Commentary: There is no known cure for addiction

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds gather at the Utah Capitol to rally for mental illness and addiction recovery while working to increase access to health care, mental health, affordable housing and treatment and recovery support on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.

I know that in previous letters to the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, I have stressed the need for more treatment and rehab facilities to be made available to drug addicts as opposed to the law enforcement approach of arrests and jail sentences. While I still believe that to be true, I am now going to present the other side that many people don’t want to hear: There is no known cure for drug addiction.

The most discouraging thing is that very few, maybe only 2 percent of addicts or alcoholics, actually ever recover; that is why they are called “recovering,” not “recovered,” because most will relapse again and again. In an article by Kristin Bahler in the December issue of Money magazine, she says, “The thing about rehab is that it can work after the first try, and sometimes after the 15th try.” There is just no way of knowing if it will work at all.

Addicts might detox after a few days in jail or elsewhere, but one addiction expert said that even though they got the monkey off their backs, that doesn’t mean the circus has left town. In fact, relapse is just around the corner.

One woman who was in jail for a six-month sentence said that all the women talked about was getting out and getting high again, not sobriety or making life changes for the better. She claimed she got locked down for 21 days because she had another person’s pill pack, while another woman got 63 days in lockdown for getting high in jail.

There is a vicious cycle with this addiction disease: from addiction to arrest to jail to detox to treatment to rehab to relapse and back to arrest and jail and so forth and so on. That is why we see so many treatment, rehab and sober living facilities springing up, because the proprietors know that this is a gold mine where addicts are recycled over and over again, get out and relapse again, and never fully recover.

Parents and addicts themselves fork out anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $30,000 or more for a 30-day rehab program. They soon find out sadly that in most cases it didn’t work and they suffer a relapse. One national rehab outfit recently published a full-page ad praising its program to recovery, but the disclaimer in fine print said the company does not guarantee that the program will work.

How bad is the opioid addiction epidemic that has swept the nation? Twenty million Americans are addicted; over 63,000 died of drug overdoses in 2016, and 70,000 passed away in 2017. The deadliest drug in the U.S. now, according to an article in USA Today (Dec. 13, 2018), is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid made in China. It is blamed for 18,000 overdose deaths in this country in 2016, an increase of about 13 percent per year. The average number of deaths daily in the U.S. from drug overdoses is 174.

My sister started doing drugs back in the 1960s at age 13 and died at age 50 from a cocktail of methadone, Xanax and cocaine. She had been in just about every rehab joint in Utah but couldn’t kick her addiction. People who have had surgery often rely on painkillers that can lead to addiction and sometimes death. Some doctors who prescribe harmful drugs get kickbacks from the pharmaceutical companies, making the problem worse. Also, health insurance companies will only go so far in paying for an addict’s rehab, meaning that any relapse will come as an out-of-pocket expense.

Bahler’s article goes on to say that possible cures — or interventions, as she calls them — often do more harm than good. Multiple studies, she says, have shown that medications like methadone and buprenorphine are the most reliable means of rehabilitation, though not the only ones, because they are opioids themselves. They too are addictive, making the problem to hard to quit. Bahler says addiction is a cost that we are all shouldering, where the estimated annual abuse of prescription opioids alone comes with a $78.5 billion price tag, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Addiction is a terrible disease where the drug takes control of the individual and addicts will do just about anything to get the next fix. They will beg, borrow or steal anything to come up with the cash for drugs. Only the individual addict can decide when to get help, and then he or she has to know that the circus really has not left town and that this addiction problem will not go away.

As a character in the movie “Beautiful Boy” says, “It’s truly one day at a time. You’ve never really won the fight.”

Marty Bernstein, Midvale. is a retired high school teacher and former newspaper reporter and sports editor.