Are You Really Sober if You’re on Medication-Assisted Treatment?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

  • MAT: What is Medication-Assisted Treatment?

As much as we’d like to think that treating an addiction is as simple as pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, it is not.

Some people tell themselves that they can stop using their drug of choice at any time. When they can’t, they don’t immediately think that they may need the very best care for their chronic brain disease with stealth medical intervention, top physicians and mental health professionals.

No. Most people, when faced with their own addiction, feel utterly weak and ashamed. They tell themselves that today will be different. TODAY, they will not drink or drug. At the very least, they will limit their use. But as sure as it will be “5 o’clock somewhere,” the cravings become overwhelming and “just one” can slip the brain into desiring more, more, more.

The very nature of addiction makes that phrase, ‘just say no,’ or moderating, almost impossible.-Polly Drew

The very nature of addiction makes that phrase, “just say no,” or moderating, almost impossible. When ad hoc attempts to change behavior fail, most people feel hopeless and helpless against their addiction. In the privacy of their own hell, they deem themselves weak, moral failures.

But nothing can be further from the truth. Science proves that addiction is a chronic disease that is just like heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure.

Sure, there are mild cases of these illnesses that can be managed with diet and exercise. But in many cases, a combination of medicine, education, and support from community and family is needed to fully treat these conditions.

MAT: What is Medication-Assisted Treatment?

The term, Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) has traditionally been associated with treatment for opioid addiction. But in recent years, MAT has been broadened to mean any treatment for substance use that combines medicine with a treatment plan for addiction.

Why would we treat addiction any other way?

Why wouldn’t we use everything we have to treat the epidemic of addiction to regain and maintain a healthy lifestyle?

When the brain changes and becomes addicted to a substance, the cravings create an overwhelming impulse that results in loss of control.-Polly Drew

When the brain changes and becomes addicted to a substance, the cravings create an overwhelming impulse that results in loss of control. The ability to moderate becomes almost impossible. And in the worst cases, compulsive abuse becomes so impulsive that severe harm or death can result.

Even if you choose to taper off of an addiction, it can be very difficult. And in some cases, the attempted taper can be life threatening. To be protected, we need our full arsenal of treatment tools to help people detox safely. And once safely detoxified, we should use the multi-treatments available to help people regain their lives.

Or should we? For decades, the bedrock of Alcohol Anonymous has been abstinence from all drugs and alcohol.

“I used to be vocal (in my disapproval) of MAT,” says Dr. Julie Dostal, executive director of LEAF Council on Alcoholism and Addictions in Oneonta, NY. Dostal is in long-term recovery and once believed that using medication to recover from addiction was transferring from one addiction to another.

…I’ve seen up close that medications used to treat addictions are NOT mood-altering, they are mood-correcting or stabilizing…-Dr. Julie Dostal

“But, over the years, I’ve seen up close that medications used to treat addictions are NOT mood-altering, they are mood-correcting or stabilizing,” she said underscoring her change of heart. “It’s just so clear to me that people suffering with addiction need full, systemic treatment for the disease of addiction.”

Addiction is not a second-class illness.

“People with addiction are patients, not inmates,” Dostal said. “I think that sometimes these old-timers ‘in the rooms’ (a term used to describe those in AA) feel threatened that there is more than one road to recovery.”

But Dostal said that the science can’t be ignored.

“More and more science is coming out every year,” she said. “Every year when I prep for teaching an addiction class at Suny Oneonta, it’s undeniable.”

Dostal, who moderates a Twitter chat called #addictionchat Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET, has a few other thoughts using 140 characters or less:

  • We need to redefine what we consider mood-altering drugs. Appropriately prescribed medications can help heal.
  • Just because it’s not my path, MAT is not the wrong path for others.
  • Parts of the body go bad. Parts of the brain can break, too.
  • Think about all the new meds that heal. AIDS was once a death sentence. It’s now it’s a chronic illness. There is HOPE for addiction.

When we use all we have to combat addiction, the outcomes are promising. Survival is improved. People stay in treatment. Illicit drug use is decreased. Criminal activity goes down. Employment goes up. Quality of life improves. And most importantly, individuals heal.

And healing along with them are their families – and all of society.

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