Syringes to Sobriety

Stories and Advice from a Real Heroin Addict

How to Help an Addict: “You did this to yourself!”

Note: Helping a Loved One Recover

Looking for information on how to help an addict? You are in the right place! Read this article before handing out advice to anyone struggling with substance abuse disorder. The information is guaranteed to save you some heartache, helping you to make level-headed, informed decisions.

Note: Help Yourself Recover

This article will also be helpful if you are seeking help with your own substance abuse issue. Maybe you have been in and out of jail or prison but fail to stay clean for long each time you are released. Maybe you have never made it past day 3 of detox. Whatever your story, there is still hope for your recovery.

Below, I explain why the threat of returning to prison may not be enough to keep you clean for long. In conclusion, I give you, the struggling drug user, permission to get creative and make a unique recovery plan, specific to your own needs.

Introduction: The Opioid Epidemic

If society wants to gain even a semblance of victory in the battle against the opioid epidemic, changes must be made. Common beliefs about recovery are outdated and frequently ineffective for maintaining recovery.

We must replace these beliefs with facts.

Facts about what WORKS for users to maintain recovery.

We will only discover these facts by listening to users in recovery, and sometimes, more importantly, learning from users who have failed to recover.

The Justice Department’s Role

If our goal is to fight to stop the opioid epidemic, we need the justice system to join our ranks. However, the antiquated ways the courts deal with substance abuse today must change.

A great starting place would be following up with substance users who have been sentenced to jail or prison with a promise to receive recovery services during their stay. Judges and other court personnel may be shocked to hear how few services the defendants actually received.

Judges and prosecutors handing out jail and prison sentences have little knowledge of recovery programs available to inmates. The judges order defendants to complete recovery programs in jail, but few programs are actually available.

Many times, inmates do not qualify for these programs, especially if not sentenced on a drug charge. (It does not matter that the defendant would not have committed the charge had they not been on drugs at the time.)

The user is essentially passed on as a problem for jail staff to deal with. Jail staff, however, has even less knowledge of recovery coaching, so the situation worsens.


In my experience doing time at Maricopa County Jail, it was blatantly obvious that medical staff was not trained to deal with inmates (like myself) detoxing in their jail.  There are thousands of other stories supporting how inadequate, frequently dangerous, medical care is for those incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons.

I will discuss common scenarios happening hundreds of times of day in our jails. Some are so outrageous, you will be shocked no one has intervened and put an end to these practices. Many changes need to be made in our jail system; Too many to address in one article, but we must start somewhere.

 I have identified what works to encourage recovery and what simply does not.  I will propose a new method of helping an addict that does not involve interventions, screaming at each other, cutting a person off, or calling the police.  In some instances, the addict sought out a treatment program for themselves after a loved one used the method discussed below.  In all instances, communication between loved ones and the addict stayed constant and civil through detox, treatment, and recovery.   


Reality Check

The opioid epidemic is real. Teenagers are sticking needles in their arms in their parent’s basements and smoking dope off of tin foil in high school bathrooms. It is real, and getting worse. Without revamping the way we approach recovery in this country, nothing changes.

I have lost more friends than I can count on both my hands to this awful epidemic. Hopefully, this article gives hope to users and to the families of users. If you are looking to help a user get clean, this article will help you make informed, rational decisions.

How to Help an Addict: Force Cold-Turkey Detox

Helping a Heroin Addict- Using Tough Love

Everyone has an opinion!

Many have said, “You did this to yourself, so deal with the consequences” or “You need to experience the hell of withdrawal so you will learn not to use again.” 

I am sure the intentions behind these statements are pure. For those of you fortunate to not have a substance abuse issue, these comments probably seem justified…maybe even logical.  After all, if 


heroin use = withdrawal


withdrawal = real shitty experience

then it seems logical,

a user who suffered through withdrawal once would understand that,




A logical person would conclude, forcing a user to experience the horrors of cold turkey detox should do the trick to prevent further heroin use (relapse). 

A reasonable conclusion, right?


Hmm, not so fast.  In a perfect world, this tactic may work, but unfortunately, we are far from perfect and sometimes the simplest solutions are the most ineffective. 

The Case of the Puppy Poop

Let’s look at this another way. Imagine you bring home a brand-new puppy.  Puppy is pooping all over the house, so you implement the most effective training method you know.  When Fido poops in the house, you repeatedly say NO, BAD DOG, in your sternest voice, while rubbing his nose in his own shit.


Eventually, the puppy learns to use the outdoor facilities and you consider yourself a modern day B.F. Skinner! (B.F. Skinner is famous for his proposed theory of operant conditioning, which purports behavior is influenced by its consequences.)

If creating fear of consequences works for Fido, it will most certainly work with substance users, right?



 Just give it a rest already!

But Why Not, ANA?

Good question and thanks for asking! Let me ask YOU this:


Would you potty-train a toddler by sticking her nose in her soiled pull-ups, while saying NO repeatedly and pointing to the toilet?

Yeah, doubt it…and if you do, I recommend buying this book before CPS comes knockin’: 

If potty training is too far-fetched an example, here is another:  

Lil’ Willie Suckett Sucks His Thumb



Would you refuse to buy Willie Dayquil for his cough or Advil for his fever?  Would you refuse antibiotics from the doctor, ensuring maximum symptoms and duration? 

Do you think associating poor hand hygiene and thumb sucking with the painful suffering of pneumonia symptoms will effectively change Willie’s behavior? Will Willie’s horrendous cough, that keeps him up all night crying, be the punishment necessary for Lil Willie to start washing his hands or stop sucking his thumb?

I doubt it.  Let’s be honest, depriving Lil’ Willie of medicine is only going to make the suffering worse for you both. Guaranteed you will be awake all night while Willie coughs, cries, coughs, and then cries some more.

Lil’ Willie continues sucking his thumb until his underlying anxiety issues are resolved or aged out of. Willie may start to wash his hands when you remind him, but you cannot always be with Willie. The memory of being sick will fade and Willie’s habits will persist.

The same is true when helping an addict. Without addressing underlying causes of drug use and implementing intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, the memory of painful withdrawal will fade and the drug habit will persist.

Starting to reconsider the effectiveness of making a user suffer through cold turkey detox to preventing relapse?

I hope so, but, for those not quite convinced, let’s consider another form of tough love commonly used in the U.S.

How to help an Addict: Jail or Prison?

Helping a Heroin Addict- Lock ’em All up

Cold-turkey detox is not the only way to show a user tough love in the hopes they will not use again.   Throwing a user in jail or prison is society’s version of tough love.  Out of sight out of mind. 

Does the punishment of jailing a person to discourage the continuance of an illegal behavior sound familiar?  It should!  It is just another form of operant conditioning. 

It seems so logical but locking a user in jail rarely works to discourage future use.  If this method was even slightly effective, the recidivism rate for drug users would not be as high as it is today.

The Reality of Jail Today


Jails are unpleasant, dirty, cold and staffed with a high percentage of unforgiving, power-hungry guards.  (Notice I said high percentage.  There are a HANDFUL of guards that seem to care, seem willing to do more to help inmates.  However, they lack training and resources.   Unfortunately, most guards are cold towards inmates, either by choice or they have been jaded from years of service in the county jail system.)

Detox and Recovery in Jail

Jails have few recovery programs in place and even less medical care during detox.  During my stay in Maricopa County Jail, I was refused all medications while I went through opiate withdrawal.  I was not allowed Imodium, Advil, or even anti-nausea medicine.  When I explained how I was barely able to make it to and from the bathroom to throw up in time, the nurse recommended I drink more water.


I felt awful that my cellmates had to endure my gagging, tossing and turning, and running back and forth to the bathroom for days on end. When I asked the jail nurse why I was not allowed to take any sort of medication to help with my symptoms she said,

I felt awful that my cellmates had to endure my gagging, tossing and turning, and running back and forth to the bathroom for days on end. When I asked the jail nurse why I was not allowed to take any sort of medication to help with my symptoms she said,

We are not required to give you anything because you cannot die from opiate withdrawal.

Other inmates reported they were told,

I guess you shouldn’t have decided to use drugs.


That’s just too bad. You did this to yourself!

The way jail staff handles inmates high on opiates, alcohol, and/or benzodiazepines that are booked into one of their facilities is a disgrace.   Refusing over the counter medications like Imodium and Advil (neither of which have any sort of recreational use) to inmates who will be experiencing opiate withdrawals is just plain cruelty. 

I found out, later in my jail stay, that medication is only given to inmates detoxing from alcohol or benzos because they have a greater risk of having deadly seizures, which could be a huge liability for the jail.  (After being released, I researched the fatality of opiate withdrawals to see whether the jail nurse was correct.  I discovered she was wrong and that it is possible to die from complications associated with opiate withdrawal.)

Jail Does Not Encourage Sobriety

Can you imagine what a user is thinking about when locked in a cell, with strangers, while detoxing, with no medication? (Many times, other inmates have drugs, so you may be forced to watch others get high while being sick.)


Let me explain what goes through a user’s head in this situation. HINT: It is not that they never want to use again. 

A user in this horrendous situation is not able to think far enough ahead to see that using again may land them back in jail.

The only thing a user feels is an incredible urge to escape reality. And how do users escape reality?

You guessed it!

We get high!

Naturally, when feeling crummy, a user starts plotting and scheming a way to get high again.

For those of you who have never tried heroin, it will be hard to understand the appeal.  This is the best way I have been able to describe it to nonusers:

What Does Heroin Feel Like?

An orgasm creates a 200% dopamine (happy chemical) release in the brain.

IV heroin creates an 800% dopamine release in the brain. 

(IV methamphetamine creates a 1000% dopamine release in the brain.)


That means the feeling a user gets after IV heroin use is 4 times more pleasurable than an orgasm!! This pleasurable experience is the exact opposite of being in jail.

Starting to understand why the user cannot help but think about getting high again?

Check out What is the Cause of Drug Addiction? for a detailed explanation of how a substance use habit becomes deeply embedded in the brain.

My Takeaway From my First Jail Experience

After suffering through cold-turkey withdrawal in jail, I would never allow that to happen again, no matter what. Although I wanted to stay clean to avoid future jail and withdrawal, I felt crummy when released.

I was released in the middle of downtown Phoenix at 2 am with no money and no cell phone. At that time of night, in that part of town, I only felt comfortable contacting my drug dealer to pick me up. Plus, in my mind, she was the only one that could make me feel better.

Had the jail given me information about methadone programs, sober living houses, crisis services, recovery meetings, or even a reference to a drug counselor, I may have stood a chance. Although I wanted to stay clean and avoid jail, I did not have the tools needed to recover. Willpower alone was not going to cut it.

Sure enough, I got high within thirty minutes of being released.  The high was amazing because I had felt so crummy while in jail.

Something is not right with this picture.  Had I been treated humanely (detoxed with dignity), there would not have been as much of a drive to get high and feel better upon release from jail. 

Inevitably, a few months later, the police arrested me for shoplifting. (I was stealing to support my drug habit.) Can you guess what I told to admitting nurse?

With the most conviction I could muster, I said, “I consume a pint of vodka, a handful of benzos and a six-pack of beer to wash the pills down, just to get out of bed in the morning! I drink to stop the tremors and I finish my Xanax script in three days every month!” (Remember I only used opiates)

All of these lies to get a damn Imodium!

Guess what?

It worked.

Consider the Human Brain

 Jailing a user is a bit like crate training a puppy.  If you are potty training your puppy, you may punish accidents with crate time, aka puppy jail. 


This may work well for Fido, but humans do not respond well to this kind of ‘training.’ In fact, locking a user in a cage during withdrawal, when a user feels like ending it all, may not have the effect you hope it would the opposite outcome you would hope for.  Human brains are complex, and, as a result, many factors contribute to influencing our behaviors.

I was in an out of jail a few more times than I am proud to admit. I began to think something was wrong with me and that I would never be able to stay clean.

Why was jail not enough of a consequence for me to stop getting high? I hated the place, just like everyone else.

Finally, I found a program that suited MY recovery, staffed with people that knew how to help a user recover. This gave me the confidence I needed to get clean and start changing my life.


The reason I kept going back and the reason the recidivism rate for drug users is so high is the complete lack of treatment available in jail.  We must start implementing better programs for users in lieu of a jail or prison sentence if we are truly serious about saving lives and avoiding heartbreak.

The recovery options are out there, but the justice system has not been creative enough with sentencing to truly help substance users. A jail sentence is not the answer.


Operant conditioning methods are best reserved for effecting behavior change in animals, like a new puppy or circus lion.  Humans do not respond well to this kind of training, especially during withdrawal, when a user feels like ending it all.  Human brains are complex, and, as a result, many factors contribute to influencing our behaviors.

How to Help an Addict: Variety of Treatment Options

Curing Addiction- Comas to Beaches

If operant conditioning methods like forcing cold-turkey withdrawal or jailing substance users had proven effective, we would not be in the mess we are today.  Most notably, the detox/recovery industry would be nonexistent. 

One time through withdrawal or a few days in jail would effectively cure a user of all future urges to use.  We simply would not need to research or develop new forms of treatment if avoiding withdrawal was enough of a deterrent to prevent relapse. 

Instead, we have thousands of rehab centers, all over the world, specializing in all sorts of treatments, each claiming their methods are the most effective. 


For example, the Nazaraliev Medical Center of Central Asia claims 80% of their patients stay off heroin for at least a year after receiving their ‘coma treatments’. Patients are injected with a substance that puts them into a coma-like state for several hours, ‘curing’ them of addiction.

Thailand’s Thamkrabok Monastery requires patients to swallow an herb, inducing weeks of vomiting, to ‘purge’ the user’s body of addictive substances.

From Passages, Malibu, specializing in luxury, comfort, and a holistic approach to recovery, to Ayahuasca Healing Centers, using hallucinogens to treat substance abuse disorder, the treatment options seem endless. 

Obviously, the detox/recovery industry is alive and well, more profitable than ever, as millions of users and their families spend billions in a desperate search for solutions.

How to Help an Addict: Using Compassion

A Little Compassion Never Killed Anyone

When broaching the topic of detox with a user, actively listen to concerns, fears, apprehensions, what has not worked in the past, what the user is most willing to try, and so on. Be genuine and show compassion!

Many people are apprehensive to involve the user in the detox decision-making process and, when the time comes to enter the program, the user bolts, leaving family frustrated and scared.  Ditching detox at the last minute is common, but much more so if the user has no idea what they are getting themselves into.  

Knowledge of the detox center’s procedures and expectations help the user feel more in control, and less like they are making an awful, extremely painful decision.  Letting a user participate in making the final decision on which detox to attend, sparks confidence in his ability to complete a program he knows is best suited to his recovery. 

how-to-help-an-addict-practice kindness

Remember, no two users are alike. Therefore, for the best chance of success, recovery programs must be as unique as we are individual.

This is a foundational principle at Syringes to Sobriety and shows up, in some form or another, in almost all the material posted to the site.  The same principle should be applied to detox.  There are tons of detox programs out there, including methadone, suboxone, rapid detox, etc., so choose wisely.  For better odds of success, choose a detox program offering solutions best matching the users’ individual needs. 

If the user seeks a program that will ease suffering during withdrawal, you should support him.  Detox does not need to feel like a punishment for the user.  In fact, for a user to feel encouraged to continue working a recovery program after detox, it is important to keep him comfortable, even medicated, during his withdrawal and, in some situations, afterward. 

How to Help an Addict: Example One

The Repeat Detox Visitor

If a user has repeatedly tried traditional medical detox centers, but always checks himself out within the first 48 hours, consider a rapid detox program. 

During rapid detox, patients are put under anesthesia and injected with a drug that forces the body into rapid withdrawal.  As a result, the user, while under anesthesia, experiences the first 3 days of withdrawal in 4-6 hours, waking up feeling little to no physical withdrawal symptoms.

Rapid detox would not only be a more comfortable way to detox, but it would also guarantee the user makes it passed the first 48 hours. (Note: Rapid detox is not recommended for IV heroin users who have resorted to muscle shots or skin popping, due to possible delayed of onset of withdrawal symptoms.) 

How to Help an Addict: Example Two

The Jail Bird

If a user has always been forced to detox in jail repeatedly, he may have a sour taste in his mouth when it comes to getting clean.  If you listen to his concerns and this seems to be the case, suggest a program that provides a taper off opiates, such as a methadone clinic or medical detox that uses suboxone tapers.

Help the user understand detox does not have to be unbearable. Once the user trusts you do not wish to see him suffer, he will be much more willing to let you help him develop a recovery plan for after detox.  

Remember treatment options truly are endless, so we have the luxury of getting creative, making unique treatment plans for each users’ individual needs. 

Help an Addict Using the Compassionate Method

So, there you have it.  The Compassionate Method.  In short:

If a user expresses interest in detox or seems receptive when you broach the subject:

  1. Actively listen to the user’s concerns and needs
  2. Involve the user in the decision-making process
  3. Choose a detox program matching the users’ needs

The compassionate method is FAR more effective than the seemingly logical method of, “Oh you feel like killing yourself? Why don’t you try to remember this feeling the next time you stick a needle in your arm, you junkie!”

It takes a little more work and a little more love but, if done correctly, it is the single most effective way of encouraging a user to get clean.

If you have any questions or would like to share personal stories, encouragement, or frustrations, please use the comment section below.  Good luck!