What is Heroin Addiction?
Sean Connolly once wrote: ‘heroin is a drug of extremes’. With 12 years of personal heroin addiction, followed by 15 years of drug addiction treatment, and now a subsequent personal interest in heroin addicts, I conclude that this is one of the most profound statements ever made about this particular drug. Particularly for parents, but indeed for every family member, heroin is one of the most feared drugs. Yet for the exploring drug user, it offers the most powerful high. Subconsciously, most people have heroin in mind when they hear of drug related crimes, overdoses and chronic addictions. Connolly went on to point out how ‘this specific drug forms the backbone of drug treatment programmes around the world’.
Experimentation, use, abuse and dependency with the effects of the opium poppy can be traced back thousands of years, so we must agree on one thing: that the urge in humanity to escape is not limited to your family – it is one of humanity’s frailties.
Heroin falls into the category of drugs known as opiates, derived from the opium plant. It contains the natural ingredients which also make up two very powerful painkillers: codeine and morphine.
In its purest form, heroin presents as a white powder; but by the time it reaches heroin addicts on the street it has been polluted several times and usually ends up brown in colour. By the time addicts get their hands on to the powder, its purity levels have been reduced by between 20% and 60%. The bag bought by the heroin addict is usually made up of crushed paracetamol, barbiturates, sleeping pills and even brick dust!
Heroin addicts have a specific number of practical needs in order to ingest their chemical of choice.
For the heroin smoker:
Strips of kitchen foil.
- You will usually find used pieces of foil blackened and burned on the underside and long brown lines on the top-side.
- You might find a home-made wick for lengthy runs of the drug along the foil.
- You’ll probably find lots of unused and empty cheap gas lighters.
- You may also find one or two small home-made envelope-type wrappers.
For the intravenous heroin addict:
One or two spoons, usually black underneath the bowl from the roasting ritual.
- A candle.
- A belt, shoe lace or neck tie, tied into a noose to be used as a tourniquet.
- A small amount of citric acid crystals or vinegar.
What makes Heroin Addiction so Damaging?
It was once reported by a long-term heroin addict: “Once you get hooked to heroin, you are never straight again. You are either stoned or sick. I’d say 60% of the time is spent feeling sick, 20% of the time is spent racing round trying to get the stuff and the last 20% is hopefully spent sleeping”.
American novelist William Burroughs lamented: “Heroin is not like alcohol or weed, a means to increasing enjoyment of life. Heroin is not a kick; it is a way of life.”
Overdose and Withdrawal
Each person has a specific ‘tolerance’ to a drug, dependent upon factors such as how long they have been using, their physical condition, and the quality of the drug. Many heroin overdoses occur in the same town at the same time when a surprisingly high purity level of heroin reaches the streets and addicts with a tolerance for impure heroin unknowingly inject too much of the drug for their system to tolerate. A heroin overdose can occur within one minute of taking the drug, or it can be the result of a process of over 12 hours. The heroin addict slips into a semi-comatose condition, their breathing slows down, skin changes colour and blood pressure drops drastically.
In the event of a fatal heroin overdose, respiratory failure and/or heart problems result in death.
Another major factor of heroin addiction is the withdrawal process, also known as cold-turkey when the drug is unavailable or is stopped suddenly due to arrest or naïve attempts of self-treatment. Feelings of dramatic illness slowly overwhelm the weakening individual, which reach a peak after three or four days following the last hit of heroin.
Physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal are similar to a very heavy flu; but in addition, include restlessness, cramps and aching limbs. To make matters worse, each of these symptoms are exacerbated by a relentless insomnia. Coming from an 18-month period of abusing high purity heroin, this writer personally experienced a 17 day and night period of sleeplessness following arrest and imprisonment.
The psychological symptoms of heroin withdrawal are similar to those experienced following the death of parent. These feelings of loss can last from six weeks to six months.
Sean Connolly points out that: ‘Scientists now believe that the psychological dependence is a more powerful factor in keeping heroin users hooked on the drug’.
Having personally walked that road many times, the Drug Treatment and Rehab Counsellors of Bethesda Addictions Treatment Centre may well be one of the best equipped teams around to help you, irrespective of the length, depth or severity of your drug addiction.
The heroin addict is never the only person to suffer from the heroin addiction. The whole family suffers.
An ex-user’s story
There was no abuse or neglect in my family. I had a very normal home environment where mum and dad looked after three of us with an equal distribution of love and discipline. We weren’t financially wealthy, but we never went hungry and we slept in warmth. I kind of always knew that I was going to experiment with drugs long before I actually did. I was growing up in the mid-60’s and the drug scene was a relatively new phenomenon. It all looked quite exciting. I experimented with amphetamines in the 70’s and instantly I felt as if I had found my true identity. By the early 80’s I was growing tired of amphetamines and what they were doing to me. My teeth were rotting, I lived within a full-time film of sweat and a there was a constant strange odour about me where even my clothes used to smell of speed. I hated the mirror. Partly from thinking that it may help me move away from the amphetamines, and partly from a distorted act of bravado, in the early 80’s I sat in on a circle of guys smoking heroin. Between 1983 and 1993 I was injecting heroin two or three times a day, I overdosed three times waking up on a heart monitor, and I stole anything from anyone to buy the drug. I robbed dealers in their homes and was blacklisted by most of them and by most of the street addicts of our area. My life became a nocturnal existence of loneliness and I spent six years in 27 different prisons across England where I would lie awake and cry. I felt haunted by this thing and a day would not pass where I would not internally rage at my predicament and my powerlessness to stop; “why me, why me, why me”
It was a stark contrast to the little boy who grew up in the warmth and love of a close family unit and who went on to serve with special-forces of the British Army.
And yet, today, over 20 years later, I now know the answer to my own question; ‘why me’ – My name is Colin Garnett, I’m the husband of Deanna, dad to Georgia and Nathan and I’m Co-founder, C.E.O. and Clinical Director of Bethesda Addictions Treatment Centre. I committed my life to the recovery programme and to the plight of others in 1993 whilst sat in a prison cell and I’ve been clean and free from that plague ever since.
However it must be said that whilst the terrors of heroin’s grasp on my soul are still very easy to remember, today, as a Registered Addictions Specialist, those nightmares have now been reduced to being tools of life with which my team and I are repeatedly guiding addicts from all over the world into the fulfilment of their dreams.
Heroin Addiction? Today? It’s not so scary.
Need to Know Heroin: Sean Connolly- www.heinemann.co.uk
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Need to Know Heroin, Sean Connolly, Heinemann Library England 2000, ISBN-N-950-05-3525-4, www.heinemann.co.uk