The BFF’s Guide to Helping Someone With a Heroin Addiction

You’ve started to realize that your friend seems inexplicably exhausted most of the time. In fact, it’s not uncommon for him or her to starting falling asleep while sitting upright, even in the middle of conversation. Then you notice that there are marks on your friend’s arms, almost bruise-like and rather small. It might have taken you some time to connect the dots, but you’re pretty sure that you know what’s going on: Your friend has a heroin problem.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Heroin addiction has become so severe in the United States (and even abroad) that it’s referred to as an epidemic.1 The advent of our current opioid dependence problem can be traced back to the 1990s, but it wasn’t until somewhat more recently that heroin use went viral; according to the CDC, heroin use has increased in almost every single demographic group with a fourfold increase in annual heroin overdose deaths just since 2010.2 To further illustrate how rapidly this problem is growing, heroin overdose deaths increased by nearly 21 percent between 2014 and 2015, equating to roughly 13,000 deaths in 2015.

It’s when we look at such statistics to put the heroin epidemic into perspective that the direness of the situation becomes apparent. In some ways, it can feel like we’re fighting a losing battle; after all, how can we help a friend or loved one overcome heroin addiction when there are countless people dying from heroin use every year?

The Three Cs

The previous question can be answered in two parts. First, we should try not to become too disheartened because there are, in fact, ways to help an addicted friend. But that leads to the second part, which is to be aware of your limitations.

Obviously, each and every one of us with an addicted friend wants to effectively help him or her kick that heroin addiction, but unfortunately addiction doesn’t work that way. Before you can ever hope to help your heroin-addicted friend, you must contend with what you can and can’t do for that friend. The most important thing to remember is that you can’t cure your friend’s addiction, nor can the addiction be cured at all. Furthermore, you can’t control whether or when your friend uses heroin; if he or she is determined to continue using heroin, your friend will surely find a way to do so. You must also realize that you’re not responsible for his or her heroin use or even for your friend’s actual addiction.

In short, remember the three Cs: You’re not the cause of your friend’s addiction, you cannot cure his or her addiction, and you cannot control your friend’s heroin use.

Do Your Homework

One of the first — and arguably one of the most helpful — things that can help your heroin-addicted friend is a crash course on addiction and recovery. No matter how much you think you know about addiction, you’ll realize just how little you actually know. Addiction is a subject that’s riddled with misconceptions and misunderstandings, so correcting and expanding your knowledge is going to put you in a much stronger position for other steps.

As for specific topics in addiction, you might consider exploring some of the psychology and common causes of addiction,3 which include stress and childhood trauma. These are topics that will help you to better understand why or how your friend came to be addicted to heroin and the behavioral changes caused by the disease.

Have Realistic Expectations

Another reason that learning about addiction is important is because knowing more about the disease will help you to set more reasonable and realistic expectations. For example, even if your friend decides that he or she wants to get clean, recovery doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, the amount of time required to overcome heroin addiction is highly variable, potentially ranging from a few months to several years (and multiple trips to rehabilitation facilities). Having too high of expectations can actually be a hindrance because it puts a lot of pressure on your friend; that pressure causes stress, which can quickly trigger a relapse.

Be Prepared to Draw Lines

There’s a term you’ve likely heard used to describe when an addict’s friend or family member encourages, either knowingly or unknowingly, the addict’s alcohol or drug use; it’s called enabling. A common example of enabling is when a parent gives money to his or her addicted child or covers his or her living expenses. However, a more relevant example might be covering for your friend at work or telling his or her parents that he or she has been with you when that’s not true. In some cases, these are things that you’d normally be willing to do for your friend without question, but it’s actually harmful when it allows your friend to obtain or use heroin.4 Although it can be difficult, you need to be ready to set boundaries or draw the line when necessary.

Be Adaptable and Supportive

You’ve done the homework, acknowledged your limitations, set realistic expectations and created reasonable, healthy boundaries. At this point, you’re in the appropriate mindset to help steer your friend toward recovery, but you may not be entirely sure how to do it. When it comes down to it, there’s no singular strategy that will push your friend into sobriety. As we covered previously, you can’t force your friend to stop using heroin, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. To really help your friend, you need to be ready to be whatever it is he or she might need at the time. In other words, you need to be adaptable.

Put into practice, being adaptable equates to having a number of strategies for different situations. At times, your friend may need a good listener, someone to whom he or she can talk without fear of judgment. There will be other times when you may need to be a straight-shooting voice of reason. You might suggest going with him or her to support groups. However, it’s important to remember that your friend is always going to need your support. Having an active heroin addiction is hard, but showing your support will ensure that your friend doesn’t feel rejected.

There are no certainties when it comes to helping someone with an addiction; however, no addict is a lost cause. Anyone who suffers from a heroin addiction has the ability to regain lost sobriety, especially with the support of one’s BFF.


Sources

1. The Heroin Epidemic: How Did We Get Here?; rehab-international.org
2. What is Heroin? CDC.org; January 26, 2017
3. Understanding Drug Use and Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse; August 2016
4. Setting Your Boundaries. Carole Bennett M.A.; Psychology Today; June 17, 2011

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