Oct. 28, 2010 -- It's a nightmare no parent wants to face: discovering that your child has fallen prey to the deadly pull of heroin.
On this week's "20/20," co-anchor Chris Cuomo follows the journeys of three young people caught in the powerful grip of heroin addiction. Over the course of eight months of reporting, "20/20" was aided by the Caron Treatment Centers, which has provided treatment for addicts and their families for more than 50 years.
Tom Dietzler, an addiction counselor at Caron's Young Adult Program, stresses that addiction is a powerful disease -- one that can cause good kids from loving families to make horrible decisions.
"They have no fear of death," Dietzler says of heroin addicts. "They will do anything they can to get their drug. They become vicious as they progress into their addiction."
Heroin gives users a euphoric high, followed by an intense physical withdrawal that addicts describe as 10 times worse than the flu. To avoid the pain of withdrawal, the heroin addict structures life around getting the next dose.
Abbie Hoff, also a counselor at Caron, says that the addict's life quickly begins to revolve around the same, never-ending questions: "'When am I going to get the drug again?' 'How am I going to get the drug again?' 'What do I need to do to get the drug again?' The obsession begins and all they want is the drug."
Not a '31 Day Cure Pill'
A major challenge in recovery is to help patients completely restructure their lives in a way that's no longer centered on a drug. This can be a long process, and many families are surprised when their child isn't "cured' after the standard month-long treatment cycle.
"Many parents when they bring their children here, it is almost like [they expect] a 31-day cure pill," says Tom Dietzler. "Wave a magic wand, Mr. Dietzler, make my son or daughter better."
But the rituals of addiction are ingrained in the addict, and they're difficult to break.
"Most people are using for at least a couple of years, sometimes 10 years, sometimes 15 years," says Hoff. "So I believe it's unrealistic to think that you can begin a healing process in 30 days."
Relapses Are Common
Addicts themselves often feel that they are cured after a few weeks of sobriety, but quickly relapse once they leave treatment. It's one reason that 78 percent of heroin addicts in treatment have been through rehab before, often multiple times, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Abbie Hoff works at Caron Renaissance in Boca Raton, Fla., an extended care treatment community where patients live for several months to learn how to structure a sober life. Through intensive counseling and group therapy, patients learn the coping skills necessary to deal with stress without turning to drugs.
But how much treatment is enough? Experts say there is no universal timeline: every patient is different.
"We treat people individually here," says Hoff. "Some people take two to three months just for the brain to start healing, before they can even look at their core issues."
The Family Is the Patient
While every patient is unique, family involvement is critical. Families can help encourage and support the patient, but often family therapy also reveals deep-rooted issues that need to be addressed.
"I think a lot of family members believe that if they put the patient in treatment, the patient is going to get well and that's all that needs to be done," says Hoff. "What we have found is that we have to help the family, empower the family to get well right along with the patient...In cases that I've seen a patient fail in treatment, usually it's because the family doesn't get involved, or the family doesn't want to take a look at their own issues they might have."
And while the uphill battle of recovery can be daunting, experts agree that parents need to face reality and get their child help if they want them to have any chance of beating the addiction.
"My advice for families who think that they might have a loved one that is having difficulty or is addicted to a substance is to get help as soon as possible," says Hoff. "The family often is in just as much denial as the patient is...and if the family doesn't get well the drug addict doesn't have any motivation to get well. "
Resources, More Information:
Information on Caron Treatment Centers: http://www.caron.org/
Information on Caron Renaissance: http://www.caronrenaissance.org/
Partnership for a Drug Free America: http://www.drugfree.org/
Facts and Statistics on Heroin Use from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/heroin.htm
Information on Heroin from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): http://drugabuse.gov/nidahome.html
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD): http://www.ncadd.org/
Alcoholics Anonymous: http://www.aa.org/
Narcotics Anonymous: http://www.na.org/