Heroin has always terrified me. I just had this strange feeling that if I ever tried heroin I would fall immediately in love and most likely die from an overdose within months. I’m just like that. A heavy hitter drug addict. When I find something I love, I go for it. All-or-nothing style. The self-awareness I had coupled with extreme fear and lack of accessibility to the drug put me in the clear.
What is Heroin?
Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance taken from the seed pod of the various opium poppy plants grown in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico and Columbia. Heroin can be a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance called Black Tar Heroin.
It wasn’t until I moved to the South Bay that I started to see the impact heroin has on people, especially young adults. The majority of people I met in rehab received treatment for heroin addiction. A young woman, 21 years old was bright, beautiful and courageous relapsed on Heroin shortly after graduating our rehab. I got a phone call from a mutual friend telling me she was found dead in her apartment after not answering her phone for four days. Her boyfriend thought she had fallen asleep and in fact, she had overdosed. He left her there for four days while he got high on Heroin in the next room.
How do people become addicted to Heroin?
Nobody wakes up one morning and decides today will be the day they become a dope fiend. No addict goes to school on career day and sets the goal of becoming a professional Heroin user. I interviewed a recovering heroin addict, and his fall to heroin began with prescription painkillers.
“I began using Oxycontin. I did go straight to the big leagues so to speak. Someone was like ‘Hey, you can smoke this pill off tinfoil. 80mg Oxys. Around that time, maybe it was 2008, they were cracking down on Oxycontin. I called up my dealer and said, hey, do you have 80’s, and he said no I don’t, but I have this stuff called Black Tar, it’s cheaper, and it’ll get you higher.”
How does Heroin affect the body?
Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors, the spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. Once attached, opiates prevent receptors from receiving messages that indicate the presence of pain.
Side effects of opiate substances include euphoria, drowsiness, and relaxation. They also tend to lower resting heart rate, cause chronic constipation, create a widening of blood vessels, depress coughing and slow breathing reflexes severely.
“The first time I did heroin, I threw up and felt very uncomfortable, and after that passed, I thought I must not have done it right. It’s going to sound terrible, but I highly doubt I will ever feel as amazing as I did on heroin. It’s like the center of your brain gets warm and then it melts all over your whole body. Sex doesn’t even come close. I loved not only the ritual of it, but the taste of it, the feeling of it, the whatever excuse I wanted to tell myself, but it was The One.”
Short-Term Effects of Heroin
People who use heroin report feeling a surge of pleasure or euphoria. But they may also experience a multitude of other short-term effects including:
- Dry mouth
- Warm flushing of the skin
- Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe itching
- Clouded mental functioning
- Going on “the nod,” a back and forth state of being conscious and semiconscious
Long-Term Effects of Heroin
People who use heroin over the long term may develop:
- Collapsed veins
- Damaged nasal tissue
- Infection of the heart lining and valves
- Abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
- Constipation and stomach cramping
- Liver and kidney disease
- Lung complications, including pneumonia
- Mental disorders such as depression and antisocial personality disorder
- Sexual dysfunction in men
- Irregular menstrual cycles for women
“Withdrawing from heroin is probably one of the scariest feelings I’ve ever felt. I was full of anxiety. You almost feel like a cornered animal. All I thought is who do I need to call? Who do I need to steal from? How do I get out of this? It’s absolute panic.”
“It is something I never want to feel again. I would never wish it upon my worst enemies. You experience a runny nose, sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea. For me what happened was almost everything I’ve done to people starts coming back up. Talk about depression. I’ve cried for no reason. It’s like that old saying; I’m depressed because I drink, I drink because I’m depressed.”
Withdrawal Symptoms of Heroin
Those who are addicted to heroin and stop using the drug abruptly may have severe withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can begin as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken and include:
- Severe muscle and bone pain
- Sleep problems
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”)
- Uncontrollable leg movements (“kicking the habit”)
- Severe heroin cravings
Long-term effects of opioid addiction may include loss of the brains white matter which may affect decision-making, behavior control, and responses to stressful situations.
“It came down to a point where I was so miserable; I got picked up by the police because I was talking to myself and I said, ‘You need to admit me right now, or I’m going to turn around and kill myself. For someone like me, I had to lose absolutely everything. I think I was 150lbs; I had no car, no phone, I was homeless, I had an infected abscess on my chest because I was injecting heroin into my chest at the end. Heroin absorbs through the muscles.”
Heroin is a short-acting opioid, meaning that it takes effect rapidly but also leaves the bloodstream quickly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that heroin withdrawal symptoms start within six to twelve hours of the last dose, peak in two to three days, and last five to ten days in total. Detox is the method of removing heroin from the body. Since withdrawal can peak after a few days of the last dose, detoxing in a substance abuse treatment center that offers medical detox may be the most comfortable way to purge the drug from the body and avoid relapse.
Recovery is possible from heroin addiction, but it is almost impossible to do on your own. Heroin is one of the most potent and addictive illegal drugs out there, and it takes an army of support to help the addict get through the initial stages of withdrawal and then create a strong foundation for long-term sobriety.