For Addicts, There May Be Another Road To Wellness

The Betty Ford Center, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation clinic, is famous for its intensive rehabilitation that takes patients out of their regular lives. New thinking in the medical community, however, advocates treating addiction as a chronic illness that requires lifelong care. i i

hide captionThe Betty Ford Center, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation clinic, is famous for its intensive rehabilitation that takes patients out of their regular lives. New thinking in the medical community, however, advocates treating addiction as a chronic illness that requires lifelong care.

Eric Thayer/Getty Images
The Betty Ford Center, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation clinic, is famous for its intensive rehabilitation that takes patients out of their regular lives. New thinking in the medical community, however, advocates treating addiction as a chronic illness that requires lifelong care.

The Betty Ford Center, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation clinic, is famous for its intensive rehabilitation that takes patients out of their regular lives. New thinking in the medical community, however, advocates treating addiction as a chronic illness that requires lifelong care.

Eric Thayer/Getty Images

For decades, inpatient rehab has been one of the go-to treatments for substance addiction. Nearly two million Americans seek treatment for addiction each year, but there's a movement in the medical community to change how we perceive the condition — and how to treat it.

The most famous of of rehab centers is the one named after former first lady Betty Ford, who was addicted to alcohol and painkillers.

"My family saw the problem and they got professional help to come in and help them do what we refer to as an intervention," she told CBS News.

Opened in 1982, troubled celebrities have flocked to the Betty Ford Center, along with others looking for an intensive rehabilitation that takes them out of their regular lives.

Just last month, Betty Ford merged with Hazelden treatment centers to create the largest non-profit treatment organization in the country. There has been a growing chorus of medical professionals, however, who say inpatient rehab centers provide only a temporary fix that can sometimes evaporate when patients go back into the real world.

"We used to understand addiction 40 years ago as a bad habit, low character development [and] poor impulse control," says Tom McClellan, CEO and co-founder of the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia. He says inpatient rehab came out of a belief that to get better, you just had to be a better person.

"So what was envisioned was a program that first tore the patient down, stripped the patient of his bad habits, and then reconstructed a person who was more socially responsible, more honest and had better character," he says.

Today, McClellan says addiction needs to be treated like diabetes. He says it would be unthinkable for someone to go to their priest to find a cure for diabetes.

"That's not unthinkable in addiction because the public just doesn't understand it as a chronic illness," he says.

The Struggle

Addiction did feel like a chronic disease to Shane Linehan. He spent 15 years as a Minnesota police officer and had a series of close calls. He says his head was a mess, he didn't sleep and had panic attacks constantly.

To calm himself down he drank — a lot. "Rather than killing myself, I decided to try to drink myself healthy," Linehan says. "Only a drunk could make that logical assumption, right?"

Linehan started using prescription drugs and eventually he had to face what had become a serious addiction. His girlfriend tossed him out.

"[She] said go clean or don't come home," he says. "So I went to treatment."

Linehan enrolled in a 28-day residential program at Hazelden in St. Paul, Minn. While he says it put him on more solid footing, as soon as he left the safe confines of the rehab center, things started to unravel.

"When I left there, life happened," he says. "All of those things, those piles of debris that at one point were a life, were still there, and I had to start going through them and put some pieces back together. And along the way I had trigger after trigger after trigger."

Linehan relapsed and started taking vicodin again. He sought help again, but he was done with inpatient rehab. He had spent a lot of time and money and it hadn't worked for him, so this time he took a different option.

He ended up at Alltyr, a new addiction clinic that opened last year in St. Paul that takes a radically different approach to addiction treatment.

An Alternative

Alltyr patients don't pack a bag and check into a residential facility. They don't go to group therapy and they don't expect to get sober in 30 days. Instead, patients schedule regular appointments with a doctor who is more likely to give them a prescription instead of motivational advice.

CEO and founder Mark Willenbring says Alltyr does not do rehab, and that the company is "the alternative to rehab."

"Our goal is to engage the patient in a recovery process," Willenbring says. "We don't have a particular approach; we don't tell people what to do."

For those patients looking for a little more structure, Willenbring says he does guide people, of course. "If they ask me what my recommendation is, I have no problem giving them that," he says.

At Alltyr, that can mean a whole variety of medications that treat addiction to alcohol and opioids as well as anxiety and depression. Some of them are approved by the FDA, some of them aren't. Willenbring says traditional rehab centers shy away from medications and rely too heavily on talk therapy, which he says isn't a proven way to kick an addiction.

Dr. Marvin Seppala, the chief medical officer of the newly merged Hazelden-Betty Ford Center, disagrees. While he admits there are not a lot of studies that prove the effectiveness of group therapy, he says it still has a place.

"This is a disease not just of the brain, but also of the soul," Seppala says. "The person's life is in the balance, their relationships are in the balance, and if we only give them a medication and don't account for all of that, it's just not going to work out over time."

As for Linehan, he's been seeing Dr. Willenbring at Alltyr for the last five months. He's feeling good and hasn't relapsed, but says that for him, sobriety doesn't look like the advertisements on TV; it's more basic than that.

More On Addiction

Last fall, Weekend Edition delved into the topic of addiction, speaking to people with dependencies on alcohol, technology and food.

  • With Addiction, Breaking A Habit Means Resisting A Reflex

    Addiction can come in a lot of forms, but the characteristics are the same.
    aurumarcus/Getty Images

    Addiction can come in a lot of forms, but the defining characteristics are the same. But Dr. Charles O'Brien, who's been studying addiction for years, says the treatment must fit the patient. Even with advances in medication, he says combining approaches is the most likely path to success.

    Read the full story here.

  • Comedian Faces His Addictions To Food And Alcohol

    Comedian Jamie Kilstein i i
    Mary d'Aloisio
    Comedian Jamie Kilstein
    Mary d'Aloisio

    In a single week, Jamie Kilstein realized he was both an alcoholic and a food addict. Since then, he has been working through his addictions on his own.

    Read the full story here.

  • Drinking To 'Numb,' Women Gain On Men In Alcohol Abuse

    Drink, by Ann Dowsett Johnston i i
    iStockphoto
    Drink, by Ann Dowsett Johnston
    iStockphoto

    Ann Dowsett Johnston is a successful journalist with five National Magazine Awards to her name; she's also struggled with an addiction to alcohol. In her book, Drink, she combines her reporting skills and her personal experience to explore the specific dangers confronting women who drink.

    Read the full story here.

  • When Playing Video Games Means Sitting On Life's Sidelines

    The reSTART center for Internet addiction is in the woods outside Seattle. The initial, inpatient part of the program is held on a property that has a treehouse and a garden. i i
    Rachel Martin/NPR
    The reSTART center for Internet addiction is in the woods outside Seattle. The initial, inpatient part of the program is held on a property that has a treehouse and a garden.
    Rachel Martin/NPR

    The reSTART clinic in Washington state treats Internet addicts. Many of the young men who go through the program have been using video games as an escape for years, only to lose themselves in the process. But avoiding the Internet can be nearly impossible, and finding the right balance is a "constant struggle," one patient says.

    Read the full story here.

"A good doctor, a good psychologist and a really good AA group," he says.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: