Heroin: Treatment solutions exist
The bedroom is nearly pitch black and Stacy is lying on her bed with covers pulled up to her neck and a pair of eye shades on. She hasn’t used in nearly 24 hours and withdrawal symptoms are coming on strong. Her legs and body ache. She’s sweating and switches between being too hot and too cold. She pushes her blankets up and down to adjust her temperature.
“Withdrawal is a living hell,” Stacy said of her six-year addiction to heroin. “It’s the part I can never get past. It’s the reason I can’t quit.”
Less than 45 minutes earlier, Stacy, a resident of Miami County, whose name has been changed for her protection, took “a calculated risk” by ingesting one gram of an hallucinogenic root-extract called Ibogaine HCL, or iboga [Tabernanthe iboga]. The extract is hardly known in the United States; in fact, it is illegal and listed as a Schedule I narcotic. Stacy has tried every other method to quit using heroin, from going cold turkey and staying in rehab, to stints on Suboxone and methadone, and she’s willing to try just about anything to quit using.
Suddenly, Stacy says she feels “funny.” She hears a humming noise in her ears and is lightheaded. She says her leg pain is ceasing and her temperature is stabilizing. She looks at her husband through one side of her eye shades and drops her head on her pillow like a brick.
“I think I’m ready to be alone now,” she said.
For the next 12 hours, Stacy lies in bed without getting up once. While she appears to be sleeping, inside of her mind Stacy is confronted by her demons.
“During the iboga treatment, many people are confronted with their own truth – the way they see the world and the people around them,” said Michelle of Iboga World, a European company that sells Ibogaine online. Michelle asked that her last name not be included in this report. “They also see the way they have treated the people around them in their lifetime. This can sometimes be hard, and frightening, but iboga gives you the knowledge, strength and courage to continue life, and gives you a new chance.”
While scientific research into Ibogaine has been far and few between (largely due to the root’s illegal status in the United States), anecdotal evidence suggests it provides heroin users with a clean break from addiction, as well as complete alleviation from withdrawal symptoms – all in one night. One heroin addict discussing Ibogaine on the Internet described treatment with the root as putting him in the same place “four months of cold turkey and aggressive therapy would in one night.”
Michelle claimed while those who use Ibogaine may feel tired for a number of days after the treatment, they come out of the experience with no cravings for heroin and a clear mind. This creates a window of opportunity to seek additional counseling and to prepare for life without drugs, she said.
Ibogaine is one of the most powerful hallucinogens in the world and is used in birthright and spiritual ceremonies in western Africa. In Canada, Mexico, Britain and many European nations it is legal and is used not only to treat heroin addiction, but also for people addicted to methamphetamines, cocaine and alcohol, as well as for treating depression, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, Multiple Sclerosis and Tourette’s Syndrome.
Ibogaine allegedly works by resetting and refreshing opiate receptor sites in the brain and brings a person to a non-addictive state, or what is known as “a reset.” How this is done is not fully understood. In fact, Ibogaine’s effects were not even known in the West until the late 1960s, when a heroin addict accidentally “discovered” the root’s healing powers while experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. By 1966, Ibogaine and other hallucinogens were made illegal in the United States and any research into their benefits ceased.
A Heroin Epidemic
The need for treatment options – or even a cure – for heroin and opioid addiction has never been as badly needed in the Miami Valley as now.
In November of last year, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine declared heroin abuse a “statewide epidemic.” At the same time, reports issued by the Ohio Department of Health showed Montgomery County is the second deadliest county in Ohio for heroin overdoses – with the number doubling in 2012 from 2011.
At the same time, crime related to heroin abuse also is on the rise. The Miami County Jail reported three out of every four inmates booked at the jail are either coming off of heroin or have a crime related to their heroin addiction. Millions of dollars are being spent to combat the problem, DeWine said in November.
The Road to Addiction
Stacy’s battle with opioids began like so many other people.
“I had a sore tooth and went to my dentist to have it checked out,” she recalled. “Since they couldn’t get me in right away, I was prescribed Percocet for the pain.”
Stacy said the prescription pain medicine not only helped her tooth pain, but made her feel “better than [she] ever had before.”
When her prescription ran out, Stacy found a friend who could supply her with as many pills as she needed. This started a downward spiral that eventually led her to snorting, and then injecting, heroin.
“I started using heroin because it was cheaper and easier to get than pills,” she said.
In Springfield, 26-year-old Bridgett, whose name has been changed for her protection, knows this story all to well. After having a series of surgeries when she was 17 years old, Luciano was prescribed opioid-based pain medication.
“I had no idea you could get addicted to these pain pills at all,” she said. “When I ran out, I went through withdrawals. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought I had the flu or something. It was the worst physical pain I’d ever gone through.”
Like Stacy, Bridgett found relief from withdrawals by seeking out more pills on the street, and within six months her tolerance had dramatically increased.
“I was taking 13 Percocets a day just to stay well,” Bridgett said – “well” being an addict’s term for avoiding withdrawals and being able to function.
To avoid liver damage from excessive acetaminophen use, which is found in most prescription pain medicine, she started using Oxycotin, which does not contain acetaminophen. She said she would have continued using Oxycotin, but federal regulations were implemented that made the pills “time-released” – meaning she could not get as high as she desired. This is when, like Stacy, a friend pointed out heroin was cheaper and stronger than pills.
“I was told I could buy a half-gram of heroin for $15 and that it would last all day,” Bridgett said.
Like Stacy, Bridgett went from snorting heroin to shooting it, which she’s been doing for more than seven years. This journey has taken her through a nightmare she can’t seem to wake up from and to places she would never wish upon her worst enemy. She’s also lost 12 friends to overdose and suicide due to heroin use.
Bridgett said the worst thing she’s ever done to maintain her heroin addiction is become a stripper.
“That’s something the ‘old me’ would never have done, but I know other women who have turned to prostitution, and I know guys who will rob you blind or steal cars just to get money for more drugs,” she said.
Broken Brain Syndrome and Suboxone
While Ibogaine is showing great promise for treating heroin addiction, not all people are willing – or able – to try it.
The most widely used treatment for addiction in the Miami Valley is the drug Suboxone, which, like Ibogaine, can alleviate withdrawal symptoms and, over time, slowly wean a person off of heroin or other opioids.
Bridgett sought help from Dr. John Moore at Synergistic Health Center in Bellbrook, Ohio, which uses Suboxone and therapy to help patients.
Moore said people like Bridgett and Stacy have what he calls Broken Brain Syndrome. This is caused when people become dependent on opioid pain medication or heroin, which causes their brain to stop producing its naturally occurring endorphins. When an opioid user cannot get more pain medication or heroin, their brain is unable to produce the natural endorphins, which causes them to go into withdrawal.
With a broken brain, people feel every ache and pain in their bodies, as well as tremendous loss of energy and depression. Dr. Moore said once someone has a broken brain, it can take several “excruciating days to weeks” to return the brain to its natural settings, and even then the brain may not be fully functional due to long-term damage, which can take many months to return to normal.
“In that period, you’re semi-functional,” Dr. Moore explained. “You won’t feel well, you won’t be yourself, you may be fairly depressed, you may isolate – maybe lash out at those around you. Or, worse, you’ll go back to using opioids and begin a cycle of further damaging your brain.”
To break this cycle, Synergistic Health Centers uses Suboxone and a variety of therapies.
“What Suboxone is good for is slowly reducing the dose over time and allowing the brain’s own opioid factory to return to full function,” Moore said. “As long as one weans slowly, there is no reason for suffering through withdrawal.”
Suboxone also ceases cravings for heroin, which is what often leads people to commit crimes and other undesirable acts to get more of the drug, Moore said.
Synergistic Health Centers has four medical doctors, as well as three licensed addiction counselors, and serves patients from as far south as Cincinnati and as far north as Wapakoneta.
“Each patient’s program is individualized and based on their history of addiction, their life’s circumstances or other medical problems that coexist,” Moore said. “Some patients are offered assistance with rapid weaning programs with Suboxone, while others move onto a track of maintenance right away with a weaning plan implemented later.”
Bridgett has been on Suboxone and in therapy for three months and said her life is getting better.
“It’s a good program,” she said. “I feel like the old me again. I still think about using, but I’d rather take Suboxone than shoot up.”
Bridgett has returned to working a regular job and plans to return to school in the near future.
Weighing the Options
Stacy also was treated with Suboxone by her family doctor in 2011, but said she did not get the results she desired.
“I’m not knocking it and I think it’s a great tool to quit using and to keep you from doing crazy things to get high, but I didn’t like how I felt [on it],” Stacy explained. “I still felt like I was chained down, and I had to take the medicine every day. The worst part, though, was that I didn’t have any emotions. I felt like a zombie.”
Stacy took Suboxone for eight months before stopping on her own. After stopping, she said she immediately began to experience opioid withdrawal from the Suboxone, which led her to seek out heroin again.
While Suboxone technically is an opioid, Moore said there are many misconceptions about how it works.
“I believe the fact that one will still have withdrawal if they go off Suboxone has led to a misconception it is highly addictive,” he said. “Instead, the fact is a patient is dependent on opioids and their brain’s factory is shut down when they present for Suboxone therapy, and they remain dependent on opioids while on the opioid Suboxone. It’s just that Suboxone’s unique characteristics provide a safe and sure path to ending opioid dependence.”
Stacy said the main thing that concerned her about taking Suboxone was some people are required to take the drug for many years and, sometimes, for the rest of their lives, while she claimed her Ibogaine treatment did in what night what Suboxone use is supposed to do over a prescribed period of time.
Three weeks after her Ibogaine therapy, Stacy recalled the experience with enthusiasm.
“It’s very hard to put into words what happened that night,” Stacy said of her Ibogaine treatment. “What I can say is I have had no cravings for heroin, or even cigarettes for that matter, since that night. It’s like the Ibogaine reset my brain and I’m free to make new choices in my life – for better or for worse.”
Stacy said her experience while under the influence of Ibogaine was “life changing.”
“I literally went to, what seemed like, another dimension,” she said, before taking a long pause. “The only thing I can compare it to is what people describe when they have a near-death experience. In my mind, I went through a tunnel and came out in what looked like a colorful dome, but everything was moving so fast and was so vivid. The dome then had what looked like a movie reel running through it that had pictures in it, which were not moving as fast as the background, I saw images of people I had treated badly in life. One was my grandmother, who I had stolen drugs and money from in the past. I saw my ex-husband. Although I blamed many things on our divorce, the iboga showed me it was my drug problem that really ruined the marriage. I even saw a girl I had been awful to when I was a kid. I hadn’t even thought about her in a long time. With each of these people, I felt the pain I caused them. I felt what I had done to them and how I hurt them.”
Stacy said several days after her treatment she visited her grandmother and apologized for what she had done. She also wrote a letter to her ex-husband and apologized for her actions.
“I tried to find the girl [I had hurt as a kid] on Facebook, but I can’t find her,” Stacy said.
Stacy described the next part of her experience as “very spiritual.”
“There was some kind of spirit with me – like a guide or guardian angel. She told me I was loved so much. I felt the most powerful sensation of love I’ve ever experienced. Unconditional love.” Tears come to Stacy’s eyes. “She brought me to this endless, pulsating purple/black wall, or a barrier of some kind. It seemed to be located in the center of the universe. I could ask this force any question I wanted and it would only tell the truth.”
Stacy gets excited to discuss the final part of her experience.
“This is going to sound very crazy, but the last thing I remember before coming back in my body was feeling like I was lying on an operating table. Behind my head, where I couldn’t see, were these beings. I felt them working on my brain like doctors. I could literally feel them pulling and tugging at my neurons, like they were shoestrings. Then, I saw my body lying on the table from outside of it. The body looked dead and was lying still. Then, I floated away from this dimension and the dead body got smaller and smaller until it disappeared into the darkness. I opened my eyes and was back in my bedroom.”
Stacy said there are hundreds of other details she could talk about, from seeing visions of the future and hovering above the world to flying through space and seeing countless images from her life and the people in it.
“Looking back now, I feel like iboga helped me come to terms with why I started using drugs in the first place, and it showed me the damage I’ve been doing to myself and to others,” Stacy said. “The strange surgery that was done on me seemed to have been iboga healing me of addiction. And the image of seeing myself lying dead on a bed was like my rebirth into a new body – free of addiction and pain.”
Stacy said she laid in bed for another five or six hours after returning to her body, which were spent reflecting on the lessons she had learned from iboga. When she was able to walk again (Ibogaine makes it nearly impossible to walk), she came out to her living room where her husband was sleeping on the couch. She woke him up.
“I cried like I had never cried before,” she said. “They were tears of joy, but there was so much sorrow for all of the time I’ve wasted on drugs and the people I’ve affected because of them.”
Stacy has not touched drugs for more than four months now. She said her experience with Ibogaine not only freed her from addiction, but also led her to quit smoking (without cravings), to eat healthier and to spend more time with her children and husband.
“If I even think about using, I just remember what my life used to be like and I remember the gift and second chance I was given by this plant,” Stacy said. “I wrote the word ‘remember’ on a piece of paper and put it on my mirror. It’s to not only remember what life was like as an addict, but to remember the experience I had on Ibogaine.”
The Dangers of Ibogaine
Michelle – from Iboga World – said the demand for Ibogaine is increasing around the world. Taking Ibogaine, however, is not for everyone, and in fact can be deadly if not used properly. Michelle said anyone considering treatment with Ibogaine should first make sure their heart and liver – and overall health – is in good condition and that there is no history of epilepsy.
“It is best to have a checkup by your doctor before doing the treatment,” Michelle said. “The treatment can last up to 36 hours, but the first 10-15 hours are the most important ones. The treatment is very intense and tiring. Some people lose up to 10 pounds, due to sweating, and also the appetite being suppressed.”
Michelle said the days following the treatment are when the body and mind are recovering.
“For some people, it can last even longer until they feel completely 100 percent again,” she said. “I’m not saying they will not be able to go back to work, they will. It’s just that they will still feel tired many times, or have some insomnia. But it is important to note that a proper iboga treatment has no long-term negative side effects.”
Part of Michelle’s job is to help people find the correct dosage of Ibogaine for treatment and to guide them through the process via email correspondence, which includes consulting users to take a test dose of Ibogaine prior to the full treatment – known as a “flood.”
“The test dose lets your body know what it’s about to ingest and test for allergic reactions. It is really important for people to have the correct dosage in order to have a successful treatment,” she said. The dose typically comes out to about one gram per 100 pounds of weight.
There are two other very important warnings when taking Ibogaine. The most important warning is that heroin or other drugs cannot be used after an Ibogaine “flood.” This is because the body is reset to a non-addictive state and if a heroin addict were to use a small amount after the treatment, they could become addicted again. Furthermore, if a former addict uses the amount they were used to prior to treatment, that amount could be fatal. It is also important for the person under the influence to have someone with them – a “sitter” – to make sure they are responsive and feel safe. Ibogaine makes it impossible to walk, which means the person using it will need assistance going to the bathroom and vomiting, which often happens, but is considered part of the healing process and is the body’s way of releasing built-up toxins, according to Michelle.
Ibogaine should be taken in complete darkness, Michelle explained, because it makes the eyes very sensitive to light – hence why Stacy wore a pair of eye shades during her experience. Michelle said Iboga World is an honest company that supplies top quality Ibogaine and always has the peoples’ desires at heart.
“We are a business, as everyone knows, but the people still come first,” she said.
To learn more about Iboga World, visit ibogaworld.com. The site has information on the history and uses of the root, and Michelle is able to answer questions many people have about iboga and its usage.
Seeking Help with Suboxone
Dr. Moore said his office at Synergistic Health Centers offers free consultations and flexible behavioral program requirements.
“There can be a big difference from one Suboxone clinic to another in regards to the behavioral program requirements,” he said. “The most strict [clinics] require attendance two to three times per week for two to three hours as part of an ‘intensive outpatient program’ in order to receive Suboxone therapy. At Synergistic Health Centers, we partner with you to create your individualized program. We call it the ‘Points’ program.”
Points can be obtained by attending 12-step programs, church services, addiction counseling and completing workbook series, among others. Most importantly, Moore said his office is available to people that need help immediately.
“We work to keep lots of slots open in our clinic so that there is no waiting list,” Moore said. “We believe this is a huge benefit to those caught up in the opioid epidemic, as it is so dangerous to have to go on using for even another day when one has found a reason to ask for help in quitting. That next injection of heroin could lead to someone’s last breath on this Earth. That last theft to get money to keep a supply of oxycodone while waiting on an appointment could be the one that sends our potential patients to prison.”
Synergistic Health Centers is located at 1940 N. Lakeman Dr. in Bellbrook, Ohio. To learn more about Synergistic Health Centers, please call 937.310.1304 or visit synergistichealthcenters.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Matt Bayman at MattBayman@DaytonCityPaper.com.