Heroin addiction is a problem that most of us are happy to ignore. We perceive it as ugly, dysfunctional and, perhaps, beyond the wildest pale of our lives. Yet, it’s all around us. Statewide, although exact figures are not yet tallied, roughly 250 to 350 people have died of heroin overdoses just since November. And each year, there are roughly 30,000 Massachusetts hospital treatment “episodes” for heroin abuse.
It is counterproductive to dismiss or stigmatize drug addiction. It costs us millions of dollars in crime losses, policing, court time, incarceration and health treatment. And human costs are terrible. Families and marriages are ruined — emotionally and financially — when a son or daughter becomes addicted.
Learn To Cope (learn2cope.org) was created in 2004 by an addict’s mother, Joanne Peterson, to be a resource for parents faced with an addicted child. It is not unusual for parents initially to think that they can — with enough love, understanding, persuasion, and support — convince their child to get off drugs. It almost never happens that way.
Learn To Cope advises parents to beware of enabling their addicted child. Most always, an addict must reach some sort of personal “bottom” or personal turning point before his helplessness makes an impression on him. Sometimes, that point never comes.
Parents are advised to seek professional help. Getting their addicted child into a detox facility and then into a rehab program, followed by six months or more in a halfway house, is often the only way, realistically, to break the addiction and give their child a chance at building a new life. Even then, relapses and failures are achingly common. Many addicts detox and enter rehab or treatment programs over and over.
There are additional strategies. Best accompanied by counseling and behavioral therapy, a daily dose of methadone, buprenorphine (suboxone), or vivitrol (a 28-day shot) is sometimes effective. Those drugs either activate the pleasure receptors mildly — thereby managing the craving for a hit — or block the receptors entirely. Because the brain cannot quickly repair the rewiring damage done to it by drug abuse — even after complete detox — powerful cravings can exist for months, and even years, in a “clean” addict. Therefore, sometimes the best that can be accomplished is a transition from the illicit and dangerous drug life to a safe, stable, predictable — but still medicated — life. Some citizens might question what sort of “success” that is, but sometimes those “maintenance” regimens allow addicts to work and participate in life productively. Society benefits.