This week’s news of beloved actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s alleged death from a heroin overdose has brought to light the true dangers of addiction. It reminds us that addiction is a progressive disease that can rear its ugly head years down the road, even after the person has been clean and sober. For Hoffman, he had 23 years of abstinence under his belt. But this didn’t mean that he was free from addiction.
Addiction is a painful thing to talk about, so it’s no surprise that many people assume you enter a 28-day treatment program and that’s the end of it. These notions are only further complicated by the idea that loving friends and family, smart lifestyle choices and willpower will keep the addiction in control. But, there’s no such thing. It takes lifelong diligence to stay clean.
Relapse Diminishes with Time, but is Never Gone
Relapse does diminish over time, so the longer a person is recovered, the less chance they have of relapsing. They also experience fewer temptations and have acquired the tools and skills needed to deal with stress and anxiety. But, relapse always remains a possibility, which is why recovered addicts can’t let their guard down.
There are a number of reasons why people can relapse years down the road. A recovered addict may think that he can start using again ‘just a little.’ Maybe he’ll go out for drinks with friends or attend a party where he uses heroin ‘just once.’ This isn’t the way it works, though, and it takes just one bad choice to re-enter the dark path of addiction.
Why Heroin is Especially Dangerous
Heroin is of particular concern because it overrides the brain’s pleasure receptors and changes the wiring of the brain. When a user injects heroin, the body experiences a rush of euphoria, and this happens again and again with each use. Within a short period of time, the brain becomes rewired to crave that feeling again, and using heroin becomes an obsession. It’s hard to tell a person who has a brain that is dependent on heroin to simply control their behavior. It’s impossible.
Stopping the heroin doesn’t reverse the brain’s wiring, either. Basically, the brain stays that way, which means it’s always wanting more of the drug. That’s why heroin users are likely to relapse, even years down the road.
Additionally, abusers need more and more of the drug to experience the same highs. This is why people who have been clean for a long time can easily overdose on heroin if they dabble in it again. Even though the cravings may be high, the body cannot tolerate what it once did, and people will often take the same dose they were abusing years before.
No one knows what happened to Hoffman the night of his death, as details are still emerging. What we can confirm is that addiction steals lives in the worst way possible.
What We Can Learn from Hoffman’s Death
There is something positive emerging in the wake of the actor’s death, and that’s the fact that people are talking more. Many of the actors and actresses we have lost to addiction were active users, and it’s easy for people to point fingers. Yet in Hoffman’s case, he was a well-liked and respected actor who was clean for over 20 years. His case is bringing out more empathy, something we could use more of as a society.
Addiction is not selfish. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not about control. We can pretty much bet that Hoffman didn’t feel good about himself when he started using again. By discussing addiction as a brain disease instead of a character flaw or shortcoming, we’re making some progress in creating a society that is supportive rather than demanding.
Do You Ever Recover from a Heroin Addiction?
Although heroin is a difficult addiction to overcome, it’s very possible. There are plenty of people walking around today who have recovered from heroin addictions, and they are testaments to what you can be when you’re ready to commit 110 percent to recovery. But, that’s exactly it. You must be ready to commit everything you have to healing, not just today or tomorrow – but forever.
You can’t get lazy or overconfident in your recovery, and you can’t let your guard down. You must hold the stakes high and know your limitations, such as by staying away from certain places, people and things. Don’t test yourself; it could put you in a position where the temptations take over.
Over time, heroin addicts begin to separate themselves from their addiction. They no longer see themselves as active addicts but instead as recovered addicts. They learn the necessary skills and tools to deal with some of life’s harder moments without feeling the need to use again.
At the same time, though, these individuals recognize that the brain may still call for the drug, and that’s why they need to be especially diligent about attending support groups, following a nutritious diet and engaging in healthy hobbies and activities. It may take some extra work, but a life after a heroin addiction can be beautiful, rewarding and fulfilling. We see it in people every day.