May 8th, 2009
12:50 PM ET

Revisiting addiction

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

It’s only been three weeks but it feels like a lifetime since we aired our documentary, Addiction/Life on the Edge. That’s how it goes in the news business, especially when a global swine flu outbreak grabs the headlines.

But I can’t ignore the fascinating calls and emails we got in response to “Addiction” – including doctors who watched with colleagues, and a man who said he watched in the rec room of a rehab program, with 90 percent of the other residents.

I found it especially heartbreaking to read notes from people whose children are struggling with drugs or alcohol. Linda Frisciaro wrote about her 25-year-son, who beat an addiction to crack (“I thought we conquered the world when he stopped, and there was no better feeling than that…”) but soon was battling an addiction to alcohol and prescription painkillers. (“He called me about a year ago, crying and weeping, saying ‘Mom, please help me.’ It took him about 45 minutes to get out those couple words….”)

My heart goes out to Frisciaro and anyone in her position; I can only hope their stories have happy endings and the addicts come to realize how fortunate they are to have someone who didn’t quit on them.

A number of people wrote to emphasize the link between addiction and disorders like depression and bipolar illness. We mentioned this briefly in the documentary, but it might have been worth making a stronger point.

I also got an earful from people who read my article about medications that might be used to treat addiction. A sample:

Joan: “I agree that the disease is complicated, and a pill won't solve every problem. There are many reasons and life situations for a person to drink, but if this can help, why not make it available?”

Fred: “I give this guy about a year of working in this bar and he'll be blackout drunk once again. Trust me. I know. Naltrexone is not the silver bullet.”

I’d like to re-emphasize: no one particular treatment will work for everyone. And the research on medication is clear: it works best when used in combination with therapy, not when you just take a pill and plop down in front of the TV.

One of the most interesting emails came from Dr. Howard Wetsman, a psychiatrist in New Orleans, who wrote, “I can’t agree with your theory about the medications profiled not fitting in with current treatment. In fact I know of many residential settings that use both naltrexone and topiramate in the context of stopping drug or alcohol use.” Some colleagues fear that use of medication ignores an addict’s underlying suffering, but it’s not a business consideration, says Wetsman. “Far from having a profit motive to be against medication, they would actually bring more people into their programs if they offered medication as part of the treatment. These are caring professionals that want to provide good treatment. While I disagree with their stance, I can’t find fault with their motives.”

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