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Dissecting addiction: Cycles of pain

Even in remission, addiction can still come back

Published: Monday, Jan. 12 2009 12:03 a.m. MST

Shantel Walker, a 28-year-old mother of three, has been recovering from drug and alcohol addiction since 2007 and relapsed just before Christmas.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

LINDON — MarySunshyne flashes a shy smile as she climbs into her mother's lap.

She's 2 now, she proclaims, holding up little fingers to prove it. She's not old enough to remember the months she spent in a Provo recovery clinic with her mom and two older siblings.

All she knows now is that her mom is home.

And she is clean.

That was November, when Shantel Walker's thinking was clear and she was focused on being a mother — not a meth addict.

But a few days before Christmas she fell again. Hard.

December is a hard month, Walker says. Holiday pressures, plus the memory of her brother, Shayne DeWitt, whose birthday falls on Dec. 25.

It was 19-year-old DeWitt's death in 2001 from a drug overdose that drove Walker to smoke pot. Soon after, she started to drink.

Less than two years later, Walker's father died, and overnight, she says, she became an alcoholic.

"My mom would say, (I know) you're suffering," Walker said in November. "(But I told her) I was not drinking because my dad had died. I was in total denial. I would not admit one had to do with the other."

The heavy drinking warped her personality and attracted a different crowd.

All of a sudden it was methamphetamine.

Walker spent three years addicted to meth, then two years in intensive recovery. It was like a game of Ping-Pong — she'd get released from a program and end up relapsing months later.

In November, Walker had been sober for nine months. The 28-year-old's smile was bright, her eyes clear. She had finally realized drug addiction was a battle she would always face.

"I have to deal with this the rest of my life," she said. "Everybody's got something. If I had asthma, I'd have it the rest of my life. If I had diabetes, I'd have it the rest of my life. Cowboy up."

She will need that reminder now more than ever.

Relabeling addiction

Shantel is not alone.

Last year, officials documented 23.2 million Americans who needed treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. Of those, only 10 percent got help. Most of them didn't even think they needed treatment.

In denial, just as Walker initially was.

In Utah, more than 95,000 adults and youths need substance-abuse treatment services, according to the Utah Division of Substance and Mental Health 2007 annual report. Those being served? Just over 17 percent.

However, some don't realize that 17 percent may still come back for more treatment. A second time. A third time. Maybe even a sixth time.

There is no quick fix for addiction. It's like cancer. Even in remission, it can still come back.

And it does.

"Substance abuse is not a moral failing," said Richard Nance, director of the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse. "It's a biochemical disease. (It's) still treated like it's a short-term, acute disease, but it's not."

Through treatment, Walker had finally seen what drugs were doing to her. They changed her brain pathways and perpetuated thinking errors.

"Addiction is a brain disease," added Dr. H. Westley Clark, the director of the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. "The receptors have changed; the neurotransmitters have changed. Just because you stopped drinking by 8 a.m. today doesn't mean you will by 8 p.m."

Getting help