A Coronavirus PSA
Before we get to this next blog on suicide, I must say something related to Coronavirus transmission, because I’m tired of yelling it at my television when I see people doing it or talking about it, how “safe” it is. What is it? It’s “elbow love,” bumping elbows with someone to say hello, goodbye, good job, whassup, whatever. Think about this, people: during this viral outbreak, what have we been asking people to do when they sneeze or cough? Ideally, to do so in a tissue, but that’s not realistic, it rarely happens, so we ask them to sneeze or cough into their bent arm, at the elbow. Get the picture? The droplets they expell during that sneeze or cough are deposited everywhere surrounding that area, including the part you bump, so if your “bumpee” has Coronavirus, even if they have no symptoms, you, the “bumper” get those bijillions of virions on your elbow, and you can take them home with you. Then maybe your spouse or partner welcomes you home by putting their hands on your arms to give you a kiss… and now half a bijillion virions may be on one of their hands, just waiting to be deposited everywhere. Bottom line: for as long as this virus is around, use your words, not your body, to say whassup. So pass this knowledge on…not the virus.
Suicide is always a very difficult topic for every family, and in thirty years as a psychiatrist, it’s never gotten much easier to broach this subject. What motivated me to write this blog is a recent conversation I had with the father of one of my young patients, a fourteen-year-old named Collin, who in fact had just made what I believed was a half-hearted suicide attempt; the proverbial ‘cry for help.’ Understand that half-hearted does not mean it’s totally safe to blow it off, but we’ll get to an explanation about that later. His father, Lawrence, who prefers to be called Law, was a single parent, a widower after metastatic melanoma devastated the family of three about eighteen months before. Shortly after the mother, Sharon, passed away, Law brought Collin to my office. It was clear from the first appointment that Collin was depressed, and had been for some time. Psychotherapy was difficult with him, and it took about five appointments to establish more than a tenuous relationship and for him to begin to open up to me. I had tried him on a couple of medications, but they never seemed to do the job. I strongly suspected that it was due to a compliance issue. Actually, I’m certain that it was. He just didn’t take them regularly or as directed. That always mystifies me, patients who are miserable, anxious and depressed, but they take their meds haphazardly, at best; meds that could turn their worlds around…not because they’re inconvenient, and not because of side effects, just because. So, the tenuous connection made for less than optimal psychotherapy sessions, and that, combined with the absence of appropriate meds, put Collin on a path that led here, my office, 22 hours after his attempt. I was a little shocked by his attempt, but very shocked at how effectively, how deeply, he was able to hide the monumental amount of pain that he had obviously been feeling. His father Law looked exhausted, shellshocked, and was having such difficulty talking about it for a number of reasons, but he told me that one of the main reasons was shame. He was ashamed that Collin was so ill, and even ashamed that he was ashamed of it. He was ashamed that he could do nothing to help him, and ashamed that he had possibly caused or contributed to his son’s illness. I told him repeatedly and in several different ways that I understood, that his feelings weren’t unusual among parents of children like Collin, that he absolutely was helping him, and that while mental illness does have a familial component, he was not responsible in any way for his sons illness or attempt. Unfortunately, I don’t think he really heard a word I said. In my experience, suicidal ideation, thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and the actual act of suicide affects everyone it touches in a way that no other psychiatric illness does. But in this situation, I think Law was thinking about what his life would be like if Collin tried again and succeeded. It would be very sad, alone, and lonely.
Facts and Figures
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, claiming 47,173 lives in 2019. Montana and Alaska have the highest suicide rates, which is interesting because both of those states have very high gun ownership rates. Believe it or not, New Jersey is the lowest. I have no clue why that would be the case. There were 1.4 million suicide attempts last year in the US. Men are 3.54 times more likely than women to commit suicide. Of all the suicides in the United States last year, 69.67% were white men; they don’t seem to be doing so well. The most common way to commit suicide is by firearm, at about 50%; suffocation is 27.7%, poisoning is 13.9%, and other would be the rest, things like jumping from a tall building or bridge, laying on train tracks or jumping in front of a subway car or a bus. Among US citizens, depression affects 20 to 25% of the population, so at any given point, 20% of the population is a bit more prone to suicide, as obvi people must first be depressed (chronically or acutely) before attempting suicide. There are 24 suicide attempts for every 1 completed suicide. The most disturbing statistic is that suicide rates are up 30% in the past 16 years, with a marked increase in adolescent suicides, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24.
You would think the US would have the highest suicide rates in the world, but in fact, Russia, China, and Japan are all higher.
Suicide Risk Factors
What are some factors that may put someone at higher risk of suicide?
– Family history of completed suicide in first-degree relatives
– Adverse childhood experiences, ie parental loss, emotional/ physical/ sexual abuse
– Negative life situations, ie loss of a business, financial issues, job loss
– Psychosocial stressors, ie death of loved one, separation, divorce, or breakup of relationship, isolation
– Acute and chronic health issues, illness and/ or incapacity, ie stroke, paralysis, mental illness, diagnoses of conditions like HIV or cancer, chronic pain syndromes
But, understand there’s no rule that someone must have one or more of these factors in order to be suicidal.
Mental Illness and Suicidality
In order to make a thorough suicide risk assessment, mental illness must be considered. There seem to be 6 mental health diagnoses that people who successfully complete suicide have in common:
– Bipolar disorder
– Schizoaffective disorder
– Post-traumatic stress disorder
– Substance abuse
Suicidal ideation refers to the thoughts that a person may have about suicide, or committing suicide. Suicidal ideation must be assessed when it is expressed, as it plays an important role in developing a complete suicide risk assessment. Assessing suicidal ideation includes:
– Determining the extent of the person’s preoccupation with thoughts of suicide, ie continuous? Intermittent? If so, how often?
– Specific plans; if they exist or not; if yes, how detailed or thought out?
– Person’s reason(s) or motivation(s) to attempt suicide
Assessment of Suicide Risk
Assessing suicide risk includes the full examination/ assessment of:
– The degree of planning
– The potential or perceived lethality of the specific suicide method being considered, ie gun versus overdose versus hanging
– Whether the person has access to the means to carry out the suicide plan, ie a gun, the pills, rope
– Access to the place to commit
– Note: presence, timing, content
– Person’s reason(s) to commit suicide; motivated only by wish to die; highly varied; ie overwhelming emotions, deep philosophical belief
– Person’s motivation(s) to commit suicide; not motivated only by wish to die; motivated to end suffering, ie from physical pain, terminal illness
– Person’s motivation(s) to live, not commit suicide
What is a Suicide Plan?
A suicide plan may be written or kept in someone’s head; it generally includes the following elements:
– Timing of the suicide event
– Access to the method and setting of suicide event
– Actions taken toward carrying out the plan, ie obtaining gun, poison, rope; seeking/ choosing/ inspecting a setting; rehearsing the plan
The more detailed and specific the suicide plan, the greater the level of risk. The presence of a suicide note suggests more premeditation and typically greater suicidal intent, so an assessment would definitely include an exploration of the timing and content of any suicide note, as well as a thorough discussion of its meaning with its author.
I spent years teaching suicide assessment to other physicians, medical students, nurses, therapists, you name it. It all seems super complicated when you look at all the above factors written out, but as I always taught, it becomes clearer when you put it into practice. What are we doing when we embark on a suicide assessment? We’re determining suicidality, the likelihood that someone will committ suicide. You’re deciding how dangerous someone is to themselves using the factors discussed above. You’re either looking at how lethal they could be, how lethal they are at this time, or how lethal they wereduring a previous episode of suicidal ideation or previous suicide attempt.
When we put this all into practice, we look at statements and actions to determine how dangerous a person is. Did someone say, ‘if so and so does this, I’ll kill myself’ or, did someone act but just scratched their wrist? Those would be low level lethality, and they would not be very dangerous. Did someone buy a gun, load the ammunition, learn how to shoot it, go to the place where they planned to kill themselves at the time they planned, and then practice putting the gun to their head…essesntially a dry run? That would be the most lethal; that person would be the most dangerous. Those are the two poles of lethality and danger, but there are variant degrees and many shades of gray, so you really have to discuss it very thoroughly with each individual.
Let’s say a 15-year-old is in the office after taking a big handful of pills in a suicide attempt. I ask him if he realized that taking those pills could have actually killed him, and he says no. He’s not that lethal, not that dangerous, because even though his means (pill overdose) was lethal, he didn’t know it was, so lacking that knowledge mitigates the risk, making him less dangerous. Example: acetominophen is actually extremely lethal. People who truly overdose on it don’t die immediately, but it shuts down the liver, killing them two days later. A person that takes a bunch of it thinking it’s a harmless over the counter drug is not that dangerous, because even though their method was lethal, they didn’t know it. In a similar manner, I’ve had people mix benzos with alcohol, which is another very lethal method. It’s a very successful way to kill yourself, but a lot of people don’t realize it, so it’s not that lethal to them. In the reverse case, people who know about combining alcohol and benzodiazepines, who know how dangerous it is, are dangerous, highly lethal to themselves.
People who play with guns, like Russian Roulette-type stuff; or people who intentionally try asphyxiating or suffocating themselves, as for sexual pleasure; or people who tie a rope to a rafter and then test their weight…these people are very dangerous, very lethal, very scary to psychiatrists.
Where someone attempts suicide is also very telling, very instructive in determining their lethality, how suicidal, how dangerous they are. If they do it in a place where there is no chance of being found, of being interrupted, they are very suicidal, very dangerous. Contrast that to doing it in a place where there are people walking by, or in a house where someone is, or could be coming home, then they are not as suicidal, not as dangerous. As an exaple, let’s say someone leaves their car running in a garage when they know that no one will be around for 2 days. That is very dangerous, they are very suicidal. If someone takes an opiate overdose at night when everyone’s in bed so they won’t find them for many hours, they are dangerous. If someone takes the overdose during the day, when people are awake at home, they are less dangerous.
A change in somone’s behaviors and/ or outlook can also help determine lethality. When people start giving away their possessions, that is a sign that they are very lethal, very dangerous. Another factor that can be informative is if an unnatural calm comes over them, and they say that they have no more problems, and everything is great. That is an indicator of serious lethality, major danger. These people have a sense of ease because they know that they’ll be dead very soon, and they don’t have to worry about things anymore. These are ominous signs.
Giving information about an attempt also informs a person’s level of lethality. If someone makes a statement of intent to commit suicide, they are not very dangerous. For example, a spouse saying ‘if you leave me, I’ll kill myself’ or ‘you broke my heart, I can’t live without you, I’m going to kill myself’ those statements alone do not indicate a very dangerous person. Not telling anyone and hiding when they plan to attempt is much more dangerous. There are many cases when people don’t come out and tell, but they aren’t being very secretive, intentionally or not, possibly even subconsciously. They leave clues, almost giving people a road map. This is very common, and these people are typically discovered. The discovery can either totally abort the act before it’s attempted, or can abort after the attempt, but in enough time to get the person help. This is why for every 1 “successfully” completed suicide, there are 24 failed suicide attempts. Similarly, someone who says ‘if this thing (interview, event) goes my way, I’ll be good, but if it doesn’t, I swear I’ll kill myself’ is not that dangerous, not very suicidal, because they’re bargaining, which means they’re still living in the real world. But, someone who does not want to negotiate, doesn’t care to affect things one way or another, may not be living in the real world, and they’re dangerous, they may be high risk to enter the world of the dead.
There are a couple other things to be considered in assessing risk of suicide, determining how dangerous someone might be. If someone is impaired, using drugs and/ or alcohol when they attempt or consider suicide, and if they are not suicidal when they’re clean and sober, they are generally not that suicidal, not that dangerous, they just have a drug or alcohol problem. When they get clean and sober for good, the risk is essentially zero, barring anything else. In a similar way, if someone is suffering from a mental illness when they attempt or consider suicide, but when you correct that mental illness they are not suicidal, they are not a huge danger.
So during suicide risk assessment, you can be looking at someone having a nebulous thought and/ or making a statement that a lot of people may have or make, and you know that they’re not very dangerous; or looking all the way to the opposite side, someone who thinks about it, formulates a thorough plan, picks the place and time, aquires all the things needed to commit the act, writes a suicide letter, and practices the complete act soup to nuts, and you know that they are very, very dangerous. And all the shades in between.
So that’s my primer on suicidal thinking and assessing suicide risk. There are lots of factors to keep in mind, and sometimes it’s a little like reading minds, but you get more proficient as the years go by…it’s easier to tell when someone is misleading or being honest and open. If you enjoy a humorous approach to character studies in all sorts of diagnoses, you would enjoy my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon. I mean, most of you are isolating, sheltering in place anyway, right? Might as well entertain yourself! Check it out. – Dr. Mark AgrestiLearn More
How Cocaine Kills
Cocaine is a potent, illegal stimulant that affects the body’s central nervous system. It is extracted from the green leaves of the coca plant, and people in South and Central America have chewed these leaves and used them in teas medicinally and as a mild stimulant for thousands of years. But somewhere along the line, these people learned that this humble leaf could be processed in a way that extracted and concentrated its active components to create a substance called cocaine, a white powder stimulant that is anything but mild.
Cocaine goes by a lot of different slang terms and street names, mostly based on its appearance, effects, or drug culture: C, blow, coke, base, flake, nose candy, and snow are some examples. At the peak of its use here in the 1970’s and 1980’s, cocaine began to influence many aspects of American culture. Glamorized in songs, movies, and throughout the disco music culture, cocaine became a very popular recreational drug. It seemed everyone was using it, from celebrities to college students to suburban moms looking to turn up at the disco on Saturday night. It was so popular in the disco scene that people openly snorted it on the dance floor at Studio 54. But powder cocaine would soon take a back seat to its trashy cousin from the wrong side of the tracks: crack cocaine, or crack. Crack is an off-white crystalline rock made by cooking down powder cocaine with God knows what else for bulk, and the crack rock is then smoked in a pipe. This form of cocaine created a scourge of epidemic proportions and ruled the streets throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Crack is whack and crack was king then, and it’s still around today. It’s actually named for the cracking sound the crack rock makes when it’s smoked. While it’s the same drug as powder cocaine and has the same effects, smoking crack gives a more immediate high than snorting powder cocaine. But it doesn’t last long, so to stay high, crack users have to “hit” the pipe over and over, constantly, 24/7, for hours and ultimately days on end. Crack also has street names: rock, gravel, sleet, and nuggets to name a few. And combined drugs also have street terms, like speedballs, which are a mixture of cocaine with heroin or other opiate. Every illegal drug and drug combination you can imagine has a list of street names…Cocoa Puffs, Bolivian Marching Powder, Devil’s Dandruff…Every time I think I’ve heard them all, a patient uses one that’s new to me.
So, what’s the attraction? What does cocaine do for you? Captain Obvious says… it gets you high. Cocaine creates a strong sense of exhilaration. You feel invincible, carefree, alert, and euphoric, and have seemingly endless energy. It makes you more sensitive to light, sound, and touch. It makes you feel confident, competent, and increases performance and output. For intense Type A individuals, cocaine is a requirement, on par with oxygen. These individuals want maximum performance, maximum fun, maximum sales…maximum everything. Period. And cocaine delivers. It works by increasing the feel good neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine by blocking their reuptake. No reuptake equals more feel good neurotransmitters equals more feeling good. To be candid, when just starting to use, and in small amounts, people can actually do fairly well using cocaine. They feel great and are more productive, and that’s how smart people get involved with it. At first, it seems there’s no down side, it’s up up up….on top of the world. But as they say, what goes up must come down. Whether you snort, smoke, shoot, or suck on it, using cocaine is a very sharp double-edged sword. I’ve seen people go six, eight months, using every day, and for a short time, for all appearances it works for them; they feel great, they’re focused, performing well. But then without warning, they’re not. They crash, their performance sinks into the abyss. They go into an impaired state, a mental fog, and their neurotransmitters betray them. They become paranoid, confused, disorganized, hopeless, and lost.
Using cocaine even once can lead to addiction. As with many drugs, the more you use it, the more your body gets used to it, and that creates the need for a larger dose and/or using the drug more often in order to get the same effect. Cocaine is a potent chemical, and both the short-term and long-term effects of using are dangerous to physical and mental health. Riddle me this: how many old crack addicts are out there? I can tell you, not too many. Why? Because they’re all dead of heart attack, stroke, arrhythmia, respiratory failure, seizures, and sudden death. Whether you use cocaine once, use on occasion, or you’re a habitual user, the risk of seizure, stroke, cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, and even sudden death, is equal. Equal. No matter how little you use or how rarely you use. And the first time you use can also be your last chance.
So exactly how can you kill yourself with cocaine? Let us count the ways….cocaine’s potency and molecular makeup causes serious physiological consequences. No matter what form you use it in, it increases your blood pressure, increases your heart rate (aka your pulse), and it constricts the arteries that supply blood to your heart, all at the same time. So now, you’re asking the heart to pump faster and harder (because it has to pump against your increased blood pressure), and without as much blood flow (and therefore not as much oxygen and energy) as it was getting before the cocaine was in your system, and tah-dah! What can you get? Arrhythmias. Simply put, that’s when your heart can’t keep good time, it beats erratically and sporadically. Without conversion, you have a heart attack. Your heart basically stops beating and you die. And just remember, as you get older, your body is not as resilient. You may or may not have a lethal heart attack at 20, but you sure will at 50. How else can you kill yourself with cocaine? Using can cause you to go into a state where you’re unable to control your temperature, so it gets very high, you get restless, have tremors, dilated pupils, nausea, vomiting, complete disorientation, and mental confusion. If the fever gets too high, you can have seizures, which can lead to death. It happens every day. You also have to take into account potential accidents resulting just from being high, without your normal faculties, and being unable to take care of yourself. Freak accidents while high can be deadly. Remember too that cocaine is cut with crazy stuff- ground glass can cause internal bleeding, and diuretics and laxatives can cause electrolyte imbalance, both of which can kill you. And these days, cocaine is often cut with fentanyl- an opiate 50 times more powerful than pure heroin- which causes hundreds of overdose deaths each day. If you freebase cocaine or smoke crack, the chemicals used to cut it can cause sudden acute respiratory failure where you stop breathing and die, or they can damage the lungs over time and cause respiratory failure and the same result- death. If you use IV (intravenous needle injection) and share needles, you expose yourself to all sorts of potentially lethal infections, including Hepatitis, HIV and AIDS. If you choose to suck on crack, the chemicals used to cut it may be caustic and potentially damage the throat and/ or stomach and cause bleeding, or they may cause intestinal death and decay; these can potentially lead to death.
So in the beginning of your cocaine career, you’ll feel great- super powerful, confident and competent. High. But shortly into your cocaine career, you’ll find that the magic is gone. The genie is out of the bottle. The high just isn’t the same, no matter how much you use or how you use it. So you chase that high…and you’ll chase it for the rest of your life, but to no avail. The high is replaced with the craving for the high. I’ve never seen a drug with cravings as powerful as cocaine. They’re just unbearable cravings, and they can last indefinitely. I’ve seen many, many cases where they last for years. I see patients now who have had these horrendous cravings for years, and I expect they’ll have them for the rest of their lives. They were lured in by the shiny bauble that is cocaine, and cocaine showed them a great time. Then cocaine turned on them, closed the door and threw the bolt, leaving them to want/need/crave what they had, likely forever. It’s just not worth it. I treat addictions of all kinds: heroin, alcohol, marijuana, benzodiazepines, you name it. For the most part, people with these addictions comply with treatment and come to their follow-up appointments. But cocaine addicts are a different story. They’ll come to my office once, all committed to stopping the cocaine, but you never see them again. They vanish…poof! They don’t do well in treatment, because the cravings are so strong that they can’t resist, so they take off and use again. The cocaine cravings are bar none the strongest I’ve ever seen. Now, the withdrawal from cocaine isn’t bad at all. It’s not like an alcohol withdrawal or withdrawing from Xanax or heroin. Those are gnarly, even potentially dangerous. With cocaine withdrawal, you can get depressed, you sleep a lot, you get vivid dreams, you want to eat a lot, you can’t think super clearly for let’s say three to seven days, but there is no real treatment needed for it, just comfort measures- keep the person cool, keep them hydrated, keep them fed, and allow them to rest- and they’ll bounce back. Now, one thing that sure does come up is that, because the cravings for cocaine are so intense, as soon as they’ve slept and ate and they’re back on their feet, it’s sayonara sucka! They bolt. They’re out again, they’re using, they’re smoking, they’re shooting, they’re shoving it up their nose, they’re putting it in their mouth, wherever and however they can use it. If they had a decent time period of not using, they may get that first super awesome high; but then they’ll inevitably spend the rest of the binge chasing that high, but they won’t find it.
Now, you might ask how intelligent, successful, type A people get involved with cocaine when they know it will lead to their eventual mental and physical collapse and possible death? Because these people know that in the short term it will increase their work performance, their ability to think, their social acumen, and their confidence. I always ask my patients what price they’re willing to pay for this temporary condition. Most don’t have an answer. I think that’s because they think nothing bad will come of their using, but I know different because I’ve seen different.
A true story from when I worked in the emergency department at Roosevelt Hospital: there was some sort of summer festival in Central Park, and evidently a guy locked himself in a portajohn so he could smoke crack. It’s summer, there’s no ventilation in the portajohn, and crack causes an increase in body temperature, so this guy had to be hot. But he was also high, so he was confused as to where he was and how to get out. People reported hearing him freaking out in the portajohn, kicking the walls and pounding on the door, but they couldn’t get past the locked door and he couldn’t follow their instructions to unlock the door and open it. So he was all worked up on top of being overheated, so his muscles heated his body up even more. Eventually, NYFD came and got him out of the portajohn, and he was brought to the ER, where I saw him. He was very hot and very dehydrated and very high. I started cool IV fluids and ordered an alcohol bath, but the damage was done. In short order, he developed something called rhabdomyolysis, where the muscles begin wasting away and all the muscle fibers enter the blood stream and shut the kidneys down. Despite our best efforts, he died. The family was very upset. They knew he was smoking crack, but couldn’t stop them. Every attempt to put him in treatment ended with him running away to use. And he was no slouch, no crack bum; he was a regional manager for Ace Hardware, in charge of like 20 stores. And he wound up basically killing himself in a portajohn. What a waste.
When I think about the stereotypical Type A individual doing cocaine to excel in the workplace, I think of a Wall Street broker. I had a patient, a broker who worked on the Exchange floor. This guy was 40 when he first came to me, said he was on the fast track, that he wasn’t going to make $700,000K a year for much longer. He said he had to be sharp, had to be quick at all times and at all hours, no complacency, so he’d been using cocaine. I warned him about the potential dangers of piling cocaine on top of such a high stress job, but no matter what I said, he wouldn’t give it up. His motto was “Damn the torpedoes- full speed ahead!” He was getting away with using. Six months, seven, gaining on eight, he worked constantly, but he was the man, top trader, taking home fat 6-figure bonuses. After just over eight months on the cocaine, the piper insisted on his payment. He had a heart attack at 41, and when the ER doctor took his history, he readily admitted to using cocaine for eight months. With further questioning, he also reported having periods of confusion over the previous six months. His solution was to use more cocaine in an attempt to regain the sharpness it had once brought him in the beginning, but it didn’t work. What the cocaine did do was really keep him up at night. His solution for this was to drink four martinis every night in order to come down and get some sleep. He was doing this every day of the week for about seven months: cocaine throughout the day and martinis in the night. The cardiologist ordered a whole bunch of tests and it soon became clear that the heart attack that sent him to the ER was not his first. And unfortunately it wouldn’t be his last. His heart muscle was quite damaged from the ups and downs of the cocaine and alcohol fueled roller coaster he had boarded months before. I suspect that he never totally got off that ride, despite having another three heart attacks. Each one was progressively worse and made more obvious his mental and physical decline. At the age of 43, a massive fourth heart attack punctuated his life with a period. The man that burned the candle at both ends had burned himself out.
No tales of caution would be complete without mentioning the models and the housewives. They like cocaine because it helps them lose weight and stay thin. And because the cocaine stimulates them, they like to take Xanax and drink alcohol at night to come down. I can spot the cocaine/alcohol/Xanax Barbies at 50 yards, because they actually turn gray. I’m serious- their skin turns gray and they get too thin. The whole program makes them look like victims of concentration camps. And they wind up forgetting normal daily activities- forgetting to pick the kids up, forgetting when dinnertime is, forgetting how to do the homework with the kids, forgetting how to accomplish simple banking transactions- everything gets screwed up. In my career, I have lost count how many husbands have sincerely asked me if I think that their cocaine/alcohol/Xanax Barbie wives are: A. Going crazy, B. Exhibiting symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, or C. Showing signs of having a brain tumor.
I’ll tell you this one last quick story about a patient I saw a few days ago. Her name is Julia, and she is a 33-year-old out, loud and proud lesbian. She’s very intelligent, a paralegal, and lives with her girlfriend of several years, Paola. She was introduced to cocaine after coming out and getting involved in the lesbian scene at age 21. She used cocaine daily- and in increasing amounts- for ten years, because she said it stimulated her libido and helped her reach orgasm. She stopped using cocaine when she had a heart attack at age 31. Unfortunately, the heart muscle was significantly damaged, and now she is unable to tolerate even mild exertion, such as that which happens during sex. So…the cocaine she used for ten years to increase her libido and help her reach orgasm has caused her current inability to have passionate sex with her girlfriend. How’s that for cruel irony?
Cocaine is relentless and seductive…initially it can feel amazing, a ladder that lets you climb to the top of the world. Then cocaine is vicious, it sinks its hooks into you, which very few people manage to completely free themselves from. The perceived benefits aren’t worth the cost, which, as with some of my former patients, can be your life. It’s simply not worth it. I hope you get the take home message of all the many ways that cocaine can kill you, and that you understand how smart people find themselves tangled up in using cocaine, but also how even smarter people manage to stop using cocaine.
For more details and stories about addictive drugs like cocaine, check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available in my office and on Amazon.com.Learn More
January 6, 2018 THE RIGHT APPROACH TO THE OPIOD CRISIS
As a practicing doctor with certification in psychiatry and having worked in Palm Beach County for the past 25 years, my views on the current opioid epidemic are the result of my daily contact with addicts, their families, the medical community, law enforcement and the judicial system. My work has taken me from the E.R. to the inpatient treatment centers and rehabs to the courts to our psychiatric hospitals and to our coroners offices. I have watched this epidemic from its earliest stages to its current existential threat status. As a result I have come to the following conclusions about this tragic situation our community and communities across the country find themselves faced with. WE MUST CHANGE THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT THIS AND TREAT THIS PLAGUE.
1.) Move away from the concept of a war on drugs. Move towards providing an aid package for these vulnerable and impaired individuals.
2.) Move away from concepts of criminalization, imprisonment, and that they are deserving of severe punishment. Move towards treatment and therapeutic interventions. View individuals with OUD as impaired and of need of help.
3.) The concept of opiate-dependent individuals as merely addicts that are weak, self-indulgent, hedonistic, and who are scorned by all is not helpful in resolving this national issue. There certainly is a volitional component to this illness. While personal responsibility and accountability is the only path to a healthy life, opiate-dependent individuals need a support system and tools to help get them on that path. Individuals suffering from OUD hate themselves, the behaviors in which they engage, and the resulting consequences. People with OUD are reckless with their lives because they feel their lives have little or no value. The mind-set of the opiate-dependent individual is one in which it doesn’t matter if they live or die. These vulnerable individuals are also prone to abuse and exploitation.
4.) Society must track these individuals and intervene when necessary.
5.) Society as a whole must be educated about opiates and all aspects of drug dependency, starting in grade school. Opiates come in pill form, patches, lollipops, and can be snorted and inhaled. Drug dependency can begin after one dose. Five days of continued use of opiates can result in drug dependency. Individuals who are genetically predisposed to dependency are more affected.
Like many drugs, over time the same amount of opiates has less and less affect which results in individuals increasing the drug dose and decreasing time between doses. This is the concept of drug tolerance. People spend more time getting the drug and doing the drug, and it becomes a vicious cycle. OUD individuals start to live a life of lies to cover their drug use. They spend a majority of their time planning to get money and make time to use drugs. They become psychologically consumed by thoughts of procuring opiates, using opiates, and disregarding everything else, including family, friends, job, health, and finances. All that matters to them now is getting high. When in withdrawal, these individuals can become very desperate and dangerous. They will go to great lengths to get high.
What can we do in terms of how society should deal with the problem? When treating an OUD patient, both incentives and consequences need to be geared towards keeping them off the drug of abuse. These five areas are conceptual changes needed towards resolving the national opiate use crisis and treating patients with Opiate Use Disorder:
1.) There needs to be a massive education campaign similar to the education campaign against tobacco including the danger of opiates and treatment options for OUD individuals. Explain the dangers of opiates, what opiates are, how they affect our brains, and, importantly, how easily it is to become dependent. The potential of overdose and death needs to be underscored. For example, the opiate called fentanyl, in amounts barely visible to the human eye, can cause individuals to stop breathing. Fentanyl is measured in micrograms. There are 100 milligrams in a gram. There are 1000 micrograms in a milligram. There are 100,000 micrograms in a gram. Two hundred micrograms or maybe less is lethal, which hardly covers the tip of a needle.
2.) The streets must be flooded with Narcan inhalers. One to three sprays in a nostril can revive an opiate overdose.
3.) The streets must be flooded with test kits to determine what is in the drugs and how much is in them. People make better decisions when they know what is in the drug they are taking. For example, if someone makes a street purchase of a drug with fentanyl or methadone in it, they need to be extra careful because those drugs can easily kill you. Methadone is dangerous not only because it is so potent but because it lasts so long. There is an even more dangerous drug on the street called carfentanyl which is 100 times more potent than fentanyl! Note: methadone has been useful in the treatment of OUD, however, it is so dangerous that the dose must be given out on a daily basis. While methadone blocks cravings, it provides a high so can still be abused and lead to an overdose. Buprenorphine is another drug used in treating OUD, and it has been found to be safe enough to prescribe on a monthly basis. The negatives and stigma associated with methadone should not be associated with buprenorphine.
4.) Laws need to be changed. Instead of charging people with accessory to murder when a friend overdoses and dies, give them immunity. Give complete immunity to people in the presence of someone who overdoses if they call 911 during the overdose. Encourage people to call 911 and save lives, not run and hide fearing prosecution.
5.) The court system for individuals with OUD must change. Once in the system, these individuals must be tracked with drug testing and given treatment when needed. Criminal records for possession or use can be wiped away if the individual stays sober. Incarceration should be a last resort. Charging people with felonies for drug possession scars people for life. Once labeled a felon, re-entering society becomes very difficult. OUD individuals are not sociopaths or criminals, they are ill with a disease. Treat the illness and there are no criminal problems.
This perspective demands basic changes in our societal and individual thinking about opioid dependency. Equally as important is the way the established medical community regards and treats this diagnosis and it is just that….a medical condition.
I have many thoughts for my peers and given the opportunity, I would welcome the chance to share them.
No matter what our circumstances in life, we are all touched by this epidemic in some way. We all have skin in this game. Time is precious, costly and limited. Soon may become later and it is already too late to wait.
More comprehensive explanations about how to deal with addictions in my book Tales From The Couch on amazon.com
Mark Agresti, M.D.Learn More