If you know anything about opiate addiction, then you know that heroin and prescription pain pills are among the most addictive substances on the planet. As soon as you disengage from treatment, the urges and cravings overwhelm you once again and send you toppling into relapse. That’s why outpatient drug treatment takes such a long time, and it’s also why medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is viewed as the most effective therapeutic modality by experts at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Dr. Gary Enos, editor of Addiction Professional online journal, discusses a recent summit on continuing care in which addiction specialists discussed the need to discover who we are as part of our journey toward recovery. They believe that only when we uncover a sense of who we are and where we belong in the world can we truly embrace the spiritual change that is every person’s challenge in recovery.
Many experts teach their clients who are in outpatient drug treatment that the science of neuroplasticity can help them improve brain function, repairing neurons that may have been damaged from abusing substances. Neuroplasticity is a process that scientists did not even know about 25 years ago. It refers to the brain’s ability to heal itself—or at least to attempt healing—by finding ways to bypass damaged neural pathways. In other words, if there is a bridge in your brain damaged from years of doing drugs, then the brain heeds the “bridge out” warning and finds a detour that will keep all the neurons moving safely along.
Most people who participate in outpatient drug treatment have a history of using alcohol or drugs of some kind that goes all the way back to their teen years. We’ve learned from the work of others such as Dr. Merrill Norton that emotional development in young adults using drugs gets bogged down and grinds to a halt. With some of the brain’s most important progress accomplished between the ages of 13 and 25, it might seem hopeless that someone who finally asks for help could ever fully develop into the person they were meant to be. But we know now that for people who stop substance abuse before reaching the age of 30, the brain may still make some positive forward progress.
How Does That Translate Into Outpatient Drug Treatment? (Recovery Work)
We can improve the brain’s neuroplasticity, according to the experts, by working recovery and taking pride in the resulting accomplishments. We can practice stress reduction techniques so that we are not overwhelmed by daily events that cause ripples across the surface of our lives. It is possible through techniques such as guided imagery, meditation and prayer to improve brain function and help it develop neural pathways that will reactivate our ability to grow emotionally. By taking pride in our progress in outpatient drug treatment, we can achieve new levels of satisfaction in our lives that will replace the drug-induced stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers.
An important part of outpatient drug treatment requires a commitment to following the instructions of the program’s doctors and counselors, even when we don’t see the reasons for doing so. Their experience and education has trained them to provide treatment that works, but it will only work if we work it. That’s a phrase that you will hear at 12-step groups—it works if you work it—because like any job we take on in life, its success depends on our commitment to following through to the end.
Sitting down and talking with counselors about why we first tried drugs, learning why we were more susceptible than others to addiction, and discovering how drugs affect us physically and emotionally has extraordinary benefits. Patients will also learn about complications that come from codependent or enabling family members and friends. This allows them to learn how to be in relationships that are healthy for both parties. It’s also important to engage in new activities, such as journaling, to analyze patterns of self-destructive behavior. Journaling can also help to mark the day’s highs and lows and to determine if there were actions we could have taken that would have improved the day. We mentioned guided imagery previously, and it offers a way to get our minds in tune so that they can focus on behaviors that will better support our goals in recovery.
It’s important to take time each and every day to analyze what we’ve learned from our sponsors and counselors and from other people in outpatient drug treatment and consider what recovery means to our daily lives. It’s why we need to educate ourselves so that we make decisions from a basis of knowledge that means our decisions are wise. Only then can we reach a level of confidence within ourselves that we are strong and that we have the tools to experience long-term recovery. We will then operate with a belief that we can rely upon the health of our decisions and actions.
But, we likely will not reach that place in a month or even in six months of outpatient drug treatment. We can only reach it if we embrace our counselor’s treatment recommendations and become devoted to working our recovery. Once we know what we believe spiritually, heal our bodies and our brains, and engage in treatment to stabilize our emotional and social lives; we can gain what we need in order to sustain recovery over the long term. And that’s what outpatient drug treatment is all about.