Opioid addiction may be treated with medication

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SEATTLE - A potential solution for opiate addiction may be as close as the local pharmacy.

The advice most often given to anyone addicted to opioids like heroin is " just quit." But even for those who want desperately to be off opioids, quitting is not easy. In fact, there are medications that can help addicts give up their drugs for good.

Most people know the medication methadone is used to help addicts kick their addiction to heroin or other opioids. And no matter its reputation, methadone does help some addicts end their addiction.

But it turns out there are at least two other medications that can work, too.

Three drugs are used most often to treat opioid addiction. Methadone has been around the longest. But there is also buprenorphine, known more commonly suboxone, and naltrexone known as vivitrol.

"My addiction started really young," said Aubrey. "I was like a 13, 14 years old."

Aubrey -- she asked to use only her first name -- says she started with drinking, then doing other drugs. At 17, she discovered heroin.

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​"I'm going to say, my drug that I loved would have been opiates, she said. "Heroin."

What she loved about heroin, she said, was "the feeling of euphoria, not having to deal with the reality of what my life was, the pain."

But being a drug addict living on the streets brought its own debilitating pain. She got pregnant twice, kicked her drug habit for a time. But then the cycle began all over again.

"And I lost all of them," she said of her children.

It is the only time during the interview that she cried.

"I was able to get my youngest daughter back," she said, wiping her tears. "But they terminated my rights with my other two."

With her life in shambles, she says she tried quitting. 

"I've tried to quit with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings," she said.  "But for me there was always something missing."

What was missing, says Harborview psychiatrist Richard Ries, was medication.

"What's different about opiate addiction, compared to alcohol or cocaine or other addictions," he said, "is without stabilizing the opiates system with medications that chances of recovery are about 5% maybe 10%."

Ries helped write the bible on addiction medicine. He says opioid addicts can be treated like anyone else with a chronic disease.

"Just like people who get hypertension or have arteriosclerotic disease," he added.

Eventually Aubrey hit bottom.

"One day I was on a street corner and I just fell to my knees and started crying," she said. "And the very next day, I was here and I was like 'please help me.'"

She made her way once again to Harborview Medical Center and Ries. He prescribed suboxone.

"Which I believe saved my life," said Aubrey.  "I also went through Harborview's trauma program that they have here. And I believe that saved my life. So the two of those things together helped me beyond words."

Aubrey has now been clean for six years. She says she'll stay that way.

"I don't have any doubt," she said. "Like I don't have any question about getting high.  Like, I'm good."

In the six years since Aubrey has been off opiates, she has gotten married, gotten a full-time job, had another child and bought a house.

She is 36 years old now. Hers is a life she says she could never have dreamed of and could never have had without medication that helped her kick her addiction.

You can find more information on the Washington Recovery Help Line in the Seen On section of KIRO7.com.

We've linked to their web site where you can find resources if you know someone who needs help with substance abuse.

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