How to Help a Painkiller Addict

A practical guide on how to help a loved one who is dealing with painkiller addiction here.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: In this article, we outline steps you can take in order to get help for a loved one, the types of treatments that work, and how to help cope with someone else’s opiate addiction. At the end, we invite your additional questions.



What Addiction Really Is

Are you or someone close to you facing an opiate addiction problem? It’s important to remember a drug problem is a medical condition. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Help is out there. Opiate addiction treatment is effective and can change your life.

So, what is addiction?

Addiction is a disease that develops over time when a person continuously takes a certain drug. Drug use begins as a decision. But over weeks, months, and years, opiate change the way our brains word. So, there’s much more to it than simply choice – as supposed by many. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction like this:

“In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”

Why Do People Use Opiates?

For starters, the reason a person may initially take a drug is totally different from person to person. Initial use may depend on a variety of factors. According to Psychology Today, a person make take opiate drugs because:

  • Their genetics make them vulnerable to euphoric effect.
  • Their culture has a certain attitude towards it.
  • Their personality tends towards risky, impulsive behavior.
  • As self-medication for emotional or mental illness reasons.
  • Seclusion may create an environment for drug use.
  • They don’t understand what drugs are doing to them.

No one takes a drug and assumes they’re going to become addicted. In fact, many people like to think they can beat addiction. However, addiction is a state of mind and body during which you are no longer using drugs for the sake of getting high. Rather, someone who’s addicted uses opiates to achieve a normal state of consciousness or feeling. So, how does one get to this point?

The Path to Addiction

It begins with the first intake of an opiate drug. The brain and body react to the drug’s chemical structure immediately as it attaches itself to opioid receptors. These receptors are located in different areas of the brain – such as those involved with pain and pleasure. Once an opiate enters the brain, the brain then sends chemical signals neurotransmitters to other areas in the brain and body. The end result?

1. A sense of euphoria.
2. Decreased sense of pain (why so many prescription opioids are given out each year for chronic pain).
3. Slowed heart rate, breathing, and response time.

As the body becomes accustomed to opiates, it no longer produces the chemicals that naturally attach to opioid receptors. Instead, it depends on the opiate drug to do all the work. However, not everyone who takes opiates is addicted. Rather, some people become physically dependent.

What’s the difference?

Dependence or Addiction?

A drug dependence is a physical adaptation to a drug’s chemical structure. Dependence is actually a survival mechanism. Because opiates are depressants, the body sends out “stimulant signals” to counterbalance the slowing down caused by the chemicals. Take away the drug, and you’re left with the stimulant effects until the brain returns to normal.

All in all, dependence is physical.

On the other hand, addiction is mental. It’s a craving for a drug. It’s needing the drug to cope with life…and obsessing about using, even in the face of negative harms to your health, relationships, or work.

So, how can you tell whether your loved one is addicted or dependent? The signs aren’t always clear. Plus, some people are good at hiding drug addictive behaviors. In order to find out for yourself, you may want to ask your loved one the following questions:

  • Have you ever tried to quit an opiate without having success?
  • Do you find yourself craving to use opiates?
  • Are your responsibilities affected negatively due to your opiate use?
  • Have you continued to use opiates despite problems in your relationships?
  • Do you find yourself in risky sexual behavior because of opiates?
  • Do you spend a large amount of time thinking about, obtaining, or using opiates?

Want more assessment questions? Check out these resources:

By answering yes to any of the above questions, your loved one is most likely facing an opiate addiction. Still, not everyone will simply admit to their problem and asking these questions may prove futile. Therefore, you’re going to need to push harder in order to break denial.

Helping Address Denial

Denial is a defense mechanism we use so that we can continue behaving in the same way. If your friend or loved one is in denial, this is a tough place. You need to seek professional help and guidance for yourself. To find a family or addiction counselor near you, check out the American Psychological Association’s Member Directory.

What can you actively do?

Most people who are trying to help an opiate addict are unaware of how these drugs affect the individual. So, the first thing you can do is to educate yourself about addiction. The Partnership for Drug Free Kids is a good place to start.

The CRAFT Model of family training can be very helpful as well as individual or family counseling with a licensed clinical psychologist who has experience with addiction. Getting help for yourself can teach you how to:

  • Bring up a conversation about recovery at the right time.
  • Set boundaries.
  • Stay safe around an addict.
  • Understand addiction as a brain disorder.
  • Understand addiction as a family issue.

If your loved one is not ready or willing to enter treatment… do not give up hope. Remember, many who face a drug addiction are usually ashamed of their behavior. No one takes pride in their drug addiction. This is primarily due to the fact that people don’t like to admit they’ve failed at self- control. They naturally react to this failure through denial.

When your first trying to figure out how to address denial, you ultimately want to show your loved one all the support you can. There’s no guarantee how your loved one will react to this – some people are open to help while other retaliate. Still, by showing your support, you can begin to build a foundation of trust. Here are a few tips for when you approach denial:

  • Be specific about what you talk about – bring up certain incidents which the person struggling with addiction is aware of as a means of triggering memory.
  • Discuss areas in which their opiate use has had negative effects on their aspirations (i.e. career, commitments, etc.) and other loved ones.
  • Don’t approach the person when they’re high on opiates.
  • Keep in touch regularly on these issues and any new issues which may arise.

The important thing for you to do is channel your efforts into learning how to live your life in peace. You can love an opiate addict, but you don’t need to suffer with them. If you continue to have trouble addressing denial, then you simply need to take a different approach.

Intervention Basics

When it comes to drug addiction, the person struggling most likely won’t approach you unless they’ve reached a point of despair through an incident or accident related to their addiction. As someone who cares, it’s in your best interest to do all you can as a means of avoiding this. The most efficient way to get this across is through an intervention.

You’ll want to make sure you take the time to plan out an effective intervention. If you need a bit of
help on this process, you can go to a professional. Here are seven tips to keep in mind when planning your intervention:

1. Carefully choose who will attend.
2. Get some advice before you begin.
3. Plan your communication in advanced.
4. Prepare for anything.
5. Prepare to suggest consequences.
6. Provide a solution.
7. Follow through after the intervention.

Help During Detox

Detoxing is the process of the body ridding itself of opiate’s chemical structure and, at the same, reverting back to its normal, original state – homeostasis. During detox, opiate withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable and even painful. Though most symptoms are not life-threatening, there are some dangers to take precaution to, such as dehydration.

This is why it’s important you seek out a medically professional facility for your loved one. Not only will they provide the best medical attention, but it’s a controlled environment where your loved one won’t retreat back to opiates as a means of relieving the withdrawals.

There are two main different types of symptoms that must be treated during detox: physical and psychological symptoms. Acute detox is primarily physical in nature, although psychological symptoms begin to surface in the first days of the process. Still, you can expect your loved one to feel the following symptoms within 1-2 days after their last dosage:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Increased tearing
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle aches
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Yawning

As opiate withdrawal progresses, the above symptoms become more intense. These core symptoms mimic a really bad flu. They usually peak around 72 hours after last dose and then gradually die down fover the next three days. The following symptoms will also kick in during this period:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Again, you’ll want to make sure your loved one is under medical supervision while he/she undergoes detox. Since these symptoms can be very severe, most people are unable to quit opiates on their own terms. It’s only with the right medications, medical attention, and environment are they able to make the push past physical withdrawal.

Help During Treatment

As you begin looking into treatment facility options, it’s important to understand how treatment works. It usually unfolds like this:

1. A medical professional such as

  • A Licensed Clinical Psychologist
  • A Medical Doctor who specializes in addiction
  • A Psychiatrist

…will facilitate a conversation with the opiate addict. The idea is to assess and evaluate the addiction to create a treatment plan. In order to establish appropriate treatment plan, the medical supervisor will ask about the particular drug(s) and the amount of drugs abused, determine the health condition and history of addictive behavior of the individual. The process usually includes a standard interview, a physical exam, and drug testing.

According to information gathered in this first session, the medical supervisor will create an individualized treatment plan that fits the person’s needs. Changes in this plan can be made when necessary. Depending on the doctor estimation, the patient may be switched to an alternative opioid or simply be taken off of all opiates at once.

2. If long term abstinence is the goal, supervised detoxification comes next. However, detox is just the beginning of a long process. When people come off opiates, they experience a variety of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms which can be so intense that they cause relapse. This is the reason why a medically assisted detox provides supportive care. The greatest benefit is the chance to manage withdrawal symptoms in a sober, recovery-oriented environment…with medical assistance and 24-7 care. Medical detox addresses symptoms to minimize their intensity and severity as they occur.

3. Medication Assisted Treatment is then used to help stabilize brain chemistry, thus increase chances of staying sober. There are several medications that doctors prescribe to prevent relapse. The following medications can help:

  • Methadone to help reduce cravings, ease withdrawal symptoms, and prevent relapse.
  • Buprenorphine to help prevent drug abuse for the purpose of getting high.
  • Naltrexone to help prevent opiate drug abuse.

4. Talk therapy then digs into the core issues that drive drug use. We are each unique. But, we often use drugs for the same reasons: to avoid emotional pain or to cope with what’s in front of us.

Therapy work in group and individual sessions helps us find what’s common about drug use and then encourages us to adopt new coping mechanisms. When combined with Medication Assisted Treatment, ongoing counseling for 1-2 years during and after rehab has been shown to have positive treatment outcomes.

5. Treatment requires aftercare. That means that when a formal treatment program ends, the work continues. A person in early recovery will require a clear plan for how to transition back into life without using drugs. Often, the plan incorporates at least a few of the following

  • Ongoing counseling
  • Sober living housing
  • Support group attendance
  • Treatment alumni activities

To learn more about treatment options, give us a call. We understand addiction as a medical condition. We’ll walk you through the medical treatment. Calls are answered by American Addiction Centers (AAC) helpline staff. The helpline is offered at no cost and with no obligation to enter treatment. Consultants are standing by to discuss your treatment options. So, if you are ready to get help for a loved one, reach out and pick up the phone. Talk it through!

How Many People Struggle?

Currently, America is facing an opioid epidemic, meaning many people struggle with addiction. Here are some stats on the crisis:

  • Drug overdose has recently become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. In 2015, around 52,000 people died from lethal drug overdose with opioids leading the epidemic. 20,000 of those people had overdosed on prescription painkillers while another 13,00 from heroin.
  • In 2015, out of 20.5 million Americans with a substance abuse disorder, 2 million had a disorder involving prescription pain relievers and close to 600,000 had one involving heroin.

Where to Find Help

If you are looking for a quick help with opiate addiction you can always contact the following Helplines:

  • Drug Hotline 877-736-9802
  • National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) 800-729-6686
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Hope Line 800-475-HOPE (4673)
  • National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Service 800-622-4357
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse- Drug and Treatment Information 800-662-4357
  • National Suicide Prevention Helpline 800-273-TALK (8255) or 800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
  • Substance Abuse Helpline is available 24/7 at 800-923-4327
  • Relapse Prevention Hotline 800-RELAPSE (735-2773)

You can also contact local doctors and counselors for help. These people can help you begin the process of opiate addiction treatment. Here are some suggestions:

  • Contact your family doctor or general physician for advice. S/He may know of local services, treatment, or specialists. In fact, your doctor is your first line to the best references for addiction treatment centers that are near you.
  • Seek help from your State’s Department of Health and Social Services. Ask to be assigned a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Or, look into local grants, NGOs, or scholarships.
  • Call local treatment programs and learn about their programs, so you can choose which one best suits your loved one’s needs.
  • Look for support groups that will be part of your treatment program.
  • Search for detox clinics.
  • Talk with friends and families for references. You’re looking to be connected to competent and experienced clinical psychologists.

How to Support a Friend

Helping a friend addicted to opiates can be difficult. Often, drugs bypass decision making, executive control centers in the brain. This affects your friend’s ability to make choices of their own. As mentioned, an addiction is when the body needs a drug as a means of survival. It shouldn’t be taken personally your friend has chosen an opiate drug over you for so long.

Still, there are ways of reaching out and through even before the treatment process begins. An intervention may be your first step as a means of breaking denial. Whether you reach out to his/her family or other friends, it’s important to collaborate on the concept that your friend needs someone to sit him/her down and talk about what has happened. Maybe you’ve been affected personally by their addiction? Or maybe you’ve seen other people who’ve been personally affected? If so, don’t be afraid to tell them.

Once the treatment process is underway, you’ll want to be a strong support system. Always be there when things get difficult and always be a motivating force towards motivation. Furthermore, you can offer all the support discussed within this article.

Your Questions

If you have any further questions pertaining to how to help an opiate addict, we invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any kind of advice for people currently trying to help an opiate addict, we’d also love to hear from you. We try to provide a personal response to each comment and get back to you promptly.

Additional References: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrations
NIDA: Understanding Drug Use and Addiction
Scholastic: Recovery from Drug Addiction


About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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