The Heroin Experience
The Draw of Heroin
Though few heroin addicts will deny the many risks involved or the life-altering effects of addiction, it takes most a long time to get the help they need. Why?
Most will answer that the draw of heroin comes from the high.
Amanda Chambers, a recovering heroin addict, says, “You’re able to escape your reality…It felt good because it got me out of myself.” 1
Harriet, a former user in the UK, says, “Heroin encases you in a little cotton-wool house and nothing hurts anymore.” 2
Many people start using heroin and other drugs to feel good, feel better, or out of curiosity. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, most people who use the drug report a feeling of warmth, relaxation, and detachment, with lowered anxiety. Their physical as well as their emotional pain may become dulled.3,4
The Path of Addiction
Repeated drug use can cause changes in areas of the brain related to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and control over behavior. These effects can make it hard for people to limit their intake of the drug. Eventually, they may use even though it harms them and other people in their life.4 They may have a hard time stopping on their own despite these negative consequences.5
Other factors can also put someone at risk for addiction, such as the influence of family, friends, socioeconomic status, and genetics. Studies estimate that genetics may attribute for up to 40% to 60% of a person’s vulnerability to addiction.4
The method of drug use can also influence its abuse potential. Faster routes, such as smoking or injecting heroin, can make it even more addictive. The high comes on rapidly and may be more intense, but fades quickly. People may use again to try to re-attain the heightened euphoria.4
Repeated heroin use leads to tolerance and dependence. When a person develops tolerance, they need a higher dose of the drug to get the same effect as when they first used it.5 When the person becomes dependent on heroin, their body becomes used to having the drug in its system and will only function normally when it is present. As the drug leaves the person’s system, they go through withdrawal, which can be very uncomfortable. Many users will keep taking the drug to prevent withdrawal.6
As a result, chasing the heroin high—or avoiding withdrawal—becomes a way of life, and the hope is to reach the same state of euphoria initially experienced.
Chambers says, “People are constantly trying to make more money so that they know that they don’t get sick.” 1
Justin Warfield, a former addict who is now in jail on drug charges, says, “I got to have a shot as soon as I wake up. At least $20 to wake up to. Then, an hour or two, I gotta have more. I knew I had to go sell something or beg somebody to help me out and give me some money so I can go get well so I don’t do anything stupid.” 1
Lindsay Bolar, a recovering addict, says, “I always go back to try to feel what that feeling was.”1
Watch Bolar, Warfield, and Chambers talk about their addictions in the video below. (Credit: Cincinnati.com)
The Risks of Heroin
Two major risks of heroin use are disease and overdose.
Heroin use increases the risk of exposure to HIV, hepatitis, and other infections through shared needles. Other medical complications include constipation, insomnia, depression, pneumonia, tuberculosis, sexual dysfunction, collapsed veins, and bacterial infections of blood vessels and heart valves.7
Users who buy heroin on the street are at risk of overdose because they can’t be sure of the potency of the drug or what else may be in it. Increasingly, heroin is being combined with fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin. Dealers may also cut heroin with sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine.8
Beyond these effects, people who are addicted may be driven to do things they wouldn’t normally do. Chambers says she became a prostitute to support her habit, while Warfield lost everything he owned and then sought support through his mother, who in turn lost everything to help him maintain his habit.1
Creating a New Experience
A number of different treatments for heroin addiction are available, including:
- Medical detox.
- Medically assisted treatment (e.g., methadone, buprenorphine).
- Inpatient rehabs.
- Outpatient addiction treatment.
- 12-step meetings.
The type of treatment that’s right for you or your loved one depends on how much heroin you use each day, whether you’re using other drugs with it, and any co-occurring psychological disorders or medical issues.
Many treatments consist of counseling, medication, or a combination of both. Users learn how to manage the thoughts and feelings that drive them to use, and connect with other people who understand their situation.
If you or someone you love is living with heroin drug addiction, there is hope. Althea was a daily IV opiate user who was depressed, suffering from anxiety, and unemployed. After rehab, she says she found tools to deal with the issues that drove her addiction. Watch her tell her story below.
. Spencer, R., Popovich, N., and Guardian readers. (2014). The mind of a heroin addict: the struggle to get clean and stay sober. The Guardian.
. The Drug Policy Alliance. Heroin Facts.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Drug Abuse and Addiction.
. NIDA for Teens. (2017). Tolerance, Dependence, Addiction: What’s the Difference?
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2007). Definition of dependence.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). What are the medical complications of chronic heroin use?
. Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drugs of Abuse.