Waiting: The Struggle To Get Help for Drug Addiction

Sep 9, 2016

People who need help for opioid addiction can wait for weeks for treatment, whether it’s a bed in a treatment center or a medication that helps withdrawal. Those weeks can mean the difference between recovery and overdose. 

WSHU’s Davis Dunavin talked to a Connecticut man struggling with addiction about what it’s like to wait for treatment.

Dave – he wants to go by his first name – lives in Fairfield County. He’s struggled with opioid addiction since his dentist prescribed him painkillers in high school. It started with Percocet and OxyContin and progressed to heroin. About a month ago he brought home five bags.

“I dumped it out and I knew right away there was something wrong. Heroin has a certain color and odor to it. And I knew right off the bat it had to be fentanyl.”

Fentanyl is a deadly opioid that’s 50 times more powerful than heroin. And it’s becoming more common. More people in Connecticut died of fentanyl-involved overdoses in the first half of this year than in all of 2015. Dave says he overdosed almost immediately.

“I hit the floor, right in front of the door. It was a hell of experience just to wake up in front of five firemen.”

He’s one of more than 100 people in Connecticut who’ve been saved with Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of a drug overdose. Dave says after the overdose, he decided to get help.

“I want to stop. I’ve gotten to the point where I have to stop, and I want to stop this time, I really actually do want to stop. But in order for that pain to go away, it won’t go away overnight.”

Dave is one of thousands of people with opioid addiction who are waiting. They’re all waiting for different things – no two cases are alike. Many people are waiting for medication like Suboxone to curb withdrawal symptoms, but that can be hard to get because of federal restrictions. Dr. David Fiellin, with Yale, says people with addiction should be able to get medication the day they come in.

“Unfortunately, this is a type of disease in which patients have some level of ambivalence, from time to time. And so when they are ready for treatment, we should try to provide that treatment in a rapid manner.”

Other people are waiting for beds in treatment centers like detoxes and rehabs. Joseph Sullivan is with the MCCA, the Midwestern Connecticut Council on Alcoholism. They treat opioid addiction, too. They operate a residential treatment center in Danbury.  

“It’s full. All the time. You hardly get a chance to change the sheets before someone else is coming in. We have a waiting list.”

Sullivan shows me around the center.

“This is McDonagh House, our short term residential…”

It’s a place for people to spend a few weeks or months recovering from drug addiction. In the past week, they’ve had 10 people call, trying to get one of McDonagh House’s 22 beds.

“Each of these rooms are semi-private, two beds and a bathroom, dresser, and so forth… I’d be happy to show you one. [Knocks] Hello? These are typical rooms. Kind of like a sparse hotel room.”

The facility also offers support groups. Sullivan sticks his head into a nearby conference room.

“There might even be something going on here right now. There is a meeting going on. And we won’t barge in on it, but those are McDonagh House residents that are having their group therapy.”

MCCA was one of several programs that had to eliminate beds as part of this year’s budget crisis. Sullivan says that’s led to wait times of up to three months at their facilities.

“If nobody’s paying for it, we have to downsize. But at a time when demand is up to increase the supply of treatment, just makes no sense!”

Dave, who’s looking for a bed himself, says he’s been through rehab programs in Connecticut before. He says it’s crowded and sometimes drugs are easy to come by. But he thinks the state’s doing its best.

“The state of Connecticut has good health care. You have a broken leg, they take care of you. You have an emergency at the hospital, they take care of you. But when it comes to the addiction part, they’re so overloaded.”

Dave says treatment in Connecticut is better than a lot of other states, but he’s done looking for rehab nearby. He wants to get as far away as possible so he can’t just call up someone he knows to get heroin or painkillers. He’s on a waiting list for a rehab in North Carolina.

“At this point, I’m ready to try anything. Especially just to get out of here. What do I have to lose? I mean, at this point, what do I have to lose?”

Dave is still using right now. It’s hard not to. He’s just trying to take it one day at a time.

“Some days I can control it. I can say, okay, I don’t want to do anything. I’m sick of this. I don’t even want to look at it. But there’s days you can catch me, forget it.”

Dave says he expects to wait two to three weeks for a spot in rehab. He says the only option is to hold out as long as you can and hope you survive.