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Heroin addicts reprogrammed

Kelle Lynn • Jul 22, 2015 at 11:03 AM

By the time all three heroin addicts from West Michigan arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to check in at CMI Abasto, they were on the last leg of their journey in life. Death was only a thought away. 

The staff at CMI compares the patients to an abandoned house where no one has lived for many years — dirty, dark and broken. Back home, their families are desperate and praying. 

The staff welcomes everyone with a genuine warmth and friendliness accompanied by a hug and kisses on the cheek — a standard greeting for folks in Argentina. A lively celebration with plenty of food is set up in a modest dining area. 

The staff immediately sees the patients as new members of their family. Their job is to focus on what others deem impossible, or close to a miracle — restoring the addict from someone who created anguish to becoming a successful leader in family and community.   

CMI doesn't believe addiction is a disease. Its staff believes the root issue of addiction is simply based on the fact that the person suffers from low self-esteem, is ignorant of who they are as a person, and doesn't have a vision for their life. They dig in to discover the deep-rooted "whys" the addict turned to drugs. 

The center’s approach is a combination of individualized medical and philosophical treatment to restore the patient to healthy living. It has a strong spiritual foundation, but doesn't use the 12-Step program as a method of treatment.   

The patient’s first seven days at CMI are spent having a thorough medical diagnosis, which consists of an MRI for brain mapping, EKG of the heart, X-ray of the spine and lungs, ultrasound, blood and urine tests, and a mammogram and gynecological tests for women. 

"The patients that come for drug addiction — including abuse of pharmaceutical drugs and/or alcohol — do not receive a substitution of drugs from the ones in which they were taking,” explained Dr. Jorge Novas, a general practitioner who has been treating CMI patients for 10 years. “In our treatment, there is no drug for a drug used, which specifically means even a legal prescribed medication, like suboxone or methadone that is a known substitute therapy, is not done at CMI. Those legal drugs used for substitution of other substances are also addictive, and that is why we do not include them in our treatment protocol.

“It's not uncommon to find lesions on the frontal part of the brain from drug use,” Novas continued. “But, in some cases, brain damage can be reversed through treatment.  Through different studies, we have seen how the brain waves have started correcting themselves with the treatment." 

Once the medical diagnosis is complete, the next step is to develop a relationship with the coaches who appear in many roles — personal trainer, dietician, biochemist and pharmacist, family therapeutical assistant, etc. All the patient information is shared between the group on a regular basis. The patients are given instant access to a professional any hour of the day and night, seven days a week.

The coaches

Rose Brezuela and Silvia Caglianone have completed several years of study in psychology and philosophy, and have been working as coaches at CMI since 2000. They said it's not uncommon to get a call in the middle of the night since the addict suddenly remembers a certain event and needs to talk. 

"They are not self-medicating any longer," Brezuela said. "Now the pain, fear, guilt and sorrow is at the surface, and they need to talk and cry. The purpose is to talk it through and resolve it. Whatever they are going through could be resolved right away or over a longer period of time." 

Caglianone said the patients’ emotions and thinking were destroyed by drugs.

“It takes a long time for the fog to lift,” she said. “We see the clarity of what is happening better than they can see themselves."

Maria Tavella has been working as a nutritionist and dietitian at CMI for the past 14 years. She offers a custom-made diet for each individual. 

"In the beginning, most addicts are going through withdrawal, so they are craving sweets,” Tavella said. “We always have fresh pastries available to help ease the symptoms." 

Over time, Tavella encourages healthy changes in a patient’s diet with the fresh, locally grown produce the center buys every day. 

"Our food is very natural with less fat, additives and preservatives,” she said. “Eventually, we can see the difference in their skin." 

Exercise is encouraged on a daily basis. 

"When they arrive, they have a lot of drug toxicity in their muscles," said Alicia Arata, biochemist and pharmacist for CMI. "They need to work it out with some physical activity. The patients have a membership at a gym located less than a block away from CMI. They can play basketball, tennis, karate, tango and salsa dancing." 

Learning how to have fun again is a priority for a patient’s recovery. The coaches assist them on outings that include bowling, opera, theater, dining out and shopping. 

"Most heroin addicts have reclusive behavior and were isolated in their addiction, so we are re-programming their brain to be happy and have fun without using drugs," Caglianone said. 

It takes a few months to adjust to a new way of daily living in Buenos Aires. Sleeping in until 9 or 10 a.m. is normal. A physical activity is followed by a shower and lunch. In the winter months, dinner is served at about 9 p.m., and after 10 p.m. in the summer. 

"Initially, it was a big adjustment for them," Tavella said. "Then they develop a new rhythm and enjoy it."    

Since family is an important part of treatment, CMI encourages Skype sessions to keep the loved ones updated on the patient’s recovery. 

The patients

Ben Fris is still in his first year of treatment and talks with his parents every week on Skype. His father, J. Fris, said he's seen a lot of positive changes in his son’s attitude, along with weight loss and the fact that he's playing tennis all the time in spite of prior chronic back pain. 

"Ben's trying hard to re-build his relationship with his brothers and me," the Holland man said. 

Ben Fris said the physical changes have been one of the most impressive parts of his recovery. He went from barely able to walk a few blocks, to swimming, running, golfing and playing competitive tennis. He played in his first amateur tennis tournament in September. 

His mom, Barbara Winchester, also of Holland, made a trip to Buenos Aires to spend some time with her son. She said she’s seen a complete turnaround in Ben. 

"He's thinking more of others,” Winchester said. “He's not giving up on relationships. He's able to express himself now. He's mentally clear with a new happiness and a good spiritual walk."

Ben Fris and two other patients from Holland, Jimmy Lont and Brittany Rathjen, agree that the around-the-clock individual coaching sessions have made a world of difference in their lives. 

"It was clear that there was something different about my coaches," Lont said. "It was a mix between feeling and an observation that they are happier and just live differently. I wanted it, so I try to listen and apply it to me."   

"The coaching relationship is the most important relationship,” Fris said. “The coach is the facilitator of your success.”

"My coach understands things I don't even see yet," Rathjen said. "It's amazing. She's like a sister." 

Rathjen completed one year of in-patient and one year of out-patient care at CMI. She graduated two months ago and decided to stay for on-going care. She moved to an apartment close to CMI and is proud that she is living on her own for the first time in her life. 

"I have two families — my USA family and my Argentina family,” Rathjen said. “I feel right at home in Argentina. It's a family here." 

Lont went through a full year of in-patient and one year of out-patient care, and graduated in January 2013. He still resides in Buenos Aires for part of the year to help others in their first year of treatment, and aspires to learn and use the same coaching method that helped turn his life around.

The felony charges against Lont have been dropped, and he has reconciled with the family of his friend, Jeff Christensen, who overdosed and died on the heroin Lont sold him. 

Lont said he remembers a significant day at CMI when he simply fell in love with life and looked forward to his coaching sessions, which had a tendency to annoy him in the beginning. 

"I remember having a full-body excited high that I had never experienced before,” he said. “It was better than any drug. I thought, if I shot up heroin right now, it would make this feeling less intense. I want this feeling to last forever." 

Joseph Rannizzisi, deputy assistant administrator for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s Office of Diversion Control, said successfully treated patients can make the difference for others.

"We need young people that have successfully completed treatment and are clean from drugs to go into the schools and share with the younger kids what happened to them," he said. "It has so much impact. It doesn't help that the media doesn't want to talk about all the 15- to 17-year-old kids we're losing (to drug overdose) simply because it doesn't make America look good that we're losing so many kids.  The problem is that we don't want to open up to our own problems. We are not taking this seriously. We live in a society where it doesn't really affect me, until it actually does affect me, and then it's too late."


CMI Abasto: call 800-579-5578


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