Kicking any addiction can be a painful and difficult experience. But as any junky who’s been brave enough to put down the needle can attest, heroin – or should I say – opiate withdraw is in a league of its own. It can easily be described as sheer hell. It doesn’t produce the most dangerous withdraws. In fact, it isn’t very dangerous at all. But what it lacks in mortal threat, it makes for in physical and mental anguish. It matters little how sane and rational a person might be in their regular life, visit them during the peek of opiate withdraw and you’re likely to find a mad, ravenous beast who would push your grandmother in the street or gouge their own eyes out with a spoon for anything that would make their seemingly unbearable pain go away.
The media loves a good withdraw scene – the pain and anguish, the drama, the filth – the absolute horror of it all. In actuality, it’s probably one of the few things that the media could have a hard time exaggerating, at least in the mind of the addict. That’s why addiction recovery is such a massive money-making business. We’ll do anything to ease the pain – even just a little. So we ship ourselves off to fancy rehab centers, spend hundreds of dollars of medications, even put ourselves through horrific rapid detox. But these are all modern day conveniences. I might punch you in the face if you say this to me when I’m withdrawing, but the truth is, no matter how painful it feels at the time, this to shall pass. For as long as people have been tasting the forbidden fruit of the poppy, people have been suffering through withdraw, and not one of them was privy to the modern luxuries that we now take for granted. They had to tough it out old-school. And for centuries they all made it out the other side, alive and better for it.
But what exactly is withdraw? Do you really see babies crawling on the ceiling? (as famously depicted in Trainspotting) Are you sure I won’t die? (it certainly feels like I will!) Is is really necessary to lock my friend in their apartment or keep vigilant 24/7 watch? – I’ll just answer this one now. Yes. Your friend, no matter how dedicate, motivated and driven he appears before actually quitting, will feel 180 degrees different once withdraws start. If a friend asks you to keep watch or take his keys or whatever, do it. It’s in their best interest if they really want to quit. They won’t remember any of their rationale once withdraw starts. Leave him alone for one minute and you’re likely come back to an empty apartment or with a needle in his arm. Don’t blame him. He’s going through living hell. Just encourage him to try again and keep better watch next time. And make him buy you dinner afterwards or something (he’ll have a lot more money to spend on things like that if he can actually kick!)
But rather than blather on about how much it sux and I hate it, I’ve got a treat for you today! To dig into the question and give you the real-low on withdraw, we’ve got a special guest blogger who knows what she’s talking about. K. Lanktree, who runs the blog http://www.studiolonline.weebly.com, is a former addict and IV drug user. She faced withdraw head-on and is now in full recovery. She graciously agreed to tackle this unpleasant topic for you guys. She gives it straight, no hype, no exaggeration, no hysteria. This is the first guest post I’ve had on this blog and I’m very excited for her contribution, especially considering she’s a fellow champion for the cause! When you’re done reading her response, check out her website and see all the good work she’s doing on harm reduction!
Q. “What happens to heroin addicts when they quit cold turkey, and why is it so unbearable?”
“Going cold turkey” is a very familiar term for Heroin and other opiate addicts alike. You’ve probably heard it mentioned in several different contexts, but when it comes to opiates in general, it’s something that no user wants to endure.
But what exactly does it mean?
Cold turkey is a slang term that has been used as far back as the 1920’s to describe when an addict suddenly stops or quits Heroin or other opiates, and does not use any type of substitution therapy (Methadone, Buprenorphine) or other means of minimizing painful opiate withdrawals. The term itself also relates to symptoms that an addict experiences when he or she ceases use suddenly, such as ‘goosebumps or goose flesh’.
But going ‘cold turkey’ is MUCH more than just some goosebumps and a few days of discomfort. To be frank, it’s absolute HELL.
In the medical community, a common method used by physicians for assessing the level or severity of opiate to withdrawals is the COWS (Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Scale) method. Values of 1 through 5 are associated with various symptom, and added up to determine the level and severity of withdrawals. However there are some downsides to this method, one of which being the fact that is only measures and rates 11 withdrawal symptoms. Ask any opiate addict, and they will tell you there are many more than just 11 symptoms associated with withdrawals!
What does the addict experience, and how long does it last?
The withdrawal experience can range greatly depending on several different factors, so it is difficult to pin it down to a ‘day by day’ explanation. Factors such as the frequency of use, dosage, and type of opiates all have an impact on what the user will experience during withdrawals. Shorter acting opiates, such as Heroin, can produce intense but briefer symptoms. Whereas longer acting opiates, such as Methadone, can have a slower onset but can produce longer lasting withdrawals.
Regardless of the type of opiate used, the basic symptoms of withdrawal are the same, so let’s take a look at some of what you would experience if you stopped using Heroin, or any opiate, ‘cold turkey’.
The Physical Symptoms
– Head aches
– Sensitivity to light and sound
– Tremors (jimmy legs)
– Body/Muscle aches and pains
– Hot and cold flashes
– Loss of appetite
– Runny Nose
– Enlarged Pupils
– Increased heart rate
– Loss of drug tolerance
The Psychological Symptoms
– Suicidal thoughts/actions
– Intense drug cravings/urge to obtain drugs
The physical effects of withdrawal are horrendous and painful on the body, but the psychological effects can be just as harsh. Depending on whether a user has any pre-existing medical conditions, ‘going cold turkey’ can range from extremely painful to life threatening.
After reading that list of symptoms, as long as it is, it does not convey how severe and overwhelming those symptoms are. I was tempted to write ‘THE WORST [Insert Symptom] EVER’ for every single one of those symptoms listed, but I figured that was taking it a little far.
The ‘excessive stimulation’ of the brains reward pathways that occurs through Heroin use can actually trick the brain into thinking that the Heroin is just as necessary for survival as things like food and water (www.psychcentral.com/lib/opioid-dependence-and-withdrawal/0008507). So when a Heroin user goes into withdrawals, it does literally feel like someone is actually withholding the things that are most crucial to your survival, such as your food, water and air. The brain has been tricked into thinking Heroin is vital for life; it truly feels as though without it, you will die.
That’s an huge motivating factor, and one that can often lead addicts to go to extreme lengths (pawning/selling belongings of value, theft, other criminal activity) in order to obtain their drug of choice and avoid withdrawals.
K. Lanktree is a freelance writer, former IV drug user/addict, methadone patient & harm reduction advocate. Check out more of her writing on her blog, at www.studiolonline.weebly.com, and on Twitter @studioLonline