Pathways from Heroin Addiction: Recovery Without Treatment, Part 3

I continue my series of blog posts on Patrick Biernacki’s research from the mid-1980s focused on natural recovery from heroin addiction.

People who have been addicted to heroin report experiencing cravings for the drug long after they have given up using. Many people who have relapsed and gone back to using the drug after a period of abstinence attribute their relapse to their cravings for the drug.

A craving for heroin is used to describe a strong desire or need to take the drug.  Craving is often brought about by the appearance of a cue that is associated with the past drug use. These may be cues associated with the withdrawal from heroin, or with the pleasurable effects of the drug.

Wikler has claimed that the relapse of abstaining heroin addicts can be attributed to conditioned withdrawal sickness. People who have stopped using heroin will crave the drug if they are exposed to certain stimuli that they have learned, as result of their past experiences with withdrawal sickness, to associate with actual acute withdrawal.

Thus, people returning to an area where they have previously used the drug, may experience symptoms of withdrawal, and as a result of these feelings and the accompanying discomfort, they begin to think about the drug again, obtain it, and then use.

Lindesmith has postulated that people who have used heroin to prevent the onset of withdrawal symptoms, learn to generalise withdrawal distress and come to use the drug in response to all forms of stress. When they become abstinent, they experience stress as a craving to use the addictive drug once again.

Despite these ideas, Biernarki reported that only a small number of people in his sample described their cravings as being linked to withdrawal distress. Though they sometimes reported that problematic life situations during abstinence led to thoughts about the drug, they did not report any specific symptoms of withdrawal.

The feelings of the cravings were commonly described as emanating from associations made in past experiences of using heroin and feeling the drug’s effects. The cravings were ‘experienced and interpreted as akin to a low-grade “high”. The person feels a ‘rush’ through the body and by feelings of nausea located in the stomach or throat, and he thinks about enhancing the feeling by using the addictive drug.’ Both the ‘rush’ and nausea are sometimes experienced when actually taking the drug.

This kind of craving was of short duration, generally 15-20 minutes, and rarely longer than an hour.  The frequency with which these cravings occurred diminished over time and generally appeared rarely, if at all, after about a year.

Biernacki pointed out that the cravings could be managed in two basic ways, that can be employed individually or together: drug substitution and a rethinking of their lives.

As described in my last blog post, the initial step in breaking away from heroin use—to minimise temptations to use—commonly entails a literal or symbolic move away from the drug scene. However, this move does not preclude the possibility that the person will experience drug-related cues, since some may be noticed in any environment. Moreover, it does not necessarily help the person to manage the cravings once they do occur.

The first strategy used to overcome heroin cravings is simply to substitute some other non-opiate drug. The most popular substitutes in the Beirnacki study were marijuana, alcohol and tranquillisers such as valium. Whilst some of the sample subsequently developed serious problems with alcohol, most who adopted this strategy used other non-opiate drugs only on an occasional basis.

A second strategy used to manage cravings involved a ‘subjective and behavioural process of negative contexting and supplanting.’ Thus, when people experienced heroin cravings, they ‘reinterpreted their thoughts about using drugs by placing them in a negative context and supplanted them by thinking and doing other things.’

Biernacki emphasised that this is not just a mental process (e.g. the power of positive thinking), but it entailed subjective and social elements. ‘The substance for the negative contexting and supplanting of the drug cravings is provided by the new relationships, identities, and corresponding perspectives of the abstaining individuals.’

To illustrate the above, some people who overcame their dependence on heroin became very health conscious and concerned about their physical well-being. When they experienced heroin cravings, they may place the thoughts about using the drug in a negative context by thinking about a physical illness that can arise from injecting the drug, e.g. hepatitis.

Then they may replace the thoughts of using the drug by thinking of the personal benefits that can be gained from some physical activity, such as cycling. The substance for these alternative thoughts comes from the social world of participatory sports. The person may then go cycling and the feeling aspect of the craving can be masked by the physical exertion or can be reinterpreted as an indication of exertion.

Biernacki provided examples, of other former users who became religious converts or who engaged in political activity. He emphasised that, ‘An effort such as this must be made each time the cravings appear, until the power of various cues to evoke the cravings diminishes and the cravings are redefined as the ex-addict becomes more thoroughly involved in social worlds that are not related to the use of addictive drugs.’

Recommended Reading: Patrick Biernacki (1986) Pathways from heroin addiction: Recovery without treatment. Temple University Press, US.

The photograph used in this blog post was by v2osk and has come from Unsplash, a great resource of free high resolution photographs.