Heroin Addiction Explained: How Opioids Hijack the Brain

The opioid epidemic is devastating America. Overdoses have passed car crashes and gun violence to become the leading cause of death for Americans under 55. The epidemic has killed more people than H.I.V. at the peak of that disease, and its death toll exceeds those of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq combined. Funerals for young people have become common. Every 11 minutes, another life is lost.

So why do so many people start using these drugs? Why don’t they stop?

Some people are more susceptible to addiction than others. But nobody is immune. For many, opioids like heroin entice by bestowing an immediate sense of tranquility, only to trap the user in a vicious cycle that essentially rewires the brain.

Getting hooked is nobody’s plan. Some turn to heroin because prescription painkillers are tough to get. Fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, has snaked its way into other drugs like cocaine, Xanax and MDMA, widening the epidemic.

To understand what goes through the minds and bodies of opioid users, The New York Times spent months interviewing users, family members and addiction experts. Using their insights, we created a visual representation of how the strong lure of these powerful drugs can hijack the brain.

Dr. Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, one of the nation’s top opioid researchers, said this work brings “an emotional understanding” to the epidemic but “without glamorizing or oversimplifying.”

We invite you to share your experiences at the end of the page.

If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, call 1-800-662-HELP.

Stage 1 Gateway

“It’s like being hugged by Jesus.” — Amanda Ryan-Carr, 24, Pennsylvania

“I remember feeling like I was exhaling from holding my breath for my whole life. Just intense relief from suffering.” — Matt Statman, 48, Michigan

You naturally produce endorphins, the body’s own version of opioids, which act in the reward circuits of the brain to make you feel good after you work out, hug a friend or eat your favorite foods.

A drug like heroin creates a tidal wave in the reward circuits of the brain. To an outsider, it looks as though you have passed out. But on the inside you feel like a master of the universe, like you’re being “hugged by Jesus,” as one user said; there’s peace in your skin and not a single feeling of pain.

You may remember this exact moment for years to come: where you were, what you wore, what you saw and what you heard. You may chase this feeling for years.

As the high wears off, the brain regains its balance – but not for everyone. That’s the opioid trap for many people: In the beginning, no serious ill effects are apparent. But the brain rewires little by little with each use.

Stage 2 Tolerance

“It was like the high put on blinders to everything and made me not care about anything in the world, other than the heroin.” — Brandon N., 26, Pennsylvania

“Any time you start to feel like you’re getting antsy or anxious or a little stressed, your body says it knows exactly how to get out of this, and it’s telling you to just go get a little bit more of that heroin.” — Ivana Grahovac, 42, California

You’re chasing the siren of the first high by taking more. But even a thousand more doses will never bring back the experience of that first time.

The brain balances its own endorphins like a thermostat. When an external source keeps flooding the brain, it throws that system off.

Like other drugs, opioids produce a surge of dopamine, a chemical messenger that tells the brain that “taking this drug is good, repeat it.” The brain’s response to opioids and the surges in dopamine they cause can rewire circuits in the brain.

The brain’s response to these chemical changes make life difficult without the drug. Stress and irritability creep in, so you take more opioids to cope. Soon, nothing else in life provides any satisfaction.

The pleasure and reward cycles flip: You get less pleasure from the drug, but want it all the more. The more you seek and take the drug, the more the brain adapts to the drug and demands more.

Stage 3 Withdrawal

“It’s like a demon crawling out of you. You’d rather just die and be done with it than go through that.” — Jasmine Johnson, 29, Pennsylvania

“Everything hurts. It hurts to comb your hair. It hurts to shave. You have no energy. You feel weak. You feel a sense of desperation. You have constant impending doom and anxiety, because you realize that with one pack of dope you can change how you feel within a matter of 10 seconds.” — Raj Mehta, 51, Michigan

The final trap of addiction is laid when you muster the courage to stop. You may not even realize you are physically dependent until you experience withdrawal for the first time.

There might be crippling pain, vomiting, insomnia, spasms, hot and cold flashes, goosebumps, congestion and tears. All this on top of debilitating anxiety and depression. You might feel like you’re having the worst flu of your life, or like a demon is crawling out of your skin.

This misery could last for weeks.

Dying from withdrawal is uncommon, but it doesn’t feel that way at the time. These harsh symptoms can make quitting seem impossible.

Stage 4 Addiction

“It’s like a time bomb. You’ve got 24 hours to get heroin, or you’re going to be really sick. You wake up, and your whole life is just based around it.” — Raj Mehta, 51, Michigan

“I felt like all my relationships were very surface-level, and really I was holding people hostage. No one was really my friend. I just wanted to take things from them.” — Mandy McCandless, 23, Pennsylvania

“I would see an old lady on a Mac and would think, ‘I could grab her pocketbook for cash.’ That was probably the beginning of the end.” — Jim Pietrowski, 57, Pennsylvania

The brain screams for more. Scoring the next fix feels like a race against the clock of withdrawal. You may feel like only a fix can save you. It makes no sense, but this compulsion takes over all logic, judgment and self-interest. You may do things you never thought you could.

Sell your body. Abandon your child. Steal from your mother. You might lose your job. Lose your home. Lose your loved ones. In this sad stage, families are torn apart.

Sharing needles can make things even worse, and bring about hepatitis and H.I.V.

A shadow of your former self lives in shame.

You’re now addicted to opioids and you no longer take the drug to get high, but to escape feeling low. The brain has adopted a new form of compulsion that can reassert itself even after years of sobriety.

Stage 5 Treatment

“My brain felt like it was rewired. My body, mind and soul. It’s a day at a time. I can do anything for a day. Once I bought into that and made some other friends, things started to change for me.” — Jim Pietrowski, 57, Pennsylvania

“There was a push factor, which was the misery and the self-hatred and the depression and the cops, and then there was a pull factor, which was this amazing hope from this community of people who I knew understood me in a way nobody else in the world could.” — Matt Statman, 48, Michigan

You hit rock bottom, perhaps after a run-in with the law. You fear withdrawal. You dread confronting why you started and who you have become. Willpower alone may not be enough, and quitting cold turkey could increase the risk of overdose.

You may not have access to treatment. You may not be able to afford it. Or you’ve heard that quitting is impossible and that taking medication to help is simply swapping one drug for another.

Treatment centers that promote abstinence are at odds with the medical standard of care long-term use of medications, like buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone. But only about 25 percent of outpatient centers provide them.

These medications soften the cravings without causing euphoria. They help reset the brain’s thermostat, so it can stop thinking about opioids 24/7 and the hard work of recovery can begin.

Every person is different, and underlying issues, such as mental health problems, can affect a treatment plan. But therapy and community help increase the chances you stick with it.

Stage 6 Relapse

“A lot of times in your addiction, things are getting better. You see a light at the end of the tunnel. And it ends up being the freight train coming at you.” — Jasmine Johnson, 29, Pennsylvania

“That old impulse comes back, that old habituated response, which is: ‘This is hard. You’re going to fail. Don’t even try to get well. You’re just going to end up back in it. So just go get high right now.’” — Ivana Grahovac, 42, California

Relapse is a normal part of recovery, but it also brings dangers. After abstaining from the drug, your tolerance decreases even if the cravings remain intense. The same amount of the drug that you took before can result in overdose, especially if it’s laced with fentanyl or mixed with benzodiazepines and alcohol.

In an overdose, your body is unable to handle the drug and your breathing slows or stops.

Seventy-seven percent of opioid overdose deaths occur outside medical settings, and more than half occur at home. This year, the surgeon general advised Americans to carry naloxone, a life-saving medication to resuscitate victims.

Once revived, you may feel anger and shame, or face stigma and judgment, which can fuel the cycle.

For the families of those who are addicted, life has become a rollercoaster ride.

Stage 7 Recovery

“Colors get brighter and smells are more intense and emotions just are much more powerful, because opiates numb them.” — Dove Henry, 26, Montana

“I didn’t have interests or hobbies or anything. So finding what I really liked doing was really beneficial to me. Because if you don’t have fun, then you’re not going to stay sober.” — Rebecca Ronning, 24, Minnesota

“From now on, I have to guard my sobriety with my life, because my life depends on it.” — Ivana Grahovac, 42, California

Recovery is complicated and takes time, but it’s not impossible.

Experts say treatment could require six months to 20 years. One expert says the average person could relapse four or five times over eight years to achieve a single year of sobriety.

Some people may have to remain on medications indefinitely; for others, a doctor may taper them off. But doctors don’t know when the brain has reset itself and is no longer at high risk for substance use.

Factors like health insurance, housing and income can determine how long you remain on medication. Like a child, you also need to learn new behaviors and rebuild your life. It’s a journey to accept, control and heal the feelings that led to addiction.

Only one in five people who need treatment for drug use actually receive care, and only about half of those are given medication, experts say. Those given medications rarely receive them for long enough.

Whether the nation’s healthcare system and society can catch up to the opioid crisis remains to be seen. People can recover and lead meaningful and happy lives again, even if medication is required indefinitely. Their stories provide hope. We invite you to share yours below.

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About Stanley Siegel

Stanley Siegel, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, author, lecturer, and former Director of Education and Senior Faculty member of New York's Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy. After creating and writing the "Families" column for Newsday he went on to co-author two popular books: The Patient Who Cured His Therapist and Other Unconventional Stories Of Therapy(Penguin/Dutton 1992; Penguin/Plume, 1993; Marlowe and company, 1999) and Uncharted Lives: Understanding The Life Passages Of Gay Men (Penguin/Dutton, 1994; Penguin/Plume 1995) which have been translated into 5 languages. With nearly 45 years of experience in the field of psychology, Siegel has developed an unconventional and tradition-challenging approach to psychotherapy[4][5][6] that has led to his book Your Brain on Sex: How Smarter Sex Can Change Your Life[7] which was released in October 2011. He was a sex columnist for Psychology Today and the author of How Sex Heals and The Secret Wisdom of Ancient Parables. Siegel founded Psychology Tomorrow Magazine and Wellness Providers Network. Siegel has taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Adelphi University, and the University of California, Berkeley; was the founding Director of the Family Studies Center in Huntington, New York, and has served as a consultant to hospitals and mental health centers throughout the country. Regularly quoted in the media, he has appeared on ABC's Good Morning America several times,[8] as well as many other television and radio programs, and has acted as a consultant for film and television. Siegel was invited on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss "How Healers Heal Themselves." He served as the Dance Editor of Show Business magazine, writing weekly dance reviews and reporting on the contemporary dance scene. His daughter, Alyssa Siegel, LPC lives in Portland, Oregon and is a contributor to Your Brain on Sex. After a lifetime in NYC, he moved to Los Angeles in 2016