Seeking treatment for an addiction takes courage. There’s an unfair stigma surrounding the disease of addiction, which makes it tough for people to reach out for help. When they do, they should be supported in every way possible.
So it’s mystifying when they’re not. Especially when the stigma surrounding addiction comes from leaders within the addiction treatment field itself, including the two brand-names in addiction support - Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
But this is often the bewildering experience of people engaged in medication-assisted treatment (MAT). They’re sometimes stigmatized by the supporters of traditional addiction treatment organizations for a recovery path that isn’t abstinence-only. Since the two most common addiction medications contain a small amount of opiates, MAT patients are discriminated against for “replacing one drug with another.”
Make no mistake, this kind of purity judgment is decreasing within the addiction field. As the opioid epidemic rages on and the effectiveness of medication becomes more undeniable, old biases are evolving. A recent New York Times article reported on how abstinence-only mindsets within the residential rehab industry are gradually pivoting to support medication.
Related Blog: Stigma Against Addiction Medication Fading, Ringing In Hopeful Signs For Opioid Epidemic In 2019
Over the past century, AA and NA have provided community and sanctuary for scores of people in recovery for substance use disorder (SUD). These much beloved organizations are to be commended for the lifeline of support they have brought to countless people in crisis.
But 47 years since MAT was first introduced, long after science has proven its efficacy for addressing the medical needs of people with the chronic relapsing brain disease of addiction, AA and NA continue to ostracize MAT patients. People engaged in medication treatment are allowed to attend AA and NA meetings but are unable to become full participants who can enjoy benefits like leading meetings.
It’s tough to find peer support in a room where your treatment journey is frowned upon.
That’s why a small grassroots movement is developing to form support groups designed for MAT patients. These forums allow MAT patients to encourage each other and find validation for their MAT path.
In Worcester, Mass., CleanSlate has piloted such a MAT group, and the positive feedback from patients has been overwhelming,
“Patients can benefit greatly from a support group with peers, but only if there is a true acceptance of their recovery that allows patients to open up and share their experiences,” said Ellen O’Neill, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor (LDAC) at CleanSlate Worcester, who is leading its MAT Group. “When AA and NA relegate MAT patients to second-class citizen status, it really defeats the point. That’s not genuine support.”
Related blog: Emergency Rooms Are Starting To Treat Addiction Patients Like They Have A Disease. Because They Do.
Heather Burke, a certified recovery specialist (CRS) at CleanSlate Worcester, who also works with the MAT Group, will be leading the eventual introduction of the group to the wider community.
“Building out the support structure of the MAT Group will just increase the benefits to anyone going through this type of treatment,” says Burke. “We’re excited to grow the visibility and acceptance of MAT, and to destigmatize this recovery path for others suffering from addiction.”
At Worcester, the participants help shape the direction of the MAT Group and take turns leading the meetings. The participants collectively agreed upon a mission statement for the group:
“Our #1 goal is to acquire and maintain long-term recovery from addiction and help others along the way. We believe - and statistics show - that medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has been proven to be an effective way for many people to overcome addiction and lead purposeful, productive lives. We strive to create an atmosphere that is safe and comfortable, where all recovery pathways are welcome.”
For CleanSlate, the Worcester MAT Group joins a handful of others that have been introduced at some CleanSlate centers in Pennsylvania. Anecdotally, Burke is aware of several other groups within the general community in other states. She hopes that the success of the CleanSlate pilots and other MAT Groups will help galvanize a movement, especially as MAT becomes increasingly accepted and adopted.
“The more you can add to your recovery, the better,” said O’Neill. “There are all types of things that you can bring into your recovery path. There is nothing like the network of peer support to bolster addiction treatment and help people feel like they are not alone.”
I spoke to the participants of Worcester’s MAT Group (pictured below) to understand what the group means to them and their recovery. Here is what some of them had to say, in their own words:
Louis (aka "Macho"): "It has cut down on my depression...I want everyone to be able to have this..."
"The best thing that CleanSlate ever did was start this MAT Group. It has motivated me so much. I have been coming to CleanSlate for a year but when they started this MAT Group I rearranged my whole schedule so that I could attend on Fridays. I really look forward to coming every week, I'm excited to be here. It's a family-oriented group, everyone is so positive, and I feel so good when I walk out. It has cut down on my depression and I just have a great time. There have been situations where I was tempted to use again; now I tell my friends, 'If you're really my friend, you won't offer me anything.' A lot of people are dying out there - I want everyone to be able to have what I have now with CleanSlate and this MAT Group. I want to help people. I'm 40 years old and have two kids; I want to show them that Daddy made mistakes but now he's fixing them. Being a part of this MAT Group and helping to get it out into the community - now I feel that maybe this is my reason to be here after everything I've survived."
Peter: "We feel accepted here...we have a voice."
“The MAT Group helps me grow and focus on my goals and recovery. I like the support structure, and I learn so much from everyone. People around me are going through the same thing and we encourage each other. We learn from each other’s experiences. We help each other with questions, like: if I wrote a letter to a family member, what would I say?
No one is judging each other in this group. You get to relate to everyone and be encouraged. You get motivated from everyone else. You get constructive criticism - that’s the biggest part. It’s an intimate group and you feel the support. Unlike AA or NA, we feel accepted here. We have a voice. We are not being looked at differently because we are on MAT.”
Rolanda: "It gives me confidence to know that I am an equal in society..."
“I have been coming to CleanSlate for a few years now but I’m new to this group. I have been clean from drugs since May 2015, but I have been up and down with my alcohol use. In this group, I have had a chance to see my mess-ups and know I have support here. It’s almost like a family here - unlike the one outside. We can release our problems here without feeling like we are being frowned upon. Here I feel accepted right away the minute I walk in. I get so much out of this group. It gives me confidence to know that I am an equal in society and life will continue to move on. I’m excited to try to work with Heather and Ellen to be active to work this group in the community.”
Jeremy: "Here we're almost like brothers and sisters."
"I have been with the group since the beginning. I used to come to CleanSlate on different days but I switched to Friday so I could come to group. Here we’re almost like brothers and sisters. It’s a big family where we help each other out. At AA meetings, it’s like high school cliques. Here, everyone is welcome, nobody is judged."
Tiffany: "It has inspired me to want to do more with my life."
Ellen’s group has inspired me to want to do more with my life. On top of quitting drugs, I have now quit drinking and smoking. I just applied for a job. The group helps me to not hold myself in the negative. It’s a very positive setting. We all get along, we talk and laugh. It’s a great environment.”
Kat: "It feels like a family."
“I feel comfortable right when I walk in to this group. It feels like a family. You know nobody is going to say anything when you walk out. We are all on the same page. Ellen is very inspiring and really there for me. She sees the many sides of Kat. Having more groups like this would make a big difference in recovery. I want more groups like this - it strengthens your recovery. It’s like meeting with Ellen, times 100. The more connections you have, the better. Too many people are passing away. I want to see my kids grow up and see them walk down the aisle. If Ellen can give other people the help she’s given us, society will be helped. I hope that we can keep going with this type of group where you can feel a more personal connection.”
CleanSlate treats patients suffering from opioid or alcohol addiction with medications and a continuum of care to support each individual's journey to recovery. If you or someone you love needs help, contact us at 833-505-HOPE, or visit our website at www.cleanslatecenters.com to find the center nearest you.
Recovery from addiction includes recovering trust.
Download our free Pocket Guide to learn more about the emotional challenges that many patients face on their road to recovery.