It’s common for people wanting to get sober to shut themselves in their rooms and wait out the storm. The appeal of this approach is obvious. It’s free, for one thing. You also get to be somewhere safe, comfortable, and familiar while you spend a few days feeling awful. No one wants to see anyone else while he’s sweating, shaking, vomiting, and whatever else. It seems much better to hide out at home until the worst is over. As appealing as this is, it can also be dangerous. Here’s why.
You are more likely to relapse. People try to detox at home all the time, but they usually give up pretty quickly. You may have tried this yourself several times. Maybe you said, ‘Fine, no more alcohol, starting now’. Then the next day you say, ‘Maybe a little something for the shakes’, and the next thing you know, you’ve abandoned the whole idea. Withdrawal can be really bad. Withdrawal from opioids is often described as the the worst flu you’ve ever had and you know that the pain will stop if you only use again. It’s certainly more comfortable to try to detox at home, but if you have no commitment or accountability, it’s very hard to follow through.
Some drugs have potentially fatal withdrawal. If you are addicted to alcohol, benzodiazepines, or barbiturates, withdrawal can actually kill you. When quitting these drugs abruptly, your risk of seizure becomes very high. Delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal are fatal in three to five percent of cases. Severe alcohol withdrawal can also cause hallucinations and racing heart. If you have heart problems already, delirium tremens can be even more dangerous. Quitting benzos abruptly can also cause seizures and psychosis. People who quit benzos abruptly experience cognitive impairments for a long time, sometimes up to two years after quitting.
It’s hard to take care of yourself when you feel terrible. Whatever you’re quitting, just assume you’ll feel terrible and try to imagine doing normal things while feeling that way. You’ll have to make food, possibly run out to get a few things, maybe do some small chores that you can’t put off until later. You won’t want to do any of it, and you might not be able to. You need to make sure you’re staying hydrated and fed. Dehydration is a real danger when you have diarrhea, as is common when quitting opioids. That can lead to secondary problems if you aren’t careful.
You may not be able to handle an emergency. DTs can come on quickly and escalate quickly. You may feel not too bad for a couple of days then suddenly decline. If you pass out, start seizing, or have a psychotic episode, you can’t call for help when you most need it. Also, with many drugs, withdrawal causes coordination and balance problems, making you more prone to accident. At the very least, you need someone checking on you frequently to make sure everything is fine.
Some people are able to detox at home, but if you are trying to quit after prolonged heavy drinking, or if you are quitting benzodiazepines, barbiturates, or opioids, medical detox is far safer, less painful, and assures you will actually follow through.