Guess what? Addicts are people, too.

This is a methadone “dosing” window. Clients get
medication dispensed from that silver box that
looks like a coffee machine. Other clinics use
wafers that dissolve under the tongue.

I’ve never considered myself a sheltered person. Although not personally experienced with drugs, I’ve seen them, watched others use them, know the dangers associated with them. But it wasn’t until I visited five methadone clinics this spring (see project description here) and interviewed recovering addicts that I got the full picture. The full, brutal, overwhelmingly depressing picture of addiction and drugs and misery. And I’ve been talking to people in recovery. I know that I’ve just scratched the surface of heartache caused by addiction.

But in scratching said surface, I’ve learned a whole lot. Like methadone–synthetic heroin for lack of a technical description–comes in wafer and liquid forms, and that the liquid smells sickly sweet to me. Participants in our focus groups have described it as a miracle medicine that has helped give them back their lives… their families… their jobs and homes and futures. But, as one woman said, methadone is like “liquid handcuffs.” A miracle on one hand, but a miracle with a high price… daily* dosing for the foreseeable future around which the rest of life must organize.

For many of the people I’ve talked with, methadone is a daily commitment with financial, physical and social side effects. Without considering the access issues (many participants spend hours a day getting to and from clinics) or the physical issues (methadone causes sweating, constipation, weight gain, etc.), the social issues surrounding methadone alone are tremendous. Clients across all of our groups (seven so far!) have described the stigma associated with methadone treatment. Prejudice is rampant from family, friends, doctors and judges who view methadone as “just another drug,” a substitute addiction. (Some participants on methadone also see it as a substitute addiction, by the way.) People described not ever talking about their treatment with significant others or even primary care physicians for fear of judgment or censure. Even among the recovery community, there is condemnation for methadone use (think 12-step, abstinence-only programs).

From a communication perspective, this is one of the most troubling aspects of conducting the focus groups so far. Social support is imperative for recovery. Participants described medication-only or detox-only treatments (without counseling or support groups) as useless. Indeed, many of the people I spoke with were on their second or third or fourth time in recovery, finally having found a clinic with a whole-person approach to care. If those individuals then cannot talk about their recovery with significant others, or feel comfortable vocalizing their experience with physicians, how sustainable will the recovery process be I wonder? And what about integrating back into the workforce or educational systems?

Hrm. I don’t know yet, but I’m on a mission to figure it out and help where I can.

In the mean time… While most people may never read the (some-day) journal articles that will come out of this project, there is one thing I know that can help. One thing that everyone should know. One thing that is going to sound SO Pollyanna right now. But it is this: recovering addicts are people, too. They have mothers and brothers and daughters and sons. They like** sports and enjoy cooking and read and hate housework. They like chocolate and pizza and fresh fruit and coffee. And while it is easy to put up blinders if you’re like me living in middle class white suburbia and it’s easy to think “once an addict, always an addict” and it’s easy equate addiction with moral weakness, try not to. Because addicts are more like you and me (whoever we are), than you might think.

More on this later!

**Updated self-reflexivity note: I read this back after hitting “publish” and realized it sounded a bit preachy. Please note that I am talking more to/about myself and writing in response to my preconceived notions. I also got to thinking about going into the project and thinking that I didn’t know any recovering addicts or anyone on methadone. And then I thought: What if I DO know someone on methadone, only they are so terrified to confide in me because I might be judgmental. Ack! Again, more on my moral dilemmas later.


* One of the really interesting preliminary findings of the study is the differing perceptions about methadone as a course of treatment. While the grand idea is to use methadone to get off of drugs like heroin, and to “dose down” or wean off of it, many individuals describe methadone as a lifetime commitment.

**I’m clearly generalizing, but you get the idea…

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