Treating Addiction as the Disease It Is.
When Eric Morse told his colleagues he was going to do an addiction fellowship, they didn’t understand his interest in that field.
In Morse’s experience, there’s a stigma attached to substance abuse services within the medical community. Some doctors believe addiction is a mental issue rather than a chronic illness. Morse, who now oversees four medication-assisted treatment clinics, says there is no evidence to support this belief. “It’s been proven that addiction is as much of a disease as diabetes is,” says Morse, a board-certified addiction psychiatrist. “If you have a disease, you want to go to a doctor for it.”
Morse graduated from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and completed his residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Starting his training in Maryland, where recovery services were more widespread and advanced, he led several methadone clinics before returning to North Carolina and opening the first Morse Clinics center in 2006. That’s when it became clear to him that substance abuse was not being treated properly in North Carolina, naming a significant lack of resources and awareness as possible causes. His clients were reluctant to consider maintenance programs, only inquiring about them after years of failed attempts at recovery through non-medical practices. Viewing maintenance programs as a last resort is a misconception that Morse hopes to end. “We really need to be providing maintenance therapy first. There’s only a 10% chance of recovery with programs like NA or AA alone. With medical treatment, the chance of recovering is 60%. Not recommending treatment that has been proven as more effective is close to malpractice,” says Morse. The disconnect between medicine and addiction is largely resulting from a lack of knowledge and understanding, according to Morse. Currently, there isn’t a training program for addiction specialists in North Carolina. There is also an issue of countertransference, in which a medical analyst might have an emotional bias against their patient’s issue. That’s why Morse partners with the Governor's Institute to educate medical personnel and state officials on addiction as a chronic illness, and the importance of treating it as one.
When clients enter his clinics, they often experience high levels of guilt and shame. This can stem from believing their addiction is a personal fault or was a result of poor choices, rather than being a result of genetics and exposure like other medical conditions. Beginning to treat their illness with medication can help lift away some of this self-blame, empowering clients to get stabilized and begin dealing with underlying personal issues. While Morse believes counseling and 12-step programs are effective processes for dealing with such issues, they need to be combined with medical treatment to create a holistic approach. This approach creates a healthier mindset so the patient can better handle the difficult process of confronting their internal state. The process eventually leads to tapering off the medicine for most patients, though this could take several months or several years depending on the individual. Some patients may choose to stay on medication indefinitely, not wanting to risk their sobriety.
“I encourage my patients to use the maintenance program for as long as they feel is right,” says Morse. “Some people think medicine is a crutch. Well if you break your leg, wouldn’t you want a crutch?”