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Methadone, therapy offers path to addiction recovery

July 14, 2018

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A tortoiseshell kitten named Zoe is more than a pet for Cheri Mueller and Chris Gunter. She’s a symbol of the couple’s ongoing recovery from opioid addiction.

“They told us we had to have an animal and a plant and we’d be doing good in our sobriety if they were still alive after a year,” Mueller said.

It’s working so far for both Zoe and her owners, who found her as a stray in the parking lot of the Savannah Treatment Center, a methadone clinic off Chatham Parkway. It was an early morning in May, before Cheri dropped off Chris at his job installing and refinishing hardwood floors. Along with the daily dose of cherry-flavored methadone, they got a pet that day.

“She got on top of my head; I was wearing a hat that day,” Mueller said. “She literally sat on top of my head. She’s a little feisty thing but she’s really nice. Even if she puts her paw out, she won’t claw you.”

‘Something’s gotta give’

Mueller and Gunter began treatment as a couple in late April, about five months after they met on Facebook. Gunter, 36, is from Gainesville, Fla. He got hooked on opioids following a car crash at age 19 that left him with 36 broken bones. The pain management he needed after the accident spiraled into opioid addiction.

“I would go fill my prescription and would buy other peoples’, as well,” he said. “It got worse, where that didn’t do anything for me. After doing it so much, you’re not doing it to kill pain, you’re doing it to get high. Then I turned to heroin and started seeing so many people die of it.”

Mueller, 34, grew up in Savannah. She was newer to opioid use.

“Alcohol and weed were the things I liked to do,” she said. “I wasn’t a big opiate user until the past few years. I turned to it because I got tired of drinking myself stupid. I wanted to kill the pain some other way.”

Now engaged, they both have children from previous relationships. Her son and daughter are 11 and 12 and live out of state; another son died as an infant. His two sons and six daughters range in age from 4 to 17. Four of them live in Savannah and four in Florida.

Both Mueller and Gunter have spent time in jail. He saw seven friends die of overdoses one year and 10 the next. Mueller isn’t working. Gunter works, but before they began treatment, he was barely keeping a roof over their heads at a rooming house.

“I had to go out and do returns from Walmart and stuff to get money for drugs,” Mueller said. “I was like, ‘Something’s gotta give.’ I’ll go to the treatment center if that’s what I gotta do.”

They found the Savannah Treatment Center, housed in a discrete but spare suburban office building next to a probation office. It’s run by New Season, a corporate chain of treatment centers located in 31 states, including six centers in Georgia. The Savannah Treatment Center treats more than 150 people daily, all for opioid addiction.

It gets about six or seven referrals a month from Memorial Health University Medical Center, said Kris Williams-Falcon, a counselor at the Savannah Treatment Center.

There are plenty more who go untreated. Chatham County’s death rate from opioid overdoses paints a grim picture of the crisis locally. In 2016, the most recent data available, Chatham County saw 28 deaths from opioid overdoses, according to the preliminary Opioid Overdose Surveillance Report 2016 released by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Statewide that same year, opioid-involved overdoses accounted for 2,435 emergency department (ED) visits, 1,709 hospitalizations, and 929 deaths. The highest numbers of heroin-involved overdose deaths, ED visits, and hospitalizations occurred predominantly in urban areas, including Savannah. However, high rates of opioid overdose-involved ED visits and hospitalizations occurred in both urban and rural areas, particularly in north, south central, and southeast Georgia.

At a recent open house at the Savannah Treatment Center, five patients, including Gunter and Mueller, told their stories. The panelists were a diverse group: black and white, male and female, young and old.

One woman, a grandmother, first became addicted as a teenager. She beat that addiction as a young mother and earned her college degree, later becoming an addiction counselor herself. But after major surgery for an aortic abdominal aneurysm last year, she received opioid pain medication and found herself battling addiction again.

“I think everyone has been touched by addiction, whether it’s a co-worker, family member or relative,” she said as heads around the room nodded. “Everyone knows someone. And if you don’t, just keep living. I don’t say that to be glib, it’s just the way it is.”

Methadone treatment is not what a lot of people think, said Williams-Falcon.

“Most people confuse crystal meth with methadone,” she said. Crystal meth is an illegal drug cooked up from over-the-counter sinus or cold medications. Methadone is an entirely different drug.

“Methadone is an antagonist medication, studied, analyzed and approved by the FDA,” she said. It blocks the ability to get high and blocks symptoms of withdrawal, like sweating, fever, nausea and diarrhea. It reduces cravings. But the daily dose of methadone alone fails to address the underlying reasons for addiction. For that, clients need counseling, which Savannah Treatment Center emphasizes.

“Some have an image you just come in, get your medicine, that it’s just a quick place addicts can go and they’re fine until they get their next fix. That is not what we are about,” Williams-Falcon said. “We are a medication-assisted treatment program designed to treat patients who battle opioid addictions.”

Along with methadone, the center also uses buprenorphine or Suboxone.

Treatment is long-term. A 2012 research guide from the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates methadone treatment should be a minimum of 12 months. Some patients may require treatment for years.

Mueller values the therapy and the safety net of a caring staff, she said.

“I didn’t come here because I was addicted to drugs; I was addicted to self medicating,” she said. “Mentally and emotionally, I was just in a bad place. I really needed more therapeutic help than help getting off drugs. The drugs was just something I turned to because nobody wanted to listen.”

Medical studies conclude methadone works best when combined with this behavioral treatment.

“Research has shown that methadone maintenance is more effective when it includes individual and/or group counseling, with even better outcomes when patients are provided with, or referred to, other needed medical/psychiatric, psychological, and social services (e.g., employment or family services),” reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

That counseling and support — even the cheerful greeting from staffers daily — are key to their recovery, said Gunter and Mueller. He had tried two other methadone clinics, but failed with them, Gunter said.

“I tried to rush through the first time,” Gunter said. ”... I was back using in a month. The second time, I was still using while I was taking methadone because I just wasn’t getting the help I needed. Nobody was caring to listen to what I had to say. I actually get the people to listen and I get everything I need here.”

Mueller has thrown herself into the counseling.

“When I first came I was like, ’I’m not a drug addict. This isn’t the crap I need,” she said. “My sister cussed him out, saying, ‘Why did you take my sister to a f’ing methadone clinic? What’s wrong with you; she’s not a drug addict.’ But they’ve given me everything I needed here, whereas nobody else did.”

Treatment costs $11 a day. The center accepts some insurance, but Williams-Falcon likes to compare the cost of treatment to the cost of opioids.

“It’s only $11 a day,” she said. “That covers the medical care and the other resources. There are people who spend $200-$400 a day on addiction. I have patients who have blown hundreds of thousands on addiction, lost mega-million dollar businesses, lost marriages, lost relationships with children, had friends and family isolated from them. They’ve lost more to addiction than it costs to get the help they need.”

She’s impressed with Gunter and Mueller, saying they’ve already learned through couples’ therapy to handle conflict better. Everyday arguments about things like forgetting to turn on the coffeemaker no longer escalate. Drug screens prove they haven’t relapsed even once.

“From when they started to now is amazing,” Williams-Falcon said. “And they are about to phase up to the next level of treatment.”

Patients “phase up” by coming in to the clinic less frequently. In this case, the couple is able to come in only on weekdays instead of the six days a week previously required. They take weekend doses home with them on Friday. The goal is to taper down to fewer and fewer check-ins. Ultimately they can do a medically supervised withdrawal from methadone.

A licensed ordained minister, Williams-Falcon has agreed to officiate at the couple’s wedding. They’re not ready yet, but that didn’t stop Williams-Falcon from thinking of them recently when she saw a wedding dress in the window at Goodwill.

“I told her I saw a dress that would be perfect when you guys get married down the line,” she said. “At the rate they’re going, it won’t be long.”

The couple recently moved to a new apartment on the southside. They set up a bright blue kiddie pool on the patio for Gunter’s two youngest kids to play in when they visit. Inside, on a recent weeknight, Mueller served her fiancee a big plate of chicken and yellow rice casserole, and they settled on the sofa to dig in. Zoe the kitten played at their feet. They had bought a plant, too, Mueller said, like they were advised. It’s a tough-to-kill lucky bamboo from the flea market. It’s still green.

They’re sharing their story to help others. Get treatment if you need it, they said.

“Don’t wait until you get to that point in your life where you’re just fed up,” Mueller said. “Because if you wait until you get to that point, you might not make it. Once you hit rock bottom and nobody’s there and there’s no support system, you might not be able to make it. It does take a support system. You don’t want to burn every bridge that’s there.”

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Information from: Savannah Morning News, http://www.savannahnow.com

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