Occasional Heroin Users Healthier Than the Ones Who Hit it Regularly
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Occasional Heroin Users Healthier Than the Ones Who Hit it Regularly


For some reason, a study was conducted on 77 Russian alcoholics—all with the unfortunate circumstances of being recently infected with HIV and having a palate for heroin—that showed those who used the drug intermittently over the course of a year yielded a lower CD4 blood count (cells that measure how well your immune system is working) than those who used heroin on a daily basis. According to The New York Times, the results surprised doctors, who have long assumed that the more chronic the drug use, the more strain put on the immune system and thus the more rapid the decrease in health of those infected with viruses like HIV. WTF, intermittent heroin users?

Now before we get our opiate-loving dicks out and start sucking them, it’s worth mentioning that in no part of the article does it address whether or not the alcoholic Russians with the virus who didn’t use heroin during the observation period happened to use any other drugs or alcohol during that time. While heroin may continue to carry the stigma of a hardcore street drug, intense (and dirty) uppers like crystal meth and crack—which need to be re-hit every 10 minutes or so—might be more taxing on the immune system, especially when you don’t know what’s in them. Furthermore, these alcoholics are clearly not in recovery so it’s safe to assume that there was—at the very least—a whole lot of drinking going on, and if there is one thing I have learned in the rooms of 12-step, it’s that you can’t imagine how much drinking that could be.

One theory for the occasional users’ healthier immune systems is the impact that withdrawal can have on an immune system. This should sound an alarm that withdrawal isn’t just highly unpleasant but actually dangerous for those who go in and out of recovery

I am obviously not discouraging drug and alcohol withdrawal—it’s a necessary component to sobriety and the road to mental and spiritual recovery—but I think it’s important to point out that it’s not just a matter of getting off the drug and assuming everything will suddenly be okay.

Of course, one of the reasons why the first year of sobriety is hard is that people can often get far enough away from their bottom—which includes detox and withdrawal—without getting far enough away from their last run. In other words, just when they start to feel better and begin getting their lives back, they may only be taking a 90-day chip and can thus entertain thoughts about how, since they got three months once, they can do it again. This is a common mistake—one that sadly lands people in revolving door of sobriety, if they are lucky enough to make it back at all.

But for those who like to gamble with their lives (um, most addicts do), this study shows that the chances of making it out alive might have more to do with where we are health-wise than luck. Most of us take for granted that if we get a cold, we are going to get better—how much rest we get or Vitamin C we take probably factors into the speed of our recovery but either way, we assume that we will be well again. That is because a normal immune system is designed to handle common viruses like the cold or the flu. But one that’s compromised by an autoimmune deficiency like HIV is being taxed constantly so the immune system may not have the strength to fight off an otherwise sustainable illness—which is why people with AIDS often die from things like pneumonia. Depending on what chemical you are withdrawing from (often times, it’s a number of them), your body may not know the difference between detoxing and fighting off a cold.

I have no idea why this study on 77 Russian alcoholics who were newly infected with HIV and practiced varying degrees of heroin use was conducted or how the results helped the medical field, but for the recovery community—especially those who say relapse is part of the journey—the results are a good reminder that for most, but especially opiate and benzo addicts, the consequences of withdrawal reach far beyond personal discomfort. Our bodies work hard to detox and get back us to a place of health so the deeper into our addiction and using we get, the fewer runs at recovery they have to give us.

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.