The Q&A below is transcribed from a phone interview with Mary Ella Dubreuil, director of Alcohol and Drug Treatment Services at Butler Hospital, for Honest Conversations.
Is recovery possible for everyone?
Every single person has 100-percent opportunity for recovery, there is no question about it. I’ve watched thousands of people recover from every addiction you can name. I approach each person as having the potential to recover. Ok, you’ve got challenges, you didn’t get a good deal in life, it’s bad what happened to you. But that’s what you’ve got, so let’s work with it.
Like one patient, he was admitted into treatment to detox 32 times. Thirty-two times! It took him 10 years to get his first year of straight abstinence, but he did it. When he passed away after volunteering here for many years and helping hundreds and hundreds of people, he had 29 years of sobriety. He’s my guy, he’s my guide. He’s my hero. He taught me to never say “never.”
Are there factors that make recovery more difficult?
Every individual is different, so each road to recovery is unique. Many are genetically predisposed, having parents and close relatives with addictions. Some started using substances as early at 12 or 13 years old. That can make recovery more challenging, as that is a time when the brain is still developing. In addition, the kinds of skills that would be developed at that stage of life are replaced by the substance use, putting them further behind. Many have not gone through the stages of life the way people ideally would. So, genetic loading, brain development and missing life skills can make recovery more challenging. But still, they recover.
So, I talk to them and say, “Here’s what people normally do at this stage of life, and you haven’t had that same opportunity.” What makes it even worse is when people treat them like they’re doing this in a selfish, thoughtless manner, like this is their fault, they chose it, and they’re hurting people on purpose. That’s just not true.
How do you overcome the issue of judgement when treating addiction?
At Butler, we help people eliminate the shame, guilt and stigma because you can’t move forward if you’re living with that. Nobody is motivated by shame. People hide when they feel ashamed, when they feel guilty. They don’t come out and embrace change. They don’t look at their life experiences in the same way. We have to get beyond these stereotypes and think about the person who is trying to get well. We also have to help treatment providers better understand this population.
How would you describe the population of patients you work with?
They’re courageous, resilient and sometimes prickly. They tackle huge and difficult issues, but at times defend themselves in ways that are not pleasant, maybe even a little scary. But they’re doing it out of self-preservation. I’ve been in this field for close to 38 years and the prejudice against people with addictions is something that touches my heart. I just wish I weren’t having the same conversation I had back then. The person has their own prejudice towards themselves, their own stigma. They feel shame and guilt. The truth is that you couldn’t say something worse to them than they already say to themselves.
Can everyone be helped?
Every single person who comes here wants to get well. I don’t care what they say. Do they know how to get well? No. Are they scared to death they can’t get well? Absolutely. But they’re here, so within them is a seed for wellness and we have to tap into that. The question then is what’s the turning point? What clicks with someone could be a phrase. They could say, “Oh wow, yeah, now I get it.” It could be something they’ve heard hundreds of times. These are the miracles. They can happen any time in a person’s process.
How has treatment changed and improved?
Luckily we have more medications to support recovery than we had back when I started. These medications give someone a chance to get their feet back on the ground. And, we have different levels of care, which is also great. We have our ambulatory detox which appeals to people who may have been hiding out at home and didn’t want to come into a hospital.
What is it like to treat addiction?
I’ve seen so many people change their entire lives around. Even if somebody comes in six or seven times, they’re moving in the direction they need to move to get well, that’s a success. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Where else in this world do we ask someone to change a difficult behavior for the first time perfectly? We have to give patients the opportunity to discover what’s right for them. It’s a matter of opening your heart to people, knowing that we don’t change each other, and that we can’t force change. We have to help people grow and develop, and that takes patience. It takes a willingness to stand up next to them and work with them. I love them. I love these people. They’re the bravest, coolest people I’ve met.
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