Heath Martin remembers two of the nine times he was revived by Narcan. In one of the memories, he wakes up, walks into the hospital parking lot, calls his people and the drugs were delivered to him right there.
“It was pretty insane,” the 37-year-old said.
Martin recently celebrated two years and two months of sobriety: “Everybody I grew up with said I was the person that was supposed to be, out of their mouths, the next one in the obituaries.”
As Martin’s story shows, Narcan, the brand name of the overdose-reversal antidote drug naloxone, isn’t enough to stop addiction in its tracks. And Narcan episodes don’t only affect the person struggling with addiction.
Wanda Winings, 53, revived a daughter’s friend using Narcan. Winings struggled with addiction previously but found recovery and has been clean since the end of 2013. The Narcan episode “almost drove me out to drink,” she said.
“I don’t know if it was so much giving him the Narcan as it was the experience of my daughter being involved,” Winings said. “I saw my daughter in a light that I didn’t know or recognize. That’s not the child I raised.”
Winings sighs heavily.
“It was very hard to watch her be angry at this person for OD’ing on her floor,” she said. “It bothered me a lot. I was so angry. For a couple of months, I was angry at recovery and at everyone around me.”
Addiction, also known as substance use disorder, is defined as a brain disease “manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence” by the American Psychiatric Association. Drugs used by those struggling with addiction often alter brain pathways and reward systems in such a way that it becomes unbearable or impossible for them to live without the substance.
A combination of genetic disposition and environmental stimulus predispose people to developing addiction, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, a professional society of more than 5,000 physicians, clinicians and associated professionals in the field of addiction medicine.
“Put simply, individuals with substance use disorders are our patients who need treatment,” an article in the ASAM magazine says.
When a person with addiction hears the word “treatment,” they may immediately think of the often faith-based 12-step programs traditionally endorsed by recovery organizations. But Joshua Barnett, a health care services manager in Manatee County’s Department of Neighborhood Services, wants to spread the message that treatment and recovery programs are unique to each individual.
“What we need to do better is to support people as they’re reducing their use, engage them sooner and also not engage them wearing lab coats or not engage them by expecting them to take a seven-day break off of work and go live somewhere,” he said.
Expecting users to cold-turkey quit isn’t often realistic, Barnett said, especially when the physical withdrawals are unbearable, as they usually are in the cases of opioid addiction.
He doesn’t rule out 12-step programs as a solution, but he wants people trapped by addiction to know there are other ways, too.
“AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) have been around for a long time,” Barnett said. “And they have worked for people for years.”
The fellowship of his chosen 12-step program has helped Martin stay in recovery. He vaguely remembers being given a list of where to find 12-step meetings before he exited the hospital after Narcan episodes, but it wasn’t until he had contact with an old friend with two years of sobriety that he decided to seek recovery on his own. The old friend often sent him inspirational quotes and talked about recovery with Martin. Though Martin said he would “get irate” with this friend and tell him to “leave me alone,” the friend stuck around until Martin was ready.
In the same vein, Barnett emphasized it’s important to help those struggling with addiction by “supporting people as they navigate their own environment; in their neighborhood, in their home and that may even include their doctor’s office.” Some parts of solving the opioid epidemic, such as providing 12-step meeting lists and other recovery resources to those revived by Narcan, may seem obvious. Others are not so clear.
“How do we support that person, who has legitimate pain, to support them as they manage the pain without an opiate pain relieving medication?” Barnett said. “Nobody’s solved that yet.”