NCW — Former opioid addicts are using products like Suboxone and Vivitrol to live normal lives.
Physicians in the Wenatchee Valley were some of the first in the state to start doing medically assisted addiction treatment in 2010, said Dr. Malcolm Butler, Columbia Valley Community Health chief medical officer. There are now more than 40 medical professionals in the Wenatchee Valley who can prescribe these medications between CVCH and Confluence Health. The medication requires a special license from the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Chelan and Douglas counties combined are one of the only areas in the state where opioid-related deaths have declined in the last 20 years, dropping from 8.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2002-2004 to 6.8 per 100,000 in 2015-2017, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. At the height of the problem in 2011, 14 people died in Chelan County from opioids. In 2017 that number dropped to four.
The state overall saw an increase from 5.7 deaths per 100,000 residents to 10.1 deaths per 100,000 residents in the same time frame.
“If you look at the success rate of people who are started on buprenorphine," Butler said, which is the generic name for Suboxone, "it is somewhere between 80-90% of people after one year are still clean. That is, they are not using prescription opioids or heroin, and that is incredible; there is almost nothing in medicine that effective.”
Medications like Suboxone and Vivitrol contain naloxone, which blocks the opioid receptors, preventing people from getting high. Suboxone, though, also contains buprenorphine, which is a partial opioid and creates mild euphoria, but also prevents people from experiencing opioid withdrawals. The opioid effect from buprenorphine is so mild that most users feel nothing.
Treating patients with these medications is a satisfying experience for doctors, Butler said. It is incredible to see these people who were so hopelessly addicted to opioids begin to live normal lives.
“I had a patient who had been using heroin every single day for a year, and within two weeks of starting on Suboxone, she was back at work,” he said. “She had a job, she was working full time. It is kind of miraculous what a difference this makes.”
But it still isn’t an easy road to recovery, as many still face stigmas. The Wenatchee World spent eight months attempting to report on medically assisted treatment options, but a reporter was unable to find anyone who agreed to be identified. One person did come forward, but later stopped answering phone calls and disappeared.
A few weeks ago a 37-year-old Wenatchee woman and former opioid addict agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. The woman wishes to stay anonymous because she has lost several jobs after admitting she is using Suboxone to manage her addiction.
In fact, the day of her interview on Sept. 9, she was fired from a job she’d had for a week after telling her employer she was using Suboxone. She also takes Adderall for her ADHD and has prescriptions for both medications.
“I have a bachelor's degree and I have 13 years' experience in social services,” she said. “I was working as a job coach for people with developmental disabilities. I was doing that for about four years in Seattle. And my life became unmanageable because of my pain pill addiction.”
The woman got addicted to opioids by accident, she said. Her boyfriend at the time was taking methadone for his back, not legally, and she took the pills with him. At the time she didn’t understand how addiction worked.
"It takes a lot out of you and I didn’t do anything scandalous or whatever," she said. "But if you think about it, most of my time was spent looking for the next fix. It is a lot to do. You’re driving around at all hours of the night. You’re getting cash out. You’re meeting people, shady people sometimes."
She first encountered Suboxone on the street after purchasing it when she was unable to obtain opioids, she said. It was then she started thinking about recovery.
“And then it hit me, what am I doing?” she said. “Why am I paying street money when I can go to a doctor and legitimately get on this medication?”
The woman decided to get clean, because getting high had lost any appeal, she said. It had become a tiresome and burdensome process. She entered rehab on her own and was never arrested or prosecuted for her drug abuse.
She told her employer in Seattle about her addiction and the need to go to rehab, she said. It turned out to be a mistake, and when she returned to work, she was forced to take constant urinalysis tests and provide proof she was seeking additional outpatient treatment.
“I may have worked at that job for four or so months after that, but things had changed,” she said. “People were treating me differently. I felt like I was being extra scrutinized.”
Suboxone has allowed her to live a normal life, though, she said. She’s been on the medication for almost three years and is required to go to monthly doctor’s appointments where she does urinalysis tests to make sure she is taking the Suboxone that's been prescribed to her and is not using other opioids.
She does have some concerns about using Suboxone, she said. Mostly that she would like to taper off the medication, but doesn't feel her doctors support her doing so. But the medication has saved her life and she would recommend it to others.
“This helps me stay off opioids,” she said. “I don’t have to use my money. I don’t have to use my time. I don’t have to live that life anymore.”