By Maia Szalavitz, Photographs by Ryan Christopher Jones
Aug. 31, 2018
Filthy hands gripping bloody needles, pregnant women shooting up, angelic toddlers in car seats with their parents slumped upfront, overdosed — media images of the opioid crisis are relentlessly dire.
Fortunately, this is not the whole story. Around two million Americans are addicted to opioids. Yet many more have overcome their opioid problems. A large national population study found that almost all of those who once met criteria for prescription opioid-use disorder achieved remission during their lifetimes — and half of those recovered within five years. Although heroin and street fentanyl are more dangerous, most of those who avoid fatal overdoses recover from addiction.
To improve the odds, we need to recognize and champion recovery — and the wide variety of forms it can take. In media and pop culture, when recovering people are seen at all, one type usually appears: someone who goes to rehab and then abstains from all drugs by relying on 12-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous.
In fact, other recovery journeys are more common. For example, nearly half of those with prescription opioid addiction are able to recover without formal treatment or self-help participation.
Moreover, many of those who recover do it through professional treatment with medications like methadone or buprenorphine, not through abstinence. Studies, including one of all patients in Britain treated for opioid addiction between 2005 and 2009, show that these two medications are the only treatments that reduce mortality by half or more when used long-term — and they cut relapse rates more than an abstinence approach.
Other people take their own routes entirely. We find new passions in relationships, parenting, culture, exercise, work, art, spirituality, activism and community service. Some recover primarily by learning better ways to manage the trauma and mental illness that underlie many addictions. Some even kick opioids by using marijuana or psychedelic drugs.
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