Top 15 Myths about Heroin Addiction
There are a lot of myths about heroin addiction. For anyone who has ever known someone who was or currently is a heroin user, their use can come as quite a shock.
I wrote this article to help those with loved ones who are struggling to better understand the nature of addiction. Though this article will not fully explain why someone does heroin, it is my hope that it can clear up some common misconceptions.
Myth #1: People do heroin for pleasure. People who do heroin are rebels and thrill seekers.
Truth: People do heroin to survive. Often people do heroin because their life has become unmanageable and they turn to heroin as a brief escape. Other times, feelings of depression, anxiety, grief, or stress become overwhelming. In this case, doing heroin is not so much for pleasure, but rather, just to feel numb and turn off the worries for a while.
What you can do to help: The goal is to help the person who is struggling by giving your support- to help their lives be a bit more manageable.
Offer your time. Be there to listen. Offer to babysit. Offer to clean the house or help with yard work. Offer to pay for a family outing. These are all ways that you can show your support without enabling their addiction, while at the same time, strengthening your relationship with them.
Myth #2: People do heroin because it’s the ultimate high.
Truth: People do heroin because it’s cheap. Pain pills are expensive. At about $1 per milligram, you can see how expensive one OxyContin 80 mg would be. A pill habit can become costly quickly.
In addition, did you know that up to 90 percent of users start with pain pills? A person addicted to heroin doesn’t typically start out using heroin. Pain pill addiction most often drives people to try heroin for the first time.
What you can do to help: Don’t give cash to anyone you know who is struggling. Cash can be a trigger to use. Offer your services in other ways (offering rides, food, gas to get to and from work, etc.), but avoid providing cash. Offer your time and words of support.
Myth #3: People do heroin because they love it more than anything else (including their kids).
Truth: Addiction comes from the Latin word meaning “slave.” People are slaves to the drug. They do it to function and “get well” (and avoid being sick) out of necessity. In many cases, by the time people turn to heroin it’s not for pleasure, it’s to avoid withdrawal. The pleasure of heroin wears off quickly as one’s tolerance to the drug builds.
Heroin withdrawal is debilitating. It makes it impossible to function. In fact, the only way to function is to use more and more. It’s not that they’re using because they love it more than they love you or their kids, they’re using it just to function.
What you can do to help: Encourage people to get treatment. Don’t try to shame or guilt trip them into change. Most likely, they’re already experiencing enough of that on their own. Offer them hope: life can get better. Continue to believe in them and encourage them to believe in themselves.
Myth #4: People do heroin to fit in or out of “peer pressure.”
Truth: Doing heroin is different than the “peer pressure” of smoking pot in high school. Occasionally people do heroin because of the environment in which they hang out, or because they’re in relationships with an active user. But for the majority of people, their heroin addiction doesn’t stem from the party scene of the adolescent or young adult years.
People crave healthy attachment and social bonding in life: to our communities, to our families and friends, to our jobs and sense of purpose. When these healthy bonds aren’t formed, and people are outcast from their families and society, people instead try to attach with drugs and other unhealthy alternatives. In fact, many people use heroin to numb out the feeling of social isolation.
There’s an excellent YouTube video that illustrates this point. The link is provided at the end of this article.
What you can do to help: Offer unconditional love. Remove judgment and help people feel heard and accepted. Being critical does not help you influence them for the better. If you can provide someone with a sense of belonging, rather than making them feel ashamed or like an outcast, you’re on the right track. Without trying to fix or correct them, be sure to listen to their story, their concerns, and their fears.
Myth #5: People choose to do heroin. They are to blame for their own addictions.
Truth: Most people who use drugs have co-occurring issues. That means that usually the addiction is a symptom of underlying pain, trauma, or undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues. It can also be directly related to one’s environment as well. Many people who struggle with addictions come from broken homes or grew up with parents who abused drugs or alcohol.
In fact, did you know that trauma has a stronger correlation to addiction than obesity has to heart disease? Read that last statement again: trauma has a stronger correlation to addiction than obesity has to heart disease!* When people are struggling, there’s usually a reason for it.
*For more on this topic, check out Johann Hari’s book on addiction, “Chasing the Scream.”
What you can do to help: Treating the addiction is the first step. However, if there are underlying issues, these must be treated as well in order to remain successful in recovery. If someone you love has to take pain pills, offer to keep a “second pair of eyes” on their prescription to help monitor their usage and add accountability.
Myth #6: People who do heroin don’t want help.
Truth: People who do heroin are ashamed and don’t want to burden anyone else with their problems. Most people doing heroin don’t seek help because they feel ashamed. Their addiction might be a secret that they feel they can’t share with anyone. Often, it’s because they don’t know where or how to find help. He or she may have tried to quit in the past and failed. What appears to be a rejection of help may actually be their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
What you can do to help: Navigating the health care system can be confusing and costly. Help your loved ones by providing them with treatment options, without pushing it upon them. Encourage your loved one that it’s okay to reach out. Everyone needs support at times. The worse thing for someone who is struggling is isolation.
Myth #7: People overdose on heroin.
Truth: This is true; however, most overdoses are polysubstance overdoses. That means, in the majority of cases, it’s not just heroin that leads to an overdose, but a combination of substances. The most dangerous are double downers- mixing together multiple central nervous system depressants like benzodiazepines (nerve pills like Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Klonopin), alcohol, and other opiates or sedatives.
In addition, in recent years heroin has often been laced with fentanyl. These “bad batches” of fentanyl laced heroin are even more dangerous because it can be stronger and less predictable.
What you can do to help: If you suspect someone may be using, ask them about it. Look for signs of “nodding”- falling asleep at inappropriate times or places. Other signs include: weight loss, needle marks, unexplained job losses, changing phones, selling personal belongings, often asking for money, or financial strain not otherwise accounted for. Any signs of stealing or inconsistencies with whereabouts are also red flags.
If you think someone may be overdosing, do not hesitate. Call 9-1-1 immediately and begin to initiate CPR if they are not breathing.
Myth #8: Shame and guilt drive people using heroin to seek help.
Truth: Guilt and shame drive people into isolation, thus exacerbating their addiction even further. Feeling shock, anger, and sadness are all very normal for one to feel when discovering someone they love is struggling with heroin addiction. Allow yourself to experience these emotions without resisting them. It’s all part of the process. My caution here is that you don’t project these feelings onto your loved one.
Recovery happens with support, community and honesty. Projecting anger, shame and guilt on the one who’s struggling make the connections that foster recovery difficult to maintain. Rather, discuss your feelings openly with a counselor or trusted friend.
Side note: Thoughts of “bargaining” are also common. “Bargaining” is thoughts such as “If only I had… then maybe…” These thoughts are also very normal and all part of the process of coming to terms with one’s addiction struggles.
What you can do to help: Attack the problem, not the person. Work together with the person who is struggling to encourage them to get help by offering love, support, and positive encouragement.
Myth #9: No one using heroin ever gets better.
Truth: Even though heroin is one of the most addictive drugs, people can and do heal each and every day. That’s not to say it’s easy. There is no quick fix. It takes a lifestyle change to live a life of recovery, but it can be done with encouragement, commitment, guidance, and support. The more work one is willing to put in, the greater the results.
Keep in mind as well, not everyone who gets clean stays clean on their first try. It is a lot like quitting smoking. The average smoker tries 5-7 times before they quit for good. For the person using heroin, it can take multiple attempts before recovery really takes effect. Still, every life is worth saving!
What you can do to help: If your love one has tried before, encourage them not to give up. Encourage your loved one to put their life on hold (jobs, personal goals, etc.) and get themselves straight. Those other things will still be there once they get back, but, as they say in AA, anything you put ahead of your recovery, you will likely lose eventually anyways. I know this sounds harsh, but it’s often true. Put your health and your recovery first!
Myth 10: People taking maintenance medications like Suboxone, Methadone, or Vivitrol aren’t really “in recovery.”
Truth: Medicated assisted treatment works. Suboxone, Methadone, and Vivitrol are widely misunderstood medications, yet statistically, these medicines have the greatest success rate in helping people achieve long term recovery. By alleviating withdrawal symptoms and/or blocking the euphoric effects of heroin and other opiates, medicated assisted treatment allows people to continue to work and function. This helps them become better citizens of the community, reduces crime, and lowers public health costs from overdoses and disease. Yes, it’s a form of harm reduction. Still, it’s far better than the alternative, harm escalation. In short, medicated assisted treatment helps people avoid returning to heroin or illicit pill use.
What you can do to help: There is not only one right or wrong path to recovery. How and why medicated assisted treatment works is beyond the scope of this article, but a quick analogy is this: If you break your ankle and it’s severely broken, you’d likely see a doctor for help. Does the doctor say “suck it up, it will heal in time,” or does he or she prescribe a crutch? Think of medicated assisted treatment like a recovery crutch. It can help people stabilize, start to heal, and allow the rehab process to begin.
Myth #11: Addiction is not a disease, it’s a choice.
Truth: Addiction changes the chemical structure and function of the brain. And the fact is, the brain doesn’t change right back to normal as soon as one stops using. Think of it this way: Do most people get thin immediately as soon as they start a new diet?
What you can do to help: Addiction is like losing weight. It takes time and persistence. The difference is, with weight issues, you can see when one is struggling. With addiction issues you can’t see what’s going on with the chemical levels in one’s brain. Yet the process is much the same. Be patient an encouraging.
Myth #12: The only people who use heroin live in big cities and under bridges.
Truth: Addiction doesn’t discriminate. Working professionals, church members and PTA presidents, honors students, and even grandparents are struggling with heroin addiction. Addiction affects all walks of life. People often exclaim: “They had so much going for them, I can’t believe they would get addicted.”
What you can do to help: There are many high-functioning and “functional” people who struggle with addiction. Just because one’s life hasn’t become completely unmanageable doesn’t mean he or she shouldn’t seek treatment. In fact, the earlier one gets treatment, the better the prognosis. Encourage your loved one, “don’t delay, get help today.”
Myth #13: People who do heroin know what they are getting into and do not deserve our sympathy or help.
Truth: Tolerance to pain pills and heroin builds quickly. Withdrawal symptoms often occur without people even recognizing its withdrawal. Orexo, the makers of a Zubsolv (a prescription medication similar to Suboxone) have coined this term, “Accidental Opioid Addiction.” This occurs when the users of pain pills attempt to taper off the medication and are unable to. Sometimes they truly believe their pain is persisting when medically it’s gone. Other times the person may believe he or she is getting “the flu” when really, they’re experiencing withdrawal from opiates for the first time.
In fact, did you know that the CDC does not recommend taking opioid pain pills for longer than six months? According to their recommendations, at this point the risks of continued use and dependency, outweigh the benefits of continuing to take the medication. Yet, in our society this recommendation is often not well known or outright ignored. Using pain medication longer than necessary can lead to something called “hyperalgesia” or hypersensitivity to pain. Basically, the brain and body begin to rely on taking the pills and stop producing their own natural pain killing endorphins.
What you can do to help: For those struggling with addiction who also have chronic pain, don’t invalidate their feelings, try to “fix” their problems with medical recommendations, or tell them what they should or should not do. Rather, if they’re open to it, help them explore alternative pain treatments. The goal is not to eliminate pain entirely, but rather, to make it more manageable and tolerable.
Myth #14: There’s nothing I can do to help.
Truth: You can help! Caution: Be sure to help them, not enable them. A simple definition of enabling is doing for others that which they could be doing themselves. You can tell if you’re enabling someone by gauging your emotional state. If you’re feeling a sense of obligation or resentment, rather than a good feeling of giving, then it’s likely an enabling behavior.
Remember “Unconditional Love, Conditional Support.”
What this means is that you’re always going to pray, love, and root for their success and health. What it doesn’t mean is that you will continue to enable them. Avoid giving cash as this can be a trigger for one to use.
What you can do to help: You can help them get into treatment by exploring options with them (see the references listed at the end of this article as a starting point). Exploring treatment options with your loved one also aligns you with them as you attack this problem. You can go to an open NA or AA meeting with them. This is one of the best ways you can show your support and experience the recovery process with them.
If they’re unwilling to seek treatment, you can buy Narcan for them.
“What is Narcan?” You may ask.
Narcan saves lives. It is the antidote for an opiate overdose. Having it on hand to administer before EMS arrives can save lives. In many states, it’s available at any pharmacy that has it in stock without a prescription being necessary.
Myth #15: Why should I get help? I’m not the one struggling?!
Truth: Addiction affects the whole family. It can be extremely normal for one to feel shock, guilt, denial, anger, and sadness at finding out the news that a loved one is struggling. Getting support for yourself as well is a must if you want to be there to help support your loved one. Family members of those struggling with addiction often feel increased stress, anger, anxiety and depression in their own lives. They also may also be dealing with a sense of guilt. Counseling, or having a trusted friend to talk to, can help relieve these feelings.
How to get help for yourself: Try a local AlAnon or NarAnon meeting. These are supporting meetings designed to help those who are the loved ones of someone who is struggling with addiction.Getting help for yourself also sets a great example to hopefully inspire your loved one to get help as well.
There are many myths about heroin addiction. I hope that this article has helped my readers gain some clarity and understanding to this illness. Most people tend to believe at least some of these myths. If you realize you have believed some of these false ideas, don’t be too hard on yourself.
I think back to my social work training in college. A major theme was “put the person first and their illness second.” A person struggling with an addiction is still not solely defined by their addiction. These are mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. These are human beings with feelings, faults, hopes, and desires. I encourage you not to lose sight of their potential as people.
I love my job as a therapist because I get to witness the miracle of recovery on a daily basis. I truly believe every life is worth saving, and I know that treatment works. If you like additional support for yourself or a loved one, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-334-9790.
Additional Resources for Help
If you’d like to learn more about the nature of addiction and common misconceptions, check out this mentioned in Myth #4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ao8L-0nSYzg
If you are looking for treatment for a loved one who is struggling call SAMHSA’s National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
If you’re looking for support for yourself in coping with a loved one who is struggling, try this Nar-Ann meeting finder, to find a support group near you: https://www.nar-anon.org/find-a-meeting/