When asked to describe heroin addicts, most people will begin to tell a tale of severe health problems and economic distress.
They may believe that all heroin addicts live in warehouses with other addicts and that they spend their days looking for scrap metal to sell to feed their addiction. The truth is that heroin addiction can happen to almost anyone, and although the consequences can be severe, some people can be under the influence of a severe addiction and still be able to hold down some of the trappings of a normal life. Consider a man arrested in England in 2011. According to news reports, the man was arrested over 90 times for committing petty theft. He stole cheese in his last arrest, and admitted that he stole the item in order to get money to pay for his heroin addiction. The man was not living in a warehouse or his car, however. Even though he had a serious addiction and was using crime to buy heroin, he held down a job with a publishing firm.
People with heroin addiction may be able to hold down jobs and interact with their family members, but they are far from healthy.
In fact, they may be even less healthy if they are even slightly functional, because family members might hesitate to step in and confront someone who seems to be holding things together with some proficiency. Heroin addiction, even in mild forms, is dangerous. Family members should learn to spot the signs, and if they suspect an addiction, they should be prepared to confront the addiction. It’s the best way to help the addict heal.
Why Does Heroin Addiction Happen?
Some people can use heroin just once and never become addicted to the substance. Other people find the drug incredibly intoxicating and overwhelmingly alluring, and they become quickly hooked on heroin. Scientists have long wondered what separates these two groups of people. Now, scientists are running studies to determine if a penchant for heroin addiction runs in one’s genes. Perhaps, the theory goes, children are at risk of inheriting heroin addiction from their parents if they carry a specific sequence of genes. One study seems to bear this out. This study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, found that people who were addicted to heroin tended to have the same sorts of gene patterns and the same sorts of changes in the same places. More studies are needed to make this link definitive, but for now, it might be safe to say that addiction does have some sort of inherited component.
People who begin using heroin in their teens might also be at greater risk for addiction.
During the teen years, the brain is going through a significant amount of change and it is very susceptible to the effects of drugs. Teens who use heroin might experience an even greater feeling of pleasure than an adult might, and that teen may spend the rest of his or her life trying to recapture that one moment.
Heroin is derived from the seeds of the opium poppy plant, and it’s considered to be a depressant. People who take heroin might feel a surge of euphoria or pleasure. Some people report feeling as though they had never been happier in their entire lives, and the effect is felt as soon as the drug is introduced to the body.
Once the euphoria wears off, the user may feel:
Warm and flushed
Free of pain
It’s easy to understand why someone might take heroin. Feeling happy, relaxed and warm is generally considered a good thing. This pleasurable feeling sits at the heart of heroin addiction, and it causes the addict to return to this drug time and time again. The feeling of pleasure is caused by the drug’s interaction with the body’s nervous system. When a user takes in heroin, the drug is converted to a chemical called dopamine. The human body often produces this chemical when something positive is happening or about to happen. This feel-good chemical helps the body prepare for the positive event. Heroin floods the body with dopamine, and the nervous system responds with a rush of symptoms. The feeling is transient, however, and not harmless. In general, the body doesn’t like to be flooded with chemicals, whether they are good or bad, and the body will do its part to correct the imbalance. Over time, the dopamine receptors in the body grow numb, so the person must take in more of the drug to feel the same response. And, the body may stop producing its own dopamine, meaning the person simply can’t feel happy without the drug.
Why Is It Dangerous?
Feeling happy most of the time might seem like a positive thing, but heroin does much more than simply cause a feeling of euphoria.
A study published in the journal Neuroscience Letters suggests that people who use heroin over a long period of time experience changes in their brains. With chronic use, they experience decreased self-control and they may be less able to deal with stress. In other words, they could be unable to deal with pressure, and they could lash out in unexpected ways. This is a dangerous change to consider. Heroin can be sniffed and snorted, but people often heat up the drug and inject heroin directly into their veins. They feel a larger response to the drug with this method, but it can cause a wide variety of health problems. Over time, the addict’s veins may collapse due to repeated injections. They may inject bacteria directly into their veins and cause serious infections and large, open abscesses. They may even develop infections around their hearts or kidneys, and those infections can be fatal.
People who use heroin for long periods may also be at a higher risk of blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis B or C.
In the past, researchers thought people developed these diseases because they were sharing needles with people who were infected with the diseases. Now, researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggest that people develop the diseases because they have unprotected and risky sex while under the influence. Perhaps, since the drug causes a loss of self-control, people don’t remember to protect themselves and they behave in dangerous ways while under the influence, and this behavior leads to their infection.
Heroin is also incredibly addictive, and people may experience a variety of terrible symptoms between doses of the drug. People may feel these signs mere hours after the last dose of heroin:
Involuntary kicking of the legs
Addicts often return to drugs in order to make these symptoms stop. This can mean that addicts simply cannot stop taking the drugs on their own, no matter how much they want to, because their bodies have developed a physical dependence on the drugs. According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, people who try to stop taking heroin on their own can even die during the process. The addiction simply becomes too strong to deal with, and the addict must take drugs to survive. Those who control their addiction by taking higher and higher doses of the drug run the risk of overdose. Drug dealers cut heroin with a wide variety of substances, including sugar and baking soda as well as other drugs, and people may become accustomed to taking high doses of these diluted drugs. If they happen upon a batch that is of a higher purity, they could take in more than they intended, and they could overdose as a result.
Spotting an Addiction
Someone who has been arrested on a heroin drug charge or someone who is caught while in the act of using might be easily diagnosed as an addict. Others might be harder to spot.
In most cases, people with an addiction to heroin will:
Have a steady supply of drugs on hand
Borrow or steal money to buy drugs
Stop interacting with people who do not use drugs
Seem slow and sedated, quickly followed by periods of hyperactivity, on more than one occasion
Become defensive when asked about drug use
If you think someone you love is struggling with a heroin addiction, you don’t have to let that person suffer alone. There are many treatment options available for heroin addiction, including both inpatient and outpatient programs, and these can provide real and lasting relief. The addict just needs to be shown the way to access these programs. Families of addicts can help the healing start by holding an intervention. Here, the family confronts the addict directly with proof of the heroin use. The family outlines why the addiction is harmful, and then asks the addict to get treatment to help stop the addictive behavior. These are scheduled talks, run by a qualified interventionist, and they can make a real difference in the life of an addict.