Richie Farrell shot his first bag of heroin the night his father died, and he spent the next three years in the clutches of a severe addiction. Farrell, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and author of What's Left of Us: A Memoir of Addiction, describes in a recent article in The Huffington Post (1) the sensation of sticking a needle in his vein and waiting for the euphoria to "explode the top of my brain."
A smart, athletic kid from a good neighborhood, Farrell was the last guy you'd expect to end up on the streets, shooting up five or six times every single day for 821 days straight. He never intended to become a heroin addict, but then, no one really does.
The Heroin Epidemic in the U.S.
Every year, the number of those who abuse heroin increases.
In 2013, 517,000 people reported heroin abuse or dependence in the prior year, a 150 percent increase from 2007. Additionally, heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, rising from .7 to 2.7 deaths per 100,000 during that time, according to the Centers for Disease Control (2).
While heroin addiction once primarily affected young minority men in the inner city, the prevalence of heroin addiction in the suburbs has increased, and the fastest-growing segment of the population becoming addicted to the drug is non-Hispanic, white young men between the ages of 18 and 25 who live in the suburbs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (3).
How Heroin Hijacks the Brain
Farrell's addiction led him down some very dark roads. He remembers cooking heroin in the bottom of a soda can and how the ink from the date stamp dissolved and turned the liquid bright purple. He shot it anyway.
Farrell cites an article from Harvard Health Publications (4) that explains how heroin hijacks the brain: as psychoactive substances like heroin flood the reward center of the brain with dopamine, the hippocampus records a memory of the experience, associating the drug use with feelings of pleasure.
Repeated exposure causes nerve cells in the brain's reward centers to communicate with those in the area of the brain responsible for planning and carrying out tasks. The result is intense cravings for the drug and compulsive drug-seeking behaviors that often lead to addiction, which is characterized by continuing to use a drug despite the negative consequences it causes.
One of the consequences of heroin addiction, according to Farrell, is that even though the initial and powerful euphoria of that first shot of heroin never repeats itself, chasing it becomes a devastating obsession. Soon, your life revolves around seeking and using heroin. Your relationships suffer, pleasure becomes nonexistent, and you feel sick most of the time.
Once the changes in brain structure and function lead to physical dependence, withdrawal symptoms set in when heroin is withheld. The nausea and vomiting, severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea and intense, twisting muscle aches associated with heroin withdrawal are powerful motivators to do whatever it takes to find the next fix.
One of the Most Important Decisions You'll Ever Make
After destroying his life to chase the ever-elusive euphoria and stave off excruciating withdrawal symptoms, Richie Farrell sought help for his addiction. "I climbed out of a very dark hole and turned my life around," he says. He kicked his ten-bag-a-day habit and became an award-winning journalist, made an award-winning documentary, and wrote his memoir.
Still, the stigma of being a heroin addict haunts him to this day. "That's okay, though," he says. "I have accepted the fact that those 821 days out of over the 21,000 days I've lived will be the touchstone of my life."
Richie's story isn't unique. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (5), admissions to treatment for opiate addiction increased from 18 percent of all admissions in 2002 to 26 percent in 2012. That year, heroin accounted for 63 percent of all opiate admissions.
Whatever your reasons for picking up heroin in the first place, in the end, you can make the choice to continue using it and sink deeper and deeper into the abyss, or you can climb out of the hole and go on to find happiness in something else, something that gives happiness back.
Ask yourself: Does heroin make your life better? Is the high worth all the stress of getting ahold of the next one? Do you feel alive? Do you feel productive? Do you want to?
The answer, of course, is both simple and perversely complicated. Nobody wants to feel sick, and there's no question that having a purpose in life is exhilarating. But addiction is a funny thing in that it makes us want to continue the path we're on even though we know without a doubt that it's a path that leads to nothing but pain.
Maybe you hesitate to get help for your addiction because you fear withdrawal or cravings, or maybe you fear what your life will be like without heroin. Will you still be you? Will you feel anything? Will you feel too much? Will you accomplish anything?
There's only one way to find out, and there's a very good reason that the number one tenet of people in recovery is "one day at a time." But whatever happens, whatever becomes of your life after heroin, it's got to be better than perpetually chasing the elusive high and inching ever closer to death.
How Treatment Can Help
Treatment isn't just about getting your brain off of heroin—although medical detox is the first step, aided by medications that reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and shorten the duration of detox.
While medical detox can get you through the withdrawal process relatively unscathed, the most important part of treatment is the intensive therapy that delves into the complex issues behind the heroin abuse. Through various traditional and complementary therapies, you'll learn to replace self-destructive thoughts, attitudes and beliefs with those that are healthy and productive. You'll work to find purpose and meaning in your life, repair and improve your relationships, and lay the groundwork for a healthy life free of addiction.
You don't have to suffer the devastating effects of a heroin addiction. Help is available, and treatment works to help you reclaim your life. It's not easy, but then, neither is being addicted to heroin.