Quitting Kratom Reminded Me How Little Drugs Have to Do With Addiction

June 23, 2022

I admitted I was powerless over my addiction” is a phrase I only uttered under extreme duress, monitored by a rehab counselor who controlled my fate. It never rang true for me, despite the heroin addiction. Seeing as how I couldn’t get past Step One, I could never glean any benefit from 12-step. Being forced to return to something that did not work for me soured me to the thought of treatment itself, until I resigned myself to a life and death in addiction.

I didn’t need the Steps to quit heroin. And my recent experience of quitting kratom after nine months of daily use has only cemented my suspicion: We are not powerless over the drugs we use.

Type “kratom withdrawal” into Google and you will see a series of addiction treatment centers and SAMHSA warnings. Where there is money to be made, there is pristine search engine optimization. Surprise, you can go to an expensive inpatient detox and rehab for this plant.

Spend any time on the r/quittingkratom subreddit, and you’ll be left with an even more dire impression of the drug. People lament the green sludge that has robbed them of their lives, turned them into recluses only focused on their next dose, driven them into poverty, all the while beleaguered by withdrawals comparable to heroin.

When I made the conscious decision to take kratom daily, deciding that the benefits outweighed the cost, I knew the day would come that I would need to taper off of it entirely. Thanks to my raging PTSD from being force-detoxed into withdrawal at the county jail, I always held a healthy skepticism of any substance that required daily dosing. For this reason, and the fact that there is scant research about long-term or heavy kratom use, I always kept my dose low. When tolerance left it creeping upward, I would dramatically reduce for a week to “reset.” But I never completely stopped.

Thanks, once again, to criminal-justice system traumas, however, I’m now massively wary of breaking laws. I regret that that sentence could be read by some as a justification of punitive policies; it should not be. Nonetheless, it’s true for me. So when my best friend suggested that we visit the UK this summer, I knew what it meant. Kratom is a banned substance there. I would have to taper all the way off.

Because of my felonies, I had to apply for a tourist visa even though most Americans don’t need one. While I waited, I read up what the tapering journey would be like. It filled me with fear. Dozens of people reported horrific opioid-like withdrawals, mental cravings and an inability to cease using. People described 100 gram per day habits—meaning you’d consume an entire kilo in a 10-day span. (That’s still only $200 a month—an expense, certainly, but I feel like the “kratom impoverished me” complaint should be taken in the context of the overpriced, adulterated illicit opioids that some of us kratom users were previously paying for.) It all felt unbelievable to me, as I’d hovered between 4 and 12 grams a day and preferred the low end of that range.

Such absolutist portrayals on both ends of the spectrum frustrate me.

I became increasingly trepidatious about the task. In r/quittingkratom, most people go cold turkey, or “CT” in the lingo. Despite the fact that slow tapers, in my experience, almost entirely mitigate withdrawal symptoms, the people in the subreddit described finding it too challenging to resist temptation and stick to a taper schedule. Others said they found dose-reduction withdrawals to be so similar to CT that it didn’t matter.

In r/kratom, on the other hand, it’s almost entirely rainbows and sunshine. Miracle drug! Lifesaving! Despite the benefits I found in kratom, such absolutist portrayals on both ends of the spectrum frustrate me—which is why I made sure to acknowledge my physical dependency when I outed myself as a kratom user some months ago.

I ended up buying the supplements random strangers on the internet recommended, some of which have an evidence base and some of which don’t. I liked the black seed oil, which I’d previously used to potentiate my dose. I megadosed vitamin C, and took more things that I won’t go into because of the haywire nature of the unregulated US supplement market. I threw everything at the wall to see what stuck. (Something was working, because I would feel worse when I forget to take my meal-sized handful of “supplements.”)

I was enthralled by all the r/quittingkratom accounts of true addiction, in which people’s desire to live their life, have sex, have fun or do anything else was completely supplanted by their kratom use. Were we using the same substance?

I started by cutting out my occasional midday doses, then began lowering my morning and evening doses. I got down to 2 grams per day within a couple of weeks. I had little trace of opioid withdrawal, with which I am intimately familiar. Sleep became more challenging, and the mental health symptoms that made me take kratom in the first place felt more intense, but quickly everything regulated. (Not that my baseline is all that great.)

But I did have an unexpected symptom: brain zaps, which sometimes radiated throughout my body, resulting in panicked consultations with friends of mine who “get it”—read: a medical student and a generous psychiatry resident. I had felt “shocks” once before, after tapering off of prescription Xanax more quickly than my psychiatrist advised. (My need to prove I have power over drugs seems ingrained.) Concerned that it was GABA withdrawal like from the benzos, which does pose a seizure risk, I took a low dose of a leftover prescription benzodiazepine. It didn’t abate the shocks; this was my very ad hoc diagnostic tool to confirm that the shocks were instead related to the neurotransmitter serotonin. A flurry of Reddit searches confirmed it’s a semi-common symptom. I wish there were more peer-reviewed literature; I researched heroin exhaustively back in the days of Bluelight, but find kratom to be mostly a black hole.

To my best guess, kratom functions as an SSRI. This is suggested by research on its hypothetical mechanism of action. My taper was slow enough to avoid opioid-like withdrawal symptoms but too fast to avoid SSRI-style withdrawal. I sat at 2 grams daily for two more weeks, but struggled to get below that amount. Less than that felt exactly the same as none at all. It was time to jump off.

Drugs are not good or bad. It is our relationships to them, influenced by many outside variables, that form the crux of our subjective experiences.

I took my last dose Saturday morning. I didn’t experience so much as any discomfort. On Sunday, I went hiking. On Monday, I went to a Pride Gay Skate event at the roller rink. And it struck me anew how little drug addiction has to do with the drug itself.

There are some important caveats to my personal experience. I may be formerly incarcerated with mental health challenges, but I am not subjected to extreme poverty, racism or any number of other stressors that heavily impact people’s management of their relationships with drugs. Yet none of these very real societal factors are inherent to any drug—and that’s the point.

Drugs are inanimate substances. They are not good or bad. It is our relationships to them, influenced by many outside variables, that form the crux of our subjective experiences. Human beings are so desperate to externalize our internal emotions, to find something else to obsess over beyond our existential dread. I realized this once, fresh out of inpatient treatment, pulled over on the side of the road with the Domino’s Pizza sign alit on top of my car midway through my shift, gasping for air as I descended into a panic attack.

It’s because I need heroin, I told myself. That’s not true but it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you believe it, some wiser part of myself responded. We want a way to make the incomprehensible digestible. Identifying an external, concrete source of our troubles—rather than the complex interplay of psychological and societal circumstances—is relatively reassuring.

This anxiety is because I need heroin. Believe in your inherent need, and you have a clear remedy. And heroin will help, at least initially. But if instead you tell yourself a different story—like, this is anxiety that reflects aspects of my life, but experience tells me it will subside—that might become true, too. There’s a venerable study, led by William R. Miller, co-creator of motivational interviewing, that reflects these ideas. For people with alcohol addiction, it found, two factors were “optimally predictive of resumed drinking.” Those were: “lack of coping skills and belief in the disease model of alcoholism.”

It is never really about the drug. The vast majority of people who try any drug never become addicted, contrary to popular lore. It’s about the relationship, and as with other relationships, we sometimes adopt toxic dynamics.

I do not doubt that people struggling with kratom addiction are, in fact, struggling. To those who went to inpatient only to resume addictive use, my heart goes out to you. I know that pain. But I also know that addictive relationships with non-drug behaviors can be just as painful. And I know that kratom is a relatively mild substance that can be successfully tapered with few ill effects—if other variables allow it.

Funnily enough, the UK ended up denying my visa. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could endure the withdrawals, taper and quit anyway. And I did.

Telling people they’re powerless over a drug carries the severe risk of making them believe it.

Though I’d rather not test it, I do believe that my life is purposeful enough today that even taking heroin wouldn’t lure me back into compulsive, uncontrolled use. My relationship to that substance has changed because my relationship to myself has changed.

Most critically, my social context has changed. I am not, as I once was, an impoverished adolescent with no hope for my future, living an unequivocally miserable life. While I still struggle with suicidal ideation, unlike before I went to prison, it no longer feels like the most rational choice. (Its profound irrationality bothers me most, in fact.) After military benefits supported me through a bachelor’s degree, I have found work that supports me financially and that I find meaningful.

Many people do not share these privileges, and the unequal toll of addiction damningly reflects the injustices of our society. At the same time, knowing what addiction is not can be empowering to anyone. It isn’t the drug. And telling people they’re powerless over a drug carries the severe risk of making them believe it.

 


 

Photograph by Morgan Godvin

Morgan Godvin

Morgan is a writer from Portland, Oregon. She founded Beats Overdose, a harm reduction provider for the music and entertainment industry. She is a research associate with Health in Justice Action Lab and a councilmember on Oregon’s decriminalization Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council. She was formerly incarcerated.

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