Kratom: Did I Lose My Sobriety and Not Even Know It?

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Kratom: Did I Lose My Sobriety and Not Even Know It?

By Paul Fuhr 04/16/18

Is it a miracle cure for withdrawal symptoms and anxiety or an opioid-like substance which causes dependence and a nightmare withdrawal of its own?

Image: 
Kratom leaf and powder.
Kratom is a plant-derived product that is currently under scrutiny by the FDA despite it helping many people.

“You ought to try kratom,” a younger colleague at work suggested with a shrug, having endured yet another story about my anxiety. “It’s natural. It’d totally help you out, man.”

Kratom.

It was such a simple, tossed-off word—and it stuck with me for a week. I’m 40 years old and I had no idea what he was talking about, but I nodded like I did. (That’s my alcoholic default setting, by the way: just nod and pretend to know things I don’t.) To me, kratom sounds like a Klingon noun or something, but maybe this was the answer to my problems.

I immediately Googled “Kratom” on my smartphone and felt my stomach sink at the results. This guy didn’t know I was sober—and kratom looked a hell of a lot like what I was desperately trying to get away from. Sure, I saw all the innocent words and phrases otherwise: Plant-based. Natural pain relief. Popular for anxiety. Veggie capsules. But as a recovering alcoholic and addict, all of my internal alarms were going off. I needed to know whether the juice was worth the squeeze when it came to kratom and my anxiety—especially since I didn’t want to be sitting in an AA-meeting folding chair, talking about how I’d relapsed thanks to a goddamn plant.

No matter what I try, my anxiety follows me around like a stubborn shadow. Even four years sober, my brain still feels a lot like a flooded basement or a submarine that got grazed by a torpedo. I’m always sloshing around in ankle-deep water. I envy people who have dry, waterproofed brains where everything’s seamless and airtight and nothing gets in. Me? Every single fear, worry and possibility seeps in through the walls and pools around my thoughts. No amount of Lexapro and Wellbutrin can keep it out. And everything else that treats anxiety is on my Recovery No-Fly List: marijuana, fistfuls of Xanax, alcohol, three-quarters of a bottle of NyQuil. I may be broken, but I do have four years of sobriety to protect.

Enter Kratom.

I started reading everything about it, weighing the pros and cons. Countless Reddit threads said it was completely harmless, even while the FDA was unleashing a number of policy articles saying otherwise (here and here, for starters). When you have can’t-go-outside anxiety like me though, you’re pretty much up for anything. Side effects be damned. And it’s not like I was angling to take kratom because I wanted some sort of electric jolt or escape. Still, AA has stamped guilt and self-awareness into me like one of those machines that presses patterns into copper plating. I rarely do anything without wondering if I’ll have to explain it to my sponsor later. It keeps me honest. But after a near-panic attack shopping at a busy grocery store, I decided to go for it.

Just ten miles from my house is Miracle Kratom: an unassuming storefront that sits in a ragged neighborhood known in Central Ohio as “The Hilltop.” If you’re not a smart-bomb perfectly programmed with coordinates, you’ll probably drive right past it. And while the collection of slumped houses and shuttered storefronts around Miracle Kratom have seen better days, there’s a sense that it’s an area determined to not give up. There’s always been a quiet strength in this section of Columbus, as if it’s weathered way more than it should have and is still, against all odds, standing. I circled the building twice, not quite sure if I had it in me to go inside. I screwed up my courage, telling myself that my anxiety was on the line, dammit. After all, parked directly in front of me was a shiny blue BMW with an Ohio license plate that read: “KRATOM.” (I had to assume it belonged to the proprietor and not a kratom super-fan.)

I somewhat expected the interior to be sparse, cramped and underlit, but I was completely wrong. At one o’clock in the afternoon, there was a line of customers, four people deep. Behind the counter was a trim, soft-spoken man with kind eyes and black hair. He moved carefully and methodically. (I’d later learn this was Miracle Kratom’s owner, Christian.) Each customer gestured to a dry-erase board with dozens of types of kratom, sorted by red, green, yellow and white strains—all purchasable by powderized ounce. I was out of my depth. Names like “Green Jong Kong,” “White Elephant”and “Yellow Borneo” stared back at me. When it was my turn, Christian could immediately tell I knew nothing. I could see it flash in his eyes. I explained that I wanted something to clamp down my anxiety. He suggested a few different strains and, before I knew it, I was leaving the building with two ounces of “Red Horn Leaf Maeng Da.” Two people were patiently waiting behind me, ready to order.

I had no idea if I was holding the answer to all of my problems or the beginning of a whole new set.

**

Green sludge stared back at me. I peered into the glass of water, wondering why the few spoonfuls of kratom weren’t dissolving. I stood at my kitchen sink and endlessly stirred. No matter how hard I swirled it, the musty, cinnamon-smelling powder clumped together into thick globs. I had to be doing something wrong. I looked at the brown-paper ziplock packet of kratom again. There were no instructions. Nothing online told me, either. So I gagged it down, chasing it with a half-can of Diet Coke.

I’m used to things hitting me quickly. Patience isn’t a virtue for a recovering alcoholic like me. I like shortcuts and quick fixes. That said, an hour later, I found myself zeroing in on something I hadn’t felt in ages: calm. Not a blurry-minded, drunken, let’s-watch-GoldenEye-again kind of autopilot, but a genuine sense of honest-to-God calm.

Three weeks later, I’d gotten the hang of ordering kratom. White veins seemed to be vaguely uplifting; greens felt generally mild; reds were downright sedating. I walked into the store with confidence; I was comfortable and chatty. I’d even somehow managed to sort-of stomach the part where I’d down glasses of water with lumps of kratom in it, sometimes mixing it with Sprite. My anxiety was all but gone, too. I wasn’t mentally telescoping to the next disaster that wouldn’t happen; I wasn’t stressed by the chaos of my house or worried about my work projects. I felt even. And that’s when I told my friend in recovery, Samantha, about my leap to kratom. Turns out, I couldn’t have told someone more primed to freak out: she’d graduated from prescription painkillers to kratom, landing in treatment for addictions to both.

“Dude” is how she began—and that pretty succinctly wrapped up Samantha’s entire dark, almost tragic experience with kratom. I could practically feel her entire body sigh.

In 2012, she’d been struggling with opioid painkillers, continually relapsing due to the “pure anguish” of the withdrawal symptoms. Samantha’s mom furtively searched online for an answer, scouring community boards and chat groups. “She was looking for something to help make the withdrawals at least somewhat bearable for me.” 

Eventually, her mom came upon kratom in her research. “It seemed like a miracle drug,” Samantha said. “It looked like this natural supplement that [helps with withdrawals] and makes you feel great. And so I went online and did my own research and found the same thing. There was nothing negative. It’s non-addictive, it can give you energy, it can make you very relaxed. There’s no anxiety. I mean, all these great medicinal benefits. I was sold.”

Samantha found a few reputable stores online and, within days, found the potential solution to all of her painkiller problems on her doorstep.

“I just so happened to order the most potent, strongest, purest form of kratom,” she said, describing tiny tinctures at $50 a pop. “I tried it with some OJ and 40 minutes later, I felt the exact same way as if I’d just taken three Percocets. And the minute I tried it, I was in love with it.” Before she knew it, she was up to two or three tinctures a day of “Ultra Enhanced Indo” (UEI) kratom—an extremely potent liquid leaf extract. She wasn’t just able to function on it—she was able to function extremely well on it.

“It’s a very hideable addiction,” she admits. “It’s not like, say, alcohol or meth or something. In fact, the only way you’d be able to tell I had a problem was looking at my finances.” Within a year, she’d racked up thousands in debt, thanks to UEI kratom. (Samantha says the exact figure is closer to $15,000.) Soon enough, my friend found herself in treatment.

These are the sorts of stories the government has latched onto, as they paint a cautionary and unflattering portrait of kratom. Last November, for example, the FDA issued a public health advisory regarding the herb. “It’s very troubling to the FDA that patients believe they can use kratom to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms,” the agency’s Carl Gottlieb said in a statement. Gottlieb also stated that “there’s clear data on the increasing harms” associated with the substance, claiming that calls to U.S. poison control centers about kratom “increased tenfold from 2010 to 2015.” The FDA also reported several dozen deaths associated with kratom.

The Huffington Post countered the report, arguing that the data is intentionally skewed to fit a false narrative: “Almost all of the FDA’s cases involve subjects who were found to be on multiple substances at the time of their death, with the vast majority including either illicit or prescription drugs that carry well-known fatal risks.” For example, “One incident describes a teenager who had hanged himself after struggling with depression and prescription drug abuse. He tested positive for a variety of drugs, including kratom, as well as alcohol and a handful of prescription drugs.”

Miracle Kratom’s owner Christian doesn’t simply agree with HuffPo’s criticisms—he has a deeply personal stake in his business. “I decided to open [my store] for two reasons. First and foremost, it helped me conquer my own 20-year addiction to opiates so I figured we could definitely help others in a similar situation,” he said. “Second, we saw that brick-and-mortar stores were charging sometimes three times as much as kratom that was sold online. We wanted to bring some sanity to the retail marketplace and give folks another affordable option rather than only buying kratom online.” His store is clearly connecting with others, too, given the steady stream of customers looking for help. On one of my last trips to Miracle Kratom, I gathered the courage to ask a customer who was leaving if kratom actually helped. (It’s the sort of dumb, unrehearsed question that I typically regret asking.) Wearing a purple hoodie and an oversized coat, huddled against the bracing Ohio cold, the man stopped and stared at me.

“This,” he said, holding up a bag filled with several packets of kratom, “has saved my life.”

Christian remains ever-aware of the looming cloud of regulation.“The biggest challenge we face in the kratom industry is the negative press generated by the FDA and the DEA. We constantly battle misinformation distributed by these two agencies,” he says. Christian points to the FDA’s recent claim that kratom has opioid-like properties as one of many examples of incorrect information. “[It’s] an attempt to misguide the uninformed,” he said. “The closest thing any credible source has been able to say truthfully is that kratom acts "similar" to opiates. In other words, the jury is still out on how to classify kratom and we should not act like that very important distinction has been settled.” In fact, the only thing Christian concedes is that kratom shouldn’t be sold to anyone under 18, though “no reputable place that I know would sell kratom to minors to begin with.”

I’m happy to report kratom didn’t rattle my sobriety so much as force me to consider what role it plays in the recovery community. It effectively put a damper on my anxiety in all the same ways that it wasn’t the wrecking ball my alcoholism was. After all, I wasn’t hiding packages of kratom powder under sinks or in sock drawers like I was with wine bottles. That said, kratom isn’t for me. I’ve decided to embrace my anxiety for what it is, if only because I’m terrified of the slippery slope that Samantha described. I know there’s a very short distance between feeling anxious and anxiously waiting for tinctures of extract to arrive on my doorstep. If Samantha’s story is any indication, the spectrum of kratom use (and abuse) seems to be far-reaching and unclassifiable, at least for now. There’s no denying it’s playing a very vital, central role in many people’s lives—a role that may very well vanish before it has a chance to prove itself.

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