If you suspect your loved one may have developed an opioid addiction, is overusing prescribed pain medications, or is abusing heroin or fentanyl, we want you to know that your concern is not misplaced.
There is a good reason why opioid use was declared a Public Health Emergency in 2017 in the United States — drug overdose deaths are at an all-time high. From April 2021 to April 2022, there were more than 108,000 drug overdose deaths, and opioids and synthetic opioids account for about 65% of this alarming number.
Our goal here is not to scare you unnecessarily, but to assure you that you’re taking the right steps if you are concerned about a loved one.
Dr. Matthew Goldenberg, a double board-certified psychiatrist in Santa Monica, California, specializes in substance use disorders and mental health conditions. If you are worried about a loved one and their use of opioids, you have come to the right place. Read on to learn a little more about the signs of opioid misuse and what we can do to help.
One of the reasons opioids, and their synthetic counterparts, such as fentanyl, are so dangerous is that the drug attaches to receptors in the nervous system, altering neural activity in the pleasure and decision-making centers of the brain.
In other words, opioids hijack a person both physically and mentally, which can lead to the two sides of an opioid substance use disorder — addiction and dependence. And this can happen very quickly as a person can become physically dependent on opioids in just 4-8 weeks (or less).
The addiction side of the equation is what happens in the brain, which has rewired itself to receive the opioids, creating uncontrollable cravings and the inability to stop using. What may have started to relieve pain or experience pleasure quickly becomes an effort to avoid the pain and agony of withdrawal.
From your perspective, you may notice certain behavioral changes in your loved one, such as:
Your loved one can become very secretive and defensive if you ask them too many questions, which is the addiction causing denial and even lying in an effort to protect itself.
Physically, you might notice some symptoms, especially if they’re in withdrawal, such as:
These symptoms are mild during the first hours, but they can ramp up quickly the longer your loved one goes without opioids.
If you’re reading this, you likely understand that approaching someone about a substance use disorder is tricky under the best of circumstances. Your loved one’s brain is no longer their own and has been hijacked by the drug; it’s important to understand that upfront. You can love your family member or friend and yet at the same time hate and fear their addiction.
Finding a quiet moment is best, rather than trying to broach the subject during a heated argument. Even then, your loved one may shut down very quickly. They may not be ready to get help. It is also important to keep the conversation to your perspective with words like “I feel,” rather than using accusatory terms.
Ultimately, talking with a loved one about a potential drug or addiction problem can be frustrating, and we urge you to get help and support for yourself. As an addiction specialist, Dr. Goldenberg has consulted with family and friends about the best way to approach your loved one so they get the help they need and provide referrals to therapists, treatment programs, detox centers, interventions, and other essential tools to help your loved one get the help that they need.
You can begin with a free, 10-minute phone call with Dr. Goldenberg, who treats patients in both California and Alaska. Simply click here to get started.