The last two days have been at the 20th Annual Fundamentals of Addiction Medicine Conference in Washington State, 15 lectures. Everything from science trying to understand addiction via studying dopamine in ratbrains to the last presentation: Snohomish County started a program two years ago that pairs a social worker with a county sheriff or deputy to work with the homeless.
The county is trying to stop the revolving door of homeless to arrested to jail to homeless. 95% of the county homeless are addicted to heroin and some to methamphetamines. They don’t access services when they are “dope sick”. They describe heroin as being 10x worse than the worst influenza. I think of withdrawal from opioids as having all the pain receptors turned as high as they can go and screaming at once.
The sheriff and social worker go to the camps. They get to know people and offer services. They have helped over 100 people get their identification replaced. When someone is arrested, their homeless encampment is often stolen. No honor among thieves, you say? The rat studies address that: in addiction the brain puts the drug first, in front of food, water, sex. Some rats will access the drug until they die, just like people. I think of it as the person losing their boundaries to the drug. The conference used the phrase “incentive salience” — dopamine is released when the person or rat is cued that the drug is now available and again when the drug arrives. More on that in another write up.
At any rate, the clients do not get to appointments. So the deputy and social work start at the beginning: they make the appointment, go knock on the tent that morning, remind the person to get dressed, take them to get food and coffee and then take them to the appointment. Then they return them to their camp.
After two months, the first sheriff and social worker were so successful that the program was expanded.
They have 206 chemical dependency evaluations.
232 have gone to detox. The detox is 3-5 days. They are taken straight from there to inpatient treatment, 30 day minimum, but ranging from 30-90 days. After treatment, clients are taken straight to sober housing, with a 6 month supported stay and intensive outpatient treatment.
85% get through the detox.
59% graduate from the treatment
50% go on to sober housing and intensive outpatient.
Their first clean and sober client is two years out.
50% of the homeless who agree to the program getting to sober housing is huge. Recidivism and incarceration drop, so it is making a true difference.
The program is expanding. They have a Community Court set up, much like Juvenile Drug Court, modeled after a program in Spokane. If the person agrees to drug treatment, they can do that instead of jail. This is for minor offenders. The sheriff says that once the homeless person is incarcerated, everything is stolen. They then steal food and supplies for a new camp when released and it happens again. If the client completes the program, low level charges may be dropped. They are setting up a service center right by the court where the clients are sent immediately to talk to a chemical dependency person, to get medical treatment, dental emergencies, centralized services because these people do not have transportation.
The social worker is in kevlar and heavy clothes as well and is never to go in the encampments without the law enforcement officers: it’s usually private land so it would be trespassing anyway.
This was an absolutely inspiring presentation. It starts with outreach and intervention, and gives people choices. They will soon be opening a temporary site, up to 15 days with medical support and beds, for when a client is ready but the social worker needs to arrange the detox, the treatment, the housing. Sometimes when a client is finally ready, there are no beds. And they don’t want to send them to detox and then back to the streets. The sheriff says that he was “volutold” for the program, but he, the deputy and the social worker are all clearly inspired by the program and enjoy their work and that it is making a difference.
Any write up on addiction fits today’s Daily Prompt: messy.
“Siqalo used to be the most promising child in our house … the last born. He got the best of everything. We took him to better schools than we did his younger sister and brother. He did well for the better half of high school.Then he met up with the wrong friends, and never even got to matric,” Fanele Ngcobo tells GroundUp about his son.
Siqalo is 22. He has been a whoonga user since 2015. By 10am, he has already smoked his second fix. Without the drug he struggles to function. Withdrawal effects – which people refer to as “arosta” – include stomach cramps, vomiting, and extreme anxiety.
Whoonga is a mixture of marijuana and heroin and rumoured to contain anti-retrovirals, detergents and even rat poison. Active addiction has spread in KwaZulu-Natal townships such as KwaMashu and iNanda. Hundreds of people now live in Durban’s ‘Whoonga Park’,
Siqalo was a keen soccer player, says his mother, Sizakele. Now his worn, black soccer shoes peek out from under the bed in his old room at home in iNanda, Durban.
“He always went for practice with his friends at the local playground. But after a while, soccer wasn’t the only thing he and his friends were playing with; he was also experimenting with dangerous drugs,” she says.
Siqalo lives in so-called Whoonga Park, under a bridge next to the Berea railway lines in Durban. The park has become a den for whoonga users. They have bright beach umbrellas to protect them from the heat and black plastic bags for shelter. The activities under the bridge are in plain view. People trade and smoke. In the afternoons and at night, many take to the city streets to hustle for food and the money they need to buy their fix.
“There are no beds here. Even if you can get a blanket or sheet to sleep in, it doesn’t last a week. The police will burn it,” says Siqalo. “So it’s easier just to use cardboard and plastic as it is easy to find in the streets. Although I miss home, I cannot go back home like this. I need to be clean. My family doesn’t trust me around the house and for good reason because I’ve stolen their money and appliances too many times. I tried to be clean when they first fetched me, but arosta is too painful – nobody can understand. But I still want to go home.”
Cooked meals, showers and clean clothes
Nobuhle Khuzwayo from eMpangeni, KwaZulu-Natal, is one of those trying to get off whoonga. She attends the iSiphephelo Centre housed at the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban, where she gets cooked meals and clean clothes three times a week. For a few hours she is free of whoonga.
Co-founder of the centre Sihle Ndima says it is a place of safety for young girls and women living on the streets of Durban. It offers meals, counselling, clean clothes and showers.
“Many of them return back to the streets soon after classes, and the work we do seems like failure, because in the end they go back to using whoonga,” says Ndima. “We work with a rehabilitation centre in Newlands East, Durban, and they offer free help.”
Khuzwayo, who is 30, came to Durban seeking a job in 2014, but after numerous failed attempts, she was left homeless and desperate.
“The shoe factory I was working for closed down after a month. Thereafter it was difficult to get employment. I had been staying at the Dalton hostel with some friends, who later introduced me to smoking. They would tell me it was marijuana, but after becoming a frequent smoker … I would get headaches, pains and stomach cramps when I hadn’t smoked. I just could not cope without it. When I confronted them, they told me it was in fact whoonga. I was already deeply hooked,” says Khuzwayo.
She could no longer live at the hostel. She moved to Whoonga Park. To get money she would have to resort to sex work, crime or selling cigarettes. She found a boyfriend who sold cigarettes at taxi ranks to help get them food and the R30 a day they needed to buy whoonga.
“To survive on the streets, I got myself a boyfriend because you can’t survive a day alone under the bridge as a woman. There are men known as amaBhariya, who claim to own the spots in Whoonga Park. They do not smoke or deal the drug; they do not speak local languages or even English. They are ruthless. They rape and kill women under the bridge and make sure the park functions the way it does. They wear blue workmen’s clothes and hats and use the underground drains to move around. So if you don’t have a man to protect you, they will always take advantage of you,” says Khuzwayo.
Merchants outside the park sell whoonga for R30. “They are usually in the streets or in nearby flats but not many sell whoonga under the bridge,” she says.
Khuzwayo has now moved to a local shelter, paying R20 a night. Her closest friend had TB and when she died it was a turning point.
“I am tired of this life. I am determined to change. I don’t want to die a senseless death without dignity,” she says.
She is now a part-time cleaner at iSiphephelo. After attending all counselling and life skills classes she will qualify for rehab. “After rehab, I am going to go back home and stay with my sister in eMpangeni. You cannot stay away from whoonga in the city,” says Khuzwayo.
Siqalo and Khuzwayo say whoonga users are known as amaPhara. “Because we look like zombies. We’re dead people walking. We sleep standing. We stab you for your phone and sell it for a fix. Plastic and rubble is our shelter, faeces and rubbish are everywhere, and we run from police who destroy our things and chase us away every week. But we always come back. We can’t survive anywhere else,” says Siqalo.
Khuzwayo says she has seen people high on whoonga killed by trains.
“You can’t save them, because it’s like the railway shocks you, and you’re unable to move … seeing the train come at you but unable to run. I’ve seen some getting crushed in half and some losing their limbs. Even a security guard, who was chasing us one time, got stuck and the train crushed his foot.”
“One way or the other, you’re lucky to survive under the bridge.”
Toxic behavior. And it takes two to tango, really.
Do I have to stay away from someone who behaves badly? Do they set me off? Well, that’s about me, isn’t it? I need to go look in the mirror and see what is bothering me. What does this remind me of? Are they getting under my skin? So what part of my skin needs better boundaries?
I realized that my father drank too much when I was in college. I read about it and went home, ready to intervene. My mother and my sister refused, much to my surprise. And slowly I realized that my mother was enabling the drinking.
I set boundaries with my father. I said that he could not come to my house drunk and he could not drink at my house. I refused to sleep in my parents’ house because he was falling asleep and there were cigarette burns in the floor and an 8 inch diameter one between the couch cushions. I told my mother I was having nightmares about fires. She joked that she would be mad if he burned a hole in the waterbed. I told my father I was afraid to sleep upstairs and moved to my grandmother’s, two doors away. I was lucky that I had that option.
My father stopped drinking a decade later. I took my young son to visit, and found that my father had started again. I asked my mother, “Why didn’t you tell me?” She replied, “I told you I would leave if he drank, but I am not going to leave.” I said, “We are not staying with you.” and we moved to my mother-in-law’s house.
As a family doctor, I try to help each person. My clinic and I do have boundaries. If they no show for three visits within one year, we ask them to change to another doctor. People call for referrals often. I can’t do a referral without documenting a diagnosis and doing an examination, so they need a visit. “But you’ve seen me for hip pain!” “Yes, and that was a year ago. Time to reevaluate, right?” And all doctors here are swamped: they want to save their over busy time for people who truly need them. The orthopedist does not want to see that hip unless I agree that they need to: if physical therapy and discussion can fix it, one less person that they don’t get to operate on.
I recently had calls for an emergency referral. I left a message with both the patient and the specialist. I had not seen the person for five months. I have no idea what is happening. If it’s an emergency, they need to contact the insurance, not me, because I have not seen the person: no diagnosis. And insurance should cover if it is an emergency. If it is not an emergency, well…
There is behavior that I prefer not to be around. There is behavior I will tolerate in clinic but not my personal life, since I get paid in clinic. There is behavior I won’t tolerate in clinic. But think of the great ones that are still spoken of: the Buddha, the Bodhisattvas, Jesus. They had boundaries to where any person was allowed to approach them and was received and was sometimes changed by that reception. When I say “I can’t be around him or her,” how do I need to change? Ok, not the crazy person shooting into crowds, no tolerance. But day to day, the things that get under our skin, it’s our skin that is fallible.
I do not want to label anyone toxic. I hope to make a small difference in the world through my clinic. And add to the joy in the world.
Drug and alcohol use was higher than across country norms, including inner city.
Rates of addiction diagnosis by age 26 were
19%-24% for girls
23%-40% for boys
These rates are two to three times the norms across the country.
Rates for addiction diagnosis by age 22 were
11%-16% for girls
19%-27% for boys
These rates are close to the same in girls, but twice as high in boys as peers across the country.
The teens were often popular high achievers who are A students. Parents tended to drink more in those cohorts than the norms.
Also: “Findings also showed the protective power of parents’ containment (anticipated stringency of repercussions for substance use) at age 18; this was inversely associated with frequency of drunkenness and marijuana and stimulant use in adulthood.” That is, parents who sent a clear message that consequences for illegal and underage substance use including alcohol and marijuana would be serious, provided protection for their teens.
“Results also revealed the surprising unique significance of children’s eating dinner with at least one parent on most nights. Even after the other six parenting dimensions (including emotional closeness both to mothers and to fathers) were taken into account, this simple family routine was linked not only to children’s self-reported adjustment, but also to their performance at school. Striking, too, were the similarities of links involving family dining among families ostensibly easily able to arrange for shared leisure time and those who had to cope with the sundry exigencies of everyday life in poverty.”
Other children’s perception of parenting examined included:
felt closeness to mothers
felt closeness to fathers
parental values emphasizing integrity
regularity of eating dinner with parents
lack of after-school supervision
This aligns with my observations both in my town and with patients. I see parents “check out” sometimes when their children are in their teens. “I can’t control him/her. They are going to use drugs and alcohol.” I told my children that if they partied I would NOT be the parent who says, “Oh, he needs to play football anyhow.” I would be the parent who would be yelling “Throw the book at him/her. Bench them.” And I saw parents of teens going out to the parking lot to smoke marijuana at a church fundraiser when it was still illegal. And saying “Oh, our kids don’t know.” I thought, “Your kids are not that dumb.” They invited me along. I said, “No.” And I really lost respect for that group of parents. What example and message are they sending to their teens? Yeah, cool, do illegal things in the parking lot, nod, nod, wink, wink.
Meanwhile, my children keep me honest. “You are speeding, mom.”
“Yeah,” I say. “You are right. Sometimes I do.” And I slow down.
When I watch the disaster news, what I think about is withdrawal.
Everyone who is on a substance that causes dependence or addiction is withdrawing.
They don’t seem to ever discuss that, but think…. if you are in Houston or Florida when everything floods, are your cigarettes dry? I don’t think so. And put multiple people in close contact in a shelter, with many withdrawing… I am not surprised that tempers flare.
Let’s look at numbers.
Tobacco: in 2013, 21.3% of the US population age 12 and older, smokes tobacco. Disasters are a reason to quit. It’s hard enough to quit tobacco, but imagine going cold turkey if we have our Pacific Northwest really massive earthquake. Quit smoking now, don’t wait for a disaster. And think about being in a stadium with one in five of the people over age 12 withdrawing from tobacco. Is that fun?
Alcohol: “In 2013, 30.2 percent of men and 16.0 percent of women 12 and older reported binge drinking in the past month. And 9.5 percent of men and 3.3 percent of women reported heavy alcohol use.” Ok, that’s rather vague. If you have a drink or two after work every day or with dinner, will you notice the lack? Yes, I think so, but maybe only 10% of the adults are really going into alcohol withdrawal. That’s a conservative estimate. 30% are probably grumpy.
Illicit drugs: 4-8% of the 40-70 year olds used something in the past month. Are they addicted? Well, some are. And the 18-15 year olds are the most active, around 20%. Methamphetamines, cocaine, crack, crank, heroin, eeee-yuk.
Prescription drugs: “More than half of new illicit drug users begin with marijuana. Next most common are prescription pain relievers, followed by inhalants (which is most common among younger teens).” So let’s see, what percentage of the population is on prescribed opioids, benzodiazepines and barbituates? Ooooo, 1/3 of the US population has been prescribed opioids (2). Chronic opioids are prescribed to 3-4% of the US population, but of course, that is the prescribed chronic pain ones, not the illicit ones. Now, those can have a withdrawal. Alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal are the most dangerous for the patient, but in opioid withdrawal the pain receptors go absolutely crazy, like a volcano blowing up. And the tweakers withdrawing from methamphetamines. The sleep medicines like sonata and ambien avoid the issue of whether they are addictive by saying they are for “short term use” — 6 weeks for the former and 2 weeks for the latter, but some people have been on them for years. And marijuana daily, I have seen great difficulty with anxiety and sleep when people are trying to quit.
Marijuana: 7.5% of the population over age 12. How many of those are addicted? I see varying numbers, ranging from 10% to 50%. If you use marijuana regularly, check. Stop it for a week. See if there is a problem. I’d try it before a disaster, because it would add to the stress during….
Caffeine: Ok, I would withdraw from caffeine. 90% of US people are addicted to caffeine. I get a massive headache for 24 hours and then I am ok. I have gone off it more than once….
With ADHD medicines for children, a “drug holiday” is sometimes recommended. If you are regularly using any potentially addictive substance, try a “drug holiday” of your own.
And I think it’s the best motivator ever to quit smoking. Friday I had a couple of dedicated smokers and when I talked about flooded cigarretes, they blanched. Quit now, before you quit in circumstances…
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