So, you’re telling me I can cure myself of meth addiction? (Really?)

From “Can You Cure Yourself of Drug Addiction?” by Nina Bai, Scientific American (March 2011)

Scientific American writer Nina Bai spoke with Sally Satel about quitting drugs without professional treatment. Dr. Satel, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, was formerly a staff psychiatrist at the Oasis Clinic in Washington, D.C., where she worked with substance abuse patients.

Okay, so you cannot say she’s under-qualified.

What follows is a “sampler” from that interview. Without question, this is to entice you to read the original article.) Dr. Satel’s provocative point of view is worth the read. You don’t have to buy everything she says, but we can’t dismiss the factual research either. Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

Is it possible to cure yourself of addiction without professional help? How often does that happen?

Of course it’s possible. Most people recover and most people do it on their own. That’s in no way saying that everyone should be expected to quit on their own and in no way denies that quitting is a hard thing to do. This is just an empirical fact. It is even possible that those who quit on their own could have quit earlier if they sought professional help. The implicit message isn’t that treatment isn’t important for many—in fact it should probably be made more accessible—but it is simply a fact that most people cure themselves.

How do addicts stop on their own?

They have to be motivated. It takes the realization that their family, their future, their employment—all these—are becoming severely compromised. The subtext isn’t that they just “walk away” from the addiction. But I’ve had a number of patients in the clinic whose six-year-old says, “Why don’t you ever come to my ball games?” This can prompt a crisis of identity causing the addict to ask himself, “Is this the type of father I want to be?”

If not, there are lots of recovery strategies that users figure out themselves. For example, they change whom they associate with. They can make it harder to access drugs, perhaps by never carrying cash with them. People will put obstacles in front of themselves. True, some people decide they can’t do it on their own and decide to go into treatment—that’s taking matters into one’s own hands, too.

Most experts regard drug addiction as a brain disease. Do you agree?

I’m critical of the standard view promoted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that addiction is a brain disease. Naturally, every behavior is mediated by the brain, but the language “brain disease” carries the connotation that the afflicted person is helpless before his own brain chemistry. That is too fatalistic.

It also overlooks the enormously important truth that addicts use drugs to help them cope in some manner. That, as destructive as they are, drugs also serve a purpose. This recognition is very important for designing personalized therapies.

Interesting stuff, right? It’s all about keeping an open mind. Everyone’s recovery is individualized.

For more in this vein, see “Do-It-Yourself Addiction Cures?” Scientific American (2008).