How Opioids Hijack The Brain

By Kelly Burch 01/18/19

Addiction experts and people who use opioids discuss how opioids impact their brains.

a doctor holding the brain after examining its for opioid use

Last year thousands of Americans died from opioid overdoses. Yet, despite the fact that the dangers of these drugs are well-publicized, new users continue to get hooked on opioids and succumb to their addictions. 

To try to understand why, The New York Times spoke with addiction experts and users to understand just how opioids act on the brain, putting together a visual and text representation of what happens once someone tries opioids

Twenty-four-year-old Amanda Ryan-Carr, of Pennsylvania, said that the first time she tried opioids was like a religious experience. 

“It’s like being hugged by Jesus,” she said. 

For Michigan resident Matt Statman, 48, the feeling was one of freedom from worry. 

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

The Times pointed out that many opioid users remember where and when they were when they first used, and they end up chasing that euphoric feeling as addiction takes over their lives. 

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

Ivana Grahovac, 42, of California, said that opioids became her solution to any problem. 

“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,” Grahovac said. 

Once their bodies become used to having an opioid fix, users face painful withdrawals if they don’t take opioids. 

Michigan resident Raj Mehta, 51, felt a sense of “doom and anxiety,” when withdrawals loomed, while Pennsylvania resident Jasmine Johnson, 29, said withdrawal was overwhelming. 

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

Eventually, users are no longer chasing a high, but just trying to hold off withdrawal symptoms. 

“It’s like a time bomb,” Mehta said. “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.”

The lucky people are able to get access to treatment and begin a life in recovery. 

“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,” Statman said. 

However, many people feel like relapse is always looming. 

“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,” Johnson said. 

Even with bumps along the road, people in long-term recovery say that the work is worth it, allowing them to regain control of their lives and enjoy life without being fixated on their next high.

“Colors get brighter and smells are more intense and emotions just are much more powerful, because opiates numb them,” said Dove Henry, a 26-year-old from Montana.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.