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How To Tell If Your Loved One is a Heroin Addict

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

an image of someone thinking about telling their loved one if they're a heroin addict

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

How to tell if your loved one is a heroin addict? It can be tricky when trying to get them into a heroin treatment center. But it can also be tricky to spot the signs of heroin addiction, especially when you don’t expect it. Your loved one may just be being moody, or maybe they’re taking drugs.

Today, we’ll explain the various signs and symptoms of heroin use. If you already have your suspicions that someone is using heroin, you’re probably wondering when you should step in.

Before we explore this, what is heroin, exactly?

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an illegal and addictive opioid that comes in either powder or a sticky tar form which is white or brown. This highly addictive drug is made from morphine which is obtained from the opium poppy. Opium poppies are grown in Colombia, South East Asia, South West Asia, and Mexico.

On the street, heroin is also called horse, H, and smack.

People take heroin by injecting, snorting, or smoking it. There is also the process of speedballing. Here, the drug is mixed with crack cocaine.

What Are the Effects of Heroin?

When a person takes heroin, it binds to the opioid receptors in the body. Opioid receptors are implicated in pleasure and pain sensations. Opioids block pain signals in the central nervous system.

Heroin also changes the heart rate, breathing rate, and sleep.

Immediate Effects of Heroin

When a person takes heroin, they experience a pleasant euphoric rush. People who suffer from depression or anxiety can feel great respite from their feelings while high on heroin. It also produces pleasurable feelings in people who are coping with extreme poverty or are hurting from emotional or physical abuse.

Heroin can make a person feel warm and safe, even if in reality they aren’t. People who are homeless may take heroin to numb themselves to their surroundings and cope with cold temperatures.

When taken in lower doses, heroin acts as a tranquilizer, making a person feel calm, more relaxed, and more connected with others. Higher doses can induce more of a floaty dream state. When a person has endured a lifetime of anxiety, depression, stigma, guilt, and shame, this altered state can provide respite.

If someone is in severe emotional stress, heroin can be a shortcut to a calm state of mind. Emotional trauma is a common reason for heroin use.

Physical immediate side-effects of heroin can include:

  • Itchy skin
  • Flushed skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling sick
  • Move between consciousness and consciousness
  • Heavy legs and arms

Longer-term side effects can include:

  • Collapsed veins from injecting
  • Abscesses
  • Irregular menstrual cycle
  • Pneumonia and other lung diseases
  • Depression
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Constipation
  • Stomach cramps

These are physical signs that can show up if a person is using heroin.

Heroin use is often a trauma-response. If your loved one suffers grief or another tragedy, try to be vigilant to their behavior. If they start associating with drug takers be wary of heroin or prescription opioids.

How Do You Know If A Person Is Using Heroin?

If you notice any of the following behaviors you have every right to be suspicious that a person may be using heroin.

Money Problems

Heroin is expensive. If your loved one keeps asking to borrow money and doesn’t pay you back this is a warning sign.

Changes in Behavior

Your loved one may suddenly act a little secretive about things they get up to and what they’re doing. They may evade questions about where they’re going or who they’re going to see.

They Stop Looking After Themselves

If your loved one suddenly looks unkempt it could be a sign they are using. Perhaps they don’t wash their clothes or wash and brush their hair. Perhaps they never seem to bathe or wash.

Problems at Work or School

If a person keeps missing work or school or they’re not performing it could be a warning sign that they are taking opioids.

Disruptions

The cycle of addiction means the addicted person will go through ups and downs. With a heroin addiction a person will feel normal for some time, but later go through sickness, restlessness, distractedness, and sweating.

Some obvious signs of heroin use include:

  • Memory and attention problems
  • Short attention span to people around them
  • Coordination problems
  • Scars on arms, fingers, legs, toes
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Slurred speech

It can be a little trickier to spot the signs of withdrawal in someone who is in early addiction. But, it’s worth keeping in mind that withdrawals can be similar to flu symptoms such as sweating, goosebumps, stomach pains, and swings in body temperature. These signs will become apparent in the morning if they’ve used the night before.

Hidden Paraphernalia

People who are addicted to heroin will go to extreme lengths to hide their problem. But, if they assume that you don’t know what you’re looking for, they may leave stuff lying around.

Things to look out for include pieces of aluminum foil, small baggies, pipes, needles, spoons, and gum wrappers with burn marks. Also keep your eyes peeled for anything that might be used as a tourniquet such as a belt, shoelace, or a piece of string.

Missing Personal Items

You might find certain items going missing such as jewelry. People who are addicted to heroin get desperate for money and they would even steal from their loved ones.

Anyone Can Become Addicted

Addiction is not a sign of moral failure or weakness, it can affect anyone regardless of their age, color, weight, place of birth, or hair color.

Research has given us a broader understanding of addiction nowadays. We know that it is possible to treat addiction so that people can lead fruitful and more productive lives.

If you think a loved one is addicted to heroin you must understand that you can’t fix them yourself. However, there are things you can do to help the situation.

Often, if you confront a person about possible heroin addiction, they may deny it.

Why Is It So Difficult To Stop Using Drugs?

Continuous and repeated drug use changes the chemical make-up of the brain. Repetitive drug use also affects the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-control.

These chemical changes in the brain are the reason why it’s so hard to quit drug addiction. A person may want to quit, but because their brain has been reprogrammed to want more of a drug, it tricks the person into wanting more.

A person who tries to quit drugs alone without help may start well, but eventually, they slip and will start using again.

This is because addiction is a brain disease. It’s a disease that creates a strong urge to take a drug, drink, or engage in a behavior even though it may be causing harm to the person.

For a person to truly stop, they need to ask for help. The brain is like a control center, it transmits signals that guide decisions and actions.

These signals change when a person takes drugs, affecting their actions, decisions, feelings, and emotions.

Drugs can also alter the part of the brain that is responsible for pleasure. This is related to the feelings you get when you fall in love, eat delicious food, and anything enjoyable. Over time, when a person takes drugs, everything pales into insignificance and the person only seeks more drugs to produce feelings of pleasure.

The initial time a person takes a drug, they experience a high. As a person continues to take the drug, the high becomes weaker and weaker as they build a tolerance. But, they also need to keep taking the drug to stop feeling terrible.

This is an addiction. Quitting is very difficult, but it is always achievable and treatable.

If a loved one has a heroin problem, get some help.

What To Do If A Loved One is Addicted to Heroin

This is the tricky part.

You’re probably terrified of confronting your loved one about their heroin addiction. You’re convinced they’re taking heroin, but the thought of mentioning anything to them can fill you with dread.

It’s easy to bury your head in the sand and wish the problem would magically vanish. So you may continue with life in denial that the problem exists.

But, ultimately, you have a choice to step in and do something or risk losing them to their addiction. Heroin addiction can kill a person. As it is a progressive chronic disease, your interference could save their life.

You may also worry that you’re overreacting and that they’re not using drugs after all. If this turns out to the be case then so be it, to err is to be human.

But, if they insist they’re not taking heroin and they’re showing the classic signs, then they might be in denial themselves.

Perhaps your belongings are going missing, and maybe they disappear for days without contact. And, perhaps they are always asking for a loan when their bills aren’t paid.

When They Get Angry

If you confront your loved one about their heroin addiction, a common reaction is anger, especially for someone entrenched in heroin addiction.

Anger is a typical method of deflecting responsibility for a problem. Negativity is the typical response when a person confronts them about their addiction.

Rather than cooperate and open up, they will turn it around and start pointing fingers at you to deflect attention away from themselves. If a person feels pushed into a corner, they’ll lash out. They’ll target you with your anger and punish you forever approaching the subject.

If and when you do confront your loved one about their heroin addiction, do so from a place of love and compassion. Explain how much this person means to you and that you miss them. Using kindness and compassion makes it more difficult for a person to react angrily.

Whatever you do, avoid pointing any fingers as this will inflame the situation.

You may be worried that your loved one runs off and never talks to you again. At the end of the day, not confronting your loved one may mean that they could die.

Perform An Intervention

An intervention is an action or strategy you take to encourage a person to get treatment for their addiction. It can come in the mode of a confrontation, a conversation, a crisis, an event. An intervention confronts a person in a structured manner

Even if your loved one declines treatment at this stage, at least you have tried and it plants the seed of recovery in their minds.

There are different types of intervention that you can perform, but there is one important thing to remember, and that is to never do an intervention alone. It’s a good idea to consult an intervention specialist as they can guide you through the process and prevent you from making the typical mistakes many people do.

There are two types of intervention: one where everyone confronts the addicted person and the other is a gradual encouragement of the person to seek help.

The Johnson Model of Intervention

This type of intervention was invented by a man called Vernon Johnson. With this type of intervention, everyone must be on board. If there is one person who is allied to the addicted person, the intervention won’t work.

Ultimately, every person involved must be prepared to stand their ground and not give in to the addicted person such as give them a couch to sleep on, or lend them money. Every family member and every friend must be singing from the same hymn sheet, otherwise, they will sabotage the whole effort.

The trouble with the Johnson intervention is that the person can feel hurt and betrayed when they learn that their family and friends have been conspiring behind their back. On the other hand, what’s worse, hurting their feelings or losing them to an overdose?

This is why it’s worth consulting an intervention counselor who can advise you of the pros and cons of interventions and what might be the best approach for your situation.

Invisible Intervention

The invisible intervention is much less confrontational than the Johnson intervention. An intervention counselor works behind the scenes with the family and coaches them on how to interact with their loved ones to get them to treatment.

Invisible interventions can be far preferable to the Johnson model as this approach typically gets people to be more likely to stick with treatment.

This approach is a longer game, but ultimately it gets the addicted person to want to seek treatment of their own accord.

The benefits of the invisible intervention are that it causes less resentment, has more success in the long-term, and it encourages family members to treat their loved one with empathy. The power of empathy cannot be underestimated. When a family member is yelling and shouting they’re more likely to push someone away. But, if you’re coming from a place of kindness and compassion it ignites the learning part of their brain.

Enabling vs Setting Boundaries

It’s very common for loved ones to feel they must protect their addicted loved one. It’s also common for people to believe that a person must ‘bottom out’ or ‘hit rock bottom’ before they seek treatment.

What is needed for the addicted person to become exhausted from feeling uncomfortable with their situation. It’s the same when you get out of a bad relationship, for example, it’s always hard to walk away but eventually, it becomes so unbearably uncomfortable you have to make that move.

So by not enabling and setting boundaries, it is possible to make the addicted person’s life so uncomfortable that eventually, they want to seek treatment and become substance-free.

Enabling

If you allow a person to keep using heroin by giving them money or covering up for them, you are keeping them in a perpetually comfortable state that won’t motivate them to get help.

Types of enabling behavior can include:

  • Ringing in sick for them
  • Giving them money
  • Interfering in situations where they might have harmed another person
  • Making excuses for them

These enabling behaviors will only do a person’s addiction more harm than good. If you engage in any of these behaviors, it’s time to stop. It may make you unpopular but unless you want to see them overdose one day, you had better toughen up.

Setting Boundaries

If you get yelled at because you won’t give them any money, you need to stand firm and let them carry on. This may be tough, but this is tough love and can save their life.

Tell them that you love and care for them, and tell them that you’ll support them to get treatment but you won’t give them money.

To help them you want to encourage them to get treatment, giving them money will go straight on drugs, increasing the likelihood of an overdose.

To mitigate the damage done to your loved one’s heroin addiction you must set strict boundaries and stick to them, otherwise, your enabling behavior could make their problem worse.

Look After You

Ultimately, you must seek mental health support for yourself. Witnessing the decline of a person you love to heroin addict is devastating. You must keep it in perspective and understand that their addiction is not your fault. It’s also crucial that you take care of your mental and physical health. Heroin addiction is a family disease as it affects all family members.

If you need assistance today, reach out to the friendly Renaissance Recovery team right now at 866.330.9449 and we’ll help you kickstart your recovery or the recovery of your loved one addicted to heroin.

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