Why Heroin Addicts Don't Recover
Can Drug Addicts Fully Recover?
They can get better. Let's lay that out there before going any further. In many cases, however, heroin addicts make repeated attempts to “get clean” that fail almost before they get off the ground.
Almost everyone has heard a heart-wrenching story of a loved one who got clean and managed to stay clean for an extended period of time before relapsing and, sadly, losing his or her life as a result.
So why is it that so many heroin addicts simply can’t recover?
The Misunderstood Nature of Addiction
Addiction takes many forms, and the word is often tossed around quite lightly. Your mother may make jokes about being "addicted" to coffee or gardening. You see television specials focused on helping young adults who are “addicted” to video games and your friends work the word in when expressing their pleasure with something, such as being “addicted” to roller coasters.
In reality, none of the above-mentioned things constitutes a true, physical addiction (and no matter how much you love shopping, you aren’t addicted to it).
True addiction comes when an individual is unable to properly function without the needed substance. While video game addicts begrudgingly take time off from gaming to attend school or go to work, heroin addicts are still snorting, smoking, or shooting their chosen substance no matter what.
Do other addictions exist? Yes. Can they really compare? No.
The Longer the Addiction, the Harder It Is to Break
Any ex-smoker will tell you that the longer a person smokes, the harder it is to quit. The same principle can be applied to heroin use. This is because daily activities become ingrained into your daily life. Physical addiction aside, the brain is a powerful weapon. Feed it with a highly addictive substance, such as regular opiates, and it will turn on you, ready to devour your very psyche in an effort to get more.
High vs. Normal: An Unfair Fight
Most people who try heroin do so for a simple high and they achieve it, but at a cost. Once the body becomes accustomed to opiates (and this occurs extremely quickly), it will revolt if the drugs stop coming. The end result? Heroin addicts must shoot, snort, or smoke even more heroin simply to feel normal.
Failing to get a “fix” leaves a heroin addict physically sick and psychologically tormented. They cannot function either psychologically or physically past a certain point. Sure, we’ve all seen the withdrawal videos of heroin addicts shaking and sweating while their bodies detoxify, but try and imagine what the addict is experiencing. Think you’ve got it? You don’t. The drug is so powerful, so demanding, that it strips the user of his or her sense of self. It's more powerful than self-respect, fear, pride, and the love an individual has for his or her friends, family, or children.
How Heroin is Made
Heroin is processed by adding acetic anhydride to simple morphine and bringing the substance to a boil. As the compounds coalesce, the raw heroin will sink.
Morphine and heroin are similarly addictive substances. Believe it or not, there are quite a few Americans out there running around addicted to morphine, but most of them have jobs that allow them access to the drug. Heroin is much, much easier to come by than morphine, which is closely controlled.
Opiates for Heroin Detox
Drug treatment centers offer a myriad of heroin detox methods to help addicts reduce the pain of withdrawal. The fact that a lucky few manage to quit the drug “cold turkey” makes it easy to point fingers and blame relapses on each individual’s lack of strength and motivation. In reality, all bodies are different and process toxic substances in different ways. What didn’t get a full hold on one person's brain could have driven another person to insanity.
Methadone is usually the drug of choice for heroin addicts. This reduces the need for a “fix,” although cravings may still occur. Methadone can be used either permanently for “maintenance” or tapered over time as part of a slower detoxification program. The only problem with this method is that methadone is, in and of itself, an incredibly addicting substance.
There are also other detox methods and pharmacological treatments to consider, such as opioid agonists and antagonists or rehabilitation.
Heroin Withdrawal Can Kill You
Before you decide to tie your loved one to a chair and just force him to detox on his own, thinking he’ll thank you later when he’s clean (yes, people do this), you should remember that for serious addicts, withdrawal can be just as much of a death sentence as remaining on the drug.
In the event that such an unorthodox detox were successful, there’s still no guarantee that the individual won’t relapse. Ridding his physical system of opiates doesn’t rob his brain of the knowledge of what heroin can do. Just like a smoker who remembers what it's like to smoke a cigarette after abstaining for a while, the heroin user may seek out additional drugs as a way of reclaiming that high.
After awhile, heroin users don’t use because they want to. The pleasant feeling that once accompanied the drug is muted by the body’s overwhelming need to have opiates merely to feel normal. Detoxing can bring the high back. Thus, detoxification can, in itself, provide the former heroin addict with motivation to return to the drug.
Advice for Family Members
If you’re the friend or family member of a heroin addict, all you can do is encourage the person to get clean, be as supportive as possible, and stay out of the way. No one who gets clean by force or overwhelming pressure is going to stay clean. As heart-wrenching as it is, that person has to want to rid themselves of the heroin before they can ever do so, regardless of their families' pleading.
What you can do, however, is practice a bit of tough love. Some addicts need to hit rock bottom before they can begin to scramble back to the surface. The longer you hand out a free ride, the longer the user will remain a “comfortable user.” Sure, the addict is in less danger than if he were on the streets, but the longer he uses heroin, the harder it will be for him to shake the habit.
If the addict has children that live with him or her, you absolutely must notify the local police department or children's services of the user’s addiction. Regardless of how good a parent he or she claims to be, the smallest bit of heroin left on a paper or in a syringe can and will kill a small child. If your loved one were in his or her right mind, rest assured you’d be thanked. Even if you can’t save the addict, you can take steps to save the addict’s children.
My Opiate Experience
First, let me state that I have never been addicted to heroin, never even tried the stuff. I haven’t lost a friend or family member to it and I hope I never do. While researching heroin addiction, however, I found myself completely blown away by the sheer magnitude of what this drug can do to families. If you aren’t convinced, let me tell you my story.
I have a natural narcotics immunity. I didn’t discover this until I was 19 and landed myself in the hospital. I’d had a kidney stone that I didn’t seek medical help for because I didn’t have insurance. The pain was regular, constant, and sometimes debilitating. I self-medicated when I could with vodka and cranberry juice—a remedy suggested by, and supplied by, my grandmother, with whom I was living at the time. She couldn’t afford to send me to the doctor and I never told her how bad the pain really was.
After several weeks, one night the pain was so bad I couldn’t draw breath to scream. I literally crawled out of my room and was rushed to the hospital. I was given large quantities of various intravenous narcotics, none of which worked. The doctor on call declared that I must be a drug addict to not respond to any pain medicine. I didn’t hear this because I was hurting too much. I was in school and trying to get an education. I wasn’t doing any drugs—not even the recreational pot smoking my friends were doing.
My sister arrived later that morning. Being a nurse, she was furious that I never told her about the pain and she managed to explain to me that some people just have a natural immunity to narcotics.
The only thing that worked was morphine. The first time the staff gave it to me, I didn’t feel it. I was screaming. I thought I was dying. (I was. My heart stopped sometime later and they managed to revive me). After a second dose of morphine, however, the pain went away. I felt it go into my bloodstream like thick, hot coffee. The heat then rushed across my face and torso like a cloud and the pain was gone. There was no sense of being “high” and I got no pleasure from it, but the pain was finally gone.
I was in the hospital for a week, receiving morphine intermittently when the pain got bad. I was on a steady morphine drip. I had to remain in the hospital to give the powerful antibiotics time to take effect. The last day I opted for ibuprofen rather than morphine because I was petrified of getting hooked on it. I knew very little about addiction, but I knew enough to worry.
The day after I got home, I got sick. Very sick. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I had no idea that I was withdrawing from the morphine. It was one of the worst feelings I can remember. I was nauseated, too lethargic to move, and, perhaps worst of all, I felt everything was pointless. My body vacillated between sweating and freezing. My terminally ill father put me on his oxygen machine, thinking it would help. I would have done just about anything to make the pain stop. None of us realized it was actually a very mild opiate withdrawal.
And then it went away and I got better and moved on with my life. It wasn’t until an accident six years later landed me back in the hospital on a morphine drip for several days and the scenario repeated itself that I realized what actually happened.
Considering my high tolerance for other narcotics and the very brief period of time that my body was exposed to the opiate, I can only begin to imagine what the withdrawal experience must be like for a heroin addict. Remember, heroin is more powerful than morphine.