Our Complicated Relationship With Methadone

Relationships are never easy.  When it comes to our relationship with methadone, let’s just say it’s complicated.

Debby, the Mom at the blog How’s My Son?, recently wrote a post updating her readers on her son’s recovery from addiction to OxyContin and other opiates.  Debby is a good Mom and a good person, and I’ve been a fan of her blog for the better part of a year now.

Debby writes:

I was just saying prayers of thanks this morning for my son’s six months of sobriety.  That’s definitely debatable, because some people believe that if you are using methadone you are not sober.  As far as I am concerned, my son is not buying heroin.  He’s using methadone at a clinic that has a good reputation for dispensing this, in liquid form, and adhering to the state of California’s very strict guidelines.

The medication is working and Debby is grateful.  Yet she feels the need to qualify her description of her son as sober.  She recognizes that some people in the recovery community would not agree that her son is sober since he is taking prescribed methadone.

Methadone-assisted recovery is real recovery, but some people in the recovery community have trouble accepting that fact.  When it comes to methadone and the recovery community, the relationship is complicated.

Methadone is strictly regulated in California, which is not necessarily a bad thing -as long as the regulations are based on science and treatment effectiveness.  The problem is, some regulations are based on stigma and politics and nothing more.  In California and everywhere else, our social and political relationship with methadone is complicated.

Debby’s son’s relationship with methadone is complicated too.

He’s been sober for six months.  He was allowed to move home six weeks ago, and Debby says he’s been great.  He’s working two jobs and saving money.

Recently, Debby’s son ran out of gas and missed his appointment at the methadone clinic.  Without his methadone dose, he began to experience withdrawal sickness.  “I hate that poison that’s in his body,” Debby wrote.

Debby’s son bought some methadone from a friend.  He said he had to do it or he would be tempted to use.

Frickin’ poison.  How I pray that my son will finally be able to purge that crap out of his body.  Synthetic opiate or not, how I long for my son to be free of drugs of any kind.  I can only watch, and feel sorrow for what he’s going through.

Debby’s feelings are understandable.  But they reminded me that the complexity of our feelings about methadone is not without consequence.

Ambivalence about methadone can be a barrier to successful treatment.  Methadone treatment requires a strong commitment to recovery. Mixed feelings about methadone can make it more difficult for a methadone patient to sustain the effort it takes to be successful in treatment.

Most methadone patients do have mixed feelings about methadone treatment.  They are grateful for the often dramatic improvement methadone treatment has brought to their lives.  Yet, they wish they didn’t need it.

They wish they didn’t have to rely on medication.  They struggle with “clinic fatigue” from having to go to the methadone clinic frequently and over extended periods of time.  Some may experience side effects from the medication.  Yet they keep at it because the treatment is working and in the end, it is worth it to them.

Those who are part of a methadone patient’s circle of support often have mixed feelings about methadone too.

They are grateful for the benefits of methadone treatment.  Yet they can’t help but wish that their loved one didn’t have an addiction in the first place.

They wish other treatments would have worked.  They wish they didn’t have to worry about whether this treatment is really working or still working.  They wish that there was a cure for addiction and the whole nightmare of addiction could just be over.  They worry about their loved one taking long term medication (even though research shows that long term methadone use is generally safe).

The problem is that mixed feelings often lead to mixed messages.  If you want someone you care about to succeed in methadone treatment, then you want to make sure that you don’t allow emotionally-driven, negative feelings about methadone treatment to turn into negative messages about methadone treatment.

You can bet that your loved one in methadone treatment is highly tuned to these messages, and they matter.

Sometimes the negative messages are subtle and inadvertent.  Other times the messages are overt and intentional.  Either way, the effect can be disastrous.

The good news is that positive messages have power too.

Messages like:

I support you in your treatment and your recovery.  I admire you for the effort you are putting into your recovery.  I understand how hard it is to do what you are doing.  I support your right to make your own treatment choices.  I support whatever path to recovery works for you.  I want you to stay in methadone treatment as long as you need to.

Methadone patients and those who care about them should recognize that their feelings of ambivalence are normal.  But they should also monitor their feelings carefully.  Unless managed properly, these feelings can and do affect treatment outcomes.

I appreciate Debby for sharing her feelings openly on her blog.  She is a great example of a Mom who is both honestly expressing her feelings and doing a great job in supporting her son through difficult terrain.  People like Debby and her son are making heroic efforts that I think we can all admire.

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