‘It saved my life’: How U-M Addiction Treatment Services impacts those who reach out

July 24, 2019  //  FOUND IN: Michigan Medicine News,
Members of the U-M Addiction Treatment Services team.

When Howard reached out to U-M Addiction Treatment Services, he had struggled with drugs and alcohol for nearly four decades.

“Altering myself chemically was just a part of my life,” said Howard, whose real identity has been changed due to the sensitivity of his story. “But when I finally broke free from that and understood that I couldn’t control those urges, I experienced a powerful epiphany. And that’s what everyone at U-M helped me achieve.”

Today, Howard has been clean from opioids for 11 years and sober from alcohol for 22.

He is hoping his story can help those who are hesitant to reach out and get the assistance they need. That it may be relatable for employees — or individuals who employees may know — and help them see that support is just around the corner.

Here is that story.

Filling a void

Howard started experimenting with drugs as a teenage musician growing up in Michigan. He regularly used marijuana and psychedelics, and occasionally added to the mix with pilfered painkillers from a friend.

The dependency grew from there.

“There were two main benefits I thought I gained from drugs,” Howard said. “First, changing my chemical state seemed to increase my creativity. Next — and this is true of a lot of performers — you get a high playing for a crowd, and you inevitably crash when a show is over. Drugs helped lift me up and fill that void.”

Rather than expressing concerns about his drug use, people around Howard enabled him.

“Our band got a record deal and the label would build drug money into their budget and ask us how much cocaine we’d need for a session,” Howard said. “The best answer to the question was ‘none,’ but I was unable to decline the offer — using coke was just an ingrained part of the business.

“But the effects were anything but positive,” he continued. “I found myself standing in front of an organ, being asked to play a simple part, and I was frozen. Paralyzed. Record company executives were in the control room, we were in the middle of the greatest opportunity a band could have been offered, and the coke completely stripped away my ability to play. I later found out that I nearly lost my place in the band as a result.”

A battle for sobriety

Howard’s opioid use began again in the 1980s in Los Angeles, escalating from Percoset and other pills to heroin over the span of a few years. While addicted to intravenous heroin, Howard found that a trip abroad helped him understand the severity of his situation.

“The musical instrument company I worked for sent me to Germany for a week-long international trade show, and I didn’t have access to opioids or other drugs,” he said. “I performed in front of thousands of people every day, and at night went back to my hotel room, in full-scale withdrawal.  I seriously considered jumping out the 30th floor window — there’s nothing worse than being dopesick.”

He vowed to stay clean when he returned to the U.S., but knew he needed to change his circumstances to make that happen. Howard moved back home from California to Michigan; soon, his marriage dissolved and he gained custody of his infant child. He even enrolled as a non-traditional student at U-M and began pursuing creative writing as a new artistic outlet.

“The creative engine I used in music was transferrable to the chassis of writing,” he said.

He also met a woman at U-M who would become his current wife.

But — as is the case with many who become dependent on one or more substances — his addictions would evolve.

“I began to drink more often and did some of my best writing while intoxicated,” Howard said. “But personally I was a mess so my wife gave me an ultimatum: Get into a program and get cleaned up or our family would no longer stay together.”

Howard joined Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12-step program that helped him quit drinking.

Making a choice

Howard spent a few years sober and clean, writing and doing other forms of work to make a living.

“I spent a summer doing manual labor and got tennis elbow in both arms,” he said. “In response, my doctor prescribed Tramadol — a supposedly non-addictive narcotic — and that reawakened the opiate-loving demon inside me.”

He was addicted again.

“I woke up each day and had to make a choice, would I do the right thing, avoid taking opioids and feel sick all day? Or would I find some pills and feel normal?” Howard said.

One day, walking in Ann Arbor, he saw a bus wrapped in an advertisement for a medication that could help individuals cope with opioid withdrawal symptoms.

“I fessed up to my wife that I was using again and decided to reach out to Michigan Medicine for help,” Howard said.

He began an intensive outpatient treatment program with U-M Addiction Treatment Services. It was an experience Howard called “profoundly useful and emotionally transformative.”

Nurse Izzy Yardley with U-M Addiction Treatment Services.

Doctors, nurses, therapists and other staff members work directly with individuals to figure out what is behind an addiction (ie. filling a void or some other emotional factors). Physicians can also prescribe medication such as Suboxone, which is the drug Howard had seen advertised. Finally, there are groups who come together regularly to talk about addiction-related issues.

“It’s not a 12-step program, but it is one that is medically-based and can get to the core of addiction troubles,” Howard said. “Sometimes, we’d have only six people in our meetings and I was floored — there should be people lined up around the block to get into this program, it’s that effective.”

Get help today

Based in the Rachel Upjohn Building, U-M Addiction Treatment Services has capacity to take more patients — yet many who are addicted find it difficult to reach out for help.

“We need to understand that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing,” said Fred Blow, Ph.D., director of the U-M Addiction Center. “If you had any other type of disease, it’s likely you’d reach out to a professional. It’s important that you do the same here.”

That’s exactly what Howard did.

“Think about how strong you have to be to admit to yourself and others that you have a problem,” Howard said. “And then you go and get the help you need. That’s something to take pride in.”

It’s a mindset and a program that has worked for Howard, who still visits U-M Addiction Treatment Services monthly.

Blow emphasized that privacy is a major emphasis — for example, employees don’t have to worry about information being shared with other team members.

“There’s a resource right down the road that helped me take back my happiness,” Howard said. “It saved my health, my marriage, my life. If you’re facing an addiction, you have every reason to do this and no reason not to.”

Need help? For more information about the U-M Addiction Center & Treatment Services, click here or call 1-800-525-5188 to schedule an appointment.

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