- Weber County Sheriff’s Department (left); Courtesy of Andi Peterson (right); Photo Illustration by Skye Gould / Business Insider
Andi Peterson, a 26-year-old Utah resident, was addicted to heroin for years before she turned 21.
Like many suffering in today’s opioid crisis, Peterson got hooked after being introduced to prescription opioids at 16.
Peterson had more advantages to getting clean than many people affected by opioids. Her parents were supportive, and she had health insurance and access to drug treatment centers.
But it still took her the better part of a decade, half a dozen stints in treatments centers, and finally a year in prison before she finally broke free three years ago.
While she saw many addicts succeed in treatment and rehabilitation centers, those never worked for her – and she said there was one major reason.
Treatment centers, by nature, house people in their inpatient and outpatient programs who are at all different stages of recovery. Some are “pre-contemplative” – not seeing their behavior as a problem – while others may be as far as “maintenance,” successfully adjusting and avoiding negative behaviors.
That mixing, Peterson found, led her to repeatedly connect with other opioid users, even after she decided she wanted to be clean.
Opioids, unlike many other substances, fundamentally rewire the brain and radically change thought patterns. That physical addiction leads many users to relapse or skip out on treatment, no matter what stage of recovery they’re at.
“It was scary to go into treatment centers when you want to get clean and get put around people that don’t want to get clean. In some of the treatment centers, I was the bad influence. I was the one that wanted to leave and get high,” Peterson told Business Insider. “You never know where people’s heart is.”
Justin Hatch, the program director at the Alcohol and Chemical Treatment Center in Ogden, Utah, one of the many treatment centers Peterson attended, told Business Insider that while relapse is always a risk for addicts, housing patients at different stages of recovery produces a “good group dynamic.”
“It’s hard for a therapist to challenge [patients], but other patients can challenge their thinking,” Hatch said.
Hatch did say that patients in more intensive 28-day or three-month inpatient programs tended to have more success than those in outpatient programs. While much of this is because of the rigor of the programs, exposure to relapse triggers in the outside world can derail many patients’ recovery.
Peterson said that, in her experience, patients in inpatient programs tended to be more committed to recovery than those enrolled in outpatient ones, herself included – all of her successful treatment stints were at inpatient programs.
However, once she left those programs, she found she had developed a whole new network of users and dealers to turn to when physical cravings overwhelmed her desire to stay clean.
Getting high “required no thought,” Peterson said. “It was like breathing.”
Stories like Peterson’s are a major reason many experts consider medication-assisted treatment, which uses prescription medication to reduce cravings, the gold standard of opioid-use treatment. MAT has gained advocates in statehouses and on Capitol Hill, but it’s expensive and not yet widely available.
While Peterson was prescribed buprenorphine, the main drug used in MAT, for short stints while detoxing, she was never offered MAT.
MAT often can be the difference between life or death for deeply entrenched opioid users, Turner Bitton, the president of the Drug Policy Project of Utah, told Business Insider. While most treatment centers are built around abstinence-based treatment, many opioid users are physically incapable of abstaining from use.
When users fail out of treatment, they can go into an endless relapse cycle. Many are not as lucky as Peterson, who was finally able to get and stay clean while serving a year in prison for narcotics possession.