Taming the cravings

From The Oregonian, March 14, 1996 – not available elsewhere online

READ – about John Blank, L.Ac., M.Ac.O.M.

Drug users become human pincushions at the Washington County Community Corrections Center, the only correctional institution in Oregon that uses acupuncture to fight drug and alcohol abuse.

John Blank, a state licensed acupuncturist with a degree in Chinese medicine, has been performing the ancient Chinese healing art at the center since the fall of 1994. He treats inmates there four evenings a week, through the county’s contract with his employer, Central City Concern’s Portland Addictions Acupuncture Center.

The acupuncture sessions are open to anyone in the center, their family members and people who no longer live in the center, but continuing to undergo drug treatment through community corrections.

Blank explains what he does:

Q: What do you treat?

A: The clinics theoretically focus on drug and alcohol, but you see all kind of pathologies, because people in drug and alcohol have all kinds of conditions. You name it: We’re talking bad backs to manic depression, kidney problems, congestive heart failure. I see a lot of pain — headaches and musculoskeletal pain — from accidents and injuries. I’ve treated a lot of mental illness .

Q: How much does attitude have to do with beating a substance-abuse problem?

A: It’s difficult to answer that in any branch of medicine. My feeling is, it has a lot to do with it. But I get a lot of people who are totally skeptical, and it works for a lot of them. It’s not a matter of “belief makes it happen.” This is not a bunch of New Age people at the center. These are very skeptical people.

There’s a core of people who come because they really want to get better. They attract more of the same, and there’s an atmosphere of people who want to get better.

Q: How do we know this works?

A: They have done single-blind control studies, so they have confirmed scientifically that it works for drug and alcohol. The main study was in Minnesota in 1987, with a group of alcoholics. They found that the people who got the regular treatment, instead of a placebo, over 18 months were five times as likely to stay sober as the people who didn’t get the real treatment.

Q: How does acupuncture help cure addiction?

A: We don’t regard it as a cure for addiction. We regard it as an adjunctive therapy, and it needs to go along with a 12-step or counseling program. Acupuncture provides a basis for those programs to take off. It focuses the person and relieves some of the cravings and withdrawal symptoms. And it builds sort of a physiological basis of calm and stability.

Q: How many people who try acupuncture at community corrections never come back for more?

A: The majority come back. I can almost tell who’s going to come and who’s not: the ones who come in and their counselor’s made them and they have a bad attitude.

It’s rare for people to be treated by someone who wants to treat them and isn’t concerned with punishing them. For someone to take seriously that they have a headache is a new experience for them.

Q: Is it hard to get people to tell you what drug problem they need help with?

A: When they first come in, I have them fill out papers. Most of the time they leave blank the section on drug and alcohol, so then I ask. I try to determine the state of their drug and alcohol problem. Sometimes I have to come back and talk to them again in 20 minutes. After a while they see it’s not a punitive thing. Also they’re in denial about it. When you ask why they’re coming in, a lot will say it’s back pain.

Some people come in honestly saying, “I’m craving.”

Q: What is your success rate?

A: We’ve just got a computer; from now on we’ll be able to trace people who come in, whether they’ve been rearrested and that kind of stuff.

To me, it’s progress if you cut down days of use. Every day that they’re not using drugs is a day they’re not breaking into your car. I’d like to see them off drugs, and that’s what’s going to change their lives, but even if we don’t manage that, we are lessening the harm. If you’re not using, you’re not going to be selling your body, so that’s a day we don’t have to worry about.

Q: Is it depressing to work with people in the center?

A: Everybody thinks, “how difficult a population,” but when you have people in recovery, it’s a lot of positive energy and it’s positive to be around. It makes it positive to go to work. These people are getting better, for the most part.

The staff and counselors at the center are really good to work with, very supportive. By and large, they are committed to a type of corrections philosophy that tries to move people into a better place.

It’s not that they’re soft or coddle people. It’s not they’re not fully aware of the games. They’re not out to punish people. They’re going to be strict if people mess up, but their basic attitude is to help people. The residents don’t perceive it as a soft place at all.

Q: Does acupuncture work best with any particular drug?

A: Methadone is hardest for people to kick, the withdrawal goes on and on. It goes away and comes back. With cocaine, people’s ears get sensitive, so they’re more resistant to acupuncture treatment.

Acupuncture can help with the depression people get into after using methamphetamine. Sometimes there’s depression because they’re facing their lives, and some is because of withdrawal. It can help with that and with the sleep and appetite problems people have when coming off a methamphetamine high.