October 21, 2020
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This post was originally published in 2014.


There’s a lot of commentary out there on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Some of it’s good, some is bad and there’s a lot in between. Much of it has focused overdose prevention and some of it has focused on a need for evidence-based treatments.

Anna David puts her finger on something very important. [emphasis mine]

Let’s explain that this isn’t a problem that goes away once you get shipped off to rehab or even get a sponsor—that this is a lifelong affliction for many of us. There seems to be this misconception that people are hope-to-die addicts and then get hit by some sort of magical sunlight of the spirit and are transported into another existence where the problem goes away.

[NOTE – I know almost nothing of Hoffman or the treatment he received from his doctors or anyone else. My comments should be considered commentary on the issues involved rather than the specifics of Hoffman or the help he received.]

What I haven’t heard discussed much is his reported relapse a year or so ago. How could that have been prevented?

From what I understand, this is someone who had been in remission for 23 years. And, it sounds like his relapse began in a physician’s office when he was prescribed an opiate for pain.

  • What’s the evidence-base around treating pain in someone who has been abstinent for 23 years?
  • What are the evidence-based practices around how professional helpers should monitor and support the recovery of a patient who has been sober for decades?
  • What are the behaviors associated with recovery maintenance over decades through pain and difficult life experiences?

20090101-new-yearCould the outcome have been different if some sort of recovery checkup had been performed by his primary care physician or the doctor who treated his pain?

If he had been in remission from some other life-threatening chronic disease, wouldn’t his doctors have watched for a symptoms of a recurrence? Or,  given serious consideration to contraindications for the use of particular medications with a history of that chronic disease?

What if he had been asked questions like:

  • How’s your recovery going?
  • Have you had any relapses? Cravings?
  • How did you initiate your recovery?
  • How have you maintained your recovery?
  • Have there been changes in the habits associated with your recovery maintenance? (Meetings, readings, sponsor, social network, etc.)
  • How’s your mood been?
  • What do your family and friends who support your recovery say about this?

Also, if it’s determined that a high risk treatment (like prescribing opiates to someone with a history of opiate addiction) is needed, what kind of relapse prevention plan was put into place? What kind of monitoring and support?

There are two issues here. One is the lack of research, training and support that physicians get around treating addiction and supporting recovery.

The second issue is the role of the patient.

I listened to a talk by Dr. Kevin McCauley this morning in which he addressed objections to the disease model. One of the objections was that the disease model lets addicts off the hook. His response was that, given the cultural context, there were grounds for this concern. BUT, the contextual problem was with the treatment of diseases rather than classifying addiction as a disease. He pointed out that our medical model positions the patient as a passive recipient of medical intervention. As long as the role of the patient is to be passive, this concern has merit. He suggests we need to expect and facilitate patients playing an active role in their recovery and wellness.

So…this was someone who had been in remission for decades. He clearly had a responsibility to maintain his recovery. At the same time, the medical and/or treatment system has a responsibility to monitor and support his recovery.

I happen to have celebrated 23 years of recovery several months ago. I’m still actively engaged in behaviors to maintain my recovery. (Much like I’m actively engaged in behaviors to keep my cholesterol low.)

In 23 years, has a doctor or nurse EVER asked me how my recovery is going? No. Have they ever evaluated my recovery in ANY way? No.

Do they want to check my cholesterol every so often? Like clockwork.

This is a critical failure of the system and the evidence-base. And, we don’t just fail people with decades of recovery. Even more so, we fail people with 90 days, 6 months, a year, 5 years, etc. Then we blame the approach that helped them stabilize and initiate their recovery when the real problem was that we never helped them maintain their recovery. (Then, too often, our solution is to insist that they get into that passive patient role, just take their meds and let the experts do their work.)

via Another Senseless Overdose.

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