Opioid addiction in Utah: Can the battle be won?

Story and slideshow by RYKER JACKSON

Bradley Hieb had been using drugs since high school. After becoming addicted to opioids, his marriage fell  apart and his children were taken from him twice. The first time was for a month, the second time for seven months. His addiction to opioids escalated. The third time he was found using opioids, his children were taken from him and nearly put up for adoption. That was when he went to detoxification.

Don C. was nearly sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. Don, a young, successful businessman from the Bay Area, had been involved in illegal practices to satisfy his desires for opioids. This landed him in jail a few times, where he would continually ask for opioids, his drug of choice, even from behind bars. This addiction became so all-consuming  that he thought about jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge on more than one occasion. He was given one more chance by a parole officer.

It is no longer a secret that the nation is facing an epidemic: opioid addiction. Utah is among the states hardest hit. The opioid crisis cost the United States $504 billion in 2015.  On Oct. 26, 2017, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency: “Ending the epidemic will require mobilization of government, local communities, and private organizations. It will require the resolve of our entire country.”

Utah has the seventh highest drug poisoning death rate in the nation, according  to the Utah Department of Health. Utah is also home to a wide array of treatment centers. Cory Markisich, executive director of Wasatch Recovery Treatment Center in Cottonwood Heights, said Utah has some of the best addiction treatment facilities in the country. So, what is the best treatment? What works? Markisich said that group therapy is the best solution.

Group therapy capitalizes on peer support from others who are facing similar trials all while being guided by a professional counselor. The support felt by those who are going through the same situations and struggles is the largest benefit of the program. “The problem is usually something else. They are trying to cover something up,” Markisich said. Group therapy helps counselors and patients both to understand what that personal trial is, and how it can be solved without the use of opioids.

Markisich, who studied finance and social work at the University of Utah, has been with Wasatch Recovery for five years. He is aware of some of the unique struggles faced in the Beehive state.

“In Utah, we have a weird dynamic where we have strong LDS culture and there’s a lot of guilt and a lot of shame, more so than you get in other areas,” Markisich said. “Most of the people that I’m treating, they’re not coming in for alcohol and cocaine. What’s happened is they were given a prescription, and it’s not against the Word of Wisdom to take their prescription, but they are completely abusing that prescription,” he said. The Word of Wisdom  is the health code of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which prohibits illegal and harmful substances.

“They’re great people, what’s happened is they’ve just spiraled out of control,” he said. Markisich said that often the substances are abused to treat depression or anxiety. Patients may be taking opioids for their back, only to soon realize that it helps treat their depression. This leads to dependency and addiction.

Markisich and his colleagues do not tell their patients that using drugs is bad. What he tries to do, and what it is massively more successful, is getting to the root of their addiction, whether that be depression, anxiety, or something else entirely.

He said that sometimes people have a hard time understanding recovery. Often, he needs to tell his patient’s husband, wife, or parents that recovery is not like taking a car in to get repaired. Solving an addiction is not like getting an oil change. It requires time and consistent effort to avoid relapse.

Markisich said the addictions affect people mentally and emotionally. They suppress painful memories for people, and provide temporary respite from daily stresses. It is in the resolution of those painful memories and daily stresses that the addiction is more fully overcome, and not only in the physical time one refrains from the substance abuse.

Treatment begins with detoxification, then often moves into a full-time residential program at a recovery center. Such was the case with Hieb. He was in Odyssey House’s residential program for 23 months. Then the patients can move down to part-time treatment, which is usually five hours a day for five days a week. This leads to the patients becoming more independent and attending  meetings such as group therapy sessions. This allows for their environment to slowly get larger until they can handle daily life again.

Hieb said it is critical for patients to detox completely from opiates in a structured environment as quickly as possible. Hieb said recovery is a process, and is most effective when patients move from multiple services to fewer over time, like he did.

Markisich agrees, saying there is no cookie-cutter solution to the problem for every patient.

Hieb’s life has changed a great deal since his initial detox. “If I didn’t burn my last bridge, I don’t know if I would have ever made it,” he said. He was able to retain custody of his children and is now the program director at New Roads Behavioral Health in Cottonwood Heights. “The reason I am a director is because of my passion for the therapeutic community.”

Don C., who asked to remain anonymous because not all of his family knows about his past, has had a similarly remarkable recovery. He came to Wasatch Recovery as a client in November 2016. He now works in detoxification and said he gets to see people at their worst. He said he knows how to help them because he has been in the same situation himself.

Wasatch Recovery’s motto is fitting for anyone seeking treatment options: Instill hope, teach resilience, and achieve recovery.

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