Life is full of joys and pleasures. When a waitress brings a smiling toddler a piece of chocolate cake piled high with melting ice cream, that child’s brain releases the natural chemicals that signal pleasure. The child feels warm, happy, and comforted. Adults might have these same sensations when they’re provided with pieces of cake, spending good time with loved ones or are on a particularly beautiful vacation. But they might also try to add to these natural experiences through drugs. They may find that taking opiates provides them with a stronger sensation of euphoria or provides feelings of pleasure that have seemed to be long missing. When a chemical high replaces natural highs, addiction can quickly take hold. An addiction is a chronic, serious disease, but treatment exists, and it works. An intervention can be the first step in getting that treatment and turning the tide of addiction.
What Are Opiates?
Opiates have their chemical roots and origins in the poppy plant. Heroin and opium are both examples of pure opiates. The National Institute on Drug Abuse shares that “In 2016 about 948,000 Americans reported using heroin in the past year.”1 Heroin isn’t just a hard street drug. People from all demographics and backgrounds may find themselves addicted to this drug. An even more widespread addiction problem is the use of opioids.
Some opioids include the following:
Opioids are synthetic opiates that come from labs, not plants. Some are available through prescription, others are illegal no matter the context for use. The U.S. National Library of Medicine explains, “Misuse of prescription opioids and heroin affects more than 2 million Americans and an estimated 15 million people worldwide each year. The prevalence of opioid misuse and addiction is rapidly increasing.”2 No matter the source of addiction, it’s a serious and growing health concern.
How Do Opiates Cause Addiction?
When natural or manmade opiates enter the body, they attach to receptors located in the brain, digestive system, and spinal cord. They trigger a series of chemical reactions that is similar to the one felt by people experiencing something good. But while natural feelings of pleasure might last for only a moment or two, fading away when the event is over, chemically induced reactions are much stronger and can last for hours. The feelings produced by opiates aren’t natural, and they can quickly overtake the ones that are.
While opiates are capable of delivering a remarkable amount of pleasure to people who take them for the very first time, the body adjusts quickly to this over-stimulation. Receptors for pleasure work less efficiently and eventually turn off. At the same time the brain and body produce fewer and fewer natural pleasure chemicals. People come to feel as though they simply cannot experience pleasure unless opiates are available. In fact they don’t even feel “normal” without the drug. They have to take larger and more frequent doses with less and less positive, pleasurable responses to them.
Why Does Opiate Addiction Keep Going?
Individuals begin to experience more bad feelings and experiences than positive chemical feedback. But they continue to use opiates. This is a hallmark of addiction — continuing to use despite negative consequences, despite wanting to quit, despite maybe even trying to quit. Addiction isn’t a choice. It’s a change in brain chemistry, body chemistry, behavior and thought. It’s a mental health issue. It’s rooted in a person’s biology, background, environment and more, and it has to be addressed through multidimensional treatment that looks at all of these aspects of recovery and wellness.
What Are the Risks of Untreated Opiate Addiction?
Overdose is a real risk of untreated opiate addiction. Opiates are powerful sedatives, and they can slow breathing and heart rate to a crawl — or stop them altogether. The risk of overdose increases as addiction continues or when more than one drug is used at a time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals, “Opioids were involved in 42,249 overdose deaths in 2016,” at that this number represents, “66.4% of all drug overdose deaths.”3
And overdose isn’t the only risk of untreated opiate addiction. Individuals who use needles to inject opiates are at risk for infections and blood-borne illnesses like HIV/AIDS. Any person is at risk for emotional suffering and physical and mental health. It’s vital for families to get involved and reach out to someone who has an addiction. With the proper treatment, people really can get better, but they might never do so unless the family helps them understand how important this treatment is.
Holding an Opiate Intervention
When a loved one is struggling with addiction, friends and families want to help. They can make a real difference, but the situation has to be approached calmly, lovingly and in a supported and structured way. An intervention provides this support, structure and message of love first.
Keeping Emotions in Check During an Opiate Intervention
Emotions make it difficult for individuals closest to the situation to know the best way to proceed. This is why a professional interventionist is a vital resource. It can be difficult to talk with someone who seems withdrawn and isolated, but families can deal with this issue in an intervention by comparing and contrasting the relationship they had prior to the addiction with the relationship that’s unfolding now. Reminding the person of the way things once were, of who they once were, might motivate that person to work hard to change. Families can also structure the intervention in such a way that the person with the strongest emotional connection to the individual with addiction speaks first. Front-loading the talk in this way can prompt the addicted person to really listen.
Possible Objections During Opiate Interventions
Opiates change how a person feels, speaks and acts. An individual with addiction often feels lonely and isolated. He or she will feel as though the family just won’t understand what it is they’re experiencing.
Individuals may respond to offers of help with statements such as:
- “I love the drug, and I won’t stop.”
- “I could stop if I wanted to, but I don’t want to stop.”
- “I’ll pretend to quit, but I never will.”
- “I’d rather keep using, no matter what you might say.”
Opiates impair portions of the brain that control behavior. Individuals can be impulsive and angry as a result. They may say or do all sorts of hateful things during an intervention. This isn’t the person speaking. It’s his or her addiction. Families can’t react with anger, fear, or frustration when comments like these come up during an intervention. A professional interventionist will help families practice responses to any possible words or actions. They will help the intervention stay safe, calm and on track. They are a great source for education about what addiction is, how it works and how families can successful reach through and past it to help the person they love.
Why Persistence Matters
Most interventions work. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence shares, “When done with a person who is trained and successfully experienced as an interventionist, over 90% of people make a commitment to get help.”4 Even if someone doesn’t agree to treatment immediately, he or she still receives a message of love and support. It opens the door for future conversations and opportunities for healing.
Does Opiate Addiction Treatment Work?
Treatment really can help a person with an opiate addiction to recover. The best treatment providers offer integrated care that looks at the whole person — his or her physical health, mental health, environment, and more. It offers holistic care that may be entirely substance-free or may involve medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine. Mental health medications may be needed, at least at first, to balance any co-occurring mental health issues. But no matter if medication is or isn’t used, the core of treatment is therapy. Therapy helps patients:
- Avoid situations that spark cravings for opiates
- Develop strategies for managing triggers and situations that can’t be avoided
- Deal with a craving without relapsing
- Verbalize emotions and personal needs
- Connect with sober peers
- Build a life built on health and healing
Therapy can be individual or in a group. It may include the family. It may be supplemented by alternative practices like yoga, meditation, and adventure therapy.
How to Plan an Intervention and Find the Best Treatment
Before holding an opiate intervention, families should investigate their treatment options and identify a facility that’s well-suited to help the addicted person to heal. Reach out to Skywood to learn more about finding a professional interventionist and choosing the best treatment that meets your loved one’s personal recovery needs.
By Alanna Hilbink
1“What Is the Scope of Heroin Use in the United States?” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Jun. 2018.
2“Opioid Addiction.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. Nov. 2017.
3“Drug Overdose Death Data.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 19 Dec. 2017.
4“Intervention — Tips and Guidelines.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. 25 Jul. 2015.