How can I stop using drugs?

Jessica Kennedy, Mental Health America

If you have been a regular user of any drug for a long period of time, do NOT attempt to stop without first talking to a doctor. When you suddenly stop taking a drug (such as heroin), your body goes through a process called detoxification, or “detox” for short. Detoxing can be extremely and physically painful. Detoxing from alcohol can kill you. Detoxing from heroin can make you want to die. It’s very unpleasant to stop taking something like opiates very suddenly, and you may find yourself curled up in a ball scratching the skin off your elbows as you shiver and shake. You don’t want to do that alone.

A lot of people just try to stop using drugs on their own, especially if they have been recreational users only. This usually starts as a promise you make to yourself that you will stop using drugs after you recognize you have a problem. It’s important to be really self-aware if you go down this path. You should identify the people, places, and things that are “triggers” for your drug use.  Like maybe you know that going over to someone’s house usually ends in everyone smoking pot. Or maybe you need to empty out your entire medicine cabinet. You should expect to experience withdrawal symptoms, or at least be very unpleasant for a few days.

Other people look to find support from their peers. For stopping drinking, the most common and well-known group is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). But in addition to Alcoholics Anonymous, there are a lot of other “_______” Anonymous groups, like NarAnon (for narcotics use) or Marijuana Anonymous. If you live in a big city, you can probably find specific groups that are specific to your drug use. If you don’t, it’s usually okay to go to AA meetings even if your problem is drugs and not alcohol. You want to look to make sure a meeting is open, which means they are receptive to other people in the community. 12-step programs like AA aren’t the only thing out there—there are also groups like SMART Recovery which have a different philosophy.

You can also get help from a professional in quitting. There are addiction counselors who can help you with this. In addition, there have been some breakthroughs recently in what we call “medication assisted treatment” for alcohol and drug use. There are FDA-approved medications that can help people control cravings and eliminate dependence on opioids, similar to how there are drugs approved to help quit smoking.

If you’re feeling like you are in really deep trouble, or that nothing else has worked, you might consider partial or inpatient hospitalization or rehab. You should expect a brief detox at either facility and then an inpatient stay of anywhere from seven to 30 days initially. Hospitals and rehabs provide very controlled environments where the temptation of using drugs is removed. Your day is usually filled with structure like group therapy around different topics or activities. Sometimes, if your clinical team decides it’s appropriate, you may stay in an inpatient facility for longer.

Abstinence from drugs isn’t the only solution. But abstinence has been the prominent theory for a long time, so you’ll see the most support for that out there. You could also make life changes like only using drugs every once in a while. Although remember—using any drug can be very dangerous.

One thing you should do is make sure that you’re not using what we call “harm reduction” or moderation approaches to trick yourself into thinking you have made a problem go away. Some people are going to be able to cut back on drug use for the rest of their lives, and some people are going to have to stop completely or they’ll never really be better.

The other thing to remember is that drugs are generally illegal, even if you don’t personally agree with that. So, there are consequences that come with drug use, like getting arrested, losing your job, or ruining relationships with friends and family.

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