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Social Programs Ease Long-Term Addiction

For years after a person’s addiction to drugs or alcohol, the effects remain. However, the company that one keeps in the initial stages of recovery can make all the difference.

Recovery from addiction, for some people, can depend largely on the company involved. Paul Hall, a recent graduate of West Liberty University, gave up drugs he began using several years ago in college, and said the temptation to begin using again was compounded by being around the people with whom he began using them in the first place.

Several years ago, Hall gave up taking painkillers and smoking marijuana, as well as quitting smoking, a process which he had been working on since 2014, just completed over the summer.

“Painkillers and cigarettes were the hardest to come off of — cigarettes were surprisingly difficult,” Hall said. “Coming off the harder stuff, you’d think cigarettes would be a breeze, but I still think about smoking a lot. Every once in a while, I’ll get the urge to get in touch with my people, but the ability to walk down to the store and get a pack of cigarettes is more tempting.”

Distancing himself from the drug-using crowd, Hall said, was paramount in providing the willpower to continually distance himself from addiction and stay clean.

“Smoking marijuana kind of put me in the community to do other drugs, and that, to me, was the hardest part of quitting, was that you feel like all your friends do drugs. Even if you try to quit, three days down the line, you’ll see your friend still doing it, and it makes quitting so much harder. … The physical withdrawal is there, but getting out of the community was the hardest part.”

With the help of one friend, Hall described his road to recovery as moving from one social group to another, whose members aligned more with his, but without the constant presence of drugs.

“It was a slow process,” he said. “I had one friend, who was my first clean friend in three years, and he said, ‘Here’s this whole group of people who are also kind of like you, and don’t do drugs.’ So that made it way easier to get out, when I had a ton of friends to do sober things with.”

Now, months after the fact, Hall avoids contact with his former clique in the same capacity, separating himself from the culture.

“I tried to keep in touch with my old friends, and just keeping in touch made it slip real fast,” Hall said. “The first thing they say when they see you is, ‘Hey, we’re going out for a smoke, pick up some stuff, if you want to come with us.’ And then you tag along, and once you’re around it, it’s much easier to slip back into the groove.”

A firm social support network can go much further down the line in helping a recovering addict stay on the straight path. One woman, who did not wish to be identified, said she has been sober for 25 years as of September, having been an alcoholic while also indulging in numerous other drugs.

The woman said she had gone through various Twelve Step programs, such as Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous, to recover, which she said feels like having the choice of addiction “taken away from her.”

She feels that the recovery programs had been successful, as she doesn’t consider addiction to be a constant shadow looming, though she still respects the possibility that it may resurface.

“I think, ‘It would be so nice to just sit around on the couch (with a glass of wine), but it just wouldn’t work out that way for me, and I know that,” she said. “When I see the things with drugs, I’m just glad I’m not involved in that kind of lifestyle. … It’s not like I ever go, ‘God, I wish I could….'”

The woman now assists Wheeling residents suffering from addiction.

Dr. Ryan Wakim, who assists with treatment at Wheeling’s Harmony and Recovery-based Outpatient Opioid Treatment Services, agrees that while part of long-term recovery involves permanent changes to the brain, much of the recovery process has to do with socialization.

“Cravings are a product of a change in the brain, but also of habits, and breaking those habits,” Wakim said.

“A habit is more than just the drug, the brain makes all kinds of connections with the environment, the smells, the sounds. … Aside from just the withdrawal and tolerance issues.”

The difficulty in recovery is most frequently tied to the time spent addicted and the severity. For severe users, the smallest dose may be a slippery slope to full-blown addiction.

“Someone who has had an issue with daily use, they may have been clean 10 years, but they can slip back into daily use with just the smallest slip-up,” Wakim said.

“If you have a history where you needed something to survive, there’s no point where just a little bit’s going to be enough for you. From the scientific level, you’re going to be re-kindling those pathways that were hyperactive when you started using.”

For these people, Wakim said the urges may resurface even years down the line from sources removed from their former context; seeing a scene on television with someone injecting drugs or hearing an old commercial may trigger a return of cravings that had been absent for years.

“There’s things in life they can’t necessarily predict or avoid, which makes it really difficult, especially in early stages of recovery.

“One of the biggest problems we struggle with, especially early on, is getting people away from those triggers. … A lot of people see this as a character flaw; ‘Why don’t you just quit?’ and there’s a lot of neurochemistry involved as to why that’s not as easy as people would like it to be.”

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