How to Get Through Detox

By Suzanne Kane

If you want to get clean and get on with your life free of drugs and alcohol, you first have to get through detoxification or detox. No treatment facility or center will treat you with drugs and/or alcohol still in your body. It’s as simple as that. What is detox? What should you be prepared for? More importantly, can you survive it? Here are some answers.

What Detox Isn’t
First, let’s dispel some myths about detox. Contrary to some pretty scary movie depictions, a detox center isn’t a dreary, dark place. Nor is it like bedlam in an insane asylum. And toss aside any mental images of grim-looking doctors and overcrowded hallways with screaming and wailing patients. Detox isn’t any of these.

Detox 101
Boiling it down to its pure essence, to detox means to rid your body of all harmful substances. In this case, that means the toxins from drugs and/or alcohol. There are actually three phases of detox:

  • Getting the drugs/alcohol out of the system.
  • Physically getting clean. After cleansing the body of drugs, the patient needs proper nutrition, diet, and physical exercise. The purpose is to restore the body to a more natural, balanced state.
  • Detoxing emotionally. It’s important to treat the emotional dependence on drugs and/or alcohol, which may be as powerful as the physical dependence.

Detox is the first step in quitting drugs and alcohol and getting clean and sober. Get it in your head right now: Without therapy, detox alone won’t allow you to keep off either drugs or alcohol.

Some people who have only recently begun drug use, or who use drugs infrequently, of less toxicity, or certain types of drugs, may be able to quit “cold turkey.” That is, they just stop taking the drugs or alcohol and don’t seek any support or treatment. This rarely works. Why? Because while they may temporarily stop using, they haven’t treated the underlying causes of why they began in the first place, and they haven’t developed any coping skills to avoid getting into the same situation again.

The more time you’ve been using, the more frequently you use, and the type of drug you use all factor into what kind of detox you can expect to experience. There are withdrawal symptoms associated with detox from any drug or alcohol dependence or abuse. Simply put, the longer you’ve been at it, the tougher time you’ll have to go through. That isn’t to say that your withdrawal symptoms can’t be managed. The goal of licensed, professional drug and alcohol treatment centers with medically-supervised detox units is to make you as comfortable as possible during the detox period.

Can you do it on your own? Some people can, but it’s not recommended. Detox can cause intense symptoms. During withdrawal, addicts should not undergo detox without medical supervision. Why would you want to subject yourself to the unpleasantness and responsibility? Besides, the outcome is pretty certain: You’ll only fall back into your former drug-using ways without treatment. Better to allow the professionals to help you get on the healing path.

How Alcohol and Drugs Affect Detox
Here are some broad categories of addiction and how detox is impacted. It is not all-inclusive and is only meant as an overview:

Alcohol – acts as a stimulant and a depressant. It wreaks havoc on the brain and nerve connections. It’s also physically addicting. The need is physical, and it’s real. Your body has become so used to alcohol that not having it makes you ill. Suddenly quitting alcohol can cause convulsions, hallucinations, and even death from heart failure.

Cocaine and Amphetamines – These drugs stimulate the brain’s “pleasure center” by increasing output of the neurotransmitter dopamine. When stimulants are abruptly discontinued, the output of dopamine stops. Fatigue and sleep disturbances result. Coming down from cocaine means you may experience depression, agitation, drug cravings, anxiety, crashing, hyperactivity, hallucinations, and even paranoia.

Tranquilizers – Benzodiazepines such as Ativan, Valium, and Xanax work just the opposite of stimulants. When these drugs are suddenly stopped, the person becomes jittery, has problems sleeping, and becomes shaky. Nerves become extremely sensitive to any type of stimulus.

Opiates – Drugs such as heroin, morphine, Vicodin, and OxyContin produce very strong physical withdrawal symptoms. These intense, painful, and potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms must be medically supervised during detox.

Things to Keep in Mind During Detox
Try to keep a sense of humor. That sounds ludicrous, given the fact that some detox can be pretty scary (heroin, for example), but you have to keep the end goal in mind: You need to be free of drugs in order to begin treatment. And treatment is the ultimate means to an end: successful recovery.

Take it one day at a time. For some drugs, detox may be a matter of 1 to 2 days, while more damaging or long-term drug abuse may take 3 to 5 days or longer.

If you are offered medications to help make detox easier and less painful—or to reduce drug cravings—take it. There are new medications approved for treating withdrawal symptoms that are not addictive. The sooner you get through detox, the sooner you can begin treatment to overcome your addiction or dependence.

Focus on long-term goals. It’s not too soon to begin crafting your vision for the way you’d like your life to be in recovery. You’ll be doing lots of planning when you’re in treatment, but for now, it’s helpful to have something constructive and positive to think about.

Stick to it. If you give up and leave detox, not only will you be right back where you started, but you may even start using more. Think of it this way: less than a week to get drugs out of your system is a small price to pay if you’re really serious about getting clean.

Ask for help. Don’t feel that you have to go it alone. While detox is a uniquely singular experience, since only you know what you’re feeling at any given time, make sure you communicate any physical or psychological symptoms to the professionals attending to you. Again, their goal is to help you through this so that you can begin treatment.

Get enough sleep. One of the withdrawal symptoms that is hard to overcome is the inability to sleep. Frankly, insomnia may plague you for a while even into treatment. Take advantage of medically prescribed, safe medications to enable you to sleep. Later on, in treatment, you’ll be able to participate in yoga, meditation, and other means of helping you to relax so you can sleep without interruption.

Drink lots of fluids. Your body needs to flush out the toxins, especially from the liver. The best hydration is water, followed by fresh juices.

Why Bother to Detox?
You can’t get into any drug and alcohol treatment program if you don’t first detox. Your body has to be free of drugs and/or alcohol for a period of time, usually 48 hours. If you continue taking drugs and/or alcohol and never detox and go into treatment, you may die from accidental overdose or accumulated physical deterioration. Most of all, you should detox so that you can begin to heal.

Is There Any Guarantee?
The only guarantee you can count on is the fact that if you commit yourself 100% to getting clean and to abstaining from drugs, when you enter detox and stay with the program, you’ll be on your way to the next stage of the process: treatment. If you can believe and trust in yourself, and accept no excuses that you may tell yourself when the going gets tough, you can be sure you will not only get through detox, but you’ll be a stronger person because of it.

What else is certain? There are people who love you and people who will watch over and care for you. Your friends and family will be rooting for you to succeed. And the professional staff of the drug and alcohol treatment facility will be on your side as well, assisting you with compassion, expertise, and dedication.

What are you waiting for? Get into detox now. It’s the first step to the rest of your life in recovery.