Health » Fitness

Tackling Addiction: How Recovery Unplugged Responds to an Epidemic

by Jill Gleeson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jan 7, 2020

In a decade that saw overdose deaths skyrocket from 16,849 in 1999 to 70,237 in 2017, it is admittedly difficult to find a silver lining in the dark cloud that is the American substance abuse crisis. But Recovery Unplugged is blazing a new treatment trail, harnessing the power of music to battle addiction in all its forms.

Perhaps the most alarming statistics involve the rise in mortality from the misuse of synthetic opioids. From 2013 through 2016, the rate of lives lost to synthetic opioid overdose rose an astounding 113 percent each year.

But other substances are killing people, too. As CNN reported at the end of October, "There has also been an increase in deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, MDMA and methylphenidate (commonly sold as Ritalin)."

There is some good news. In July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics released preliminary data that showed the rate of drug overdoses in 2018 declined about five percent. Experts have attributed the decrease — the first in 25 years — to measures aimed at stopping opioid over-prescription. But a recent study from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Institute for Technology Assessment, which noted the rise in the use of illicit opioids, has projected 81,700 annual opioid overdose deaths by 2025.

Of course, this figure doesn't even take into account the lives lost to alcohol, one of the most deadly and common addictions, according to Recovery Unplugged's co-founder and vision leader Paul Pellinger.

"I am grateful that people are now talking about opiate addiction. But the reality is more people are dying from alcoholism than any drug. That's been going on for decades, and not many people are talking about a solution. So, the goal of Recovery Unplugged is to raise awareness, change the stigma that's attached to addiction, and then come up with solutions that have better outcomes than traditional approaches."

So far, so good. While technological advances in the fight to save lives like an app that can detect overdoses are encouraging, there is nothing more effective than treating the issues that cause addiction. Since 2013, Recovery Unplugged has been doing just that, and more successfully than any other substance abuse treatment center in the country. An ongoing study by Florida's Nova Southeastern University has shown that in an industry where the client approval rating tends to top out at 60 percent, Recovery Unplugged averages ratings as high as 95 percent.

"Our outcomes are also four times better than the national average," Pellinger adds. "And our AMA rates — in other words, the clients that leave against medical advice — are over five times better than the national average, which directly correlates to better outcomes for our clients."

Those better outcomes are made possible thanks to an innovative treatment modality that uses the healing power of music to help addicts get clean and sober and stay that way. From the day that clients walk into one of Recovery Unplugged's locations in Tennessee, Florida, Northern Virginia or Texas, music facilitates the rehabilitation process. Clients listen to music, talk about music, and even play or write music.

Perhaps most crucially, music connects them — to each other, to their feelings and to the Recovery Unplugged staff. It breaks down walls, erases judgments and allows empathy and understanding to blossom. You don't have to be a musician to benefit from the power of music. Ninety percent of Recovery Unplugged's clients are not musicians, nor is Pellinger. But its impact can be profound.

"I can be standing next to somebody at a concert," Pellinger says of music's power to bring people together. "They can be any religion, race, sexual or gender identity — yet when the performer comes on, we are all jumping up and down together. Music has the ability to unify people, while it also helps anchor them to the particular concepts, perceptions and behaviors. That's one of the secrets of any good treatment center. The clinicians and the staff might be half of it, but the other half is about how the milieu is...what do we do to reinforce the positivity of the social environment?"

Scientists have studied for decades the correlation between music and increased serotonin levels and the release of endorphins. "In layman's terms, [music] appeals to the same pleasure centers of the brain that drugs and alcohol do," says Pellinger. "So, in essence, music can be used as a recovery trigger versus traditional treatment centers, which focus on relapse triggers."

A sense of community is particularly crucial to addiction treatment for LGBTQ people. From discrimination and ostracization to the threat (or reality) of violence, queer people, like other marginalized communities, face immense stressors that can lead to increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse.

"Party" drugs like MDMA and crystal meth have long been associated with the LGBTQ nightlife scene, and opioid abuse is a huge issue for the community as well. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women are at nearly three times greater risk of having opioid use disorder than heterosexual adults.

But at Recovery Unplugged, clients from all walks of life find inclusion, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

"Just battling addiction can feel very shameful," says Alexa Velez, Recovery Unplugged's lead human resources specialist. "And then you're also always seeking approval from others because those of us in the LGBTQ community have often struggled with self-acceptance. But when you're in a safe place like Recovery Unplugged, you have people who understand you, and you don't feel as alone. We all have different stories, but there's always someone there that you can relate to and empathize with. I think that's very beneficial."

As a new decade dawns, Pellinger, who has been in the drug treatment industry for three decades, says he plans to keep doing what he, and the center he co-founded, were meant to do.

"My focus and our focus at Recovery Unplugged is to save lives and to be the authority in the treatment of addiction using music as medicine," Pelligner says. "And we'll continue to do so in 2020."

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Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.