I never understood how few heroin facts I really knew until I met someone who had detoxed and was going through heroin addiction treatment. The image of heroin users shooting heroin and passing out that so many of us have come to expect as the effects of heroin is so far from the truth, it was startling to me.
The reality is that, withover 500,000 people using heroin each year, you probably know someone who actively uses or has used this opiate drug. It is a narcotic drug that is synthesized morphine that addicts will inject, snort, or smoke—all ways to rapidly have the effects of the drug go straight to the brain. And, once it gets there, heroin users experiencea euphoric rush accompanied with a feeling of being alternately very alive and awake and overwhelmingly drowsy.
The recovering heroin addict I knew was actively working at the time he was using, working in construction, and would talk about how it felt to be shooting heroin in one moment and laying roofing shingles in the next. From what he described, the heroin facts I thought I knew went out the window. He didn’t just pass out, but would work, doing hard, physical labor, all while in an opiate-induced daze, and seem completely normal, albeit a bit spacey, to all of his coworkers.
The signs of heroin use are similar to most drug addictions, but often have some more subtle cues to look out for, especially in teens. Changes in mood, sleep schedules, and temper are very common, but certainly not exclusive to heroin use. In teens using heroin, it’s often hard to tell the difference between “normal” teenage mood-swings and those that are drug-induced. Changes in performance, such as grades in school, quality of work, and punctuality are common, too. But these more subtle signs are harder to put your finger on.
A big decrease in personal hygiene is a common warning sign of heroin use or addiction. Addicts often don’t bathe or shower as usual and will often wear the same clothes for days. For those who are using heroin intravenously, wearing long sleeved shirts, even in warmer weather, small bruises on arms and even legs, and small red dots on the arms or hands can be warning signs as well. For those who smoke or snort the drug, a runny nose, cough, or constant sniffing can be indicators of a problem. Knowing these heroin facts can be really important.
Heroin addicts often complain of being tired, have puffy eyes, and complain about feeling itchy or have flu-like symptoms, like body aches or feeling chills. When the addict has used recently, small, nearly pin-sized pupils and slurred speech are common symptoms.
Heroin users often become dependent on the drug and need more and more of it to obtain that same initial high. This, of course, increases the risk of heroin overdose, which can be fatal. Because heroin depresses the respiratory system, the risk of a severe drop in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing is very high. A heroin user can quickly andeasily slip into a coma or even die from using the drug.
Beyond overdose, there are serious complications with prolonged use. For those who are shooting heroin, the risk of contracting HIV and hepatitisare very high from using or sharing dirty needles. And, even if the addict doesn’t overdose or contract a fatal disease from using, street heroin often has additives and chemicals that can cause permanent damage to vital organs, such as the lungs, kidneys, and brain.
Heroin withdrawal symptoms can be severe, and can start as shortly as a few hours after last use. Intense bone and muscle pain, chills, restlessness, insomnia, and vomiting are all common symptoms addicts experience while going through a heroin detox. And, although heroin withdrawal symptoms generally subside after about a weekwithout the drug, some users can experience symptoms for months.
Fortunately, heroin detox isn’t considered as physically dangerous as detoxing from barbituates or alcohol. But, of course, that doesn’t lessen the pain of the symptoms of heroin withdrawal for someone who is addicted, and detoxing from any dependence should always be done in a supervised setting, since there are many treatments that can help lessen the symptoms and staff at detox treatment facilities can make sure that the user is detoxing safely.
Perhaps the most important of all the heroin facts is that treatment needs to go on, far beyond the detox period. Therapy and medications are often the best route to a heroin user getting his or her life back. But the medication aspect of heroin addiction treatment is still highly controversial.
I know from my experience with my friend that methadone, which has been used for decades to help opiate abusers overcome their addictions, is arguably just as addictive. I would watch my friend go to this special clinic, wait in line for hours, leave with a few vials, and have to return three days later. Methadone works because it binds to the same receptors in the brain that opiates effect and has a slower, more gradual onset, theoretically reducing cravings and staving off the terrible heroin withdrawal symptoms.
What they don’t tell you, though, is the psychological pain that comes from using methadone to get off of opiate drugs. My friend would describe the shame that came with waiting in that line and the entire experience as if it were just as it was when he got high. Waiting in the line at the addiction clinic was like waiting for his drug dealer. Leaving with the dose of methadone and administering it himself was like shooting heroin. And then, the cycle would just be repeated.
So, while drug treatments like methadone may help, maybe they are just as addictive in some ways. The psychological component of any addiction, the part that so many overlook because of the physical components, is just as real and even harder to overcome. Keeping an addict in the cycle of using, even if it is by using the “safe” drugs in appropriate doses, might not be the most effective heroin addiction treatment. But, for now at least, behavioral therapy alone doesn’t cure the very real physical pain that comes after having been addicted to an opiate drug.
There are no clear-cut heroin facts that define the best treatment for the addiction, but the biggest fact is this: The risk of continuing snorting, smoking, or shooting heroin far outweighs the down side of heroin addiction treatment. Even my friend would tell you that, despite the pain he went through during his methadone treatment. Today, he has his life back and is fortunate to not have any long-term physical consequences of his addiction to heroin.