Dr. Oz on Why We Need to Discuss Addiction Over Dinner

By John Lavitt 11/29/16

"I think addiction is a much more challenging process than doing heart surgery."

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Dr. Oz
We need more physicians trained in treating addiction.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, better known as the host of The Dr. Oz Show, is a Turkish-American cardiothoracic surgeon and well-known television personality. After getting his start on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he started his own daily television talk show that focuses on personal health. Although his show has been criticized for promoting alternative medical approaches that lack scientific validity, Dr. Oz has taken a proactive role in addressing the opioid epidemic by highlighting the current drug crisis in America. In addition to having Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, Patrick Kennedy, and Drug Czar Michael Botticelli on his show, Dr. Oz also offers a downloadable Facing Addiction Discussion Guide for families.

In conjunction with the advocacy group Facing Addiction in America, Dr. Oz hosted a National Night of Conversation on November 17th to offer support to families. By offering a five-step guide for parents on how to discuss addiction at the dinner table, he helped promote an important message nationwide. The National Night of Conversation coincided with the release of the Surgeon General’s first-ever Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health. The Fix spoke with Dr. Oz about some of his recent efforts.

You said, “We need to change the way we talk about addiction in this country. This is an exploding public health crisis and people who are struggling need help and compassion, and those who have successfully reached recovery should be celebrated as examples of effective treatment. Now is the time for our country’s renaissance in how we understand, treat and describe the disease of addiction.”

Can you further explain what this renaissance should look like and how we can make it happen?

I think most of us know someone who is struggling with addiction or is in recovery, or both. Still, a lot of us don’t realize that we are surrounded by such people, even ourselves. It is so common for a person to be prone to addiction. It often has been seen as a moral failing, and I think we need to change that perception. The renaissance of this movement arises because people recognize addiction as a disease. Just like if you have a broken leg you won’t be able to run a wind sprint, if you have a broken chemical system or a predisposition in your brain to falling prey to addiction, you are going to be saddled in the same fashion. You won’t be able to go through life at full speed.

When I started getting into this area, I learned that there were people working with me who had had addiction issues, but had chosen not to talk about it and respect their anonymity. Very successful folks, and I was surprised to learn what they had been through. In fact, the dawn of American medicine was led by physicians who were addicted to opiates. It didn't come out until years later because people were embarrassed to discuss it. Although these people were functional, they obviously were hurting themselves continually. We need to go past any sense of embarrassment or shame.

If we have a chronic disease of the brain that is deadly, it needs to be treated as such. Such treatment means an increased access to care, and this lack of access is at crisis levels right now. Although the Affordable Care Act offers mandatory support for people with addiction, treating it like any chronic condition like diabetes for example or mental health services, the majority of people are unable to access such care.

I was at a beautiful concert and event at the mall in Washington last year, and I talked to countless people who said the same thing over and over: we knew our loved one had a problem and we tried to get them care, but they couldn't get access to the care and treatment services needed. Their loved one ended up hurting themselves irreparably and many overdosed and died.

It’s really a question of resources. Like any other medical problem, addiction is an area that deserves appropriate investment and research. We need to figure out better ways to help these folks in such desperate need. It might be through medications or it might be through other therapies. We were so happy to be part of the Facing Addiction in America event on November 17th. Our special focus was on Facing Addiction Over Dinner because so often, the most powerful resource in this fight is the parent.

Many times parents don’t think that their kids are listening to them. We were once kids, however, and we did listen to our parents. We didn’t necessarily do what they said to do, but we did listen to them. Those words influenced us as we grew older. They definitely had a positive effect. Our goal is to have everybody in America talking about the problems with addiction and learning how to effectively cope with stress. Beyond the 17th of November, we have a whole social campaign where people will post a picture of an empty plate. On that evening, the dinner is not about the food because the real dish needs to be the conversation.

You are a big proponent of the healing potential of Reiki, the Japanese art of laying on hands to promote positive energy. When it comes to the treatment of addiction, do you believe that Reiki can play an effective role?

When it comes to addiction, I think we need everything we can lay our hands on. In the case of Reiki, it’s not what people think. You aren’t literally putting your hands on but it is a laying of hands in the same way that nurses around the country help their patients. I have no idea if it’s an effective solution in this case, and there have not been any trials looking at it and it has been disputed as being effective at all. From my perspective, getting two people to be close to each other so one is caring for the other has a potential benefit that is worth harvesting.

Reiki would never be used as a sole answer, but it could be part of a multi-faceted approach that addresses the biological, physiological, psychological, and social aspects of addiction. We might as well pull it all out because we need all the help we can get. In light of how many American families are being harmed by addiction, it’s worth using every tool at our disposal, including alternative medicine ones.

Describing the extreme confidence of the surgeon, you said, “Surgery is controlled arrogance. You think you can take a knife to someone’s chest and help him. Who thinks that way? Certainly no normal person. You need that confidence, that certainty to do it.”

Given the addicted person's role in admitting they even have the disease, is it possible for a clinician to have the same confidence when treating addiction?

I think addiction is a much more challenging process than doing heart surgery. As someone who does heart surgery, I can speak to this from actual experience with both. In heart surgery, you have a vessel that’s broken or blocked that needs to be cut and sewn together. It’s a very definitive act and you will know the exact outcome of those steps after they are taken. The psychology of treating addiction is a whole different ballgame with so many different levels and challenges, like three-dimensional chess. In comparison, surgery has a much more two-dimensional approach.

I do think, however, that physicians can be confident that they have tools that can help and have been shown to help with other patients. When it comes to addiction, it’s just more difficult to do. When it comes to medications, genetically, we are all different. Some drugs that work perfectly for one person won’t work for another. Although we are better at predicting such outcomes today because we are doing analyses of people’s genes to see what will work for them, it’s still a challenge. Talk therapy remains the foundation of addiction treatment. You need to be connected to people when you are in recovery. We also need more physicians trained in treating addiction. Physicians need to have the confidence in their skills so they are better able to treat addiction.

On our show, we do a huge survey that looks at the state of health in America. We over and over again hear the same news. People are unwilling to talk to their loved ones about the emotional issues. In the case of men, 50 percent tells us that they are more depressed and more down than they ever let on. Many times, such hidden emotional turmoil is self-treated through substance abuse. With 23 million Americans in recovery as examples of positive outcomes, we know that it’s possible to get there. First, people need to be comfortable about speaking out. They can’t be comfortable any longer with their silence. We have to make sure that folks recognize that there’s a light at the end of this terrible, serpentine tunnel that they feel stuck in. They need to know that the grayness they experience and feel at the beginning of the recovery process will go away over time.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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