The challenges of recovering from heroin addiction

DSCF2083When you ask people what difficulties a person faces when trying to overcome heroin addiction, most will focus on the early withdrawal symptoms, which comprise both physical and psychological elements.

There are far greater challenges that lie ahead in a journey to recovery from heroin addiction. It is important that people know this (users, family members, family members, etc), although it is also important that people with a heroin problem are not put off by these challenges. Many people have overcome heroin addiction.

One of my favourite pieces of addiction research focuses on the recovery journey from heroin addiction and I have described this research in the article section of this website. Sadly, I’ve met hardly anyone who has heard of this research (including people working in the field), other than those who read my article on Wired In To Recovery. Please pass it around!

Patrick Biernacki in the 1980s interviewed over 100 people who had overcome their heroin addiction without treatment. These were some of the major challenges these people faced:  

1. When interviewees resolved to stop using heroin, they were uncertain about what they should do with their lives instead. They knew what they did not want to do, but they were less certain about what they did want and how they could go about getting there. This point was particularly pertinent to those people who had immersed themselves in the heroin-using lifestyle, or ‘world of addiction’, since they had lost most of the conventional social relationships in their lives.

Biernacki emphasised the lack of role models, other people in the community who had given up heroin. There was no one to ask, “How do I do this?” There was no readily accessible information about what to expect and how to deal with the various obstacles and problems that occur on a day-to-day basis. Amazingly, the situation is very similar today, 30 years later.

2. After deciding to stop using heroin, interviewees were doubtful that they could abstain permanently as they remembered their past failures at trying to stop. This situation was made worse by their low self-esteem and feelings of anxiety (which they had previously dealt with by using heroin). They also had to face the early withdrawal in a weakened physical and psychological condition.

3. When considering what would replace their addict lifestyle, the interviewees often had serious doubts as to whether they could establish and maintain relationships with “ordinary” people. They had little in common with non-users and also had to face the stigma that is associated with heroin addiction. Many were also worried about their criminal record, their lack of education and skills, and whether they were employable.

These problems were worse for those people who had been caught up in the heroin-using lifestyle and had cut themselves off from family, friends and mainstream social life.

4. When interviewees did stop using heroin and cut themselves off from the heroin-using world, they faced a basic problem of filling their lives with activities to fill the time they had previously devoted to their drug use and related activities.

This was much more difficult for a person who had lived almost exclusively in the world (culture) of addiction and may have been taking the drug from an early age. Some people had previously spent their entire day shoplifting, selling the goods, buying the drug and using.

5. Interviewees had to shape a new identity and social involvement in worlds that are not associated with drug use. An essential element underlying recovery is people being accepted as ‘normal’ by so-called normal society.

Former users of heroin may be reluctant to engage with ordinary people because they feel socially incompetent and stigmatised, and they may feel shame and guilt for past actions. Society has a very low opinion of drug addicts, which creates a formidable barrier for those wishing to move on from their heroin addiction.

For some participants in Biernacki’s reseach, the transformation from being a problem heroin user to being a non-user happened abruptly and was quite simple. However, for many others the process was prolonged and very complex.

This research emphasises the importance of the following:

  • role models, people in recovery from heroin addiction;
  • readily-accessible information about the process of recovery from heroin addiction;
  • connecting recovering people to other people they can identify with and trust and who can help them with their recovery and connecting to normal society
  • teaching recovering people social skills to enable connections to normal society
  • creating a culture of recovery, which is every bit as powerful as the culture of addiction.

Check out my article on this research.


  1. Recovery isnt easy. But its 100% worth it if you want to live. The “change to normal” will happen . it takes time. Were use to.or im use to instant gradification from the drug. So therefore in life I expected the same and complained and felt like giving up when it wasn’t working my way or in my time. But it all comes back. Being socially active. Being able to hold meaningful relationships. The job , family if not to far gone. Its all coming back to me. I’ve only been 7 months clean and its the best choice I’ve made. The 1st few months were rough but its possible if you work the steps. I’ve gotten close to going back out but I’ve got a great sponsor. I’m Happy I didn’t. I just want to let anyone who’s still in chains from this know that its reverse able. Forget the past . you can have a great future

    • Supermegafunzone says:

      When I started using heroin I thought that for sure, at some point, if things got bad enough I would be able to seek some form of aide. Living in New Mexico, I was shit out of luck with that theory.

      Without any help from an institution of any kind I was able to overcome this scourge of a drug. Relapsing a small handful of times I contemplated suicide as an easier way out…My girlfriend, who was unable to quit, wasn’t much help. Our combined misery only added stress to an already dire situation…

      Determination is the only thing that is going to get you through the fire of the first few months. The suboxone helps but it is by no means a cure. Any rehabilitation center you may be looking for is just another way to squeeze money out of those who already have it. The state run facilities are more like torture chambers than anything else.

      Trust when I say that my addiction was a very serious one, not just a fling. It was a way of life and a FULL TIME JOB. The access I had to this substance was insane. I don’t even know how long I’ve been clean because it’s not something I talk about with others often. I’m certain it’s been longer than a year, but the exact amount of time escapes me. Having to buy suboxone on the streets from other addicts is a dicey situation because of the contact with those who know where to get. It certainly is just another drug.

      I was able to wean myself off of this bitter orange crap but there is no escape from withdrawal but time. If you have anything at all that may be a driving force to your recovery, hold on to that with all your heart. My children were reason enough.

      There are several stages to this journey which, due to a lack of research or concern on your governments part, have gone wholly unexplained to many in need of help. I don’t glamourize this subject. I don’t feel that I’m a better person for having put myself through such an atrocity, but I do have some very genuine and (I hope) helpful things to say about it. I am very fucking proud of every person alive today who was human enough to realize that there is so much more in life worth doing than banging dope.

      At thirty years (me), at 18, or 60, it’s not too late. However, if you’re 80 years old and thinking about quitting, forget it. You WILL die. There is a sense of accomplishment and peace that will eventually take hold if you just believe in yourself, regardless of the suffering. There are parts to life that are still going to suck, just like they do for everyone else but, if you can handle recovery, you can handle anything. Promise.

      • David Clark says:

        Dear Super, Thank you for getting in touch. Well done you. You are Super! Please tell us more about your recovery. My very best wishes, david

      • Thank you,very inspiring. I am going on 10 week’s clean. It has been rough emotionally. My biggest problem was trying to find joy in life again. It slowly coming back. I am planning on attending na meetings for support and someone to talk to to keep strong.

        • David Clark says:

          Hi Lisa, Thank you for your contact. Good luck with your recovery. You should be very proud of yourself so far. Finding joy in early recovery is often difficult, but it does come. Check out Peapod’s Guide in the Resources section and some of the heroin recovery stories, e.g. Natalie, Matthew. Please keep in touch. My love, David

      • escape artist says:

        Super, I have been struggling for years. The last 2 years of my life I have tried to quit every day. What hurts the most is the damage done to my loved ones. I chose to stay away from my younger brothers for fear of opening them to a world I wish I’d never entered, and I know they wonder why I’m never around. My mom and my girlfriend are the only people in my life that know who I really am and it kills me that I’ve proven myself weak day after day.

        I’ve asked for help but I always run into the same problems. After I overcome withdrawals I have an emptiness and an overwhelming depression. Since Christmas I went 2 months clean then relapsed for 3 months, also using more and mixing with benzos because I’d rather overdose than blow my brains out.

        Withdrawals are the easy part because you learn how to deal with it over time, it’s the new life that scares me and the lack of direction that leads me to my fatefull escape. After so many years consumed with addiction it’s hard to maintain any sense of normalcy. Its forever going to be 1 day at a time, there’s no going back once you’ve tasted death. For the rest of my life I’ll have that demon on my shoulder, but you have to find something,

        ANYTHING to help you stay strong and focused on the big picture. 8 years of opiate addiction from OC to heroin and I wouldn’t wish 1 year of it on my worst enemy. All of you are not alone, I wish the best of luck to all of you with your struggles. I’ve lost many people to addiction including myself so please… never give up…

        • David Clark says:

          Hi Jake, Thanks so much for dropping by and leaving a comment. And the best luck you have wished on others.I feel for you for what you have been through. Have you got support around you other than your mum and girlfriend? I suspect you need connecting to people t help you deal with the big down, something you can get engaged in. Anyways, my very best to you and do keep in touch. David from Perth, Australia

  2. Pleeeease can somebody put me in the direction of not just positive recovery stories, of which I think its fantastic all of you guy have remained abstinence from opioids, and great to read your stories. but where will I find any sites with positive thinking skills, or genuine activities that will actually occupy my mind and take away the serious cravings that drive you crazzzy during withdrawl??? I have so much going for me, good friends, people around me who care and i’m lucky. After 7year i am NOT going to allow my son to get 1year older without seeing his real mammy. I stop NOW, TODAY… Advice please…???

    • David Clark says:

      There are some links to resources on the website but obviously not clear enough. Will add and send you some later. My best, David

Speak Your Mind


+ 5 = 8