The comedian George Carlin summed up cocaine’s powers in just two sentences: “What does cocaine make you feel like? It makes you feel like having more cocaine.” The words may be funny, but they’re also sadly accurate. Cocaine is considered one of the most addictive substances in the world, and whether the addict smokes, snorts or injects the substance, it has a deep and lasting impact on the way the addict’s mind works from that point forward. The addiction might be strong, but with treatment, recovery is possible. And, researchers are making advancements that could make it even easier to beat cocaine addiction in the future.
Foundations of Treatment
A top cocaine rehabilitation program puts one fact front and center: People who are addicted to cocaine do not suffer from a moral failing. Instead, people who have a cocaine addiction have endured a complex interplay of chemical changes and behavioral habits that have fed the addiction until it has taken over the addict. Both the chemical changes and the behavioral changes must be addressed in order for the addict to make meaningful progress in his or her life.
The chemical changes are relatively easy to sum up. The brain uses a chemical called dopamine in order to alert other cells that something pleasurable is about to occur. In a healthy person, one cell sends dopamine to another cell, and then the signal is shut off and the dopamine is recycled. Someone who abuses cocaine triggers changes in this cycle. The dopamine is still released, but it’s never shut off or recycled, so the person endures high levels of dopamine for a long period of time. They may feel euphoric and happy, and they might also feel much more alert. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), some users report that these feelings were only strong the first time they used cocaine. These users might take extremely high doses of cocaine in order to experience the level of symptoms they experienced with their first dose. With high hits of the drug, more damage is done to the dopamine pathway, and when the user stops taking cocaine, the addict might experience a variety of dopamine withdrawal symptoms, including:
These chemical changes can persist long after the user has stopped taking cocaine, and in addition, the user’s body may continue to call out for cocaine and flood the addict’s body with deep and powerful cravings. National Geographic looked closely at these cravings in 2011 and found that cocaine cravings traveled along the same pathways as salt cravings. As the article points out, the craving for salt is so strong in animals, that many will risk their lives in order to get it. It’s likely that cocaine addicts feel this same level of craving for cocaine, since it’s traveling on the same pathway. In the future, scientists may be able to isolate this salt/cocaine craving to a specific gene and create medications to help modify this gene, but those therapies could be months or years in development.
Behavioral changes are a bit more difficult to generalize, as each person acts a bit differently when in the grips of addiction. Some people might use cocaine as a party drug, for example, while others might feel they need to take the drug before big exams. These people will need to learn entirely new coping skills that don’t involve cocaine, and they’ll need to see the rewards in living a sober life. This is also part of participating a top cocaine rehabilitation program.
According to the NIDA, there are no specific drugs that are designed to help reduce the physical changes involved in cocaine abuse. People who abuse heroin or alcohol do have medications they can lean on, but cocaine addicts have a path that’s much less clear. Some therapists provide methadone treatments to their cocaine addicts, as this medication has been shown to help heroin addicts deal with the dopamine pathway disruptions they face as a result of their drug use. But not all therapists use this form of treatment. Some doctors use a drug called bupropion to help treat their cocaine addicts. This medication also works along the dopamine pathway, and some studies have suggested that it can help reduce cravings and aid addicts in dealing with withdrawal a bit better. One study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, for example, found that using bupropion along with talk therapy was quite effective in dealing with cocaine addiction.
One new therapy that is causing quite a stir in the addiction therapy world is a cocaine addiction vaccine. Many traditional addiction drugs focus on keeping the drugs from attaching to receptors in the body. By contrast, this vaccine trains the body’s immune system to consider cocaine an invader. Over time, the addict’s body learns to attack and neutralize the cocaine cells before they have a chance to interact with anything. According to an article published in the Scientific American, 53 percent of people who took the vaccine as part of a study were able to stay off cocaine for more than half of the trial period. This is a remarkable result, and this new treatment is certainly one to watch. It might be years, however, before it’s released to the general public.
Helping the addict change his or her behavior is the best way to ensure sobriety. Often, this hard work takes place in a therapist’s office, where the therapist and the addict talk at length about the addiction and why the addict needs to change. Many therapists use cognitive behavioral therapy, in which the addict is encouraged to role-play and think about what he or she will say or do in specific situations where a relapse seems likely. This form of practice, and targeted learning, can be quite helpful.
Some therapists combine cognitive behavioral therapies with contingency management techniques. Before the addict enters the session, he or she provides a urine test to screen for drugs. If the addict produces a clean blood test, he or she is given a reward such as a:
- Gym membership
- Gift card
- Movie tickets
- Voucher for local restaurant
It might sound simplistic, but for some addicts, working toward a reward like this can be incredibly motivating. According to a study published in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, people who participated in both forms of treatment were more successful at presenting clean urine tests up to a year later. This form of therapy can clearly be helpful for some people.
Some patients also benefit from participating in 12-step groups. In fact, there is a 12-step support group designed especially for people struggling with cocaine addiction. Cocaine Anonymous has meetings all around the world, and those meetings are often advertised online and in local newspapers. According to the organization’s website, there is no centralized group exerting control over local meetings, but most meetings tend to take the same format no matter where they are held. Most meetings begin with a prayer and an introduction of guests, and then a speaker shares a personal story of recovery. For some addicts, the sense of community provided at a meeting can be incredibly powerful. Addiction is isolating, and this might be a chance for the addict to reconnect with others once more. The benefits of participation have also been backed by solid research. According to an article published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, people who attended 12-step group meetings showed a larger improvement in addiction symptoms than people who did not attend the meetings. These group sessions could make a huge difference in the life of an addict.
A Word About Relapse
It’s important to stress that cocaine addiction is a chronic condition. The addict will need to deal with therapies for the rest of his or her life, and sometimes, the addict might relapse. A study in the Archives of General Psychiatry makes this link quite clear. Of those who completed a top inpatient cocaine treatment program, 23.5 reported that they returned to weekly cocaine use, and an additional 18 percent enrolled in another top cocaine treatment program. Many people recovered, it seems, but many also fell back into addiction when they were released from their formal programs. The disease can be persistent, and addicts and their families must stay on guard and fight the battle every day. In this way, true recovery is possible.
At Alta Mira, we provide the best inpatient treatment programs for cocaine. Our patients live in our beautiful facility, receiving the care they’ll need in order to get well. But, we’re quick to stress that people must continue their therapies at home, once our program is complete. In fact, we try to make that easy and we can even help you find a local therapist you can use when your program with us is through. If you or someone you love is addicted to cocaine, please call us and start the healing process today.