If your loved one is grappling with an addiction to heroin, you likely want to do anything in your power to help. Unfortunately, addiction is a complex and persistent disorder that begins in the brain but gradually takes over nearly every aspect of life. Your loved one may become dependent on you, manipulate or deceive you, or simply push you away in the name of their addiction. As a result, it’s not always easy to determine how best to help a loved one grappling with heroin use.
To help, we’ve put together a list of 8 effective steps you can take to help your loved one understand and overcome their addiction.
#1. Understand the Disease
Addiction is a disease. Yet unlike other types of illness, addictive behaviors cannot be easily treated through medication or a stay in the hospital. Instead, treating addiction requires a comprehensive approach that includes:
- Detoxification, or removing addictive substances from the body
- Behavioral therapy, or understanding compulsive behaviors and developing new strategies to cope
- Life skills training and support, or equipping individuals to live sober lives outside of treatment
- Medication assisted treatment, or the use of medication to help wean off of an addictive substance, when appropriate
- Peer support, or the use of 12-step programs and other models to help individuals build and maintain a community
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment, research indicates that a combination of behavioral therapy, peer support, ongoing care, and medication-assisted treatment when appropriate is most effective for recovery.
Understanding that addiction is a chronic disease also makes you aware of the risk of relapse, or a return to using heroin even after treatment. Like all diseases, addiction has a relapse risk, and that risk can be increased or decreased depending on factors like housing, lifestyle, employment, and family circumstances.
#2. Look Beyond the Addiction
While it’s convenient to blame addiction on an individual’s choices or lifestyle, we know that addiction is, in fact, caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and a person’s life experiences. One major driver of addiction is trauma, such as experiencing sexual or physical abuse, severe emotional pain, or a major life disruption or event.
This is why many treatment programs focus on not only treating addiction but also addressing the underlying traumatic experiences that fuel addictive behaviors. This often occurs through one-on-one conversations with a trained therapist, many of whom are specialized in substance use and trauma. Group therapy and peer support sessions can also provide safe spaces for individuals to discuss the experiences that fuel and influence their addiction.
In some cases, individuals may be turning to addictive substances to help cope with or manage a diagnosable mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. In these cases, it’s important that individuals enroll in a treatment program that includes a strong co-occurring disorder treatment component. This means that the program is specialized in treating both addiction and mental health challenges at the same time.
#3. Talk to a Treatment Professional
Your loved one may refuse to seek treatment initially, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t educate yourself about treatment options. The world of addiction treatment may seem unfamiliar at first, particularly with many different acronyms and terms like PHP, IOP, and 12 steps. But as you learn more, you’ll realize that your loved one has multiple different options for their recovery based on the severity of their addiction and other factors.
Reaching out to an addiction treatment professional will also help you feel less alone. Treatment teams have dealt with hundreds of individuals who are struggling with substance use just as your loved one is now. They have the experience and perspective necessary to help keep you grounded and focused during this difficult time.
Additionally, treatment experts can equip you with local resources in your area to help cope with your loved one’s challenges. These can include local peer support groups, classes about addiction, and blogs, podcasts, and other resources to learn more.
#4. Be Aware of the Risks
All addictive substances carry risks. But heroin is particularly dangerous because of its widespread availability, potency, and overdose potential. Among the most common health risks associated with heroin include:
- Skin and circulation issues from injection sites
- Heart complications, including swelling, inflammation, and infection
- Increased risk of organ damage, especially to the heart, kidneys, and liver
- Increased risk of respiratory complications, including pneumonia
- Complications with pregnancy
- Increased risk for communicable diseases including HIV and hepatitis
Heroin is particularly dangerous when mixed with other drugs, such as opioid painkillers or alcohol. Since heroin slows down the body’s functions, combining the drug with other depressants, including alcohol, can result in a fatal overdose.
#5. Prepare for an Overdose
Whenever your loved one uses heroin, you should prepare for a possible overdose. If they are using the drug in your home or in your presence, you may want to purchase over-the-counter medications under the brand name Narcan or Evzio. These are varieties of naloxone, a drug that is designed to stop the effects of an opioid overdose. This is particularly important if a person has stopped breathing due to a heroin overdose. Using naloxone properly can save your loved one’s life.
It’s also important to be aware of the signs of a heroin overdose. If your loved one or anyone else exhibits the following signs after using heroin, they may be experiencing an overdose.
- Uncontrolled vomiting or nausea
- Severe drowsiness and lack of energy
- Inability to move or control limbs
- Difficulty speaking or communicating
- Shallow or slow breathing
- Slow or irregular heart rate
Call 911 immediately for assistance if you suspect an overdose.
#6. Set Firm Boundaries
One of the most difficult aspects of addiction is the toll that it takes not only on loved ones but on the people close to them, including family and friends. Because of the psychological aspect of addictive behaviors, it’s all too common for people struggling with addiction to lie to, manipulate, deceive, and sabotage others. Even the most well-intentioned individual may resort to deceptive or harmful behaviors to fuel an established addiction.
This is why boundary-setting is so critical when dealing with a loved one who is struggling with addiction. One of the most basic boundaries is often where and how often individuals will use drugs. For example, many family members will draw firm boundaries that addicted loved ones may not engage in drug use in their homes or risk being kicked out. Other common boundaries include setting a curfew when loved ones should return home, temporarily cutting off financial support for their loved one, or removing addictive substances from the home.
These measures may feel harsh or critical, but they are often vital to forcing a loved one to recognize that they have a problem with addiction.
#7. Stay in Communication, When Possible
For individuals struggling with addiction, isolation is often one of their most potent tools for continuing to use addictive substances. When left alone or in the company of other addicted individuals, loved ones may continue their substance use with few consequences.
This is why it’s important to stay in communication, as much as possible, with your loved one as they continue their addiction. If they are living at home with you, try to keep tabs on their whereabouts and who they are spending time with. If they are no longer living in your home, you may need to create communication channels with your loved one’s friends and colleagues and periodically check on their health and well-being. This may feel intrusive but is necessary, particularly if your loved one’s addiction worsens.
#8. Provide Resources to Help
Your loved one may not be ready to accept help just yet, but you should be prepared with resources in case they indicate a willingness to try. These resources can include contacts at local addiction treatment providers, but also local groups that specialize in addiction and recovery. These groups may include:
- 12-step groups: Peer support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have chapters nationwide and use the 12-step model to help individuals manage their addiction. They are often powerful tools to encourage individuals to seek treatment and find support.
- Faith-based groups: Many churches, synagogues, and other places of worship have groups to help create connections and community within their congregation. If your loved one is religious, these groups may provide them with a sense of stability and connection while not being specifically recovery-focused.
- Volunteer groups: Many communities feature volunteer groups manned by individuals in recovery from addiction. Service is a major component in recovery and can help provide individuals overcoming addiction with a sense of purpose and motivation.
Finding a supportive community can help motivate your loved one to enter a treatment program and continue their recovery from addiction.
While there are no surefire ways to help your loved one overcome their addiction to heroin, utilizing these 8 steps can help begin a healthy dialogue and prepare you for what’s to come. Managing addiction is a lifelong endeavor, but encouragement and support from family and friends can make a significant difference.