WPSU radio station wanted to discuss the increased use of heroin and the inherent dangers.  One of our graduates joined me for the interview and made a great contribution.  Emily was celebrating her third anniversary of sobriety and we are so proud of her.  She is proof that heroin can be beaten and life in recovery can be good!


WPSU Radio Story



Click here to read more of our blog posts concerning heroin and other opiates.

roadtohellNot long ago a mother from Pittsburgh called me seeking help for her daughter. She described a two year journey that began when her daughter started taking prescription meds for knee surgery.  The family assumed the surgery had not gone well when she continued to take pain pills months after the operation, and it was almost a year later that they realized she had become addicted.  The spiral downward continued, as the daughter began to steal, lie and manipulate to pay for her habit — that had changed from pills to heroin.  The family, the mother stated, was now “living in hell.”

The story is not unique to Pittsburgh or western Pennsylvania, but is being lived out in every part of the country.  Addiction to opiates in on the rise, and the number of heroin addicts is estimated to have doubled in the past 5 years.  Some say the number of heroin users has grown even more rapidly in the past 12 months.

There are a number of reasons why heroin has become one of the most common reasons why people come to treatment centers like St. Joseph Institute.

Some of the blame must be placed on our national obsession with pain medication.  It seems that every ache and pain justifies a trip to the doctor for pills that will make the hurt go away.  A few decades ago a doctor would have prescribed rest, greater care when lifting, or perhaps some exercise.  Today our answer is an opiate based medication.  The United States has 4.6% of the world’s population, but consumes 80% of its opiates and 99% of the world’s hydrocodone.

The problem is that opiates are highly addictive.  Some scientists argue that no one can use an opiate for more than 12 weeks and not become addicted.  Consequently, we have a growing population of opiate addicts – teenagers, adults, and seniors.

Once you are addicted, a second problem begins.  The body develops tolerance to opiates, and it takes more and more medication to achieve the same effect.  Rather than the one pill prescribed, the patient takes two, or three, or four.  The doctor’s prescription is no longer enough, and the individual starts finding new sources of opiates — multiple doctors, pain clinics, or on the street.

Now heroin comes into the picture.  An opiate addiction can quickly become very expensive.  The street price is usually more than $1 per mg, leading to a daily habit that can total hundreds of dollars a day.  In contrast, heroin is less expensive, and the dealers have been offering their product for as low as $5 per bag.  It is estimated that 50% of all heroin users are people who switched from pain pills, usually because of the lower cost.

Once you are addicted to heroin, it is very hard to stop.  Addicts will describe the fear of withdrawal, and how they will do almost anything to avoid the symptoms that begin within hours of the last use.  The cravings become increasingly more powerful, and the mind develops a dependence on the heroin to manage emotions and cope with daily life.  Like an octopus, the arms of addiction grab hold of the brain, both physically and psychologically.

freeHeroin is stealing too many people – from Pittsburgh to San Diego, Boston to Miami.  The addict needs help to get them through the early stages of withdrawal, and then treatment to learn how to change their lives in ways that help them live without this powerful drug that has altered the way in which their brain works.

I am so proud of our graduates of St. Joseph Institute that are living free from heroin.  It has been a hard journey and their recovery must be a life-long passion.  But freedom from addiction is possible, and that is the good news I told the mother from Pittsburgh.

It’s frustrating.  No matter how terrible the impact of heroin has been on a user’s life, they keep returning to the same sick relationship.  The dependence is so great that the resolve to stop using can easily crumble.  Why is it so hard to break free from opiate addiction?  Why is it so hard to say goodbye and walk away forever?

Part of the answer lies with the chemistry of the interaction between heroin and the brain.  When someone takes “exogenous” or outside of the body opiates, they release a tsunami of dopamine, creating an intense rush of pleasure that the brain records as a profound experience of reward.  That memory remains strong, and is quickly recalled when a thought, action, or event, stimulates the desire to feel differently, or to feel better.  A person’s deep attachments to the feelings caused by heroin are potent drivers that pull the user back to their opiate drug.

But there is also a thought process at work.  The powerful sensation of an opiate such as heroin provides a reinforcing experience that offers a sense of purpose and meaning.  The drug provides comfort and momentary answers.  For this reason, many addicts run to their drug at the first signs of physical or emotional distress.  This dependence, with an existential bonding, makes breaking free from heroin especially hard.

Because the addictive power of heroin and other opiates is so strong, abstinence is never enough.  More is needed to establish recovery than simply saying “goodbye” to the drug of choice.  Part of the brain feels that it is losing its best friend, and the concept of “never again” is very hard to bear.  The drug-induced programming of the reward system in the brain creates a powerful opponent in the battle against addiction.

Lasting recovery from heroin demands a deep transformation.  The biological and  psychological power of the drug must be understood, and the addict must admit their powerlessness and reach out for help.  But more importantly, the “spiritual” impact of heroin must be appreciated, albeit often unconscious, and the drug must be replaced by a new and deeper source of meaning.

The hard reality is that saying no to heroin is not a one-time event.  Only with constant support, fellowship, and activities that provide emotional rewards, can the powerful bonds be broken.  The addict’s life must have new sources of reward and purpose that provide the resolve to stay drug-free.

In short, a divorce from heroin is never enough.  There must be the creation of new attachments, as are found in 12-Step groups, a church community, or with a sponsor, that take the place of the “meaningfulness” once provided by heroin.  Recovery becomes the creation of a new life that replaces the relationship with heroin that has been left behind.


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