It may be possible to change your drug use without outside help. Here’s some advice on Detoxing at home.
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Heroin is physically addictive and the withdrawal symptoms are very distressing. So you should think hard before you start a DIY detox. There are other, more gradual ways to stop using heroin. You could get onto a prescribing programme, reduce the amount you use instead of just stopping, talk to a drug worker, and try to address some of the issues in your life that would make detoxing harder (eg debts, illness, housing problems).

But if you really want to detox, there are a few important common guidelines:

  • be clear about your goal
  • spend time in planning and preparation
  • don’t give up at the first hurdle or lapse
  • know when and how to ask for help.

Why detox?

To find out, make a pros and cons list. Think about what would be better if you detoxed, and what would be worse in your life. Be as honest as you can. The issues could include health, state of mind, family and relationships, social life, work, money, time, and legal problems. If you’ve been completely honest and the reasons for change don’t outweigh the reasons not to, you may find it difficult to succeed.

Keeping a diary charting where you take drugs – when, who with, the cost and the consequences – will also help you to focus on the scale of the problem and how to change it.

Modest amounts

If you decide to cut down on heroin, you need to work out what moderation would mean in practice. Make a list of reasons why you want to change, and, as honestly as you can, try to work out what level of use would be likely to free you of these problems. It may be a good idea to consult close friends, partners or family about this. Then set clear limits, per session, per day or per week as appropriate. You may want to cut down little by little on a weekly basis.

Making plans

Planning and being prepared are crucial to success. Here are some things to consider.

  • Who is likely to be supportive, and who you might have to avoid. Is there anybody who has done what you are trying to do and who could act as a mentor?
  • Drugs services often run detox support groups. Try to find your nearest one by contacting the National Drugs Helpline [LINK]. It might be useful to share your experiences with others, and feel supported by them.
  • Think about alternative pleasures and activities that can help replace heroin. While you’re actually detoxing, it might be hard to do these things, but you can plan ahead.
  • Think about the best time and place to stop or begin cutting down. Some people move somewhere where they’re unable to buy heroin, but if you detox at home, it might be easier to stay clean at home.
  • Find out how you can get help if you can’t cope on your own.
  • Find out what you can expect from withdrawal. Research shows that knowing what to expect actually makes heroin withdrawal less severe, because anxiety makes the symptoms worse.

Look after yourself

Coming off heroin can make you feel pretty bad. If you can, plan to:

  • Take it easy for a few days.
  • Expect to sleep badly (this can be an ongoing problem).
  • Take time off work.
  • Stay somewhere warm and safe.
  • Make sure you’re stocked up with food and non-alocholic drinks.
  • Take long hot baths.
  • After your detox, try to eat well, take exercise, and get enough sleep.

Beat the cravings

Cravings to use heroin again are a normal part of giving up. They are often triggered by physical or psychological distress: your brain tricks you into believing that using a drug again is the only source of relief. They can also be triggered by something that’s linked with using in your mind, like certain people, houses, dreams, even certain amounts of money.

Plan on doing something active when you get a craving. Also try relaxation and talking to someone who has been through similar experiences.

Get to know your high-risk situations – the ‘triggers’ that make you likely to use again – and try to avoid these if possible.

Lapse and relapse

There’s a difference between a lapse (a moment of weakness) and a full relapse (going back to using). You can pull back from a lapse. But sometimes people use a lapse as an excuse for complete relapse.

There is a particular danger in this context for users of heroin or other opiates. People lose their tolerance to substances over time, and what used to be your normal dose could kill you. So be very, very careful.

Word of warning

The symptoms of withdrawal from severe dependence on opiates such as heroin are very unpleasant. They include sweating, anxiety, depression, cold sweats, chills, severe muscle and bone aches not caused by any physical trauma, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, gooseflesh and fever.

Phased withdrawal, supervision, a controlled environment or medication (such as methadone, buprenonorhine, lofexidine or naltrexone) may be necessary. If you have major medical problems or psychological difficulties, withdrawal could make them worse. If you don’t want to consult your own GP, you could contact a local drugs agency. If you’re worried about confidentiality, discuss this with the agency first.

Asking for help

If you feel you need direct help from others, this is not a sign of failure. Options include talking to your GP and looking up local agencies and treatment centres through one of the major national organisations.

There are support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous. Many people find support from people who have successfully given up or are struggling along the same path enormously reassuring and constructive. Many of the resources below also have self-help options.