By all counts, Carrie should have had a wonderful childhood. She grew up as the child of loving parents in a beautiful home in the Forest Hill area of Toronto. She attended private school and had the kind of creature comforts so many only dream of. But there was always an undercurrent of anxiety and dread coursing through her, and when her parents divorced, she began acting out. She started spending her weekends drinking, smoking pot, and dropping acid. “Booze and drugs did something to me that I couldn’t do for myself. They changed me, if only for a moment, and the promise of that moment was too alluring to resist,” she writes.
Then, just as she was on the cusp of adulthood, cocaine entered the picture. At first, it was merely something to do on weekends, just one more distraction alongside MDMA and dancing. But following the suicide of her boyfriend, it became something else. By the time she was in her early 20s, she was buying two 8 balls at a time, which would be gone within 24 hours. Her social world shrank down to almost exclusively consisting of the conversations she had with dealers. Carrie shrank, too. Down to weighing just 102 lbs, she became deeply paranoid and hallucinated conversations that never happened. As she wandered through the Four Seasons Hotel desperately looking for her dealer, life seemed unbearable. When she finally agreed to go to treatment, however, the withdrawal symptoms seemed unbearable, too. “I was even more miserable than I was when I used,” she says. “I couldn’t sit still. I was feverish all the time.” Before the program was over, she relapsed.
Cocaine is known for its extraordinarily addictive nature, trapping users in a cycle of addiction that is often impossible to break out of on your own. One of the contributing factors to high relapse rates is the pain of cocaine withdrawal symptoms, which catapult many back to using even when they have the best intentions of getting clean. By understanding these withdrawal symptoms and seeking treatment in a program that supports you through them, you can optimize your chances of lasting recovery.
Understanding Cocaine Withdrawal Symptoms
Compared to many other drugs, cocaine provides a remarkably short high—15 to 30 minutes when snorting it, 5-10 minutes when smoking it. While the comedown hits users with varying intensities, virtually all cocaine users are familiar with some form of cocaine hangover. Withdrawal, however, is different than just a comedown.
When you use on a long-term basis and in high amounts, your brain adapts to the presence of cocaine, modulating its neurotransmitter activity with the expectation that more cocaine is on its way. In particular, researchers have found that long-term use is associated with damaged dopamine neurons, which decreases your ability to experience pleasure and augments your risk of depression. When you abruptly stop using, your brain doesn’t instantly bounce back to normal, but struggles to repair itself and regain equilibrium over time. This explains why cocaine withdrawal can be such a grueling process and throws many addicts into deep despair.
The Stages of Cocaine Withdrawal
When you are in the early stages of withdrawal, it can feel as if it’s never going to end and that you have entered into a permanent state of psychological suffering. However, studies indicate that withdrawal typically happens on specific timeline, with each stage bringing you closer to recovery.
Phase One: The Crash
The first stage of withdrawal happens only hours or days after your last use. Symptoms include:
- Sleep disruption
- Increased appetite
Phase Two: Withdrawal
While virtually all users have experienced a crash, people suffering from cocaine addiction enter a second phase—withdrawal—following the initial crash. This period can last up to 10 weeks and symptoms include:
- Poor concentration
- Emotional lability
Phase Three: Extinction
The extinction phase follows the period of intense withdrawal, during which time withdrawal symptoms decrease in severity. This period can last up to 28 weeks and is typically marked by:
- Episodic cravings, particularly in response to external triggers
While cocaine withdrawal does not present physical dangers in the way that drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines do, you may experience tremors, muscle aches, nerve pain, and chills. The psychological dangers, however, can be significant, and emotional distress often doesn’t peak until several weeks into withdrawal.
Seeking Treatment for Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine is a particularly difficult substance to discontinue on your own, especially once you are in the midst of withdrawal. As such, a residential addiction treatment program that will support you through the withdrawal process is often an essential part of healing. In these programs, you will receive the guidance of expert clinicians and compassionate peers who understand what you are going through and will give you a safe space to begin your recovery process free from shame or judgment.
While there are no drugs specifically designed to treat cocaine addiction or withdrawal, there may be pharmacological options appropriate for certain withdrawal symptoms, particularly depression and anxiety. Regardless of whether or not pharmacotherapy is appropriate for your situation, however, behavioral interventions are invaluable. Using a personalized curriculum of therapies designed to meet your unique needs, you can gain the insight and skills needed to cope with your withdrawal symptoms as well as fully examine your relationship with drugs and create meaningful strategies for change. By engaging your innate ability to heal—neurologically, emotionally, and behaviorally—these therapies can help you create a strong foundation for ongoing sobriety.
Many people struggling with cocaine addiction also suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders that are brought to the forefront once cocaine use has ceased; it is imperative that the symptoms of these disorders are not confused with normal cocaine withdrawal symptoms and allowed to go untreated. In-depth psychological assessment by highly trained clinicians is necessary to ensure that any co-occurring disorders are identified and appropriate interventions are put in place, including any medication-based therapies. Often, these disorders are a significant contributing factor to cocaine use, and alleviating their symptoms is an essential part of relapse prevention.
The cocaine withdrawal process lasts longer than most residential treatment program stays. However, by spending at least 90 days in treatment, you can get the help you need to get through the most intense period of withdrawal. During your time in treatment, your treatment team should work with you to create a detailed continuing care plan that will take you through the next stages of healing. Depending on your individual situation, this may include stepping down into an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), a sober living environment, or individual therapy combined with peer support groups. It is imperative that you have a clear roadmap for how to continue the recovery process, and the treatment program you choose should always be available to give you any support and guidance you need following residential treatment. With the right kind and quality of care, you can get through cocaine withdrawal and begin to create a vision of what your life can be without the use of drugs or alcohol.
As for Carrie, her life looks very different these days. Connecting with effective treatment allowed her to find relief from her inner pain and stop using for good. The transformation is profound; she is married, has a daughter, and has nurtured close relationships with her family. Her skin has lost its grey pallor, and the young woman who once frantically wandered around the Four Seasons seems like a distant memory.
Last year, I finished law school and secured an articling position at a firm that specializes in social justice and advocacy work. My employer is not just accepting of my past but supportive of my decision to write about it. I want to go into criminal law. It won’t be easy or particularly lucrative, but everybody deserves a second chance. And a third, and a fourth. I believe that with a lot of work, anyone can turn their life around. Even me.
Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our innovative Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.
Image Source: Unsplash user Soroush Karimi