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Understanding the Heroin User in Your Life

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If someone you love is addicted to heroin, you may be left wondering what you can do to help him or her. You may feel isolated, helpless and powerless when it comes to trying to understand everything that’s going on. Take comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone.
loved one using heroin

Is your loved one volatile, irritable and resistant to treatment? Perhaps he or she may be unwilling to admit their addiction to heroin or may push you away when you reach out to help.

Don’t be discouraged. This person needs your love and support now more than ever.

If you want to help your addicted loved one as best as possible, it’s critical that you seek better understanding on all that heroin users go through – both for your loved one’s sake and for yours.

Concerned Your Loved One May Be Addicted to Heroin?

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How Do I Know If My Loved One Is Addicted?

There are a few different ways that can help you detect whether or not your loved one may be using heroin.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

  • Injuries and accidents due to violence associated with heroin use and distribution.
  • Difficulties in sexual functioning.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Itchy skin; scratching.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Persistently tiny or constricted pupils.
  • Euphoria followed by apathy and depression.
  • Impaired memory or attention.
  • Neglect of work, school or home responsibilities.
  • Less participation in previously enjoyed social or recreational activities.1

Withdrawal Symptoms

Periodic arrival of heroin withdrawal symptoms tend to be characteristic of heroin abstinence: anxiety, depression, runny nose, muscle aches, fever, vomiting and joint pains might also be observed in your loved one and tip you off that he or she may be using heroin. Learn more about the top 10 heroin withdrawal symptoms below.

Method of Heroin Use

Finally, one’s particular method of heroin use can also give indication of possible heroin use.

Signs of intravenous users:

  • Track marks.
  • Collapsed veins.
  • Bacterial infections / skin wounds / abscesses.
  • Contraction of HIV or Hepatitis.
  • Tuberculosis.

Signs of intranasal users:

  • Perforation of the nasal septum.
  • Irritation of the nasal mucosa.
Heroin use devastates 3 sisters in one family (1:02 min).

If your loved one presents with any number of these signs or symptoms, he or she may be suffering from an addiction to heroin.

If you are worried about your loved one, make sure you express your concerns in a non-judgmental and supportive way.

It’s important to ensure that his or her health and happiness is your main priority if you want your concerns to be heard.

How Should I Talk to the Heroin User in My Life?

Research has revealed that nearly 90% of individuals suffering from a substance addiction live with a significant other or at home with family. Oftentimes, these family members suffer from depression and anxiety as a result of the user’s negative and harmful behaviors.2

It was once believed that confrontation was the best way to approach a loved one suffering from an addiction – but current research asserts that this strategy may be counterproductive when encouraging the user to enter a rehabilitation program.2 

Confrontation may cause the heroin user to flee the household and may provoke defensive behaviors.

One effective alternative to this once-accepted approach is that of the CRAFT (community reinforcement and family training) approach. It revamps the way that family members and spouses speak to the heroin user, and it teaches effective communication skills for eliciting a more receptive, positive response.

If you’re thinking of approaching the heroin user in your life, CRAFT outlines the strategies you should use when communicating with your loved one. Watch CRAFT’s 20-minute “Getting an Addict into Treatment” video to learn more, or read below for a summary of CRAFT’s communication tips.

addicted to heroin

How to Talk to the Heroin User in Your Life

There are a number of communication tips you should keep in mind when moving forward. Certain strategies have been found to be helpful, while others have been found to be more counterproductive. These communication methods have been found to be most helpful and are encouraged:

  1.  Try to catch him or her when he or she is already trying to kick the habit. This means that he or she has already acknowledged that there’s an addiction problem and has the desire to quit. Often, this one simple acknowledgement is half the battle.
  2. Communicate in a gentle, nonjudgmental, and empathetic way. Be kind and show genuine concern and care for the individual suffering from an addiction to heroin. Chances are, he or she will respond in a more positive manner and will avoid an angry reaction.
  3. Consistently remind yourself of the individual’s positive qualities that are apparent without substance use. This will help you to maintain a calm attitude and to keep things in perspective when trying to get your loved one help.
  4. If you receive a positive and open-minded response, you may suggest counseling or rehabilitation. Once interactions between you and the heroin user in your life are experienced as loving and supportive, your loved one may open up more to discussions about therapy or other recovery options.3

CRAFT encourages family members to stop making excuses for your loved one who uses heroin. Avoid lying for him or her about intoxication or behaviors.

Allow your loved one to face the consequences of his or her actions.

You may think that you’re helping by temporarily brushing these behaviors under the rug – but in the long-run, burying these behaviors can actually be more detrimental to both you and your loved one.

How NOT to Talk to the Heroin User in Your Life

These communication tips should help you avoid counterproductive ways of interacting with your loved one:

  1. Don’t talk down or degrade him or her. Heroin users tend to feel a lot of shame associated with their heroin use. When approaching a heroin user, the last thing you want to do is talk down or degrade him or her. It’s not productive and will further perpetuate the shame and guilt he or she feels.
  2. Avoid having a heart-to-heart talk when the heroin user is under the influence or sick. He or she will not be able to carry a coherent conversation and may not remember what was discussed. It’s better to wait until a sober moment that allows for better receptivity to discussion.
  3. Avoid negative or angry confrontation. This will often cause a heroin user to become combative and defensive, rather than open and receptive. He or she may leave the house rather than listen to you.
  4. Avoid blaming the individual for his or her heroin addiction. Instead, approach the problem from a collaborative and encouraging conversational angle, which will empower both you and your loved one.

The most important thing to remember when approaching your family member is that you must provide a loving and supportive environment that fosters honesty and openness.

The most important thing to remember when approaching your family member is that you must provide a loving and supportive environment that fosters honesty and openness. This environment helps create trust within the relationship – a critical element for the loved one to consider entering addiction treatment.

What Can I Do to Help?

Addiction should never be battled alone. Once you have learned to avoid anger and confrontation and have developed positive communication skills, you can begin to make a plan to help your loved one who struggles with heroin addiction.

What You Can Do to Help Your Loved One

Below are a number of ways you can have an active and engaging role in encouraging your loved one to enter rehab.

  1. Use positive reinforcement to facilitate abstinent behaviors and promote positive interactions.Make a list of recreational situations and other activities that are important to your loved one that he or she would find rewarding to engage in. Schedule these activities and engage in them only if the individual avoids heroin use.
  1. Empower the heroin user. By providing your loved one with confidence that he or she can effectively recover from heroin addiction, you help to motivate and facilitate positive behaviors.
  1. Make self care a priority. You can’t effectively help your loved one battle addiction if you don’t take care of yourself.
  1. Explore your solutions. Come up with a plan that includes solutions, such as finding a treatment program and setting the individual up for admission and assessment.
  1. Provide unconditional love and try to live as an example. When your loved one is ready, he or she will often seek out support from those they trust. Conversely, the heroin user will more likely resent those who condemned him or her for heroin abuse.

Why Is My Loved One Abusing Heroin?

There are many different reasons as to why your loved one may be abusing heroin. Your loved one may have initially experimented with heroin out of curiosity or due to the pleasurable and rewarding effects it elicits. But after the heroin user’s initial set of extreme heroin highs, many people only continue to use heroin in order to avoid the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that appear when the drug is stopped.4 This leads to a vicious cycle that is extremely difficult for heroin users to escape without help. Current research asserts that there seems to be a genetic basis for addiction, as well as an environmental influence.1

loved one using heroin

Some people are more susceptible to developing an addiction than others, and it’s important that you exercise empathy and understanding towards your loved one who struggles with heroin addiction.

Increased risk factors for developing heroin addiction include the following mental and behavioral disorders1:

  • Conduct disorder during childhood or teen years.
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Antisocial personality disorder.

Since there is – to some extent – a biological basis for being prone to addiction, it’s important for you and your loved one to understand that the heroin use in your loved one’s life does not automatically make him or her a bad person or someone to despise.

What Are the Dangers of Heroin Abuse?

There are many physical and psychological dangers associated with heroin abuse. Dangers include1, 5-7:

  • Vomiting, which can lead to toxic aspiration and the development of lung infections, dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance.
  • Suppression of breathing, possibly resulting in coma or death.
  • Brain damage. Over time, various forms of brain damage can accrue (e.g., from anoxic brain injury, HIV encephalopathy, etc.) and can hinder the ability to make decisions and regulate behavior.
  • Increased risk of contracting Hepatitis and HIV in intravenous users.
  • Severe depression.
  • Suicidal thought, with increased frequency of suicide attempts as well as completed suicides.
  • Sexual dysfunction.

Expressing concern for your loved one’s mental and physical health may help him or her to understand that you’re approaching out of love and care, rather than anger and hostility. This supportive and encouraging environment will help to foster a positive relationship that promotes forward motion towards treatment.

Who Can I Talk To?

If your loved one is addicted to heroin, there are many resources available to support you so you can adequately provide help for the user in your life. There are support groups that specialize in treating friend and family members of addicted individuals. These support groups include:

  • Nar-Anon.
  • Co-Dependents Anon.
  • Families Anonymous.
  • SMART Recovery Family and Friends.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Living with someone addicted to heroin can put stress on your life and can be extremely trying. You aren’t alone. You can’t help your loved one if you don’t focus on your own self-care as well. It’s pertinent to your mental health and to your loved one’s recovery.

Reach Out For the Answers You Need.

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  1. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Getting an Addict into Treatment: The CRAFT Approach. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2015.
  3. Intervention Summary – Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT). (n.d.). Retrieved 17 November, 2015.
  4. Kosten, T., & George, T. (2001). The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment. Science & Practice Perspectives SPP, 1(1), 13-20.
  5. What are the immediate (short-term) effects of heroin use? 1 November, 2014. Retrieved 11 November, 2015.
  6. Opiate withdrawal: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. 5 April, 2013. Retrieved 11 November, 2015.
  7. What are the long-term effects of heroin use? 1 November, 2014. Retrieved 11 November, 2015.

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