Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Steven Scanlan

To Use Suboxone, Or Not To Use Suboxone?

A reader writes:

Hi G,

I know there is no magic bullet or simple answer, but I thought you may have a suggestion for me. I’ve been taking perc or ox for five years, for the first 3 it was only 30-50mg/day but now it’s between 150 and 180.

Suboxone scares the shit out of me, but at the same time, every time I try to taper, I fail and I’m starting to go broke. I lost my health insurance.

I go to meetings 4 or 5 times a week, all helpful, but the physical part keeps me hooked.

I heard suboxone may be ok if used very briefly (like a month or less), as when taken for longer, the withdrawal is way worse than the oxy itself. I wish I could go to a 7-day detox or something, but I just don’t have the money and I don’t have insurance. I also freelance so I need to be able to work and I can’t lose more than a few days. 

Anyway, I started trying to find low-income or sliding scale suboxone programs in NYC, but it’s slow going and I don’t want to just get hooked on something else. I have read long term effects of suboxone are bad too.

I guess my Qs are:

if I were to do suboxone briefly, a few weeks, would I just then have the same withdrawal as I would going cold-turkey from the oxy anyway?

is there something else in my area (or anywhere) where someone could go for opiate detox that costs nothing or very little?

I want to be clean so bad, but every time I try to taper I just fail.

Any thoughts/suggestions appreciated – I know you’re not a doctor or professional, you just seem to have a lot of info and I know how we like to help each other. 

Thanks in advance.

B

Dear B,

There is no magic bullet, but in my experience there are simple answers.

The first was to know that I wanted to get clean. (Which you say you do.) First problem solved: I was telling myself the truth. The truth was, I was willing to do what it takes. And It Takes What It Takes.

The second was to ask for help. (Which you have. Keep doing it.) Nobody, but nobody, does this on his own. Even the people I know who don’t go to meetings have put together communities of other people trying to stay sober.

The third was to use my willingness and my growing community to decide on a path, and walk the walk.

For some people, Suboxone is the solution. They’ll tell you they don’t mind eating an opioid for the rest of their lives—it’s “like a diabetic taking insulin.”

In my opinion the diabetes analogy is worn out. I wanted my solution to be real freedom. When I reached out for help I met people who had shot heroin and who had gone bankrupt buying drugs over the Internet and who had drunk themselves into blackouts—people who drank and used to the excess I had, or worse—who were clean and sober. I wanted to break ties with all drugs that cause physical and psychological dependence. For me taking drugs is signing on for slavery. Just my reality.

I really wanted to go to rehab but I knew I couldn’t leave my kid for that long.

Here’s how I decided on a Suboxone taper.

I knew I couldn’t detox off full-agonists like oxy. Too alluring. (More truth-telling.) I needed to change all my habits. So I asked for help—I found a detox doctor who was willing to oversee a Suboxone taper for me.

I told him at the outset that I wanted to taper. When my resolve flagged, he reminded me that the project was to get free.

I put the taper in his control. I never had more than one week’s worth of drugs in my possession. He wrote out the taper, I wrote out the check, we shook hands. I waved the white flag and gave up.

I did what he and a bunch of other people—Dani, Allgood, Sluggo, Bonita, all online friends; and my new real-life sponsor and community—told me to do. I put my faith in the people who were sober and who told me I could be, too. I burned a script for more drugs. I went to meetings and opened my mouth and let myself cry on people. I kept collecting sober people around me.

Several weeks later I was drug-free for the first time in years.

And yeah, I ain’t a doctor, but I’ll offer this anecdotal caveat: if you’re taking 180mg Oxy, they’ll try to start you out at 8-12mg Suboxone (or maybe even more). But that would be increasing your tolerance. If you really want to get clean, you’ll start at 4mg and taper to 3mg within two days. You could do a 2-week taper, cutting to 1/4mg—the equivalent of 1 Percocet—at the end and have a relatively smooth landing.

Post-acute withdrawal.

I ain’t gonna kid you: staying clean was a slog. Tapering off suboxone was not nearly as bad as detoxing cold-turkey from fentanyl or oxy, but it wasn’t painless—I shivered, I kicked in my sleep, I sneezed 20 times in a row. Keep in mind, my tolerance was more than twice yours, and I’m probably a little smaller than you. I spent each day telling myself if I made it to bed without having stolen drugs (because yes: I used to steal drugs) or used anything, including alcohol, I was a success.

The best treatment for drug-cravings was vigorous exercise. It helps the body produce its private supply of morphine and dopamine. Dr. Steve Scanlan told me research shows people who exercise cut their recovery time in half. I made playlists that helped me drag my body around the neighborhood. Walk, run, cycle. Do pushups. Lift weights. Start small and grow bigger. I exercised, and my body and mind recovered.

Healthy. (Mostly.)

Healthy. (Mostly.)

A 180mg oxy habit is totally beatable. With a stick, my friend. Dude, if I can get clean, you can. I was on more than twice that and I’m free today. And I did not use insurance to get clean. But I paid what it took—the first of several critical investments I’ve made in myself over the past few years. Paying that doctor made me realize that, for a long time, maybe all my life, I’d withdrawn a great deal without putting very much back.

 

The most important information here: Get to a meeting. Tell them you want to get clean. Ask them to help you.

If you feel you need inpatient or other professional help, try Phoenix House, a large NYC-based treatment system with detox facilities in Long Island City. Or try the “free and affordable” resources listed on this website.

Suboxone Debate At TheFix.com

Dorothy finds Oz via the opium poppies (credit: Turner Entertainment via Tumblr)

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out my first piece for TheFix.com, talking about two sides of the buprenorphine (Suboxone) treatment issue.

There is more complexity to this issue—more sides to it than just two, and I hope to follow up on that complexity in future stories.

I’m grateful to my two patient sources, folks who emailed me after having read this blog, who agreed to be interviewed for this piece—as well as to the physicians who gave their candid comments and their time…

Looking forward to hearing what y’all think.

Reader Questions: Addiction, Chronic Pain, and Drug Maintenance

A reader had some questions about my interview with Dr. Scanlan, a physician who conducts opiate detox in the Florida pill-mill hot-zone:

It would have been helpful if Dr. Scanlan had addressed those opiate addicts that became that way after dealing with chronic pain. If there is no long-term maintenance, how will they stay off of opiates? Maybe a different way to address that is how will they get pain relief? “Buprenorphine is now the 41st prescribed drug in the U.S.” Where is OxyContin, Fentanyl and morphine? Most opiate addicts became that way because of being prescribed pain medication for legitimate chronic painful conditions. Are they included the 5% of addicts that may need maintenance? Or are we just discussing the ‘recreational’ users?

These are good points. Many people do become addicted after seeking treatment for serious chronic pain conditions. For the last 15 years or so there has been a big push in the medical community to recognize pain as the Fifth Vital Sign, and to treat it aggressively with appropriate drugs. Along with treating more pain with more opioids comes the risk that more people will become addicted. Simple math.

I agree—those of us with chronic pain have to strategize about its treatment in order to avoid turning back to opioids. Speaking from my own experience, an important part of this strategy is recognizing that opioids are not the only solution for pain relief. They’re certainly not the best long-term solution for chronic nonmalignant pain.

If you have chronic pain and addiction, I’d like to ask, what have you done about your pain?

As for your other questions: Where are OxyContin, fentanyl and morphine in the list? Oxycodone in all its forms is quite high on the list, though not as high as hydrocodone, which is the top-prescribed drug in the U.S., bar none. Second on the 2009 list (the most recent) were cholesterol maintenance drugs, then amoxicillin (a trusty antibiotic). Codeine is also way up there, and lots of people get addicted via codeine cough syrup or Tylenol #3 for headache, for example. (I knew one professional person who always carried a bottle of codeine cough syrup in their bag—their way of dealing with stress.) See this Forbes piece for one explanation that includes good sources. …

Vicodin is being prescribed like a version of extra-strength Tylenol these days. People go in to have a tooth pulled or to have a wound stitched and are given 30 or 60 Vicodin. It used to be that they’d get 3-5 tablets, but physicians are so used to writing in counts of “30” or “60.” With that supply of a drug that strong on hand, the “addiction switch” (as I think of it) can get turned on within a matter of weeks. Then, when they beg but can no longer get any more refills from their doctor, they turn to other sources to keep the lights on.

A Florida corner-store pain clinic.

I’ve been told that, once you cross the Georgia-Florida border on I-95, the signs for places to score pills start appearing on the roadside, and they follow you all the way down the coast. It’s said that there are more “pain clinics” than McDonald’s restaurants in Broward County—and three times as many clinics as Starbucks outlets.

Dr. Scanlan’s patients, just like all addicts, have become addicted in all kinds of ways. In addition, he practices in this hotbed of pill-mills, some of which dispense painkillers without following good medical practice. These people may or may not be “recreational” users (from my experience, people who are taking 300-600mg of oxycodone each day are no longer engaged in “recreation”), but they’re still suffering from a problem they can’t control.

A Florida strip-mall pain clinic.

I don’t think Dr. Scanlan was talking about pain patients in particular as being in the five percent of addicted people who may need drug maintenance. Scanlan and others, such as Dr. Gabor Maté, some of whose patients live in extremely difficult circumstances—people from street conditions who continually relapse and can’t get sober-time not only because of the inherent power of the disease but also because of the corollary circumstances that go along with certain manifestations of it (homelessness; joblessness; criminality; needle-use; prostitution; etc.)—believe in drug-maintenance to help this set of people stop harming themselves first of all.

The way I understand Scanlan’s comment about drug-maintenance is, he thinks this option gets promoted (by greedy drug manufacturers and well-meaning but largely ignorant policy-makers who have little or no personal experience with addiction) as a “cure” for all addiction—when he many others know that there are non-drug solutions that are less costly to the individual’s physical health and also their wallet, and to society. He’s a living example, and he’s trying to bring that solution to the people who come to him asking for help.

 

Suboxone: Amazing Detox Tool, Monster Maintenance Drug.

An Expert Talks About Suboxone: Dr. Steven Scanlan of Palm Beach Outpatient Detox

Steven Scanlan M.D.

Steven Scanlan M.D., medical director of Palm Beach Outpatient Detox

Steven Scanlan, M.D. is board-certified in psychiatry and addiction medicine. In his practice, Palm Beach Outpatient Detox (PBOD), on the Florida coast, he has detoxed more than a thousand patients off many drugs, including alcohol, benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, etc.), and sleep aids. But his specialty is opiate detox.

Scanlan has been practicing as medical director of PBOD for about two years. His practice, he said, is located in an area where more than two-thirds of all oxycodone prescriptions in the nation are issued—the south Florida coast that has become notorious for its “pill mills.”

Scanlan said 70 percent of his patients come to him addicted to oxycodone at levels of about 300 to 600mg per day. About 20 percent also come in with alcohol problems. “The rest use Vicodin and Ultram,” and a few come in addicted to Fentanyl, he said.

And then there are the increasing numbers who come to him desperate to get off Suboxonea drug that combines buprenorphine, a synthetic partial-agonist opioid, with another drug to prevent abuse. Suboxone (commonly known as “Sub” by people with addiction) is used in opiate detox and maintenance, it’s known and “prison-heroin,” and it’s now commonly sold on the street.

Scanlan says he has seen Suboxone work brilliantly as a detox tool and dangerously as a maintenance drug.

I first heard Scanlan speak on a podcast that’s now defunct. Two reasons I was eager to talk to him:

1. Scanlan chose addiction medicine as a result of his own recovery from opiate addiction. He understands addiction from personal and professional experience. While training to become an anesthesiologist Scanlan became addicted to Fentanyl, a strong opioid used in surgical procedures and for severe pain. After trying many times to quit on his own, he found a physician who helped him detox over two weeks using Subutex—plain buprenorphine—and other medications to ease the detox symptoms. He joined a recovery program, then decided he was well equipped to help others suffering from the same problem. Many of his physician colleagues didn’t like working with addicted patients, but he found he did. In his practice, he doesn’t just dole out drugs; he gives patients 24/7 followup until they’re physically comfortable and involved in some kind of support program.

2. I wanted to hear his clear-cut ideas about detoxing off opiates. He only does detox. He never does maintenance. Unlike so many other scientists, who believe people addicted to opioids can never stay off them, he believes we can get free.

“Believe me—it’s much more lucrative to do maintenance, to keep patients on Suboxone,” he said, adding that it’s even more profitable than, for example, doing Botox injections. Hundreds of practitioners—some of them with no experience with addiction—prescribe Suboxone as a maintenance drug, keeping patients on it for years at high levels and charging exorbitant cash fees. But for the vast majority of addicted people, Scanlan does not believe drug-maintenance is appropriate—or even safe. Buprenorphine is such a new drug, he says, and its long-term effects have not been adequately observed and researched.

He has said that Suboxone may curb cravings for other opiates and allow people to stop stealing and get their lives in order. But the problem is that, after three months or so, patients have terrible difficulties quitting Suboxone because of its sheer strength in binding to opiate receptors, its long half-life, and the fact that it’s a partial-agonist binding to receptors built for full agonists. And despite what the media tell us, there are many people who don’t want to spend a lifetime on high doses of Suboxone.

You know what? When I was detoxing off fentanyl in 2008, I felt so good on Suboxone that I thought about staying on it. Then something happened. I no longer felt so good. My feelings dulled. I no longer wanted food or sex. I realized my body was adapting to the drug—or trying to. Fortunately my outpatient detox doctor had no more slots for Suboxone maintenance patients, so I tapered off as quickly as I could. If my doctor had been operating under the new Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, he may have had a slot for me, and I might have gotten trapped on Suboxone as so many others have.

Scanlan said most people, including physicians, do not comprehend the strength and effects of buprenorphine. “Everything changes in the body when you’re on opiates long-term—the way the body regulates pain, the way it regulates hormone production, sleep, emotions—everything,” he said. And buprenorphine, he repeats, is an opiate. Its effects are not just physical: as a psychiatrist, Scanlan has noticed in his practice that at long-term doses of just 2mg, Suboxone can block almost all of a person’s emotions.

In addition, buprenorphine’s half-life is 37 hours, which means it takes the body more than a day to excrete half the dose. When dosed once a day, the body doesn’t have time to catch up, so the drug builds up in the system—a phenomenon called “bioaccumulation” that Rachel Carson documented in the buildup of toxins among wildlife in her book Silent Spring. A patient dosing with buprenorphine at 8mg is not only getting 8mg—he’s getting the 8mg, plus the amount not yet metabolized from the day before (4mg). And 8mg is a low-end maintenance dose. In the U.S., patients are commonly dosed at 16mg or 24mg per day.

“There’s definitely a risk to going on Suboxone long-term—anything over three months,” he said. “It would be easier to detox patients if they were coming in at a year’s time at one milligram, or a half-milligram, which is where they should be. But they’re always coming in at 16 milligrams. Or 4 milligrams for four years but really they’ve been at 8 milligrams and they’ve lowered it just before they’ve come to see me. I have to get them to tell me what they’ve REALLY been taking.”

Scanlan is the only professional I’ve ever heard who can explain why the body reacts so differently to Suboxone than to full-agonist drugs like heroin, Vicodin and methadone. Read on…

Suboxone tablets

Suboxone 8mg tablets

G: Educate me about buprenorphine.

Scanlan: It’s the most amazing detox medication I’ve ever seen. But for maintenance—it’s harder to get off than methadone. Suboxone is 25-45 times as potent as morphine. It’s the king of the hill in terms of opiates—it displaces every other opiate off the receptors, except for Fentanyl. [Maintenance physicians] use way too much of it. When you build up to a serum level, it’s SO POTENT.

Americans should look at European countries’ use of buprenorphine. They’ve had it much longer than we have. They use lower doses; they have as much maintenance as we do. In Scandinavia, what do you think the number-one most-abused drug is?—buprenorphine. Simple facts: they’ve had it longer, and it’s the most abused drug. That’s what I’d like people to know about.

Buprenorphine is now the 41st most prescribed drug in the U.S. Five years ago, it was the 196th most prescribed. [Update, April 2016: Suboxone is now the 16th most prescribed drug in the U.S.] So you can see what a money machine it’s becoming. … The research to get Suboxone approved [by the FDA] was funded in conjunction with the NIH. Until the NIH is run by someone in recovery from addiction, this propaganda will continue. [National Institute on Drug Abuse Director] Nora Volkow is great, she’s smart, I’ve met her, but she doesn’t have a clue.

G: Why don’t you prescribe Suboxone as a maintenance drug?

S: I wasn’t against maintenance when I detoxed. But I’ve seen a lot since then. And I had a detox physician who told me, “Do NOT stay on this drug for more than three weeks, or else you’ll be dealing with a whole different problem.”

Buprenorphine is a partial-agonist opiate. It binds to the receptor and only activates it partway. Opiates are meant to bind to the receptors and activate them fully. But if you put something completely foreign in the body like a partial agonist, the body says, “What is this?” and it tries to reach homeostasis. It struggles to understand it as a full agonist, and it can’t. There is nothing in nature that is a partial agonist, and our opiate receptors are not designed to operate with partial-agonists. Buprenorphine definitely does something unnatural to the body.

I’m not against maintenance for a certain percentage of the population. I have a friend who runs a methadone clinic, and I think there’s a percentage of patients who need to be on maintenance for the rest of their lives. Perhaps five percent of the [addicted] population. If you want to do maintenance, though, you want to do methadone. Methadone at least has been used for a lot longer, and we understand it better.

G: How do you conduct detox?

S: To detox patients off long-term Suboxone, I use clonidine [a blood-pressure medication] and Librium [a benzodiazepine] because it’s more water-soluble. And I use Darvon, a weak opiate. Its half-life is short. … The Librium is the last to go. And they complain of disturbed sleep. I don’t use Seroquel because it can be abused. I use what acts on the antihistamine and melatonin receptors—the only two receptors they haven’t messed up yet. … It can take five months to get someone off long-term Suboxone.

For a Fentanyl detox, I give them Subutex. Fentanyl detox is the most brutal detox but it has the quickest recovery of the receptors because Fentanyl has such a short half-life.

I tell them to exercise. Studies show that 12 minutes of exercise per day with a heart rate of greater than 120 beats per minute restores the natural endorphin system in half the time. The people who do that, their sleep architecture returns to normal in half the time of people who don’t exercise. Twelve minutes. And of course you can do more.

G: And you urge them to join a recovery program?

S: They need some kind of support system. Let me tell you—everyone who’s stayed off Suboxone, they’ve been in AA or NA. Thirty-day inpatient programs have an average rate of 5 percent sober after one year. But from what I’ve seen in my practice, anyone who does an honest fifth step in AA or NA stays sober—the numbers are greater than 50 percent. And anyone who can do an honest ninth step and make amends, the number shoots up to over 90 percent.

Everyone who comes to me, I get them off opiates. One-quarter of the people I treat are sober at six months, and ninety percent of those are actively involved in some program. They’re not just going to meetings or involved in community service—they’re actively seeking some kind of spiritual growth. It all comes down to whether people want to do the work.

G: What about people who are afraid of becoming depressed after detoxing from long-term use?

I ask them, Was there ever a time you were sober? Did you have a bout of depression before then? If not, then it’s probably substance-induced. You have to take a thorough history. The statistics say: of all people who get clean, 15 percent have mental illness. Maybe a bit higher than the general population.

This site has always been free. If this post helped you, please like and share.

***

Related posts:

How To Detox From OxyContin and Other Opiates

Reader Questions: Addiction, Chronic Pain, and Drug Maintenance

Have questions, or want to see someone interviewed here? Email me at guinevere (at) guineveregetssober (dot) com.

Two sane voices talk about addiction

So many people need help with alcoholism or addiction—the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates 17.6 million Americans abuse alcohol and/or are alcohol-dependent; and the International Narcotics Control Board estimates that 6.2 Americans were abusing prescription drugs in 2008.

But so much misinformation prevails about addicts and addiction. Part of what I want this blog to do is help weed out fact from fiction, and offer sane voices speaking about this problem.

Dr. Steven Scanlan—outpatient detox doctor

Thanks to my friend Sluggo at ODR for this link to this podcast featuring Steve Scanlan, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and addiction-medicine physician who practices office-based opiate detox in Boca Raton, Fla. Scanlan is interviewed in this podcast about the use of Suboxone, a relatively new synthetic opiate that is not only FDA-approved to detox addicts from opiates but is also increasingly being used as a “maintenance” drug in the manner of methadone, with a high dose that is said to block cravings but causes all sorts of side-effects.

Scanlan’s conviction—one borne out by scads of anecdotal evidence—is that Suboxone is best used as a short-term detox tool, prescribed for no more than three weeks and at the lowest dose possible, preferably under 2mg. Refreshing to hear this sane truth spoken, when I’ve heard about so many addicts on 24 or 36 or even 48mg of Suboxone, unable to cut back because of the drug’s super-glue binding power.

At the top of my list of things I admired were these bald-faced statements: he tells patients he will help them detox once, and if they fail they need to seek inpatient treatment—so he’s not a revolving door; that they need to work for sobriety; and that he does not wish to make a ton of money in his business. That he sees physicians all around him using suboxone as a marketing tool, rather than a detox tool, and this doesn’t help addicts. He spoke in plain language. I heard the program working in him. This is what Getting Sober does: it cleans up distortion and allows us to see and act clearly. Man, I so appreciated it.

Scanlan said two more sane things in this interview:

1. Physician opinions of addicts: most physicians have a “low opinion” of addicts and dislike treating us—something both physician and patient know but never articulate to each other. canlan himself is a addict recovering through the 12 steps. He understands addicts are not Bad People but rather struggling with an illness and in need of help.

2. Sobriety success rates—rehab v. 12 steps: Scanlan said the average rate of sobriety after one year for rehabs is 3 percent—and that for those who complete a thorough fifth step (“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”) in AA/NA it’s 60 percent. Like to know where he got that second number—if it’s viable, it’s a great one.

Michael Douglas, actor

Yeah I never thought I’d be touting a celebrity in this blog, but truth can come from the most unexpected places.

Michael Douglas’s 30-something kid, Cameron, was busted last year for selling drugs in a Manhattan hotel. He pleaded guilty and was finally sentenced to 5 years in prison. They’d been expecting 10 years.

What was sane about Douglas’s commentary on the Today Show this morning was that he took some responsibility for his son’s problem—but not all the responsibility. Like Scanlan, he also understood that his son was not an evil person.

“This disease, as you look at it, certainly the family has a lot to do with it,” Douglas said. “The fact is, with all the mistakes and the disease that Cameron has, he’s a great young man.”

Douglas talked humbly and directly about the strains of addiction that run throughout his family’s genetics and behavior. He spoke about his own stint in rehab, and he evinced a measure of gratitude that his kid is still alive:

My son has not been sober for this length of time since he was 13 years old. So he was going to be dead, or somebody was gonna kill him. So he has a chance to start a new life, and he knows that.

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