Walter Ray Watson/NPR
The United States is facing an unprecedented rise in drug-related deaths, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting another grim milestone this week.
In a single 12-month period, fatal overdoses claimed 101,623 lives.
But researchers and drug policy experts say this grim record masks an important and hopeful fact: Most Americans who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction survive.
They recover and continue to live full and healthy lives.
“I think this is really good news and something to share and look forward to,” said Dr. John Kelly, who teaches addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School and directs the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital. .
Kelly co-authored a peer-reviewed study published last year that found an estimated 22.3 million Americans – more than 9% of adults – are recovering from some form of drug use disorder. of substances.
A separate study published by the CDC and the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2020 found that 3 out of 4 people who suffer from addiction eventually recover.
“So that’s huge, you know, 75%,” Kelly said. “I think it goes a bit against our cultural perception that people never get better.”
Life after addiction is not only possible. It’s the norm
Americans often see the more destructive side of addiction, drug-related crime, people falling through doors, and family members falling apart.
Less visible are the people who survive the disease and rebuild their lives.
“We’re literally surrounded by people recovering from substance use disorder, but we don’t know it,” Kelly said.
Anna Mable-Jones of Laurel, Md., is one such success story. In college, she began experimenting with crack.
“It took me on a total downward spiral,” the 56-year-old said.
Mable-Jones lost a decade to addiction, entering rehab and repeatedly relapsing. It was a terrifying time for her and her family.
“My mother [started] calling the morgues,” she recalled. “She was calling my sister and saying… ‘I haven’t heard from Anna. “
But in a pattern researchers say is common, Mable-Jones disease eventually subsided. She found a treatment that worked and lived drug-free for over 20 years.
“Things that I thought I would never win again, through the recovery process, I got them all,” she said. “Today I am a homeowner, I own a car, I started my own business.”
John Moore/Getty Images
Addiction is hard to beat, and it leads to stigma
The researchers say this data — and this lived experience — contradicts a common misperception that substance use disorder is a lifelong and often life-threatening condition.
Although tragic, the 100,000 fatal overdoses last year actually claimed the lives of a tiny percentage of the 31.9 million Americans who use illegal drugs.
Likewise, the approximately 95,000 deaths each year in the United States attributed to alcohol represent a fraction of high-risk drinkers.
So why is this disease often referred to as intractable and hopeless?
Recovery experts say one reason is that addiction is agonizing and difficult to deal with.
“Hopeless despair – that’s a good way to describe it,” said Travis Rasco, 34, who lives in Plattsburgh, a small industrial town in upstate New York.
“I wanted to quit, I just couldn’t,” he said, describing his decade-long struggle with heroin.
Rasco relapsed again and again, causing his family tremendous pain. “I didn’t want to be that person, but I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Studies show that people usually recover, but like Rasco and Mable-Jones, the process happens slowly after multiple relapses.
It usually takes eight years or more to achieve long-term remission, even with high-quality treatment and medical care.
Rasco was working two jobs to feed his heroin habit when he finally found a way forward in 2018.
“I had quite a long journey in the ambulance [after an overdose] and something happened in that ambulance,” he said, describing an emotional pivot that sounded different: “That’s not the way to live.”
He also managed to convince his insurance company to pay for longer-term treatment.
“They fought to only keep me in [rehab] for 14 days; they didn’t want to pay for 30, and I knew that wasn’t enough for me,” Rasco recalled. “They didn’t want to put me in a halfway house. I knew I needed a halfway house. »
This time it worked. He has now been drug-free for nearly four years, is married, and has a newborn.
“We’re trying to buy a house right now. Something I never thought possible, something I never thought I deserved in a very long time,” Rasco said.
After recovery, a better life
Recovery rates are not the same for everyone. There are marked differences in how the body and brain react to alcohol and different drugs.
Studies also show that racial bias makes it harder for black and Hispanic Americans to find treatment. People in rural areas generally have less access to health care.
Meanwhile, those with more financial resources or milder forms of addiction often heal faster.
But even people who use harder drugs for long periods of time usually recover.
“This figure of 75% [of people who achieve remission] obviously includes the most severe people on the spectrum,” said Dr. David Eddie, co-author of the recovery success study and also teaches at Harvard Medical School. “So there is absolutely hope.
Indeed, most people do not just survive addiction. Research suggests they often thrive on long-term recovery, reconnecting with family and enjoying economic success.
“They end up achieving things that they wouldn’t have achieved if they hadn’t been through addiction hell,” Eddie said.
The researchers say these hopeful findings are important because they could inspire people to keep trying to recover even after suffering multiple relapses.
“It can be tough to face,” Eddie said. “How do you manage to get back on your horse after repeated attempts that have failed?
Is fentanyl a game-changer?
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A troubling question is whether this pattern – multiple relapses leading to eventual recovery – will continue now that more illicit drugs are contaminated with the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
“It kills them the first time,” said Anna Mable-Jones. “It doesn’t give them enough tries, as I may have had.”
Some communities are trying to help, providing active drug users with clean needles and making the anti-overdose drug Narcan more widely available.
New York City recently opened the nation’s first official safe-use clinics, where people with substance use disorders can use drugs under medical supervision.
Eddie said their research suggests more needs to be done to keep people alive while the healing process works.
“No one has recovered from addiction. My feeling is that if we can keep people alive long enough, we know the majority will eventually recover,” he said.
Travis Rasco, in upstate New York, says he is grateful he had enough time, enough opportunity and enough help to rebuild his life.
“I have all the good things in life that everyone talks about,” he said. “I’m worthy of this too. Once you get to this place, it’s pretty liberating.”