University of Minnesota

A voice for improved addiction treatment

U grad student Ian McLoone survived a heroin addiction, and is now trying to change the model of addiction treatment from the inside out.

January 8, 2014

When you look at Ian McLoone, you see a devoted husband and a father to two cherubic kids. You see a bright, college-educated individual who has spent his professional life working with and advocating for others. You see an amiable, well-spoken Midwestern guy with bright blue eyes and a quick smile.

Chances are, though, what you don’t see when you look at handsome, affable, 30-year-old Ian McLoone is a heroin addict.

And that, he says, is exactly what makes Minnesota’s opiate epidemic so insidious. “When you think of someone who goes into treatment, to a methadone clinic, you don’t think of the ‘success stories.’ You don’t think of the white-collar professional. Or of a doctor or a lawyer.”

Instead, he says, the common perception of an addict—especially here in Minnesota—is that it must be someone who is marginalized—“the lowest of the low.”

Actually, addiction to opiates (the class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, as well as heroin) is a rising problem—and its victims are quite often the people you’d never suspect: your average working- and middle-class John and Jane Does.

The rate of prescription opiate abuse has risen steadily nationwide (so much so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified it as an epidemic), and Minnesota is no different. Where the state stands apart, however, is in its skyrocketing rate of heroin abuse—thanks to a ready, inexpensive supply of some of the purest heroin in the country.

In 2012, addiction treatment admissions for heroin and all other opiates combined accounted for more than 20 percent of all treatment admissions in the Twin Cities—second only to alcohol. Heroin alone accounted for 12.9 percent of all admissions—and among those, nearly 42 percent were young people age 18-25. That same year, Ramsey County saw a 25-percent jump in opiate-related fatalities (36 to a record-setting 54), while Hennepin County recorded 84 deaths.

From addiction to ultimatum

Like many others swept up in the rising tide of the heroin epidemic, McLoone’s story started out innocuously enough.

The St. Louis Park native moved back to Minnesota following his college graduation to help out with his ailing mother. He settled back in, met the woman who would become his wife, and took a job running a food shelf in St. Paul.

Following shoulder surgery for a sports injury, he was prescribed a course of painkillers. The story might have ended there, but he was in a car accident not long after—and received another prescription. “And, pretty soon…I was abusing them. And when the prescriptions ran out? I started buying them on the street. And when my dealers ran out? I discovered heroin.”

From there, he says, his addiction progressed rapidly, and “within a year, year and a half, I was injecting every day, multiple times a day.” And although he recognized he needed to get clean, and tried multiple out-patient treatment programs, McLoone says none of them really was effective.

Eventually, he ended up in trouble with the law…and faced with an ultimatum at home. “Finally, both my dad and my wife said to me, ‘you have to stop. Go and get help, or go away. You will end up on the street if you don’t do something.’”

And so McLoone packed his bags and checked in to a residential in-patient facility for four months.

Many of the individuals in the program were on probation or there because of a court-order, he explains, and the methods employed were highly punitive-based—adding yet another level of stress and shame to an already difficult experience. 

“I came to the realization that there had to be a better way of helping people find recovery,” he says.

Changing the model from the inside out

Which is why when he got out of the program and made the decision to go back to school, he knew he wanted to enroll in the Integrated Behavioral Health/Addiction Studies Program through the College of Continuing Education. “I realized there were a lot of things wrong with the current state of addiction treatment…and I saw an opportunity to use my own experiences to be able to change the rehab model from the inside out.

In addition to finishing up his studies, McLoone is a research assistant in the new Minnesota Center for Mental Health, has a leadership role in the Opioid Coalition, volunteers for the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, and actively blogs about the science of substance use and cutting-edge interventions through the website of Dr. Mark Willenbring, the former director of treatment and recovery research at the National Institutes of Health’s Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who is also McLoone’s professional mentor as he completes his graduate work.

“My research focuses on medication-assisted therapy, because I know how important access to medication was—and is—to my recovery and treatment, and I also am aware of the tremendous stigma that it has associated with it.”

It’s work that McLoone is eager to do, because he knows firsthand how insidious—and deceptive—the problem can be. “The stigma associated with addiction—and especially with medication-assisted recovery—is still very prevalent,” he says.

McLoone also works as a counselor at a private clinic in Burnsville that specializes in treating co-occurring mental illness and chemical dependency. “I’m in an amazing position right now. I’ve broken that cycle of addiction, and feel like I have room to breathe,” he says. “I continue to learn new things—and have the ability to apply them in my work. I have a wife who has stood with me. I have two great kids who I can be a dad to. It’s sounds sort of grandiose, but, honestly, I’m humbled. I’m grateful. I’m hopeful. …

“Maybe by changing people’s minds about medication-assisted treatment and recovery, by educating people about co-occuring disorders, and by getting rid of the stereotypes, we can, eventually, change the way addiction treatment is dealt with here in the U.S. [That’s why] I’m doing this work. Why I share my experiences. It’s my responsibility to be a voice.”

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