No matter how pretty the patina that we apply to the science of medication assisted treatment, there will be people who denigrate it, decry it, or declare it an unhealthy substitution of one addiction for another. The people who suffer from opioid addiction live day in and day out feeling the effects of this stigma cast by their family, friends, and others they care about. Those are the people who refuse to recognize medication-assisted treatment as a genuine method for helping heroin or pain pill addicts achieve their recovery. It’s little comfort to tell you that they’re wrong, and that their ignorance does not buy them the right to sit and judge others.
That’s why we need organizations like Stop Stigma Now, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, charitable organization made up of retired people who want to stop the stigma associated with medication assisted treatment. What does stigma mean? According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, it means a mark of disgrace or reproach—something that detracts from the character or reputation of a person. It’s a kind of prejudice held against you.
It might feel like a glass of cold water dashed into your face to hear it put like that, but if you are working on recovery from opioid addiction using medication assisted treatment, you’ve undoubtedly felt the sting of stigma expressed by some of the people around you.
The people who work for Stop Stigma Now—who have all reached the typical age of retirement—have had a long history of employment or volunteerism in or around the field of addiction treatment. Sy Demsky is the group’s founder and Co-President, and his resume includes owning a computer testing company and also some thirty years spent at The Mount Sinai Hospital’s Narcotics Rehabilitation Center in New York.
Demsky founded the group along with Phillip Paris, M.D., who also identifies himself as a recovering addict. But he states the group has gained only tiny footholds battling the prejudice against medication assisted treatment. The money just isn’t there, he says. Larger organizations, also working at the national level, have become better known among people who work in addiction medicine, but they don’t always cooperate with one another.
Jocelyn Woods works with Demsky and also serves as a project coordinator for the National Alliance for Medication Assisted Recovery (NAMA Recovery). She became addicted at the age of 20 and has embraced her recovery for almost five decades. With her father also suffering from opioid addiction, she recognized the genetic link at a young age in her career. She earned a graduate degree in biological psychology and aimed her focus specifically at the neuroscience of endorphin systems—the brain’s pleasure and reward system activated by opioid receptors.
How Did Medication Assisted Treatment Programs Begin?
You can direct your family members or friends who question the benefits of medication assisted treatment to Methadone.org, where a ton of information is available about the history and nature of medication assisted treatment. What will they learn—the people around you who doubt the effectiveness of methadone treatment? They will read that Rockefeller University was the site where three doctors worked on a strange concept, the idea that a single daily dose of methadone could put a stop to a person’s cravings for heroin or other opiates. This was way back in the 1960s, and it was not until about 1993 when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services transferred the supervision of methadone from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The people who oppose the concept of medication assisted treatment for opioid addiction often speak out with little or no idea of how or why methadone works. While it’s true that methadone is, itself, an opiate medication—the chief argument against it—it has a slower onset and a longer half-life than other opiate drugs. That means when someone receives one daily dose, it builds slowly to peak efficacy in the person’s system and it takes a whole day or more before it actually leaves the system. Taken as a dose calculated and managed by a physician trained in medication assisted treatment for opioid addiction, it does not produce any kind of a high.
The stigma is generated by all kinds of people—what they have in common is their lack of knowledge. Undoubtedly you’ve felt the criticism from the people who are around you every day including your parents or spouse or coworkers. You’ve may have also felt it from the medical professionals in your life, those who manage your routine health care. They may tout their credibility because they work in medicine but they actually have no knowledge of the drugs approved to treat opioids in medication assisted treatment programs.
How Do You Live With the Stigma?
Hopefully you can use some of the information here to respond to people in your life who criticize the use of medication assisted treatment for opioid addiction. But you’ll still feel the brunt of their disapproval, the stigma that comes with addiction and the stigma that comes from getting this kind of treatment for it. You can notify organizations like Stop Signa Now at [email protected].
You can also fight the stigma because your recovery is stronger than the nonsensical prejudice spouted by someone opposing medication assisted treatment. You can refuse to own the stigma, because your work on your recovery puts you at a level above and beyond that nonsense.
Stigma brings with it a sense of shame, and there is no shame in recovery. With that shame we might feel as if we are unworthy of being loved. We might feel that we carry so little credibility in this world, that someone might easily ignore the knowledge we have gained about the use of medication assisted treatment.
Most of that shame comes from feelings of being unworthy, and there are two sources of that: First, the symptoms of the medical diagnosis of addiction include negative behaviors that are looked down upon by others. They don’t understand that the addicted person is affected by the symptoms of a medical disease. Second, there are many heroin addicts who have lived for years in an atmosphere rife with physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or some level of neglect—wrongs done to us that are not our fault.
It is also not our fault that many people remain ignorant of the nature of addiction, and by accepting that we do not own any shame for the mistreatment we’ve had at the hands of others, we can hold our heads up high. Who is better than you, after all, if you have reached out to get help with your addiction to heroin or other opiates? Opiates are among the most addictive substances on the face of the Earth, and you can own your recovery—whatever stage you’re at—with pride.
There is no shame. There is no stigma. And if you are still wandering through your life in pain and confusion because you have not yet reached out for medication assisted treatment, it’s time to pick up the phone and call your closest neighborhood methadone program.