Close to 17 million Americans have reported experiencing drug abuse or dependence during the past year; however, only a fraction of these individuals (1.8 million) were admitted to treatment.
To an outsider looking in, quitting may seem like a cut and dry decision. In reality, addiction is a medical condition that can be difficult to overcome without treatment. The symptoms that substance users struggle with during withdrawal become a key part of perpetuating the cycle of addiction: their desire to avoid this very real physical and mental discomfort encourages continued use of drugs or alcohol.
We’ve gathered testimonies of individuals who took detox head on -- without medical assistance. While these testimonies are often explicit and can be challenging to read, they offer an unflinching look at some of the difficult realities of withdrawal. Likewise, they highlight the importance of medically managed detox, which can treat symptoms and reduce the urge to cycle back to the substance for relief.
Read on to learn what substance withdrawal feels like from a first-person perspective.
Our first testimony comes from Hunter C., who made the decision to detox from alcohol, benzodiazepines, cocaine, methamphetamine, and opiates on his own. He recounts symptoms of alcohol withdrawal as follows:
Delirium tremens: a condition of shaking, confusion and hallucinations that can occur due to over excitement in the central nervous system after cutting out alcohol.
Seizures:a symptom of benzodiazepine withdrawal which can potentially prove fatal without proper treatment.
Extreme fatigue:a symptom a meth withdrawal.
Depression and anxiety: additional symptoms associated with meth withdrawals.
Amidst the severe physical reactions to quitting benzodiazepine, alcohol and meth, Hunter also attempted to quit heroin. Ultimately, Hunter resumed his heroin use in less than a week due to the severity of his symptoms. The urgency to reduce his symptoms led Hunter to overdose on heroin and face a life-threatening situation and hospitalization. His experiences show the complex medical nature of addiction, and illustrate many of the dangers associated with medically unsupervised detox and withdrawal.
I have withdrawn from several substances at different times. First experience was with alcohol. I had severe shaking of the hands and DTs [delirium tremens]. It was very scary, and my anxiety was unbearable. The next time I withdrew off benzos, I had a seizure. This was at home, not at a detox. Then finally I withdrew off opiates, benzos, barbiturates, and alcohol all at once. I sweated profusely. I shook. I hurt down to the bone. My head felt like it was going to explode. I was itchy. It felt like bugs were crawling on me. I had anxiety. I was fearful of leaving the safe environment of detox to go home and possibly use again. I felt guilt and shame. I also felt hope when they brought in 12-step meetings from the outside. The last withdrawal lingered for almost a month with diarrhea and stuff.
[Regarding benzos:] Uncontrollable twitching and shaking, seizure, sweating, body ache, vision difficulty, anxiety. I often felt like I was going to faint or pass out. Long-lasting opiates like Suboxone or methadone cause excessive sneezing, excessive sweating (like soaking your clothes while sitting), diarrhea, severe bone aches, chills, cold and hot, insomnia, shaking, no appetite, and rapid weight gain. Nausea too. These symptoms can last up to weeks long because the opiate has such a long half-life. Short-acting opiates like heroin or Dilaudid have the same withdrawals but subside after about five to seven days.
[Regarding stimulants like methamphetamine and crack/cocaine:] Sweating, excessive sleeping, paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, severe weight loss, no appetite, severe exhaustion like sleeping for days a time, severe fatigue to the point where going to the bathroom is an ordeal, tooth decay, skin discoloration, sunken cheeks and eyes, bruise easily, malnourishment, headache, and severe depression and anxiety.
As far as feelings go, they are pretty generalized. To me opiates seemed somewhat conquerable because it was such an obvious physical dependency, but meth just made me feel like I would never be able to live life normally without it. It had a much more evil, subtle hold on me.
I have experienced everything I listed above. I was poly-addicted for the past 12 years of my life.
I used heroin and Xanax. I’ve only gone through withdrawals once without medication. I had lost my job (because I was stealing money for drugs).
My withdrawal experience:
Day 1: Headache. Sweats and hot flashes. Thinking maybe I should stop. Able to feel again. I don’t like it. I miss him [heroin]. I am saddened by what I’ve become.
Day 2: Throwing up. Worst hot flashes and inability to keep fluids or foods down. I hate myself. I wish I hadn’t ever started. But I hate him for what he did even more. I hate the feelings he made me go through. I felt stupid for loving him. I still loved him.
Day 3: (Worst day.) Weakness of muscles. Inability to think clearly. Dehydration. Crying and deciding that I never wanted to go through this again. And I was gonna get better and beat this addiction.
Day 4: A needle is in my arm with a fat dark shot of amazing dog food [heroin]. I sold my body just for this 1 ml liquid. I overdose. I pass out. I start breathing slow. I start turning blue. I stop breathing. I start dying. God sends help. My dad checks on me. I’m not responding. Needle is hanging out of my arm. 911. Narcan. Crying. Anger. Hatred. Suicide. PRAYING! Woke up in trauma at the ER 12 hours later. I cry in my dad’s arms. I go home. I make calls. I get on a plane.
... I’ve never told that story, I was at my weakest those 4 days.
– Hunter C.
Our next contributor shares the details of his withdrawal from heroin and other opioid drugs. During this time, he suffered from many of the symptoms commonly associated with opioid withdrawal, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, aches and pains, sweating, and chills.
He continued using heroin for two more years, ultimately to avoid the agony of physical withdrawal symptoms.
I was on a trip to Las Vegas – but I couldn’t risk bringing heroin on a plane, and I forgot my Suboxone. My second day there, withdrawals began: my stomach felt like it was turning upside-down, I was bent over in extreme pain, I couldn’t eat any food and could hardly take a sip of liquids. I tried to drink it off, and it just wasn’t working. I knew the Subs my friend mailed would be there the next day.
By 4 a.m., I was in full-blown withdrawal. Constant throwing up and diarrhea at the same time. Freezing cold but sweating. I was able to trick my friends into thinking I drank too much. I lay in bed in the fetal position, looking across the street at Caesar’s Palace and down the Las Vegas strip. Every hour, I walked down to the front desk asking if my package had arrived. Every second seems like an hour. Every hour seems like a day. For 10 hours straight, I lay in bed. I felt like I was dying. I asked myself how I ended up in this position. Constant throwing up green stomach bile, the same green bile that was also being discharged from my a--. I tasted the smell of my diarrhea.
Around noon, I physically couldn’t get out of the bed. I sh-t my underwear twice in bed. I called the cleaning lady to come change my sheets twice. The sheets were drenched with sweat – mind you, I was shivering the entire time. Finally at 2 p.m., my Suboxone arrived. I immediately took 16 mg. I put one under my tongue like I was supposed to. The other I crushed up and snorted. I had no choice – I could not feel the way I was feeling for another second.
I returned home and went back to shooting heroin. I made a promise to myself: I’ll never withdrawal ever again. I would rob anybody to get money. For the next two years, heroin controlled my life. There is no way to explain heroin withdrawal. It’s the nearest I’ve ever felt to death.
Another anonymous contributor describes her traumatic experiences with benzodiazepines and heroin. Her story demonstrates how swiftly withdrawal symptoms – sweating, diarrhea, and anxiety – can set in for chronic or high-dose opiate users. Ultimately, she finds that the constant anxiety associated with the fear of not having enough heroin is even worse than any physical symptoms of withdrawal.
While I was on benzos [Xanax], I had a seizure behind the wheel and almost killed myself and my best friend. I didn’t know anything had happened until I woke up in the hospital with an officer digging in my purse. I called my mother to let her know I was in an accident – I was told I hit three parked cars and a pole. I thought she would have some sympathy for me because I was injured and in pain, also extremely upset and confused. My mother was pissed – she came to the hospital and didn’t even want to look at me. I felt that I disappointed her so much that I didn’t even want to go home after the hospital. The doctor at the hospital gave me a stack of papers of rehabs to go to. That’s when I realized that’s where I need to go, to get help and to get away from everyone.
There were times when I was using heroin daily, and I would run out of money and have to steal or find something to pawn so I could get my drugs. Usually, I would do all my drugs at night and have to figure out my scheme for the day when I woke up the next morning. These are my most painful withdrawal memories. Waking up with terrible breath because I was too f--ked up to brush my teeth or care about my oral hygiene. I would start sweating that sour body odor that doesn’t come from natural, healthy sweat. Usually, within an hour of waking up, I would start having diarrhea that wouldn’t stop until I put more opiates in my system. I sh-t myself on multiple occasions and even sat in my own sh-t one time for like 20 minutes waiting for my dealer to get home.
That was bad, but none of the physical withdrawals held any weight compared to the crippling anxiety and restlessness. That fear of not knowing if I would be able to miraculously come up with enough money to get high somehow for that day was what made me cry … like all the time. Those times were worse for me than the week or so I spent detoxing with a plan to get sober.
This anonymous contributor’s testimony offers a visceral look at the “hell on earth” that can accompany heroin withdrawal. He makes note of intense feelings of skin-crawling, insomnia, and severe body pains, all of which are associated with heroin detox. While the physical effects abated within a week, the mental impact of his addiction had profound and long-lasting consequences.
Heroin withdrawal for me is hell on earth. Vicious pain in my legs and back. Feels like my skin is crawling. No sleep is possible. Hot and cold sweats. Diarrhea.
But worst of all is the vicious anxiety – to the point where sometimes I don’t think living is possible. The physical symptoms last for about five days and start to wither away after seven, but the mental and emotional symptoms last much longer.
Our last testimony comes from Kyle, who describes the severe symptoms associated with withdrawal from heavy alcohol use. In his case, this included nausea, vomiting, heart problems, and auditory and visual hallucinations.
Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening, potentially resulting in seizures or even a coma. As Kyle’s story shows, withdrawal from heavy drinking can require admission to an intensive care unit.
Me and alcohol … I was throwing up blood, on cardiac watch for five days in ICU three different times. Withdrawal so bad that I couldn’t even keep down alcohol when trying to drink. But mentally – hearing voices for up to five days, visually seeing things, like snakes on the walls. All just alcohol [withdrawal].
I have an abnormal memory – I usually remember just about everything – names, body gestures, conversations. But even after being sober after years of drinking, my memory went to hell for about six months. Like, I could remember things in active addiction still, but I was mentally dense months into sobriety. Also the shakes – my hands still shake slightly … but I also ingest a ton of caffeine daily so it’s hard to tell. Other than that, not so much physically. I’ve been lucky to bounce back quickly.
– Kyle S.
Withdrawal from chronic alcohol abuse can be accompanied by a variety of acute symptoms. Alcohol acts as a depressant of the central nervous system; over time, this leads to changes in the regulation of a heavy drinker’s neurotransmitters to compensate for alcohol’s depressant effects.
Abrupt cessation of chronic alcohol use can result in an imbalance in neurotransmitter systems, leading to a “hyperactivity” of the central nervous system within six to 24 hours. As a result, a person in the throes of withdrawal may experience severe symptoms such as hallucinations, delirium tremens, and seizures. While the intensity of these symptoms can vary, about 50 percent of people with alcohol-use disorders will experience some degree of physical and/or mental symptoms during withdrawal.
Those suffering from mild or moderate withdrawals may find that these symptoms begin to fade within two to seven days, while severe withdrawals can require more intensive medical care.
The prospect of facing withdrawal can be daunting for any substance user, and it’s easy to see why. The discomfort of withdrawals, or even just the fear of experiencing them, plays a large part in discouraging many substance abusers from trying to quit. But kicking the habit isn’t something that drug or alcohol users have to face on their own. As we’ve seen, facing this without the proper help can be dangerous. Modern medical protocols can help with getting through the most difficult parts of detoxing from these substances, and treatments exist that can make it easier to achieve and sustain abstinence from drugs.
If you or someone you know is fighting an addiction to drugs or alcohol, Detox.net can assist you in locating the best options for your personal needs. Everyone’s experiences with substances and struggles to quit are different, and we can find treatment and recovery centers that are tailored to fit your life and your own unique circumstances.
We asked six individuals to share their stories of withdrawal from alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines. The stories have been edited for grammar and length.
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