SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — A new treatment for alcoholism is now in the Bay Area. While it’s not a cure, it may help more individuals achieve sobriety.
Doctors who prescribe it claim it really works. So does an actor — whose battle with the bottle began in childhood.
In the hit TV show “Growing Pains,” Jeremy Miller played the smart-mouthed little brother, and found fame at a young age. But he also found alcohol.
“At 4 years old, I used to run around at my grandparents parties and finish off all the beers,” Miller told KPIX 5.
By 20, the actor said he was a full-blown alcoholic.
“My friends would tell me they thought I had a problem,” said Miller, “I was almost proud of it, until it got really out of control,”
Miller hit rock bottom when he woke up one last time and saw his girlfriend sitting on the edge of the bed furious. He had blacked out. It took him 3 more years however to seriously attempt to stop drinking but he could not.
Miller tried everything he knew: support groups, rehab, hydrotherapy, holistic therapy, hypnosis. Nothing worked for him. He even considered electro-shock therapy.
“That’s how desperate I was. I was ready to have them fry my brain to get rid of this,” Miller said.
That’s when his mother found a different option on the internet. She saw a program about a new implant that uses an old drug in a new formulation and told her son.
“What we use is a specially compounded formuation of this FDA approved medication,” said Dr. George Fallieras.
Fallieras is the medical director of the Start Fresh Recovery clinic in Walnut Creek where the implant is offered.
The old drug is Naltrexone. It blocks the parts of the brain that feel pleasure when you drink. It’s been used for decades to treat alcoholism and opioid abuse.
But instead of a pill or injection, it’s a time release version that’s surgically implanted near the belly button. The FDA has not given a specific approval for the implant. Since the drug is compounded, only licensed medical doctors can insert the implant into his or her patients who consents to the treatment.
“It’s a very quick, well-tolerated outpatient procedure that lasts roughly 15 minutes only under local anesthesia,” Fallieras said.
The implant releases a slow, steady dose of drug into the body over a number of months. Advocates for the treatment believe the implant will help to solve a major problem with medication: patients who can’t comply with taking a daily pill. They say this implant provides a sustained dose that keeps the cravings at bay without the patient even having to think about medication.
Not everyone is wild about the implant.
“We get concerned about how long it will be used, the long-term effects, how effective it will be,” said Keith Schroeder, clinical director of the National Council of Alcoholism. He is also a substance abuse therapist who has helped addicts for more than 20 years.
With this implant, Schroeder worries that while naltrexone is not addictive, that alcoholics may grow dependent on it, and delay the day when they have to face their cravings. He says some cravings persist for 12 months or longer.
“At some point, you have to lean to deal with your disease, You have to learn to deal with cravings,” Schroeder said.
Fallieras said for many, the cravings go away by the time the active ingredient in the implant disappears: anywhere from 6 to 12 months.
He said when combined with the Start Fresh Recovery program’s exclusive intensive one-on-one life coaching program that the success rates are above 85%. “There’s no magic bullet, it’s nothing like that it’s just a very effective tool,” he said.
As for Miller, he is now a patient advocate for the company. He has been clean and sober for more than two years. “It’s not a part of my life anymore and I can’t be more thankful,” he said.
The treatment costs $27,000 and includes the implant, and as well as the special coaching program. Not all insurance covers it, but the clinic said it offers financial assistance to those in need.