The hidden struggle: Living with a heroin addict

Heroin is an incredibly dangerous substance. Dependence on opiates can be particularly insidious and difficult to manage due to how addiction develops.

In the UK, there has been a 20% increase in the number of deaths linked to drug use since 2012. In the same time period, the number of deaths linked to heroin has doubled. Opiates were linked to around half (49.2%) of all drug-related deaths in 2019.

But heroin addiction carries more than just the risk of mortality. The drug is tenacious, with addiction to heroin being related to very poor health and social outcomes, increased risk of criminality and low psychosocial well-being.

Whilst this is inevitably difficult for the individual using the drug, it can also weigh particularly heavily on the loved ones of heroin users.

Addiction does not live in a vacuum. It can permeate into all areas of life, including our relationships and connections with others.

But if someone you love is struggling with heroin addiction, what are the best things to do? How do you manage the emotional, psychological and practical challenges that come with living with a heroin addict? Where can you access support and guidance, both for your loved one, and for yourself?

What is Heroin Addiction?

Heroin is a class A drug. Its classification in this category identifies it as one of the most dangerous substances available on the market. This also means that penalties can occur for the possession, use, supply or production of heroin.
Heroin is an opiate drug, meaning it has painkilling properties. It acts on the brain in different ways, with consistent use ultimately leading to the development of abnormalities in the brain.

These abnormalities can act to reinforce addiction. For example, heroin users will find that their bodies will stop producing natural painkillers as they are used to an exogenous supply. This means that the brain struggles to cope when the flow of heroin suddenly stops.
For these reasons, it is very difficult – and at times, dangerous – to simply stop using heroin immediately.

The Impact of Heroin Addiction

Alongside the potential legal repercussions and change to brain function, there are other serious effects that heroin can have on physical and mental health.

If you live with someone struggling with heroin addiction, it is helpful to be aware of these symptoms in case they develop into complications that require medical attention.


In the short term, heroin can cause the following:

  • Initial high (typically described as ‘euphoric’)


  • Sickness and nausea


  • Confusion and ‘brain fog’


  • Loss of consciousness


  • Itchy, sore or uncomfortable skin


  • Dryness in the mouth


  • Aches or heaviness in the limbs


In the long-term, however, after sustained and consistent use, heroin can lead to:

  • Risk of overdose


  • Addiction


  • Chronic issues with sleep, such as insomnia


  • Complications related to injecting, such as collapsed veins of development of bloodborne viruses such as HIV or hepatitis


  • Complications relating to snorting; damage to the nasal and sinus tissues


  • Cardiovascular complications (issues with the valves and lining of the heart)


  • Respiratory complications (issues with lung function)


  • Chronic psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, paranoia or psychosis


  • Reproductive complications (issues with menstruation and sexual dysfunction)


  • Abscesses and issues with the skin


  • A wide range of withdrawal symptoms


The Impact of Heroin Addiction: Family and Relationships

As previously mentioned, heroin can impact the individual who uses it in a myriad of ways. But its effects do not stop there. Researchers Laura Lander, Janie Howsare and Marilyn Bryne contend that ‘the whole family feels the effects of a substance use disorder (SUD)’.
Addiction is very difficult to contain; it ripples out, impacting the lives of those close to us. Whilst you may not be using the drug yourself, if someone close to you is, your life will likely be coloured by its presence in some way or another.

That means that if your loved one uses heroin, you may ultimately find yourself in a situation where you, too, are coping with addiction.

Whilst research shows that ‘each family member is uniquely affected by the individual using substances,’ the key impacts of living with someone battling addiction are:

  • Difficulties with ‘unmet’ development
  • Difficulties with attachment style
  • Psychological stress
  • Financial issues
  • Risk of legal issues
  • Risk of violence

Impact on Child

Heroin in the Home: The Impact on Children

Children who grow up with a parental figure who consistently uses drugs are more likely to develop a substance use disorder themselves. They are also more likely to develop insecure attachment styles (either avoidant or resistant) and struggle with their own emotional and psychological needs during both childhood and later life.

The financial risks associated with long-term, heavy drug use of a Class A drug such as heroin also increase the likelihood of living with less disposable income. This can mean that regular and reliable access to necessities such as food, hot water and hygiene products can sometimes be an issue. This, unfortunately, can become a kind of traumatic experience in and of itself, with children living in these types of situations being more likely to experience poverty into adulthood.

Heroin in the Home: The Impact on Spouses & Emotional Toll

The relationship between partners is like no other. The various elements that colour romantic relationships can mean seeing your loved one struggle can be especially painful.

It also means, however, that you are at a greater risk of being caught in the crossfire of someone’s struggles with substances.
Research has linked addiction with codependency in relationships, indicating that addiction can be a predictive factor of the likelihood of harmful dynamics between partners.

Codependency has been defined as follows:

‘[A] Codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and is obsessed or possessed with controlling that person’s behavior. Finally this dependence on another person affects the codependent bodily, psychologically and socially.’

For that reason, codependent relationships themselves can be theorised as a kind of addiction.

Codependent relationships can be categorised by low relationship satisfaction and feeling as though the absence of the other person in the relationship is something to be feared, or even perceived as dangerous.

In the context of addiction, there is a risk that individuals who use substances such as heroin could fall into these cycles of codependence, potentially relying on their partner for emotional, physical and financial support to manage the symptoms of the cycle of addiction.

This, naturally, can be very exhausting. Spouses of drug addicts may find themselves feeling anxious, low and drained, even risking falling into intense psychological distress themselves.

This can lead the partner’s life changing to fit around the individual dealing with their heroin use, leading to:

  • Reduced social life and social withdrawal
  • Difficulty maintaining work and school commitments (absences, not meeting deadlines)
  • Feeling distracted, only being able to think about their partner
  • Feeling on edge and suspicious
  • Potential financial issues

The best method of preventing this is to help your partner in seeking help for addiction. However, in some instances, suggesting this can cause conflict and tension that can be dangerous. If you feel unsafe, ensure you access appropriate methods of support that are available for those living with an addict. These could be:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Narcotics Anonymous
  • Mental health charities
  • Addiction charities
  • Professional, specialised mental health support
  • The emergency services if needed

Enabling vs Empowering: Striking the Balance

Often, when we’re struggling, we’re the last person to recognise that something needs to change. That means, ultimately, that when someone is deep into addiction, they may not realise it as quickly as those around them.

This can mean, at times, that your loved one may deny that they need help. This is a common symptom of addiction and can often be the hardest thing to witness. Whilst it may feel that the best thing you can do is provide lots of resources, literature, tips and support, your partner or loved one may not be receptive to that, as they may not be in a place where they recognise their addiction as a problem.

In these instances, you’re left with two approaches: supporting your loved one or leaving them to find support on their own.

If you choose to support your loved one, an important balance is between empowering and enabling. The last thing you want to do is enable an addiction, as this can cause behaviour to spiral.

Examples of enabling include:

  • Providing them with substances
  • Providing them with money to purchase substances
  • Lying to cover their behaviour and/or use
  • Acting as though their substance use is ‘normal’

All of these behaviours can work to reinforce addiction, which can enhance the cognitive distortions that lead to denial.
A more positive approach is through empowerment. This shows the importance of both agency and support, without signalling that the use of heroin is ‘accepted’ in the household.

You can empower yourself – and, subsequently, your loved one – by:

  • Speaking with honesty
  • Telling them why you appreciate them, drawing attention to their character outside of drug use
  • Encourage open communication and be clear about how addiction affects you, in a sensitive and calm manner
  • Model accountability – for example, do not allow your loved one to mask their behaviour with excuses
  • Ensuring you take time for yourself – schedule self-care and social activities, ensure you stay in touch with family and friends
  • Asking for support if your situation becomes dangerous or too difficult

Some more practical steps you can take are:

  • Set boundaries around the use of substances in the house
  • Learn about the safe disposal of sharps and drug related paraphernalia; set expectations about how this is used to ensure physical
  • safety in your home
  • Show your support and encouragement for your loved one to seek help for addiction

Interventions and Professional Support

We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’ Whilst you want to be there for your loved one, there will be times when it gets too much. That is no fault of yours; it’s just human nature. Addiction is a complicated phenomenon, and being in close contact with it for a long time can be very difficult.

It may be at this point where a formal intervention is needed.

A formal intervention is a form of pre-rehab support that is used to help individuals dealing with addiction to recognise that their behaviour may be risky and needs to be addressed. Interventions are conducted by industry professionals who can help to diffuse the kind of tensions and conflicts that can arise from having these types of conversations at home.

Once intervention has occurred, judgement-free discussions on the types of support that are available can take place.

At UKAT, we provide interventions as well as fully customisable, bespoke support in the form of heroin detox and rehab. Our rehab packages range from 7 to 28 days, and both inpatient and outpatient options are available. Heroin rehab can be accessed at all of our centres across the UK.

We are also proud to offer a family support programme for families of individuals seeking help for addiction at our UKAT centres, with weekly sessions designed to help you understand addiction as well as to help you put your own mental and physical health first.


Get Support

If someone you love is struggling with heroin addiction, we can advise you on the options available at our UKAT centres. Our dedicated team can talk you through the different types of intervention we offer (including heroin detox and heroin rehab) as well as ways we can help you to stay safe and look after your own mental health whilst living with an addict.

Contact us today if you would like more information on how we can help you to move towards a happier, healthier way of life without the weight of addiction.

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