Have you ever seen a person who is in the middle of a heroin overdose?
It is truly an awful sight.
When a person has taken enough of the drug to overdose, the body undergoes a disastrous domino effect of reactions.
First, the body’s normal breathing is affected because the central and nervous systems are overloaded. In essence, the body “forgets” to breathe. Next, the heart begins to malfunction due to an irregular heartbeat, which is called an arrhythmia. This means the heart can’t properly supply the body with the oxygen it requires to function, which causes it to slowly begin shutting down, system by system, organ by organ. Then, fluid begins to back up in the airways, a condition that is called pulmonary edema. The result? Choking to death.
Finally, the nervous system shuts down. Why? Opioids, like heroin, interfere with the body’s production of norepinephrine, which works as a neurotransmitter. Simply put, pain sensations are blocked and the person who is overdosing begins to feel drowsy. Increasingly drowsy. In turn, the heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, and everything shuts down even further.
So, how do overdoses happen? Let’s start at the beginning: When a person first begins to take drugs, it doesn’t take much for them to get high. As they take more and more, over a longer period of time, the body begins to build up a tolerance to the drug. This means the user needs increasingly larger doses to reach the same high. And bigger doses means a higher risk of overdose.
What exactly IS heroin?
Over the years, the number of people using heroin in the United States has grown exponentially. It is a crisis in this country. But what is it, exactly? Heroin is a derivative of morphine, a narcotic used in medicinal settings as a pain reliever. It is an opioid, a class of drugs naturally occurring in poppy plants.
Physically, heroin is a white or brown powder or a sticky black substance that is called black tar heroin. Users snort it, smoke it, or dissolve it in water and inject it via a needle into their veins. The drug is delivered very quickly to the brain, where it produces a feeling of euphoria, which is the high user’s chase.
Heroin is one of the most lethal, most addictive and most commonly used drugs in the world. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that nearly a quarter of people who try heroin will become addicted to it.
How does heroin addiction happen?
For a lot of people, the road to heroin addiction begins innocently enough – with painkillers.
Have you ever injured your back, or had surgery, and needed pain medication afterward? Plenty of people have. But not all of them get hooked on the feeling of relief that comes when you take an opioid medication.
For the people who get hooked on that euphoric feeling, eventually painkillers aren’t enough – and they turn to something stronger. This is why painkillers often are referred to as gateway drugs. People build up a tolerance to prescription pills and then turn to illegal methods of obtaining more pills (i.e. buying them off the street). Eventually, this gets expensive. Heroin, a cheaper alternative, is more appealing. It makes users happy, and before they know it, they are addicted to something that could ultimately kill them.
How can addiction be overcome?
Heroin has an intense pull on users – they feel they need it to survive, which is a defining characteristic of addiction. But the addiction can be overcome.
The following steps pave the way to recovery:
Detox: This is the first – and often most difficult – step to overcoming heroin addiction. Detox is a process of abstaining from an unhealthy or toxic substance. It is recommended that users do not try to detox without medical intervention, as withdrawal can be painful and last for a long time. A doctor can prescribe medication that can help ease withdrawal symptoms.
Medications: As mentioned above, medical professionals can prescribe medicines that reduce an addict’s cravings, which prevents future drug use. These medicines include buprenorphine, methadone, naltrexone (prevents heroin from having an effect), and suboxone, which, when used in combination with buprenorphine and naltrexone, inhibits heroin’s effects on the brain. Essentially, the trio blocks heroin from doing what it usually does.
Therapy: Available both in inpatient treatment centers and outpatient centers, therapy is vital in overcoming addiction. Therapy is key to understanding the why behind a person’s addictive personality and finding ways to make lifestyle changes. Some addicts may benefit from speaking with and learning from people who have overcome addiction, such as the two men behind Project Unbroken. Matthew Miller and Greg Morrison are high school friends whose addictions began with pills and led to heroin. Last year, Miller and Morrison created Project Unbroken, an organization dedicated to helping people with drug addiction. On their website, Greg Morrison, and Miller frequently post videos to inspire addicts and recovering addicts on their journey to recovery. Their videos are titled “Why is heroin so addictive?”, “How bad days can fuel addiction?”, “How shame fuels addiction,” and “What does a heroin addict look and act like?”, and there are many others. Project Unbroken – overcome addiction – is possible for anyone who truly wants to try. On their site, they share all that worked for them in overcoming addiction. The two are happy now, and healthy, and their site, they say, is for anyone who wants to make a positive change and be happy, too.
Lifestyle change: It seems like common sense, but changing one’s circumstances is vital to success. Once sober, a former addict can’t return to their old friends, old job, old life – that is a sure way to relapse. Professionals encourage the development of new friendships, perhaps with people met in therapy, rehab and at meetings.