AUGUSTA – The number of people looking for opiate abuse treatment in Maine has more than doubled over the past 10 years, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. About 4,800 Mainers sought help for their opiate addictions in 2013, suggesting that many people want to quit using drugs – but they may not know how.
Crisis & Counseling Centers’ Medication Management Director Linda Sexton attributes the uptick in opiate use to the fact that heroin is cheaper and stronger than ever. Yet for those trying to overcome opiate addiction, there is hope. Crisis & Counseling Centers provides treatment in the form of counseling and a safe monthly medication that is changing lives: Vivitrol.
Since April of 2013, C&C has been the only facility in Kennebec County prescribing naltrexone (known by its brand name, Vivitrol) for adults suffering from opiate and/or alcohol addiction. The treatment is injected once a month and is not habit-forming because it binds to the brain’s opioid receptors to block the effects of alcohol, heroin and similar drugs. When the treatment ends, clients are free from the physiological symptoms of addiction that once defined their lives.
Vivitrol allowed Massachusetts resident Eric Burns, 34, to get clean after using opiates on and off for 10 years. Although he achieved sobriety briefly in 2009, Burns returned to drugs within a few months and lost his job. “I just wasn’t done getting high at that point,” he said.
But after two years of unemployment and picking up felony charges, Burns had nowhere else to turn. “My family wanted nothing to do with me, and I had a girlfriend who had a restraining order against me. I had to get clean – I had no choice,” he said. “My original plan was to take [Vivitrol] once just to get my family off my back, get my girlfriend off my back, but then I never went back.”
When it comes to treating opiate and alcohol addiction, clinicians recognize that not everyone is ready for a medication that requires such self-control at the start. Those who take Vivitrol must completely detox from narcotics at least seven days prior to the first injection. If patients take any opioids in the week preceding or the months during treatment, they risk dangerous reactions, ranging from overdose to death.
According to Sexton, a relapse into old habits should not physically be a concern for Vivitrol patients because the treatment leaves them completely free from cravings and withdrawal symptoms. “If you still drink or do drugs, there’s another reason,” Sexton said. “Having them stay very tightly in that recovery mentality is important. Otherwise they are going to find any reason to drink or do drugs.”
Regardless of medication, a client’s key to success is a firm commitment to recovery. All clients must combine treatment with substance abuse counseling, Intensive Outpatient Programs and/or sober support systems.
“For the ones that we’ve been able to successfully change…it’s an internal motivation that pushes them to do this. They’ve wanted, for a long time, to be off of opiates or alcohol and away from that whole culture,” Sexton said.
For ongoing support, Burns attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings every night. “If you’re going to get on the shot, you need to have some sort of plan to stay clean,” he said. “This [was a] group of people I could really rely on when I was ready to get off of the Vivitrol.”
The amount of time individuals take to recover from alcohol or opiate addiction varies, but the State of Maine advises that Vivitrol patients need only six months. Sexton said that when people complete the Vivitrol program, “It’s truly a new birth. Your brain is a virgin and not addicted to drugs, unless you go out and take them again after the six months.”
Vivitrol also lacks “street value,” meaning the medication can’t be diverted into harmful substances and sold. The time-released treatments are administered on-site by a trained medical practitioner, so clients cannot carry a prescription home. Unlike other treatments, Vivitrol cannot be sold to others, melted, snorted or injected in potentially deadly ways.
At C&C, Vivitrol is truly changing the lives of those who use it – and the promising effects are often immediate. According to Sexton, “We have some clients that will tell you right off, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’”
Burns’ journey with Vivitrol is a real-life success story. “Before I got clean I was living at my parents’ house in a 10 by 15 room that I shoved a mattress in. I was unemployable.” After taking his first dose of Vivitrol, Burns awoke the next morning without even thinking about getting high. Because of Vivitrol, Burns has been at the same company for two years and now supervises five employees. In order for Vivitrol to work, Burns said, “you have to change yourself” – which is exactly what he has done.
Crisis & Counseling Centers serves individuals with behavioral health needs, including substance abuse, mental health and co-occurring disorders. The nonprofit agency is the sole provider of crisis services for Kennebec and Somerset counties and administers 24-hour-a-day crisis services to those in need. The agency also offers G.E.A.R. Parent Network to empower parents and caregivers of children with behavioral health needs statewide, and the Maine Mothers Network for pregnant and parenting women using substances.
For more information about C&C, visit crisisandcounseling.org or call central access at 207.626.3448. If you are in crisis, call 1.888.568.1112.