Journeys into and out of Heroin Addiction, Part 3: Trying to Stop

IMG_2644The decision to stop using drugs is fundamental to the process of recovery from addiction. It is the initial part of the process by which people overcome a drug addiction.

However, whilst making the decision to quit is of great importance, it does not follow that the person will in fact stop using and maintain this abstinence for a prolonged period or indefinitely. There are a wide variety of factors that influence ‘stopping’ and ‘staying stopped’.

In looking at a person’s decision to stop using heroin, we must consider the external reality and circumstances of their life, as well as the internal thought processes that occur when they make the decision to stop.

External circumstances that can lead to a person deciding they must stop using include the negative impact of use on family members, a worsening of one’s own health, the death of someone close, or the threat of prison.

In their seminal work described in ‘Beating the Dragon’, James McIntosh and Neil McKeganey argue that whilst a range of external experiences correlate with the decision to stop using, including changes in the user’s circumstances and social environment, they ‘are not sufficient in themselves to explain why a successful decision to stop is made.’ A change in external circumstances does not inevitably lead to a decision to stop.

These researchers argue that the key to understanding why these external events and circumstances lead to a decision to quit lies in how they are interpreted in relation to the person’s sense of self. They emphasise that,

‘… what motivates the addict to give up drugs is the way in which external events and circumstances reveal the unacceptable extent to which his or her identity has been damaged by addiction.’

Patrick Biernacki, whose seminal work with recovering heroin addicts in the mid-1980s is considered in another article on this website, also emphasised the role of ‘self’ or ‘identity’ in the recovery process.

Please read on.