EMMA'S STORY: WE DESERVE TREATMENTS THAT WORK AND ARE SAFE!
We are always calling for more treatment choices. We want innovation, we want convenience but most of all we want effectiveness.
In 1997 the media were full of a new product, naltrexone implants which promised a cure for dependency on all drugs and alcohol, as well as behaviours like gambling, sex and shopping.
Naltrexone is a narcotic antagonist that attaches to opiate receptors in the brain and blocks the euphoric effect. Perth gynaecologist George O’Neill developed implants that are surgically inserted under the skin in the lower abdomen to supply a continual slow stream of naltrexone for up to several months.
Naltrexone implants are not approved for use in Australia except as an experimental drug. Russia is the only country in the world where they are approved. Coroner’s Courts have found practitioners responsible for a number of deaths from the implant procedure (which may require rapid withdrawal) and clinics have been closed by the authorities. There is now only one clinic that does the procedure, in WA. Serious events and complications arising from use of the implants include overdose; home removal; natural rejection; seeping, infected sites; and severe depression.
Regardless, many desperate people are forced by courts, family and their circumstances to get implants, including meth users. Stigma and discrimination allows us to be treated this way.
O’Neill’s consistent public claim is that the implants have an 85% success rate. So, of course, if this medical miracle fails to work for you, it must be your fault.
I was extremely depressed about losing custody of my daughter. I was vulnerable. I needed to do something quick.
I saw a story on a current affair show about magical implants that could “cure any addiction”. They featured lots of success stories. Inventor Dr George O’Neil explained that the implants didn’t have government approval because they were so miraculous, big pharma were scared of going out of business.
This was exactly what I needed: an instant way out. I was injecting ice in 8-day binges, sleeping for a day or two, then doing it all over again.
The $5000 cost seemed a lot, but my family persuaded me it was a fraction of what I injected. So I made an appointment, asking if it would work for ice. I was told it worked for everything. This is a lie.
The clinic psychologist told me the implant would change my life. He said some people experience depression, but because I had a positive attitude and wanted my daughter back, I would be fine - despite my history of depression and suicide attempts.
Dr O’Neill told me 85% of people with implants stop using their drug of choice and half never use a substance again. He said 2 years of implants would completely cure me. Given noone I know was ever followed up I am not sure where the figures came from.
He said naltrexone implants made you very fertile and wanted to give me a contraceptive implant. I refused but he asked again after I was given a relaxant. I refused again and my wishes were respected but a friend woke up with one even though she said no.
They were about to cut into my stomach when I freaked out and said I’d changed my mind. The nurses held me down as I screamed over and over for them to stop. The procedure was done as I begged. I made a formal complaint which was overturned on the grounds that I had consented when I signed my name.
Before I left, a doctor gave me bottles of Serapax and Valium saying “Can I trust you with these?”. The website says the implants cure benzo dependency. Not true. I’d never used them before but this prescription started me on a benzo dependency. When I complained, I was told I was lying, that as a user my word didn’t mean anything.
After the surgery, I had only 1 follow-up call from the clinic. I said I was extremely depressed and was told “at least you’re not on heroin”. I hadn’t been on heroin before!
I was told the implants would last 6 months in the body and dissolve by 12 months.
I thought I was getting one implant - turns out I got 3, each the size of a tampon. After 18 months, 2 still hadn’t dissolved.
I rang the clinic and they insisted the implants could not be there, arguing it was an STI from my time in the adult industry. I knew it wasn’t - I was regularly tested. It got so if I coughed or sneezed, it hurt. Then it started hurting regardless.
Eventually, 2 years on, a GP cut out the implants. I was lucky. Most doctors in Perth won’t touch the implants, but refer you back to the clinic. This includes the hospitals. Even when a girlfriend had one pushing out of her stomach and a friend had complications after he tried to remove an implant himself, both out of hours, the Emergency Department refused to help, stating that only the clinic could assist.
I have now dealt with my drug use and my daughter is back with me. But not because of the implants.
You know what I think the worse thing was about my experience with naltrexone implants? Worse than the lies, the way I was treated and the implants not dissolving? It was that because I had believed it was a miracle cure, when it didn’t work, I felt robbed of hope. I asked myself “What is wrong with me? Why does this work for everyone else but not for me?”. They insist it works, so if it doesn’t work for you, you feel beyond redemption.
The trouble with being in treatment for drug use, is that if it doesn’t work they don’t blame the treatment, they blame the person who uses drugs. You didn’t try hard enough, you were not honest enough with yourself, you didn’t want it badly enough. That’s ridiculous. We wouldn’t have done such a radical thing if we didn’t really want it to work.
The one thing I want to say to people who work in drug and alcohol treatment: if we are there in front of you, we want things to change. Please help us with things that are safe and have some evidence base to them, because we are really relying on you.