Walter Ray Watson / NPR
The United States is facing an unprecedented increase in drug-related deaths, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting another grim milestone this week.
In a single 12-month period, the fatal overdose claimed 101,623 lives.
However, drug policy scientists and experts say the gloomy tax obscures an important and promising fact: Most Americans who have experienced alcohol and drug addiction will survive.
They heal and continue in a full and healthy life.
“I think it’s really good news and it’s something we should share and hope for,” said Dr. John Kelly, who teaches addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School and heads the Institute for Recovery Research at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Kelly co-authored a peer-reviewed study published last year that found that about 22.3 million Americans – more than 9% of adults – are recovering from some form of substance use disorder.
A separate study published by the CDC and the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2020 found that 3 out of 4 addicted people eventually recovered.
“So it’s huge, you know, 75%,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a little against our cultural perception that people will never get better.”
Life after addiction is not just possible. It’s the norm
Americans often see the more destructive side of addiction, drug crime, people huddled in doors, and family members falling in a spiral.
Less visible are the people who survive the disease and restore their lives.
“We’re literally surrounded by people recovering from a substance abuse disorder, but we don’t know,” Kelly said.
Anna Mable-Jones of Laurel, Md., Is one of those success stories. She started experimenting with crack in college.
“That took me into a total downward spiral,” the 56-year-old now said.
Mable-Jones lost ten years due to addiction, went into rehab and repeated herself. It was a scary time for her and her family.
“My mother [started] she called the morgue, “she recalled.” She called my sister and said … “I haven’t heard of Anna.” “
But according to a common model, Mable-Jones’s disease eventually eased. She found a treatment that worked and lived without drugs for more than 20 years.
“Things I thought I’d never get again, I have them all during the healing process,” she said. “Today I own a house, I own a car, I started a business.”
John Moore / Getty Images
Addiction is hard to beat, and this leads to stigma
Researchers claim that this data – and this experience – contradicts the widespread misconception that substance use disorder is a persistent and often fatal disease.
While tragic, 100,000 fatal drug overdoses last year actually claimed the lives of a small percentage of the 31.9 million Americans who use illegal drugs.
Similarly, about 95,000 deaths per year attributed to alcohol in the United States represent a fraction of high-risk drinkers.
So why is this disease often characterized as unsolvable and hopeless?
Recovery experts say one of the reasons is that the addiction is painful and difficult to treat.
“Hopeless despair is a good way to describe it,” said Travis Rasco, 34, who lives in Plattsburgh, a small industrial town in New York State.
“I wanted to quit, I just couldn’t,” he described his ten-year battle with heroin.
Brian Mann / NPR
Rasco repeated himself over and over, causing great pain to his family. “I didn’t want to be that man, but I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Studies show that people usually recover, but as with Rasco and Mable-Jones, this process occurs slowly after several relapses.
Achieving long-term remission with high-quality treatment and medical care usually takes eight years or more.
When Rasco finally found his way forward in 2018, he worked in two jobs to fulfill his heroin habit.
“I drove a pretty long ambulance [after an overdose] and something happened in that ambulance, “he said, describing the emotional center, which felt different:” You can’t live like this. “
He also managed to persuade his insurance company to pay for longer-term treatment.
“They fought to keep me inside [rehab] for 14 days; they didn’t want to pay for 30, and I knew it wasn’t enough for me, “Rasco recalled.” They didn’t want to put me in the house halfway. I knew I needed a house halfway. “
It worked this time. He has now lived without drugs for almost four years, is married and has a newborn child.
“Right now we’re trying to buy a house. Something I never thought would be possible, something I never thought I deserved for the longest time,” Rasco said.
A better life after healing
The recovery rate is not the same for all people. There are big differences in how the body and brain respond to alcohol and various drugs.
Studies also show that racial bias makes it harder for black and Hispanic Americans to find a cure. People in rural areas tend to have poorer access to health care.
Meanwhile, those with more funds or milder forms of addiction often recover faster.
But even people who use harder drugs for a long time usually recover.
“That’s 75%. [of people who achieve remission] of course, it involves people at the higher end of the spectrum, “said Dr. David Eddie, who co-authored the study on recovery success and also teaches at Harvard Medical School.” So there is absolute hope. “
In fact, most people not only do not survive addiction. Research suggests that they often thrive on long-term recovery, reunion with their families and enjoy economic success.
“In the end, they accomplish things they wouldn’t have achieved if they hadn’t gone through the hell of addiction,” Eddie said.
Researchers say these promising findings are significant because they can inspire people to continue trying to recover even after they have had more relapses.
“It can be challenging to face,” Eddie said. “How do you keep coming back to your horses after repeated attempts that have failed?”
Does fentanyl change the game?
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
One troubling question is whether this pattern – multiple recurrences leading to eventual recovery – will continue even now as more street drugs are contaminated with the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
“It kills them on the first try,” said Anna Mable-Jones. “It doesn’t give them enough attempts, as I may have.”
Some communities are trying to help, provide clean drug users with clean needles and make Narcan an anti-overdose drug available.
New York City recently opened the country’s first official safe consumption clinics, where people with substance use disorders can use drugs under medical supervision.
Eddie said their research suggests that more needs to be done to keep people alive while the healing process works.
“No one has recovered from addiction dead. My feeling is that if we can keep people alive long enough, we know that most will eventually recover,” he said.
Travis Rasco of Upstate New York says he’s grateful to have plenty of time, chances and help to rebuild his life.
“I have all the good things in life that everyone talks about,” he said. “I’m worth it, too. Once you get to that place, it’s pretty liberating.”