Drug addiction treatment: still a very long way to go | Local columnists


Over ten years ago, on a beautiful spring day, I flew to Palm Springs, California for a tour of the Betty Ford Center (now known as Hazelden Betty Ford Center). On the plane, I read an out of print book that put the whole trip into perspective.

Barbara Mahoney’s “Sensitive and Passionate Man” begins in 1965 when Mahoney can no longer deny that her husband, Sean, a Harvard-trained lawyer, is an alcoholic. She ended five years later with her death, at age 45, of cirrhosis of the liver.

The slow and painful descent into living hell of late-stage alcoholism – and the devastating impact the disease has on family – broke my heart the first time I read it many years ago. many years. The second reading was just as painful, but what really touched me was the difference between yesterday and today.

In the 1960s and for many decades before, the “treatment” for alcoholism generally consisted of forced employment in public hospitals or sanatoriums.

In a heart-wrenching scene, Mahoney hires two police officers on leave to put her husband to the ground, put him in a straightjacket (euphemistically called a “straitjacket”) and take him to a public hospital.

Back then, most doctors believed alcoholics were lost causes. A doctor listened patiently to Barbara’s pleas for help, then said, firmly and resolutely, “There is nothing I can do.”

Another doctor refused to sign legal documents confirming Mahoney’s engagement at a public hospital, explaining, “You know these are hopeless cases, don’t you?”

“It’s a shame he wasn’t hit by a truck,” his lawyer said.

More than 50 years have passed since the death of Sean Mahoney and so much has changed. Today, most doctors know that chemical dependence is a physiological disease, not a moral one, and that the treatment is at least as effective as the treatment of other chronic diseases like diabetes or cancer.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of our citizens are on treatment for chemical dependence. You probably know a few.

Every year tens of thousands of lives are saved. You probably know some too.

Hazelden Betty Ford is one of the best treatment centers in this country. It is also, without a doubt, one of the most peaceful places I have ever visited, a sort of paradise on earth where scarlet flowers line the low buildings, the trees provide shade in the heat of the desert, mountains rise into the blue sky. and people speak quietly about the miracles that happen every day as shattered lives are being restored.

Walking through the park and talking to the staff – James West, MD, the treatment center‘s founding medical director, was my host – I felt like I saw, heard and touched the goodness and kindness of the human race.

Since the Betty Ford Center opened in 1982, thousands of men and women have “graduated” from the inpatient program. Among the celebrities who have been treated there are Elizabeth Taylor and Mary Tyler Moore, but the vast majority of patients are ordinary people like you and me. Grants are available for people without insurance or without the means to pay for expensive hospital treatment.

The treatment center offers many additional programs, including an intensive five-day family program and a four-day children’s program, where children between the ages of 7 and 12 learn that their parents’ illness “is not theirs. fault, they are not alone and they are not. blame.”

On the flight home to Walla Walla, I reflected on how far we’ve come since Sean Mahoney died of alcoholism in 1970.

We live in an enlightened age, where alcoholism and other drug addictions are recognized as true medical illnesses, and hundreds of cutting-edge treatment programs like Hazelden Betty Ford are helping chemically dependent people and their family members begin the process. healing. .

Recovery is a reality in the lives of over 22 million people in this country. I have to repeat this number: twenty-two million people.

Yet although a lot has changed, a lot remains the same.

Alcohol continues to kill an estimated 3.3 million people worldwide each year – 10 times more than all illicit psychoactive drugs combined.

Each year, approximately 95,000 people in this country die from alcohol-related causes, more than double the annual number of opioid overdose deaths.

Many insurance policies do not cover drug addiction treatment or offer minimal coverage. Millions of Americans who need treatment don’t have insurance and can’t afford to pay for treatment.

Over 26 million people in this country are addicted to alcohol and other drugs, but only one in ten people who need treatment receives it.

National surveys tell us that the vast majority of people in this country (including clergy, doctors, and mental health counselors) still believe that drug addiction is caused, at least in part, by a failure of the will. , character or moral values. .

It is therefore not surprising that drug addicts keep their addiction a secret, in the hope of avoiding being judged or stigmatized as “one of these”.

Yes, we have come a long way in the past 50 years. But we still have such a long, long way to go.

Kathy Ketcham has written 17 books, 11 on addiction and recovery. In 1999, she began leading educational groups at the Juvenile Justice Detention Center, and in 2009, she founded the local non-profit Trilogy Recovery Community (trilogyrecovery.org). To learn more, visit katherineketchambooks.com.


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