There is an ongoing opioid crisis in America today, an epidemic of drug abuse so severe that President Trump declared it to be a national emergency in October of 2017. Abuse of opioids, including heroin and many powerful prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, oxycodone, and fentanyl, has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million Americans struggle with abuse of prescription painkillers, and that abuse exacts a powerful toll on our country. In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died from an overdose of opioid drugs, and the financial burden adds up to $78.5 billion, including the cost of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement. These numbers illustrate the scope of the epidemic, but fail to answer questions such as: What causes drug addiction and why is it a problem?

Causes of Drug Addiction

There is, of course, no simple answer as to what are the causes of addiction to drugs. People can only become addicted to drugs after being exposed to them, so one cause of drug addiction is the readily available supply of drugs in America today. In addition to the illegal drugs smuggled across our borders or grown in lamp-lit basements, the prescription drug supply has steadily increased for the past 20 years or so. For example, the website drugabuse.gov, run by the government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, states that in 1991, 76 million prescriptions were written versus 207 million in 2013. Those numbers alone indicate the overall increase in the supply of prescription painkillers. Many of these prescriptions are legitimate, but others may be abused by the patient to feed his or her own drug habit, or they may be obtained using a false complaint and then sold directly on the street. Either way, there is a large supply of drugs available for people who wish to experiment, and some of those people will end up addicted.

But why is it that some people can use drugs recreationally and then walk away, while others become addicted? This is a complex question, but part of the answer lies in individual differences. A strong family history of drug or alcohol abuse likely indicates a genetic predisposition toward addictive behaviors. With or without a tendency toward addiction, some people will use drugs to self-medicate conditions such as depression, anxiety, and stress. Rather than helping, drug abuse most likely exacerbates these conditions and may even keep the person from receiving proper treatment. In the end, it is hard to say that there is just one cause of addiction to drugs, but it certainly includes an individual’s health, family history, and individual differences.

The Faces of the Opioid Epidemic

Numbers and statistics capture the facts of the opioid epidemic: financial cost, lives lost, number of addicts. But the numbers fail to reflect the people who are impacted by drug abuse: the addicts who do not die, but suffer daily and live only to feed their habit; the pain felt by the parents of drug addicts and the children they so often abandon in favor of drugs. The following stories put a face to the statistics.

Allie

Consider Allie, a 46-year-old current heroin addict who began using heroin at the young age of 14. In fact, her first exposure to the drug took place when a relative shot her up with heroin as a fourteenth birthday present. Addicted ever since, she uses heroin all day, every day–her sole purpose in life is to get high. She sells enough heroin to support her $200-a-day habit, plus pay for food and rent, but admits that her home is no place she wants to live. Tiny and cluttered, it is simply a place to stay.

Allie describes the toll heroin use has taken on her life–at 46, she says she looks 66. She has lost her teeth, her body is overly thin, and her skin is wrinkled beyond her years. A mother of two, she has not seen her children in over a decade, when they were 11 and 13. Now they are grown. She cries when talking about her own life but feels powerless to stop using. Although she continues to sell heroin in order to support herself, it pains her that others will follow in her footsteps, destroying their lives, too. She knows what people will do in order to get more heroin–have sex with people they would not talk to under normal circumstances, have gay sex for money. She wishes she could scare them off, claiming that she tries to warn young people who come to buy from her, telling her clients that “This is skid row, honey…This is the end of the line.”

Billy and Meghan

Two younger heroin addicts from the streets of Boston also began abusing drugs as teens: Billy, now 31, started at age 13, and Meghan, now 29, began at 19. Both began using prescription painkillers but moved on to heroin as it was cheaper and easier to obtain. Both have suffered from their habit: Meghan’s boyfriend, the love of her life, died from an overdose right next to her; Billy has a 5-year-old son; both are homeless. The two express interest in overcoming their addiction–Meghan talks about wanting a family someday–but feel powerless to stop using heroin. When asked if he thinks he will die from heroin abuse, Billy responds: “I know I’m gonna die from this.”

Although it is shocking that Allie became addicted to heroin after a relative injected her with the drug, Billy and Meghan represent a common scenario: 80% of heroin users began by abusing prescription opioids. They both began by using pills recreationally as teens, but others begin opioid abuse with a valid prescription for a true medical need. Most patients use the drugs as prescribed and discontinue use within a few weeks, but roughly 21 to 29% of patients with a prescription for these painkillers will misuse them. Intentional misuse can be a gateway to opioid addiction. Once addicted, heroin can be an easy alternative as doctors try to limit the drug supply by restricting the number of pills prescribed and the frequency of refills allowed. Once the pills are gone, it is very difficult to obtain more, but for someone willing to buy heroin on the street, there is no end to the supply.

Overcoming Heroin Addiction

While heroin and other opioid drugs are extremely addictive, with the right treatment, that addiction can be overcome. The recovery process includes detox and withdrawal to remove all traces of heroin from the body. This is an uncomfortable process, to say the least, but it is necessary in order to move forward. During withdrawal users may experience nausea, vomiting, muscle aches and pains, and sweating, among other symptoms. Once a person has completed detox, they can begin treatment to learn how to live a sober lifestyle. This may include individual therapy to understand why they became an addict in the first place, group therapy for support of others entering recovery, and supplemental approaches to healing the whole body such as yoga, acupuncture, reiki, and meditation.

If you or someone you love struggles with heroin addiction, help is available. Call our toll-free number today.