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Why Do People Abuse Heroin and other Opiates?

No One Wants to be in Pain

I think the question that many who have been hooked on opiates would ask in response is, "why wouldn't you?". There are so many different kinds of pain: physical pain like aches and burns; emotional pain like heartache, painful memories, guilt, sadness, insecurity and anxiety. Being that most any living creature has a very instinctual drive to not hurt or to avoid pain, and given that it can be said that humans are subjected to many more types of pain than most other known organisms, why not use opiates?

I know what you're thinking, something like: "because it's bad for you", "because it's gross" or maybe "because I'm not crazy!". And you may be right, but some of us feel hurt a little more deeply, loneliness a little more desperately and failure a little more pervasively. And, one of the many ways that some of us choose to try to remove pain is by taking alcohol and other drugs. Historically, heroin and other opiates have appeared to many people as a viable means, or even as the only route, to do that very natural thing that all living organisms try to do: not be in pain.

Who Gets Addicted to Heroin and Why?

Can you imagine having a magical button that you could push and all of your body’s aches and pains would go away in a matter of seconds? What if your pain was suddenly replaced with a euphoric feeling? What if that same button could take away every insecurity, worry, painful memory and sadness in your life? Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it is, because the consequences of opiate addiction are often horrible. Although, the truth is, that for many people who are struggling and even for those who are just young and confused or in the midst of self-exploration, the allure of this kind of freedom from pain, this type of reward, this access to so much pleasure, is very, very seductive.

Let's put aside an overly simplistic concept of pleasure and replace it with the idea of safety. Can you remember a time when you were a child and you became afraid because you heard something in the dark when you were trying to sleep? Can you remember mom or dad hearing your cries and coming to hug you and hold you? Can you remember how it felt when they did? How would you describe that feeling? Warm, secure, peaceful, safe?...In that moment that mom or dad picked you up, your brain responded with a flood of endorphins from your brain's own internal (endogenous) opioid system. In fact, this natural, internal opioid system is a huge driving force in attachment between parents and their children. What I am getting at is this: When you look at your kids and you get that rush of love, or meaning, of wanting to protect them, and conversely, the safety they feel when you hug them, that is your brain's natural opiates. Heroin and other opiates are essentially opioids that come from an external source....So, let's restate and then rephrase the original question with this new knowledge: "Why do people use heroin and other opiates?" now becomes "Why do people want to feel safe, connected and secure?" Because what the heroin or opiate user is looking for is exactly that: safety, connection and security.

Heroin isn’t just for bikers and homeless people anymore. Anyone can become addicted to heroin: from troubled youth in single parent families to cheerleaders and football players from affluent families; from people with mental health issues to lawyers and judges. In fact, more and more “well-adjusted” young people are becoming addicted to heroin every day. Just as there are as many paths to recovery as there are people, so are there as many reasons why a person becomes addicted to heroin and other opiates.

Statistically, most people, especially youth, are introduced to heroin and other opiates in the form of prescription pain-killers such as Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone and Fentanyl; drugs which when viewed at a molecular level are effectually identical to heroin (heroin was actually invented by the pharmaceutical company, Bayer). Many people are prescribed these medications appropriately for the purpose of relieving physical pain. This is not the only way, however, for an individual to acquire a prescribed opiate. Currently, acquiring prescription opiates is considered an easy task due to the overabundance of prescription pills in our medicine cabinets and society at large.

What this overabundance of prescription pills has done is to take the needle, and thus the stigma, out of opiate addiction and open up an entirely new audience to its dangers. Pills come from well-intentioned family and friends, they are sold to us or shared with us by our peers as a means of relaxing. For a number of people who use opiates, as prescribed or not, addiction is a marked risk and they may form maladaptive and dangerous behaviors, poor emotional and psychological patterns and unhealthy relationships with the drug. As prescription opiates become harder for them to obtain, heroin becomes more and more appealing in terms of cost and effect. Further, as many find out, the lifestyle that heroin and other opiate addiction brings can be one wrought with danger and despair.

So, What's the Point Here?!

The point is this: I'm not saying that heroin and other opiate addiction is not a problem or that what people do when they're addicted is okay. I'm saying that what people who are addicted to these substances are often looking for is nothing more than what we are all seeking. Consider the fact that often people who are in severe addiction have traumatic pasts or other psychological, emotional and physical wellness issues and may feel like they have no other means to feel complete or to feel normal. So the next time that you feel justified in looking down your nose at someone struggling with addiction ask yourself, "what would I be willing to do to feel love, safety and connection?" "If I felt deprived of these things, to what ends would I be willing to go?"

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