an experienced and qualified clinician or team of clinicians. That's what we do for diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, arthritis. That's the best we can do for people with severe addictions. And it is a heck of a lot cheaper besides. Give me $30,000; I'll see you daily for a year! Geez, with 8 patients, I could make $240,000 a year!
I can obtain better results at a fraction of the price than any high-end time-limited treatment program. I guarantee it! And yet, I have to accept that despite all of my best efforts, and theirs, and their families', some of my patients will not respond. And some will die as a result. And they deserve our compassion, not condemnation.
What do you think? Please spread this around, comment on it, argue, agree or do something else. These are incredibly important questions.