Understanding a Loved One’s Addiction to Heroin

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Calendar icon Last Updated: 09/16/2021

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Watching someone destroy themselves with heroin is heart-breaking. Discovering a loved one’s addiction can set the world upon its end. Understanding heroin addiction, and learning how to deal with the fall-out, is important for families.  Dealing with an addict can be exhausting, but there are ways to cope effectively if a loved one has fallen prey to heroin addiction.

Heroin Addiction as a Disease

The Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognizes heroin addiction as an Opioid Use Disorder.  Persons suffering from Opioid Use Disorder have specific genetic tendencies as well as diagnostic markers used to determine whether someone has the illness.  With the diagnosis, medical professionals can prescribe a treatment protocol to aid an addict in finding help.

Genetic Tendencies toward Opioid Use Disorder

Many believe that addiction is entirely a choice.  However, there are specific genetic markers predisposing certain people to risk-taking and impulsive behaviors.  Further, heroin addicts often suffer from co-morbid conditions like depression or mood disorders.  Many addicts start in their teens or early twenties attempting to self-medicate.

The Epidemic of Opioid Use Disorder

Addiction to Heroin

Many who start using heroin do so to escape emotional pain.

While there is known to be an over representation of substance use disorder in minority groups living in poverty, heroin use is predominantly found in white males between the ages of 18 and 25.  However, recently, heroin use has skyrocketed across the country affecting men and women of all age groups and economic statuses.

Risk Factors

Understanding heroin addiction begins with determining why a person turns to its use in the first place.  Of course, when a loved one turns to heroin, discovering the reasons why the addiction began may be a futile effort.  However, thinking about these risk factors that may have led to addiction can help family and friends find solace in understanding the addict’s plight.

  • Lifelong struggle with depression or other mental illness
  • Injury or pain related to illness resulting in prescription of opioids
  • Untreated emotional or mental trauma
  • A desire to escape emotional pain
  • A history of risk-taking
  • Family history of alcoholism or drug addiction
  • Easy access to opioids (those working in the medical field)

Help for My Loved One

Treatment options are available to help a heroin addict stop and stay stopped.  Kicking the habit is extremely difficult, however, due to the manner in which heroin works on the pain receptors in the brain.  Opioids create lasting changes in the processing of pleasure and pain, making medical treatment a necessity.  Medical management using methadone or buprenorphine are often necessary to help an addict cope with severe drug craving and withdrawal symptoms.

Family Support

The family suffers immeasurably when it comes to living with a heroin addict.  The horrendous cycle of craving and compulsion is heart-wrenching.  Even worse, families and friends of heroin addicts have usually endured lying, stealing and betrayal at the highest levels.  Drawing strong boundaries and finding support groups like Nar-Anon, family counseling or church affiliated groups can help the day-to-day struggles of living with an addict.

Understanding, Empathy and Hope

Learning about heroin addiction is critical toward helping an addict get clean.  Addicts need the understanding support of friends and family who will hold them accountable for their actions.  For addicts seeking recovery, there are programs and professionals who can offer help and hope.  Finding an effective program is key to rebuilding the devastation caused by heroin addiction.


Bevilacqua, L., & Goldman, D. (2009, April). Genes and Addictions. Retrieved November 05, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2715956/

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Home. (n.d.). Retrieved November 05, 2016, from http://www.nar-anon.org/

Today’s Heroin Epidemic. (2015, July 07). Retrieved November 05, 2016, from https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/heroin/

Treatment, C. F. (1970, January 01). 2 Pharmacology – Clinical Guidelines for the Use of Buprenorphine in the Treatment of Opioid Addiction – NCBI Bookshelf. Retrieved November 05, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64236/