An Overview of Heroin Addiction
The mountains that ring the southern part of Asia are awash with color in the spring and summertime, as hundreds of thousands of poppy plants spread their petals to receive the rays of the sun. The scene is indescribably beautiful, but it can also be a source of misery for hundreds of thousands of families living in the United States, as each flower holds sap that could be harvested, refined and packaged for sale as heroin.
While the drug is notorious, it often escapes the notice of families, as its appearance can vary dramatically from location to location. For example, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center, heroin sold on the East Coast of the United States often looks like a dry, white powder. Heroin sold on the West Coast of the United States, by contrast, is sticky and brown. It can even be solid, like a brick.
Finding out more about how heroin works is the key to healing, as families who can spot the abuse and get appropriate help right away can avoid some of the more serious, and even deadly, consequences of abuse.
Heroin users can smoke, snort or even ingest the drug. No matter what route they take, however, the drug has a remarkable ability to hijack the function of the brain, and it’s this type of amendment that’s responsible for the addictive quality of this potent drug.
When heroin enters the user’s body, it seeks out receptors dotted throughout the brain and intestinal tract. The heroin molecules attach to these receptors and set off a cascade of chemical reactions. Many of these reactions involve the pleasure centers of the brain. When heroin is in place, the brain pumps out huge amounts of dopamine, a chemical marker the brain typically releases when something wonderful is taking place. With one hit of heroin, a person feels the same chemical reactions a person might feel if he or she were about to eat some mouthwatering food or open a present. But, this reaction is exaggerated and it goes on and on. Rather than feeling mildly happy, people feel euphoric. This is the “rush” that heroin addicts feel, and it can be incredible and hard to forget.
The brain doesn’t find the experience altogether pleasant, however, and the brain might respond by adjusting its response to pleasure signals. The next time a user takes heroin, the rush might be a little less intense. If the user wants to recreate the original high, the user might need to take more heroin, and again, the brain adjusts its response.
This intimate dance between a heroin user’s need for a rush and the brain’s need to stay protected can result in addiction. In time, the brain can be so amended and altered that it simply cannot function in the absence of heroin, and the number of users that develop a dependence on this drug is remarkably high. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that a whopping 57.4 percent of people who used heroin in 2003 qualified for a diagnosis of heroin dependence or abuse. It’s so powerful that people rarely dabble. Instead, they tend to get hooked.
Difficulties With Quitting
The body becomes accustomed to the constant presence of heroin, and when the addict tries to quit, the body goes into a protracted withdrawal. Symptoms can be mild, including sweating and teeth grinding, but they can also be severe and include vomiting, nausea and intense muscular pain. Some addicts are trapped within their addictions for decades because they experience tiny withdrawal symptoms between hits. These symptoms are so frightening that the user returns to heroin to keep the discomfort from growing stronger. The symptoms dissipate as soon as the addict takes heroin once more, which seems to encourage the addiction to keep growing.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests that the physical symptoms a person faces during withdrawal aren’t life-threatening, and they tend to dissipate in time. However, there’s a mental component of withdrawal that can be difficult to ignore.
People who are addicted long for the pleasures the drug can bring, and they might be reminded of their love of heroin when they see:
- People they once took heroin with
- Television shows that depict people using heroin
- Their former dealers
- Photographs of white powder
The deep need for drugs comes from the emotional part of the brain, and it’s difficult to ignore. Many users revert to heroin use simply because they can’t overcome the emotional cues that come with withdrawal, and their longing drives them back to their former habits.
It’s important to note that the emotional longing for heroin stems from chemical changes inside the brain. People who miss heroin aren’t weak or ignorant. They’re dealing with a very serious chemical problem that’s difficult to overcome without help. It’s not an issue of willpower as much as it’s an issue of illness.
These chemical and neurological changes can make it difficult for the heroin addict to live a normal life. In fact, some studies suggest that a heroin addiction can cause personality changes. For example, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that people who were taking heroin were twice as likely to make impulsive decisions, compared to those who were not. It could be hard to do the hard work of leaving heroin behind when people are hardwired to be impulsive and only think about the present.
Thankfully, there are a number of ways that a formal treatment program can help. During the detoxification process, for example, medical experts can monitor an addict’s progress, and ensure that the body’s adjustments don’t translate into significant pain. Over-the-counter medications might help to soothe gastric and muscular distress, and counseling might help addicts to understand that the physical pain will end and healing is well underway. In severe cases, prescription medications can even be used to help smooth the transition from addiction to sobriety.
Sometimes, medications even play a role when detox is complete. Long-term heroin addicts can, at times, endure such crushing changes inside the cells of the brain that they simply cannot function without some sort of chemical amendment. Replacement medications like buprenorphine or methadone can correct these imbalances and allow people to feel healthier, so they’ll be better equipped to participate in the therapies that can lead to long-term recovery. Medications like this aren’t for everyone, of course, as they are sometimes used on an abusive basis by some people. But there are times in which medications allow people to participate fully in therapy, and when those medications are closely monitored, they can deliver real relief.
Medications alone can’t cure an addiction, however, so counseling will always play an important role. In counseling sessions, clients are provided with the opportunity to discuss the issues that spurred heroin experimentation, and those discussions might involve:
- Underlying mental illnesses
- Poor social skills
- Unrelenting physical pain
- Childhood trauma
- A lack of anger-management skills
Uncovering these problems, and providing therapy that can help to shore up weak spots, can help some addicts emerge with the healthy, balanced life that’s always eluded them.
Therapy is a vital part of the recovery process for most addicted people, but a study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review suggests that people who really recover do so by overhauling the social aspect of their lives. They move away from friends who continue to use, and they make new and sober connections. Often, a support group plays a role in this kind of recovery.
In a heroin addiction support group, people in recovery come together to discuss their prior addicted lifestyles, as well as the ways in which they’d like to amend their behaviors in the future. They support one another and learn from one another, and sometimes, they form partnerships that can be vital when a relapse looms. Having an understanding friend available for a chat can prevent a relapse from taking hold, and providing that support might allow the helper to recommit to his/her sobriety.
Treatment facilities might encourage participation in support groups overtly, by holding meetings on site or asking clients to provide proof of their participation in off-site meetings, but facilities might also encourage recovered clients to live in sober living homes when treatment is complete. These homes are often built on a peer-support model, with multiple support group meetings held throughout the week, and this might provide a safe and sober environment that can keep a newly recovered addict on the right long-term path.
Relapse prevention techniques might also involve in-depth counseling regarding relapse. Often, clients think of relapse as a sudden slip that comes from nowhere and leaves them ill-prepared to prevent the oncoming disaster. In counseling, clients may learn that relapse often involves a series of small, slow steps that can be quickly addressed. Clients who begin to watch television shows involving heroin, for example, might see that they’re putting their recovery in jeopardy. Similarly, clients who discover that they’re drinking might realize that they’re substituting alcohol for heroin in an addictive pattern. Relapse prevention counseling makes these insights easier to understand, and often, that makes the difference in terms of long-term recovery.
Alternative therapies might also play a role in a comprehensive treatment program for heroin addiction. Some clients find that participating in exercise programs involving yoga or tai chi gives them a form of mental strength that can allow them to resist the allure of heroin. Others find that massage therapy sessions help them to soothe muscular distress so they’re less likely to self-medicate with heroin. Still others might find that hiking or adventure therapy helps them to tap into inner sources of strength and resolve, so they’re less likely to take drugs in the future. These sorts of therapies aren’t available in all facilities, but often, they can be quite helpful for people with a long-term heroin addiction problem.
Help at Alta Mira
At Alta Mira, we work hard every day to help heroin addicts recover and beat their addictions. We use medications, talk therapy, group meetings and more to help set the addict on the right path, and we encourage all of our patients to keep fighting long after the formal program is complete. All our programs are customized, based on the needs of our clients, and we’d like to design a program just for you. If you or someone you know is dealing with a heroin addiction, we encourage you to call us.