“I bought a gun and chose drugs instead.” –Kurt Cobain
If you’ve been living in the sober world or know someone in recovery, you’ve probably heard this phrase before, “Heroin withdrawals are not life-threatening.” I’ve heard it a hundred times from various people, some professionals, some not.
Unlike alcohol or benzodiazepine detox, heroin withdrawals don’t explicitly cause death. But they can definitely be life-threatening. Allow me to explain.
You aren’t going to die from heroin withdrawals. You could, however, die as a result of dope sickness. When I was still detoxing from a brutal IV heroin habit, my roommate at Discovery Place, a residential recovery center, told me about his experience with heroin.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE DANGERS OF HEROIN WITHDRAWALS
Jason was in his mid-30s. He showed up to Discovery Place much like I did – coming off a one-stop heroin train, desperate to get clean. I asked him if he’d ever tried to get sober from the life-destroying drug.
“Hell I’ve been through this for years. Tried to kick the habit a lot. The first time I was serious though, I walked into my aunt’s house, told her to get all the wires or anything I could kill myself with out of the bedroom and spent the next week detoxing.”
“Why’d you ask her to do that dude?” I replied, curious about why he took anti-suicide measures before his at-home heroin detox.
“Because you think about committing suicide all the time when you withdraw from dope.” Jason said it nonchalantly, as if I should have known.
Truth is, I didn’t really believe him. At the time, my withdrawal symptoms were significantly reduced through administration of the detox medication Suboxone. A Suboxone taper is usually prescribed by physicians to help patients comfortably detox from heroin. For a time.
There was only one problem. When you’re on a Suboxone taper, your prescription runs out. You can even experience Suboxone withdrawals, which some say are as bad as heroin withdrawal symptoms. The alternative is a cold-turkey detoxification with no medication like Suboxone or Subutex.
A week or so later, I stopped taking Suboxone. That’s when it me like the fist of an angry god –horrendous withdrawal symptoms. Sleeplessness. Restless legs. And morbid thoughts, all the time. I thought about killing myself at least once an hour. Time crawled to a standstill. I thought about harm coming to other people too.
Gordon S, one of the most beloved volunteers at Discovery Place and a man with strong sobriety, was leading a group one evening. That night, his group went a little longer than scheduled. You see, Gordon genuinely cared about us. If Discovery Place guests had questions, Gordon generously gave his time to answer. Sometimes, it involved staying longer than he planned.
I’d come to admire Gordon, an oldtimer with long-term sobriety, as I matured in my own recovery. But that night, in the merciless grip of IV heroin withdrawals, I just wanted a cigarette. So I started to wish for Gordon’s immediate demise, maybe a heart attack or stroke.
Now maybe you think I’m sadistically twisted. Who could possibly wish for a kind old man’s early demise? Easy answer: a dope fiend without dope.
These are the diabolical mental contortions experienced by those lucky, dopeless souls. I say lucky because the pain of detox is the price of admission into sobriety. It’s the high cost for a chance at a life worth living. Chalkboard-scratch suffering paves the road to freedom.
It took almost 3 weeks for the withdrawal symptoms to stop. I didn’t think about killing Santa Clause or punching puppies anymore. Most heroin addicts will feel better after one week, but I had a particularly bad habit. Despite padding my withdrawals, I do feel Suboxone prolonged them. If I had to do it all over again, I’d go cold-turkey (no medication) in a residential recovery center, like Discovery Place, or a hospital.
If I’d attempted to detox from heroin on my own, I might have succumbed to the fate of the late, great Kurt Cobain. Suicide happens more than we know from people trying to get sober from heroin addiction. Heroin withdrawals can be deadly. Don’t make the mistake of trying to do it on your own.
Tips to Prevent Suicide from Heroin Withdrawal
1. If you will be detoxing at-home, let family, friends or a trusted individual know what you are about to do. Ask them to call or check-up on you regularly while you detox.
2. If possible, detox in a residential treatment center or qualified detoxification center (hospital).
3. If you are working with a qualified health professional, ask them what you can do to minimize the chances of committing suicide while dope sick.
4. With enough determination and perseverance, you will kick the habit. Remember that the pain of dope sickness will end. You will feel better.
5. If you will be detoxing at-home, removed any wires, cords, shoelaces or metallic objects that can fit into a wall socket. Let anyone else in the house know what you are about to do. Ask them to be supportive.
6. Morbid thoughts are only thoughts. You don’t have to act on them.