Why Compassion is Essential in Treating Opiate Addiction

Our country, our cities, our neighborhoods, and probably some people you know are grappling with the opioid epidemic.  On an average day, 580 people in America use heroin for the first time, reports The  Recovery Village. Heroin deaths have increased 469% between 1999 and 2014.  Even in the last few months, I have heard of two more young people dying from heroin overdoses.

Tragedies like these are becoming ever more common. All of us — especially those of us who want to help others live healthier, happier lives — need to better understand the nature of this rampant illness.  How will you respond?

The epidemic spans all ages, races, genders, religions, and all socioeconomic status levels! It doesn’t matter if your town has a Starbucks or a beautiful, organic farmer’s market. It’s happening. It’s serious. And it’s starting young. What’s worse? Opiates are deadlier faster than many other substances; as far as I’m concerned, they are taking our need to understand and treat addictive behavior up a few notches in priority.

How Are Young People Getting Access to Opiates?

The opiates people start using aren’t necessarily being purchased in a back alley in a high-crime area. They are being prescribed, legally, by doctors. Yes, even to adolescents, who make decisions, choose behavior, and experience consequences differently than adults do. Essentially, these young people learn about this opiate-induced feeling of numbness from a sports injury or from getting their wisdom teeth out.

And since they received such a lofty prescription, they have extras (I sincerely hope fewer doctors are prescribing high quantities of pain pills to young people). Is it that difficult to bring a few of these extra Vicodin pills to school or to a party to experiment with?

If the teenagers don’t get prescribed these opiate painkillers directly, perhaps their friend did. Or maybe they just took a few out of the medicine cabinet in their home.

This is Going to Happen in Your Community—Because it Already is Happening

It’s happening in Bethesda. It’s happening in Northern Virginia. It’s happening in affluent areas and less-affluent areas alike. This topic is becoming part of the mainstream because it is mainstream. Jennifer Wiener’s book, All Fall Down, brought much-needed attention to the topic of opiate addiction. Though the book is fiction, the main character is a writer living in Philly, like Weiner herself. The character is a mom from a middle-class family who got prescribed opiates legally for back pain. The truth is, it’s an all-too-familiar story, even if this particular one is fiction. And of course, there are plenty of non-fiction recounts of opiate addiction like How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z by Anne Marlowe and Junky by William S. Burroughs.

These are just a few stories, but this story of opiate addiction is more prevalent than you may realize. In reality, there are more people dying from opiates than car crashes (which is so scary!)

Nobody in the World Chooses to be an Addict…

From my vantage point, the goal of pretty much anyone out there using is to feel less badly or just feel less at all. Nobody in the world chooses to be an addict; they end up becoming an addict because first, they experiment. They realize they feel LESS…whether it’s less badly or just less in general.

They begin using the drug to self-medicate on some level. Either they like the feeling and keep using to get this desired effect, and/or they become physically addicted. They didn’t choose to be an addict. They chose to feel less and they chose to continue to feel less—and then they need to keep using to exist!

I have a drink every night to relax

Have you heard people say this? Perhaps you say it yourself? While a drink doesn’t have the same stigma as heroin, the idea is quite similar. People are using to impact their mood. Using for effect needs to be paid attention to, no matter the substance— alcohol, marijuana or opiates. The fast downturn of using opiates just goes faster— it can turn deadly fast!

Next Stop on the Experiment Train? Addiction

So no matter where the adolescent, young adult, or adult experimenter gets the opiates, it can pave the road to addiction. When the prescription pills are no longer accessible or are being used to impact mood versus physical pain, but feeling less is still appealing, the addiction can easily to turn to heroin. It’s available widely on the streets. It’s more affordable. And unlike with controlled prescription drugs, an individual doesn’t actually know what they’re taking. Heroin could be cut with anything. It’s often cut with Fentanyl, the drug on which Prince overdosed .

What Can We Do?

Everybody, and I mean everybody, needs to be paying attention. All of us. Understanding not just opiate addiction but the emotional pain of why people are using is essential. People using opiates are not bad people—they are in emotional pain. They’re stuck in the cycle of wanting to feel less badly.

For the addict, there’s often a lot of guilt and shame.  For the family members, reaching out for help or admitting their child is an addict can feel like admitting weakness to unforgiving world.

It’s our job as a community—as parents, siblings, therapists and friends—to provide non-judgment and non-shaming. Compassion can grow from first understanding addiction. Only from a place of knowledge, understanding and compassion can we truly help those who have fallen into addiction’s cycle.

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Why Compassion is Essential in Treating Opiate Addiction

Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT

Robyn E. Brickel MA, LMFT, is the founder and director of Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she established in 1999. Her insights for parent and teens appear in interviews in The Washington Post, and Washington Parent magazine, and she presents educational workshops for clinicians on the treatment of adolescent substance abuse and trauma. Her counseling and psychoeducational services provide treatment for recovery from trauma and/or abuse, including dissociation; addictions; adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) issues; body image issues and eating disorders; self-harming behaviors, including emotional intensity and instability; anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; challenged family systems; chronic illness; co-dependency; dysfunctional relationships; life transitions; loss and bereavement; relationship distress; self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; and stress reduction. She is a trained trauma and addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.


APA Reference
Brickel, R. (2017). Why Compassion is Essential in Treating Opiate Addiction. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 22 Oct 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 22 Oct 2017
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