Learn / Healing From Heroin Addiction—and Stigma

Healing From Heroin Addiction—and Stigma

Kayla Gill
 May 24th, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Because heroin addiction is so highly stigmatized, it can be difficult to ask for help. And recovery can be overwhelming without the proper support. Fortunately, many rehab programs specialize in heroin addiction treatment.

You may be tempted to delay treatment for many reasons, including the associated stigma, the risks of detox, or a sense of isolation. Remember, though, that you can overcome these challenges with the help of experienced healthcare providers. In the right context, with an expert team at your side, recovery is absolutely possible.

Stories of Recovery From Heroin Addiction

People are often motivated to begin healing from heroin misuse because they’re unhappy with how addiction has negatively impacted their lives. They may not like the detrimental mental and physical impacts that heroin has had on them, and they may have cut ties or damaged relationships with family and friends.

“I’m Living Proof That Recovery Is Possible”

For Tracey Helton Mitchell, her desire to heal from heroin addiction1 was related to a deep unhappiness about the way she was living her life. “I had multiple soft tissue infections related to an unsterile injection technique, and I had become extremely thin,” she said. “I had no meaningful relationships. Most of all, I was tired of living to use and using to live.”

After being arrested, she decided to seek help at a rehabilitation center, and has been sober ever since “The important thing to remember is that you can get your life back,” she said. “Within less than a week, your whole life can start to turn for the better. I am living proof that recovery is possible.”

Addiction Is Not a Moral Failing

It’s far too common for heroin addiction to isolate people from social support. And unfortunately, the stigma associated with substance use disorders2 can directly interfere with the healing process. As you begin healing, look for ways to practice self-compassion. This is easier said than done, but with the help of a trained therapist, it can have a huge impact on your continued recovery.

“The thing that I think that people are quickly understanding is that opiate addiction does not discriminate and is not a moral failing,” says John, who was addicted to opiates3 himself. “Many of us that have become addicted are intelligent, valuable people who lost control after experimentation, curiosity or having the opiates prescribed. I didn’t ever intend to be a heroin addict; it quickly got out of control.”

You are more than your heroin addiction. The good news is that it’s very possible to overcome this disorder with the right help and care. Long-term recovery rates from heroin addiction4 are especially good for those who stay sober for at least 5 years after stopping use. Every person’s recovery journey is different, and it’s important to find the best program to cater to your own specific needs. Luckily, there are a variety of treatment options that you can customize to fit your specific situation.

Treating Heroin Addiction

Healing looks different for everyone. But during recovery from heroin addiction, certain therapies are especially effective. Most patients either seek pharmaceutical or behavioral approaches, or both. Research shows that these 2 treatment methods for heroin use disorder5 are most effective when combined. But no matter which form of treatment you engage in, it’s best to begin by undergoing detox.

Medical Detox

Detoxification—the period of withdrawal from a drug—can be very uncomfortable and even dangerous. The symptoms of opiate withdrawal6 may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, hot and cold flashes, and more.

Without proper supervision, this process can be life-threatening. Because of this, medical detox is highly recommended for people in recovery from heroin misuse. This process normally lasts a maximum of 10-14 days. During that time, you’ll be closely monitored by a team of doctors, nurses, and mental health professionals. These experts can also prescribe medications that help make the process more comfortable and reduce negative symptoms.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Heroin Addiction

It’s possible to become both psychologically and physiologically addicted to opiates, including heroin. Because of this, most patients benefit from both mental health treatment, like talk therapy, and medical treatment, like prescribed pharmaceuticals. Some medications may even be helpful before you begin detox.

For example, naloxone is a drug used as a temporary strategy to prevent opioid overdose.7 This is not a long-term treatment for heroin addiction; it’s a short-term solution to a life-threatening emergency. The availability and ease of acquiring Naloxone varies by location. In some areas, you may be able to get it free of charge from a pharmacy or community-based health group. After you complete detox, this medication will likely be unnecessary.

During detox and recovery, opioid replacement therapy8 is the best pharmacological treatment option for heroin addiction. This consists of replacing heroin with another opioid that has a longer duration of action, making it safer and less harmful.

There are three different kinds of medications that do this. They are agonists, partial agonists, and antagonists. Agonists and partial agonists both work by activating opioid receptors (partial agonists just have a lower efficacy), while antagonists prevent the receptor from binding at all. The following is a list of the most common medications used in helping treat heroin use disorder.

Methadone (Dolophine or Methadose)
Methadone is an opioid agonist that slowly reduces the ‘high’ heroin produces, while simultaneously preventing any withdrawal symptoms. This therapy stops heroin cravings8 and is less likely to cause overdose.

However, there is still some risk of overdose if methadone is not taken as prescribed. It also interacts with other medications, affects people differently, and contains long-lasting active ingredients, making it crucial that the dosage be constantly monitored and reevaluated.

Because of these potential risks, methadone is normally administered with a practitioner present,9 although some patients may eventually take it at home after a certain period of time. This progression will be determined by a medical professional.

Buprenorphine (Subutex)
This medication is a partial opioid agonist that prevents heroin cravings without the ‘high.’ There is less risk of overdose, but because it’s still an opioid, there’s a chance that it can be misused. While buprenorphine can be taken at home, it still needs to be prescribed by a doctor.

Naltrexone (Vivitrol)
This opioid antagonist works to stop any opioid action and is not addictive. Naltrexone is best for people who have already gone through detox from opioids, since it can cause debilitating withdrawal symptoms if not. A licensed healthcare provider can supply a prescription for Naltrexone.

Substituting and tapering methadone or buprenorphine are the 2 most effective medication-based treatments for heroin addiction.10 When used in conjunction with psychotherapy, these medications have proven to be extremely successful in helping patients recover.

Behavioral Treatment Options

Heroin addiction is associated with a variety of emotional symptoms,11 including depression, negative self-image, and a sense of meaningless and isolation. Because of this, mental health treatment is an essential component of recovery.

Counseling services are offered in both outpatient and residential facilities, and can be crucial in giving patients the tools and confidence they need in order to successfully recover from substance use disorders. According to one study, patients who focus on improving self-confidence and treating mental health symptoms in therapy have an improved chance of sustained and stable recovery from heroin misuse.12

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has proved to be successful in treating heroin addiction,13 especially when combined with medication. Contingency management, in which individuals gain ‘points’ for negative drug tests that they can then exchange for vouchers, is another effective strategy.

You can talk to your doctor about the right method(s) for you. It’s important to tailor your treatment plan to fit your needs, and to determine what will benefit you the most on your road to recovery.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment requires patients to live at a rehabilitation facility for a specified duration of time. In an outpatient program, you would stay in your home but frequently visit the center to participate in therapy and other forms of treatment.

One study found that residential treatment is especially helpful in treating opioid addictions14 such as heroin use disorder, since it helps reduce the social and environmental triggers that may lead to relapse. Because of this, it’s not surprising that fewer people finish outpatient treatment for this condition. If heroin misuse is your primary concern, inpatient rehab may be a better option for most patients.

Preparing for Rehab

It’s important to prepare for rehab in order to make the process as smooth as possible. This will help you ease into your healing journey, and allow you to focus on the work of recovery.

Planning Ahead

While getting ready for rehab, stay in close communication with the admissions team at your chosen treatment center. They can answer any questions or concerns you may have about attending a rehab facility, including what to bring with you, what to expect when you arrive at rehab, and other helpful ways to prepare.

It’s crucial to minimize stress while you’re attending treatment in order to really focus on healing. To do this, take care of as many tasks as you can beforehand, both for work and in your personal life. This includes setting up automatic payments for bills, planning for childcare, and booking a house or pet sitter. Take the time you need to consider what this means for you.

Taking Leave From Work

You may need to take some time off of work to go to rehab, especially if you decide to attend an inpatient facility. While it may seem intimidating to approach your workplace about taking a leave of absence to attend treatment, remember that you need to do what’s best for you. Ultimately, your work will suffer if you put off getting the help you need.

Know that there are laws in place to keep you employed while you attend a treatment center. In addition, most employers prioritize the overall well-being of their staff members, and understand that this will lead to a better workplace environment for everyone.

Many employers will support your decision to seek care. There’s also a high chance that the addiction or detox center that you choose will help you navigate this discussion with your workplace. You may want to prepare for the conversation by learning about your company’s policies, as well as your employee rights. Be honest with your employer, and explain your plan for seeking treatment.

Creating a Healthy Support System

It can be extremely beneficial to have a support system of people that you can talk to during your recovery process. They can help motivate you to see the process through, and comfort you on difficult days.

For some people, this support network can include family and friends. However, that’s not possible for everyone. Because heroin addiction can be so stigmatized and isolating, you may arrive at rehab without an established community. If that’s the case, you can focus on connecting with the people in your cohort. Your peers can offer valuable support, and it may be helpful to lean on people with similar experiences to yours.

Long-Term Recovery From Heroin Misuse

Your recovery may begin with residential treatment, but that’s just the first step. If you have a history of heroin addiction, it’s important to plan for long-term care to avoid relapse and manage your physical health.

Heroin addiction can have negative effects on the brain,15 and is particularly associated with brain functions that play a role in decision making. On a related note, long-term heroin addiction may lead to impulsive and dangerous decisions.16 Heroin use disorder may also lead to scarred veins, bacterial infections of blood vessels, liver and kidney diseases, insomnia, and lung complications.

If you’ve taken heroin intravenously, you may be vulnerable to disease. The widespread sharing of syringes and frequent injections increase the risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis B, C and other blood-borne infectious diseases.

During residential rehab, your providers can help you plan for aftercare. Your specific plan may include ongoing medical treatment, psychotherapy, support groups, and a variety of other healing modalities.

Hope Is Right Around the Corner

When your diagnosis impacts the rest of your life, it can be hard to imagine a way to heal. Remember that you deserve care. And fortunately, there are treatments available. It is possible to overcome heroin addiction, no matter how difficult it may seem.

“I think because there are so many unsuccessful and sad stories out there we miss the successful stories,” says Brittney, who has been sober from opioids for 8 years.17 “The stories where mothers and children are being reunited, the stories where women are standing on their own two feet and working towards goals and achieving them, the stories where that lost girl finds her way and makes it. These are the stories of hope, if you look hard enough they’re on every corner.”

If you’re ready to seek help for a substance use disorder, you can browse a list of rehab centers that treat heroin addiction here.

Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod

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  2. Crapanzano, K. A., Hammarlund, R., Ahmad, B., Hunsinger, N., & Kullar, R. (2018). The association between perceived stigma and substance use disorder treatment outcomes: A review. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 10, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.2147/SAR.S183252 []
  3. Heroin and opioid addiction, in your own words. (n.d.). Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://apps.frontline.org/heroin-stories/ []
  4. Hser, Y.-I., Evans, E., Grella, C., Ling, W., & Anglin, D. (2015). Long-term course of opioid addiction. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 23(2), 76–89. https://doi.org/10.1097/HRP.0000000000000052 []
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  6. Shah, M., & Huecker, M. R. (2022). Opioid withdrawal. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526012/ []
  7. van Dorp, E. L. A., Yassen, A., & Dahan, A. (2007). Naloxone treatment in opioid addiction: The risks and benefits. Expert Opinion on Drug Safety, 6(2), 125–132. https://doi.org/10.1517/14740338.6.2.125 []
  8. Hosztafi, S., & Fürst, Z. (2014). [Therapy in heroin addiction]. Neuropsychopharmacologia Hungarica: A Magyar Pszichofarmakologiai Egyesulet Lapja = Official Journal of the Hungarian Association of Psychopharmacology, 16(3), 127–140. [] []
  9. Methadone. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/medications-counseling-related-conditions/methadone []
  10. Kleber, H. D. (2007). Pharmacologic treatments for opioid dependence: Detoxification and maintenance options. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 9(4), 455–470. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3202507/ []
  11. Tokar, J. T., Brunse, A. J., Stefflre, V. J., Sodergren, J. A., & Napior, D. A. (1975). Determining what heroin means to heroin addicts. Diseases of the Nervous System, 36(2), 77–81. []
  12. Hser, Y.-I. (2007). Predicting long-term stable recovery from heroin addiction: Findings from a 33-year follow-up study. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 26(1), 51–60. https://doi.org/10.1300/J069v26n01_07 []
  13. Pan, S., Jiang, H., Du, J., Chen, H., Li, Z., Ling, W., & Zhao, M. (2015). Efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy on opiate use and retention in methadone maintenance treatment in china: A randomised trial. PLOS ONE, 10(6), e0127598. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127598 []
  14. Stahler, G. J., Mennis, J., & DuCette, J. P. (2016). Residential and outpatient treatment completion for substance use disorders in the U.S.: Moderation analysis by demographics and drug of choice. Addictive Behaviors, 58, 129–135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2016.02.030 []
  15. Fareed, A., Kim, J., Ketchen, B., Kwak, W. J., Wang, D., Shongo-Hiango, H., & Drexler, K. (2017). Effect of heroin use on changes of brain functions as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging, a systematic review. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 36(2), 105–116. https://doi.org/10.1080/10550887.2017.1280898 []
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  17. Heroin and opioid addiction, in your own words. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://apps.frontline.org/heroin-stories/ []

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