Is There Such Thing as a Drug-Free/Unmedicated Addiction Recovery?

Detoxing Drug Free

For many people considering going into treatment, what scares them off is the fear that they’ll be overmedicated during rehab or given drugs that make their addiction worse. They might desperately want to get clean and sober — they just don’t want to take any drugs in the process. What about drug rehab that doesn’t use drugs or medications? Is there such a thing as a drug-free/unmedicated addiction recovery?

To gain some insight into this question, we spoke with Michael Desjardins, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and clinical supervisor at Journey Healing Centers in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Big Question: Is There Drug-Free/Unmedicated Addiction Treatment?

Diving right in, we asked the foremost question a lot of people want the answer to: Is there really addiction treatment that’s drug- or medication-free?

“People can choose to be drug free, and the research shows that outcomes are improved with the right medicines at the right time for the correct intervention,” Desjardins said. “At Journey we believe in integrated addiction medicine, a blending of evidenced-based and holistic care.”

Desjardins said it is definitely possible: “A lot of people want to be drug-free, especially when they’re abusing drugs.” Citing the example of someone addicted to pills, Desjardins said, “Maybe you don’t want to go back to a pill. Sometimes just taking regular medicine that isn’t addictive triggers some of that addictive thinking.”

At Journey Healing Centers there are a lot of people who choose or want to be drug-free. “Sometimes we recommend that as well,” Desjardins said. “We try to make recommendations based on the clinical presentation and what the person is suffering from. At Journey Healing Centers we believe that integrated addiction medicine, a blending of the evidence-based and holistic therapy, provides the best outcomes.”

Components of Drug-Free Addiction Treatment

According to Desjardins, stopping the drug of choice is the first step in drug-free addiction treatment. There can, however, be some cravings and detoxification (detox) needs that must be taken into consideration. “There are certain drugs — alcohol, benzodiazepines and barbiturates — where if you try to do a drug-free detox it could be a life-threatening situation,” Desjardins said. He added that if you’re addicted to one of these substances and certain other drugs, depending on how much you’re using, you could progress to seizures, coma, central nervous system collapse or even death without the right medical treatment. “You really should seek a licensed medical professional for an evaluation and make sure that drug-free addiction treatment is actually safe for you — and keep an open mind.”

Drug-free, minus the detox complication caveats, includes:

  • Stopping the drug of choice
  • Providing support for the detox symptoms
  • Reviewing your balance in life — healthy diet, exercise, nutritional intake
  • Taking part in individual and group therapy
  • Participating in different experiential exercises such as psychodrama, group exercises and individual assignments

Desjardins said that the various therapies help bring out the issues the person may be struggling with and helps them sort out those issues a little better holistically. “That’s what we’re finding now with modern treatment, that if you deal with the underlying issues, you’re going to make a lot of progress.”

Handling Withdrawal Without Medication to Ease Symptoms

Knowing that withdrawal from alcohol and drugs often includes uncomfortable symptoms, how does Journey Healing Centers handle the withdrawal process without medication to ease those symptoms?

Desjardins said there are some natural supplements that have demonstrated improved outcomes including choline, creatine, fish oil, and certain teas and vitamins. He recommended that anyone interested in drug-free treatment for addiction schedule an evaluation for more details on what may help them.

“We also have complementary and alternative therapies, some herbal supplements, minerals, vitamins, and amino acids that have been shown to be helpful, such as glutathione,” Desjardins said.

What’s used during detox depends on the drug the person has been using. After a full evaluation, Desjardins said the staff can make the best decision with the patient a 100% partner in his or her care. “Nobody’s ever going to come to Journey and be forced to take a medicine. They’re not going to be discharged if they won’t take a medicine. But we’ll make some recommendations using our integrated holistic and medical approach,” he said.

Curious as to how common drug-free addiction treatment is, we asked Desjardins to elaborate.

“Many people prefer to stop their substance abuse and see how they improve without any drugs or alcohol,” he said. “At Journey Healing Centers, we like to look at the whole person and utilize approaches that support recovery,” he said, adding that a good number of people admitted to Journey prefer no medicines and instead would like vitamins and supplements for their symptoms.

Who’s more likely to ask for this, men or women? Generally the demographic has been more common with women, Desjardins said. “However, we are seeing a shift with more men as well.”

Psychiatric Conditions and Substance Abuse

Many people who want to go into treatment to overcome drug or alcohol abuse also have co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. We wanted to know if the use of drugs during treatment depends on the type of condition. How would Journey Healing Centers handle someone’s treatment if they had clinical depression in addition to substance abuse?

“Sometimes if the psychiatric illness is so severe that the person might need treatment with some type of medicine, we may look at that and look at all the options,” Desjardin said. “There are also some supplements that have improved the outcomes with depression that may be helpful. Sometimes it’s the thyroid that needs checking. We do a full set of labs and a full assessment of medical and psychiatric status and then make recommendations based on that.”

Regarding the length of time for drug-free addiction treatment and whether it’s longer than when medication is prescribed, Desjardin said it depends on which drugs the person was using and what is going on with the person at the time, including psychosis. “Generally, though, the treatment trajectory has been similar with people who are using medicine to treat with an evidence-based approach to people who choose not to and would like to use supplements instead, using more of a holistic approach.”

One of Many Success Stories

Asked about any success stories he’d care to share, Desjardins related the story of a man who was a chronic alcoholic for years and appeared to be very depressed when he came in for treatment.

“He stopped drinking alcohol and within a month, he really started to improve,” Desjardins said. “He did have a bit of a taper at the beginning to prevent seizures, but after three days of the taper he greatly improved his symptoms.”

Desjardins said the man had been on blood pressure medicine for physical problems not related to his addiction and that he was able to stop those. He was also on diabetes medications and with weight loss, he was able to give those up and improve his overall life. He’s not on any medicine today.

“I just met with him and he’s been sober for five years now. We would say he’s recovered.”

The bottom line is that Journey Healing Centers has amazing therapists, a lot of good groups and individual therapy.

“It’s about meeting people where they’re at and helping them build solid recovery, focusing on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. We offer a great blend of addiction alternative therapies as well as medical therapies that can really help people recover. We all feel very passionate about what we do here.”

By Suzanne Kane

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