Opioid addiction recovery may seem impossible, as the crisis sweeping America has only been worsened by the stigma of addiction. But addicts who have recovered and been able to return to leading productive lives say that a cure is possible and fellow addicts need time and support, not to be labeled as dangerous "junkies."
"It's very difficult for people to want to come out and say stuff when there's this immediate backlash," said Eric Dyer, 27, a painkiller addict who has been in recovery for about six years and now works as an attorney in upstate New York. "The only way to reduce the stigma is to have people share their story and be open about it."
Dyer, of upstate New York, started smoking marijuana and drinking heavily as a teenager, but by age 18 had become addicted to opiates.
"Opioids had a unique effect because it was everything I could have ever wanted in any type of feeling and it was given to me in this small pill," he said. "Once the physical addiction took over, a lot more of the principles I was brought up with started to go by the wayside, because the only priority, the only thing on my mind was opiates."
Dyer was 21 when his then-girlfriend discovered his stash of painkillers, flushed them down the toilet and contacted his family for help pushing him into rehab. It was a process the family was familiar with, since Dyer's father had also struggled with addiction and recovered from it.
In rehab, Dyer connected his success with using Vivitrol, a once-a-month injection of naltrexone. Gradually the medication helped him return to a mental state of feeling 'okay,' before he eventually went on to finish college and law school.
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But he called his situation – with a supportive family and health insurance – "incredibly unique." For many other opioid users without that support, he acknowledged getting to the physical and mental state that allows for ongoing sobriety can be seemingly impossible.
"The access to on-demand treatment is just not there," he said. "If you could take somebody using on the street and not only get them into treatment ... but give people that follow-up, with the housing, education and support that's necessary to give people a life, in my view that's what it's going to take."
Meagan Kenney, 33, who is in recovery from heroin and fentanyl addiction, described herself as someone who survived as a "functioning addict" for years who could continue to hold down a job. But since getting clean, she said she has recovered a level of enjoyment in day-to-day-life she no longer thought possible.
"The reason I share my story is I want people to not lose hope.Even when you don’t recognize yourself anymore, that person is still there," said Kenney, who has been sober for six years and now works as an addiction therapist. "I'm a firm believer in neuroplasticity."
Kenney decided to pursue treatment with Vivitrol in 2012 after meeting another former user who had used Vivitrol to get clean. She said the nature of the monthly shot helped her break her daily routine of drug use.
"Vivitrol allowed me, without having a derailing opioid relapse, to start to repair the holes in my soul that led to my addiction in the first place and really putting in that work that went way beyond it to a spiritual growth," Kenney said. "I just desperately wanted to put this addiction behind me and get back to my life that I hadn’t seen in years."
Kenney, whose father had been an addict as well, said therapy was key to her success, getting to the root of childhood depression, social anxiety and other problems that drove her to use drugs.
"When it finally clicked – it was really just like the biggest relief," she said. "It was like the weight of the world fell off my shoulders.All I had to do was show up for this shot.Not the full-time job of being a drug addict."
Believing in opioid addiction recovery
Vivitrol is just one of several treatment options, a form of naltrexone, which along with bupenorphine and methadone are the most commonly prescribed opioid addiction medications. (Sublocade is a recently approved once-a-month form of bupenorphine).
"The scientific data doesn't really indicate that any one drug is a clear winner. It really comes down to what drug is a good fit for the particular person,"said Dr. Ben Nordstrom, CEO of Phoenix House, a recovery program that treats some 12,000 patients at more than 100 programs across the country, including in New York and Massachusetts. "The person has to want to take them, want to learn new skills, and apply those lessons learned to their lives on a daily basis and carry that forward, because we know that relapse is very much a part of this. They need to know that's not cause to give up hope or to think treatment has somehow failed them."
In Philadelphia, where some neighborhoods are inhabited by large populations of homeless drug users, a new $1 million Pennsylvania Coordinated Medication Assisted Treatment (PAC-MAT) grant, part of $3 million in funds awarded by Gov. Wolf around the state, will go to the Temple Center for Population Health to broaden the reach of medication-assisted treatment.
"We have to give them reasons to stay in recovery," Nordstrom said. "People do best when they have something to gain and something to lose. When people have neither, it's very difficult for them to see a reason to do anything different."