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Encouraging Junkies to "Clean Up"

There are two ways that people usually talk to junkies about getting clean and neither of them is very effective. The first is to plead and beg. The Second is to threaten. The problem with both these is that you are asking (or telling) the junkie to change. People don't like to change, but the issue is much bigger than usual in this case.

Being a junkie is hard work. It is a 24 hour per day, 7 day per week job. One young junkie couple told me of waking up Christmas morning without money or dope and everything they went through that day to take care of business. This ended with them standing on a deserted street for a half hour waiting for their connection to arrive. Junkies don't get a day off. When someone tells them that there lifestyle is wrong, they take it somewhat worse than hang-gliding enthusiast take pleads from loved ones that they worry because hang-gliding is dangerous (more dangerous than using heroin, by the way).

It is a mistake to come right out and ask a junkie to stop using. But this does not mean you cannot encourage them in this direction in other ways. Below is a list of things you can try to encourage a junkie you love to stop using.

Treat him like any other friend
People tend to treat junkies like children. They won't lend money to a junkie, or if they do, they will only do so in the most humiliating way (like going to the grocery store with the junkie and buying food for him) so it isn't spent on "something bad". If you have a friend who is a junkie, try to treat him the same way you would if he weren't a junkie.

I handle it as follows. I'll loan money to a junkie friend. But I expect to get paid back. I am very clear about my expectations. I don't loan money again when previous loans are still unpaid. I also don't loan money when the friend has previously jerked me around.

By treating a junkie like anyone else, you keep him involved and "vested" in the regular (straight) world. People normally become junkies because they lose their connection with that world. Probably the most important factor in getting and staying clean is getting that connection back.
Don't allow him to abuse you.
There is nothing about the pharmacology of heroin that makes users of it bad people. In fact, it is likely that heroin alone would have a positive effect on a user's personality. But there are tremendous pressures on a heroin addict, and he will act in ways that even he would consider wrong under different circumstances. Under most circumstances, if a heroin addict hurts you, it will be by stealing from you.

Don't allow a junkie friend to steal from from you. Mostly, this just means using your common sense. Junkies, just like everyone else, dislike stealing from their friends. Don't provide them with a great deal of temptation. Don't put them in control of large sums of money, for example. A dope sick junkie is not a good choice to house-sit for you.

You must be reasonable in applying all this. There are many junkies who work regular jobs and support their habits within these means. There is no reason to think that such a junkie is anymore likely to steal from you than anyone else. But if this same junkie should lose his job, you should certainly be cautious.
Talk Honestly
If you are worried about your junkie friend, tell him so. Let him know what your concerns are. Approach this the same way you would talking to someone about any dangerous hobby. You wouldn't tell a rock climber that you think he should stop because it's just wrong to climb rocks. You might say that you worry that he isn't going to come back every time he goes on a trip. Letting a junkie know about your concerns will probably not have a direct effect on him; he won't simply stop using. But it will be one more thing in favor of not using.
Be Supporting
People tend to think of heroin as a binary proposition: junkie or straight. This is not how it is at all, of course. Junkies do all kinds of things to modulate their habits. It is well known that junkies will "kick down" their habits from time to time. Be supportive of any positive move that a junkie makes. Don't fall into that 12-Step mentality of "If it isn't complete abstinence, it isn't enough."
Avoid Suspicion
Especially after a junkie has kicked but even when he is actively using, try to avoid speculating about whether he is using or not. It is common for a person to go from junkie to chipper. They usually feel they must hide this fact from their straight friends and this causes isolation which may cause them to go back on heroin fulltime.

The best way to encourage a junkie toward a safer lifestyle is to be understanding and supportive of them. You can't make decisions for them. Keep in mind that most heroin addicts do eventually get and stay clean and that the average length of time that someone stays addicted to heroin is about three years. If you have a loved one who is a heroin addict, take heart; it probably isn't as bad as you think.

by Dr. H © 2001
Last Modified: 8 January 2004


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