Record numbers of overdose deaths has pushed addiction into the headlines in a big way, but a lot of those headlines, I’ve come to see, bear the same hallmarks of our classic American need for the quick fix.
Think about it. We live in a culture built on speedy delivery of all our wants and needs, and everything is built to accommodate them. Want pizza? These days, they won’t just deliver it to your door; you can kick in a little extra for “pizza insurance,” and if they screw up your order, they’ll make you a free one and drive it to you.
Guys, can’t “rise to the occasion” to please your girl? Don’t worry about changing your diet or getting better exercise; those “little blue pills” are advertised on the radio in the middle of the UT football game — and now, thanks to laws passed to make things more convenient, you never even have to visit a physician to get them!
Don’t want to go in the grocery store to shop? Put your order in online, and they’ll bring it to you. Don’t want to fight the maddening holiday crowds to get the perfect Christmas gift? It’ll be on your doorstep by the end of the next business day. Don’t feel well enough to even get in your car and drive to the doctor? You can video conference with a sawbones and let him or her diagnose you digitally.
Technology and scientific advances are truly miraculous … but I often wonder if they’re not a shortcut that allows us to get out of doing the difficult work necessary to achieve a more satisfactory outcome. In some cases, it’s not a big deal; the ol’ Grocery Pickup may shortchange us a few bananas or substitute items we’re not entirely happy with, but it’ll allow us to prepare a meal all the same. Other innovations?
Especially those tied to addiction recovery? I can’t help but thinking it’s the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.
Consider, for example, the story this week from the BBC that on Nov. 1, a struggling addict with multiple relapses and overdoses in his history underwent an experimental procedure that essentially implanted a “pacemaker for the brain,” according to the lead physician. It’s built on a process called “deep-brain stimulation” that’s already received federal approval for Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and other conditions affecting the brain, but this is the first time it’s been used for addiction.
Now, according to the doctor, “This treatment is for those who have failed every other treatment, whether that is medicine, behavioral therapy, social interventions. It is a very rigorous trial with oversight from ethicists and regulators and many other governing bodies.” The problem is … we’ve heard that before in addiction medicine. Suboxone is the most recent example. There’s been a whole lot of hoopla surrounding Medication Assisted Treatment — long-term recovery maintenance delivered via doses of the drug buprenorphine, which is distributed in much the same way methadone was and still is. Addicts can enroll in programs that keep them supplied with a regular prescription of buprenorphine, which manages cravings and prevents them from experiencing the hell of withdrawal, thus allowing them to function normally.
It’s been hailed as the “gold standard” for addiction treatment by a federal report, and I’ve even heard rumblings that a new Suboxone maintenance program will soon be setting up shop in Maryville.
And hey — good for them. I’m not disparaging MAT, but I will point out that (a) there are no studies about the long-term effects of it because it is such a new therapy and (b) there are plenty of reasons for caution and closer examination, but that’s a whole other conversation.
I’m not an abstinence Nazi, even though that’s the recovery program that worked for me.
Given that people are dying at breathtaking rates — seriously, more people died from drug overdoses in 2017 alone than the number of U.S. military deaths during the entirety of the Vietnam War — I truly do believe that all options need to be on the table, whether it’s Medication Assisted Treatment, brain implants, 12 Step recovery or deeply religious Christian programs.
But pretending that one is superior to the other, or that any one of them is the “magic bullet” that will “cure” addiction, is naïve and dangerous. Because in the end, as my friend Ben Cort pointed out during a recent conversation about marijuana, our hopes for a fast-food solution often blind us to the sobering (no pun intended) reality:
“We really, desperately, want to have a thing that fixes it all,” he told me. “We want to have something that makes it better now, and people who experience pain, have mental illness, have some of these complicating issues … are the ones who have a hard time accepting that the real answer to those problems is hard, hard work and lots of it. It’s psychotherapy, it’s treatment a lot of times, and it’s not a simple solution.”
In America, however, we love simple, and we love fast and we equate both of those with convenience. Unfortunately, our addiction (again, no pun intended) to convenience often leaves us short-sighted when it comes to the solutions necessary for lasting change.