fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

'Game changer' in addiction recovery

After four years of drug addiction, Margarita Moody reached her lowest point when she found out she was pregnant but couldn’t stop using heroin.

“I hated myself for that. You know, I would beg myself to stop, and I wanted to stop so bad. I wanted to quit. I didn’t want to kill my baby,” she said.

Under a doctor’s guidance, Moody began taking a daily dose of methadone at the Allied Health Services clinic in Medford to curb her cravings for heroin and block flu-like withdrawal symptoms.

Doctors often recommend pregnant women take medication like methadone so they don’t relapse and take a potentially deadly dose of heroin that could kill both them and their babies.

Moody’s daughter was born healthy and today is 6-month-old baby with a ready smile.

Moody just got word she has been hired as a receptionist by Rogue Retreat, which serves homeless people. She continues to take methadone to maintain her recovery.

Her husband, who has a construction job, is staying clean with the help of the medication buprenorphine — which like methadone eases drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms without producing a high.

Other medications for addiction include naltrexone, sold under the name Vivitrol, and Suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone.

The family of three lives in a tidy apartment in Medford.

“I pray a lot for addicts that are still suffering, because I remember being out there and being really hopeless and thinking that nothing would ever help,” said Moody, who previously tried and failed at traditional drug treatment that didn’t offer medication. “And so I know for me the medication that I’m taking and the help that I’m getting from the clinic there has been beneficial. I mean, it’s a game-changer. It’s the only thing that’s worked for me.”

Medication-assisted treatment is used in conjunction with counseling and behavioral therapy.

Numerous studies show medication-assisted drug treatment reduces drug use, criminal activity, overdose deaths and disease rates among people addicted to opioids, which includes heroin and prescription pain pills like oxycodone. It also boosts marriage and employment rates.

For every $1 spent on medication-assisted treatment, society saves $38 in costs from unemployment, incarceration, health care expenditures and failed treatment that didn’t offer medication to ease cravings and withdrawal symptoms, according to a study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Managed Care.

But for all its benefits, medication-assisted treatment remains underutilized across the nation.

People who take medication face stigma, even from some in the recovery community who view the treatment as a crutch that substitutes one drug for another, said Dr. Kerri Hecox, a physician who works for the La Clinica Birch Grove Health Center in downtown Medford.

“I have to talk people into staying on medication because they go to a Narcotics Anomymous meeting and are told, ‘Oh, you have “program time,” not “clean time,”’” said Hecox, who offers medication-assisted treatment.

She said she has seen how effective medication-assisted treatment can be for her patients.

“They’re doing awesome now,” Hecox said.

Resistance to medication

Hecox said much of the resistance to treating addiction with medication is rooted in the abstinence-based model that developed in the 1930s with the birth of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement.

People didn’t have many options back then except to forgo alcohol and other addictive substances that were destroying their lives.

“We’ve learned a lot about brain science in the meantime,” Hecox said.

Humans and animals have a reward center in their brain that produces positive feelings when they engage in behavior like eating and sexual activity that ensures the survival of the individual and the species, she said.

“That’s the system that drugs hijack,” Hecox said.

The body naturally produces feel-good chemicals and pain relievers like endorphins that bind to receptors in the brain and body. Opioids like heroin and oxycodone are much stronger and bind to those receptors, producing a sense of euphoria in the early stages of addiction, Hecox explained.

But eventually as a person becomes more addicted, the drugs don’t produce much of a high. An addicted person needs to consume more and more drugs just to feel normal. And if they try to forgo the drugs, they’re hit with a cascade of withdrawal symptoms, Hecox said.

When receptors in the digestive system aren’t filled by opioids, the addicted person experiences nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, she said.

Medication-assisted drug treatment acts on receptors without producing euphoria — helping to break the cycle of craving, using and withdrawing, Hecox said.

Moody said her opioid addiction began with the prescription painkiller Vicodin. That eventually led her to heroin. She became an intravenous drug user who skipped out on family events and had to wear long-sleeved shirts to hide her arms.

When she was deep in her addiction, Moody said she would begin to experience withdrawal symptoms six hours after her last dose of heroin — not even long enough to get a good night’s sleep. Her body ached; her skin crawled; she broke out in cold sweats. Worst of all, her brain would start to clear and she would realize she was wasting her life for drugs.

No longer able to function, Moody had to leave her job as a teller supervisor.

“My life was so consumed by it,” Moody said. “I mean, even when I had it, I was always looking for it and how I was going to get money for it and who I was going to get it from. It really consumes your life. It consumes everything.”

Rather than having a healthy husband-and-wife relationship, Moody and her spouse became a team always on the hunt for drugs. They began to sell drugs in order to finance their addiction.

“It got out of hand so fast and we got addicted really, really quickly,” she said.

While Moody’s breaking point came when she found out she was pregnant, her husband took longer. He was still involved with the drug lifestyle when he was assaulted by men who stole the couple’s travel trailer, truck and car, she said.

“They almost killed him. They knocked out all of his front teeth and broke his ribs and broke his jaw. At that moment, I realized how ugly drugs were,” Moody said.

Even though she was clean, Moody realized they would lose their daughter and both die if her husband didn’t also break free.

“I believe drugs are very evil. They bring horrible people your way,” she said.

Her husband is now also a patient of Hecox and uses the medication buprenorphine to help maintain his recovery.

Not an easy path

Even with the help of medication, Moody said recovery is not easy.

She went through Addictions Recovery Center residential treatment and goes to group meetings and counseling sessions at the Allied Health Care methadone clinic.

“I’ve met great people there — people who care a lot about my baby," Moody said.

She continues to work on issues related to her traumatic childhood and the guilt she feels over her behavior while she was addicted.

Moody and her husband, who both lost their mothers to addiction, have built a “family of choice” and tapped into the local recovery community.

But Moody said some people don’t view her and her husband as actually being in recovery because they continue to use medication.

“I didn’t speak at meetings for a long time because I was kind of embarrassed. I didn’t want people to, I guess, judge me,” she said.

Moody said she believes most people against medication-assisted treatment were addicted to methamphetamine and other non-opioid drugs. They don’t understand how sick opioid users become if they try to go without drugs.

Moody said she is slowly tapering off methadone and has reduced her dose from 70 to 46 milligrams during the 11 months she has been on the medication.

Hecox said studies show people who try to taper off medication after three months have a high relapse rate.

People who have used opioids have altered their brain connections and receptors. They need to stay on medication for a long period of time — perhaps permanently, she said.

“Even short-term drug use changes your brain,” she said.

Hecox noted that people used to think those suffering from depression were choosing to have a negative outlook on life. When anti-depressants first came out, the public was biased against the medication, thinking people with depression just needed to think positive. The public didn’t understand depression resulted from a chemical imbalance in the brain that could be either short-term or permanent without treatment.

“What we’ve learned is, no, you’re not making a choice to be depressed,” Hecox said.

Some people with depression take anti-depressants for a short period of time, while others need them for life in order to feel normal, she said.

Hecox said the situation is similar with medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.

When people stop using opioids, the strength of addiction-related brain connections and signals weakens over time. But they may never return to normal, Hecox said.

That’s why addiction should be managed like other long-term diseases, such as diabetes. Some diabetics can overcome the disease with lifestyle changes like exercising and losing weight, while others will always need to take insulin, she said.

Hecox said once the primitive reward system in the brain is no longer on overdrive from addiction, people can begin using the part of the brain responsible for long-range planning and assessment of consequences. Medication-assisted treatment can help keep them on a stable path.

She noted people in the grip of addiction don’t think about the long-term consequences of using.

“Nobody is like, ‘I’m going to relapse so I can lose my house and live under a bridge and be shoplifting from Walmart. That’s my long-term plan, and this is a great step toward that,’” Hecox said.

Acceptance growing

Hecox said acceptance of medication-assisted treatment is growing locally and nationwide, although change has been slow.

Jackson County Circuit Court has long had pioneering drug courts that guide arrested people through treatment. But years ago, the court didn’t allow drug court participants to use medication-assisted treatment.

Eric Guyer, director of Jackson County Community Justice, said drug court participants can use such medication now. Those on probation and post-prison supervision can also use the medication if it’s medically prescribed.

He said the entire criminal justice system is beginning to recognize the value of medication to treat addiction.

“It’s been proven to be a valuable tool, particularly for opioid use disorder,” Guyer said. “The entire field is becoming more aware of how valuable it is.”

He said medication can help people succeed in recovery and improve their overall health.

Given the harm opioid addiction does to individuals, families and the community, Guyer said medication-assisted treatment is an essential piece of the overall response to addiction.

Acceptance of the medication is also growing nationally.

In 2015, the Bureau of Justice Assistance required drug courts that receive federal funding to allow people on such medication into drug court programs.

The pendulum swung even further in 2016, when the National Drug Court Institute endorsed medication-assisted treatment as a best practice for treating opioid use disorders.

The New York-based nonprofit Legal Action Center says even more needs to be done. The center would like to see more comprehensive insurance coverage for the medication, as well as more education to boost support among health care providers and criminal justice officials.

“There’s been a shift — although not nearly enough of a shift given the horrific costs of substance abuse,” said Sally Friedman, vice president of legal advocacy for the center.

She said part of the growing acceptance of medication for addiction treatment is due to rising awareness about the opioid addiction and overdose crisis gripping America.

In 2017, drug overdoses killed a record 72,000 people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

As for Moody, she has a message for people struggling with addiction who have yet to try medication-assisted treatment.

“If you’re suffering, you’re not alone, and there’s other people out there, and you don’t have to hurt anymore,” she said.

For more information on medication-assisted treatment, contact the La Clinica Birch Grove Health Center at 541-535-6239, Allied Health Services at 541-705-2258, Addictions Recovery Center at 541-779-1282 or OnTrack at 541-772-1777.

Information about those organizations and others that provide treatment is also available at staysafeoregon.com.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneMargarita Moody at her home in Medford.