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Heroin Addiction: The Long Road Home

Posted on June 25, 2009 in Heroin

By Suzanne Kane

When you are in the grip of heroin, it seems like you’ll never be free of it. Heroin addiction is one of the most difficult drugs to overcome, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You do need to be prepared for a long haul. And you do need courage and conviction.

What Happens in the Body With Heroin Addiction

Just why it’s so hard to overcome heroin is easy to see when you look at what the drug does to your body. Over time, your nervous system has adapted to accommodate chronic use of the drug. When heroin first infiltrates your body, your brain’s natural chemistry reacts with heroin’s toxins to create the feeling of heroin euphoria. Other effects include a feeling of heaviness and inability to move, dizziness, nausea, change in skin temperature. You feel tired, and the world seems to no longer exist around you. In effect, you are incapable of functioning either mentally or physically.

Heroin also damages the central nervous system, and may also cause short- and long-term harm to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Many users overdose and die from the drug’s toxic effects, while others suffer severe and permanent damage.

A University of California study of 581 male heroin addicts monitored over 30 years (1964 to 1994) found alarming results. After 30 years, more than half (284) of the original participants, had died. Causes of the deaths: 22 percent died from overdose, 15 percent of chronic liver disease, and 20 percent from suicide or homicide. Of the remaining 43 percent of the deaths, the causes were AIDS, cancer or cardiovascular diseases. What about the 297 addicts still alive after 30 years? The sad truth is that 43 percent of them were still using heroin.

You’ve Made the Decision to Enter Detox – Now What?

Just by entering detox you’ve made a powerful first step. You may have finally hit bottom, due to a combination of physical and emotional consequences of the effects of heroin. Perhaps you had an intervention and that’s why you arrived at detox. The point is that you’re here. Now what?

Some of the immediate effects of detoxification from heroin are those you’re already quite familiar with. Every time your high wore off and you didn’t get your fix right away, your body started to feel some of the withdrawal symptoms. You may have even tried to quit cold turkey – not a good idea, as you well know if you’ve tried it.

Physical withdrawal symptoms include: a 3- to 5-day period of intense anxiety, insomnia, flu-like symptoms, cramps, chills, sweating, diarrhea and goose bumps. Muscles start to tighten and twitch, leading to involuntary spasms or kicking. Psychological cravings for the drug become almost unbearable, impossible to fight. Peak withdrawal symptom severity occurs about 24 hours after termination of the drug, and can last a week or more. Without medication to manage the withdrawal symptoms, the pain can be excruciating. But unless other medical problems exist, detox itself is not life-threatening.

Detoxification under medical supervision alleviates the discomfort of heroin withdrawal, managed by administration of medication – if the patient chooses this method. Using medication, the effects can be minimized or even prevented. Drugs used include methadone, clonidine and buprenorphine drugs like Subutex or Suboxone.

Rapid Detox Using Anesthesia Not Recommended

Among the many methods for detoxification that have been proposed or used, rapid detox using anesthesia sounds like a great idea. You’re given an anesthetic, and when you wake up, you’re clean of heroin. That’s not necessarily true. In a study conducted by psychiatrists at the Columbia University Medical Center and New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia found that detoxification under general anesthesia is unsafe and ineffective. The procedure can lead to risk of death, seizure and increased stress. Separate studies found other risks, including delirium, attempted suicide, abnormal heart rhythm, and kidney failure.

Detoxification with buprenorphine, while slower than with anesthesia, is less expensive and more effective.

Bottom line: there’s no single, magic pill or treatment that will erase years of chronic heroin abuse overnight. Medically-supervised detoxification, weaning your body safely off the drug, is absolutely necessary.

But detox is only the start of your recovery.

After Detox

The most important factor in determining your overall chances of a successful recovery occurs after the drug has been purged from your system. In fact, drug rehab following detox from heroin can last from 3 to 6 months in a residential program. Your therapy will consist of a number of personalized treatment methods, including individual psychotherapy, group counseling sessions, fitness and nutrition, dialectical training therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), family treatment, alternative therapies, relapse prevention and more. Life-affirming activities include yoga, acupuncture and exercise.

During rehab, you will learn to identify, analyze and understand the triggers that promote drug use and learn new ways of thinking and acting that do not involve drugs. You will also learn new coping skills to deal with stress. You will have the support of individuals trained to help you, and they will deal with you as an individual, basing your treatment on your needs.

Following your drug rehab treatment program, you will be encouraged to continue receiving support and help through continuing counseling, perhaps in outpatient treatment, and to attend recovery support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous. You need to build a new life away from the people and situations that were associated with your drug abuse. By continuing your counseling after you leave drug rehab, you will further strengthen your skills in better understanding and dealing with the underlying issues that caused you to find heroin so attractive in the first place. You now know that heroin is a dead-end path. You’ve chosen to follow a new route, to chart a new life, one that, prior to entering detox and drug rehab, you couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Yes, recovery from heroin addiction is a long road. But it is one that is well worth traveling to arrive at the future you want for yourself: clean and drug-free.

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