Dope Sick: Breaking Down Opioid Withdrawal

By Emily J. Sullivan 07/10/18

The strength it takes for a broken down, tormented person, feeling sick and hopeless every single day, to say, “No more” to their source of relief is something many people cannot even fathom.

A woman sitting on a bed, bending over with stomach pain.
Physical opioid withdrawal symptoms include muscle aches, pains, and spasms, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.

Dope sickness (from opioid withdrawal) or even just the fear of dope sickness can trigger a desperation and panic unlike any other. This fear, in large part, drives the addiction that has led to the opioid epidemic, which claimed 64,000 overdose deaths in 2016 and is now classified as a public health emergency. Or some say it's the high that keeps opioid users chasing the dragon all the way to hospitals, jails, and institutions. Much like an abusive relationship that long overstays its welcome—often by years and even decades—it starts with love and butterflies but then transforms into a much darker animal, tethering a person in place not with love but with the fear of what happens when you leave it behind.

How does someone know when their dose is wearing off and they need another fix? They’ll start to feel hot and cold at the same time, getting goose bumps and perspiring simultaneously; their eyes begin to water and they yawn repeatedly; they feel intense cravings coupled with severe anxiety, and their stomach starts to turn. These early onset symptoms of withdrawal work like an internal alarm in the brain, signaling to the nervous system that it desperately needs what is missing. These symptoms typically occur 6-12 hours after the last dose, and their intensity varies based on how often and how much of the drug the person is using. Opioid (painkillers such as oxycodone, vicodin, and codeine, as well as heroin) addiction is a progressive disease in which tolerance builds, so the required dose grows larger, and the withdrawal worsens. The deeper you are in the hole, the farther out you must climb.

Once someone begins to experience the first stage symptoms of withdrawal, panic sets in. There is an overwhelming sense of impending doom because, as most seasoned junkies know, the only thing worse than the first stage of opioid withdrawal is the second. Muscle aches, pains, and spasms can cause a person to kick their legs and flop around like a fish out of water. Just as a fish longs for water to breathe again, the person in opioid withdrawal longs for a hit to end their agonizing race toward what feels like death. Vomiting, diarrhea, and severe stomach cramps keep them crawling to the bathroom, if they even make it, if they even have access. These physical symptoms are paired with deep depression, anxiety, and the torture of knowing that the hell could simply cease if they get their fix. And this typically goes on all 24 hours of each day that it lasts—typically just over a week—because insomnia prevents any relief that sleep would bring.

It is the fear of that torment, which words can’t really do justice, that shackles people to a substance which indefinitely curses them with relief and pain. It is also that fear that compels them to lie, cheat, and steal. People who have become addicted to opioids wake up one day, deeper into their addiction then they’d ever anticipated, and look in the mirror only to see a stranger. They look at childhood photos of themselves and feel overcome with sadness, asking themselves, What happened? Their mothers do the same thing, looking at their baby’s photos and asking themselves where they went wrong. It’s difficult to separate the person from the addiction: although one entity does seem to overtake the other, that can be reversed and they are, in fact, two distinct realities.

In most cases, a rotten egg is not born into this world destined to be a thief, robbing to feed their addiction. What once was a promising honor student, the girl next door, the boy working behind the deli counter, or the kid who loved fishing has now slowly, pushing the limits a bit farther each time, transformed into that thief overcome with fighting the terror of withdrawal. It’s as if they’ve sold their soul to the devil, stealing for it, lying to loved ones, to anyone, cheating people just to survive, just to feel well. When someone with an addiction hits rock bottom, and they hate themselves at this point, they think they’ve had enough and they want their soul back. But they can’t just stop. There’s a debt to pay.

The strength it takes for a broken down, tormented person, feeling sick and hopeless every single day, desperate enough to do things they’d never imagine themselves capable of doing, to say, “No more,” is something many people cannot even fathom; it is standing up to the fear of the agony of withdrawal, of feeling like you’d gladly crawl out of your own skin if you could. For many people, it's also facing the fear of life unaltered, buffer-less, possibly for the first time.

There are different methods of withdrawing from opioids. Doctors sometimes offer benzodiazepines or clonidine, a blood pressure lowering drug, to temper the misery. There’s the good old fashion “cold turkey” which comes from the cold flashes and goosebumps you experience, or “kicking dope” which comes from kicking your legs around in weird spasms for over a week. And of course, we can’t have this discussion without mentioning the two big whoppers, Suboxone and methadone. These are known as medication assisted treatment (MAT), and they work wonders for many people. But one day you might want to get off of them, and that’s another opioid detox.

Something worth mentioning about MAT is that if you take it long enough, you have the chance to rebuild a “normal” life. You can go to school, kickstart your career, do all the things that being a full-fledged junkie makes impossible. Stay on as long as you need; I even heard about one guy who got himself through law school on Suboxone. So there are upsides, incredible advantages really, but at the end of the day, after you’ve obtained your PhD, you still have to pay that debt.

I once heard someone say, close your eyes and picture an addict. Whatever picture came into your mind, that’s the stigma of addiction. But there’s not just one static image, because addiction comes in layers. There’s the first layer, how it originated. Maybe a doctor prescribed Norcos for an ankle sprain and neglected to mention what you might be signing up for. According to, almost 80% of people who shoot up heroin started with the misuse of prescription medication. The next layer is when the drug takes over, and your identity—who you are—is now overwhelmed by the addiction, hiding your actual self somewhere beneath. And finally, hopefully, there’s the detox—the week or two of pure hell as the drug leaves your system and you start learning how to function without it.

But when you do, finally, make it to the other side, however worn and broken down you may feel, it feels like the first day of the rest of your life. It’s a terrifying feeling, but you come out triumphant, and victorious.

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Emily J. Sullivan is a Los Angeles-based writer and former junkie translating her misadventures and experience with addiction into informative articles and first-person essays. Find Emily on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.