If recent news reports about the heroin epidemic in the suburbs haven't sparked a sense of urgency in the minds of local residents, being in a room full of families who have lost loved ones to an overdose will.
As people from all walks of life filed into the Frick Center at Elmhurst College Tuesday night to learn everything they could about heroin, it quickly became clear many of them had children who are already dead because of heroin. Through teary eyes and with shaky voices, these people from Elmhurst, Lombard and all over DuPage greeted each other, saying things like, "My son died last year" or, "We're coming up on his 'Angel Day.' "
Another woman's grandson is an addict. "He's still alive," she said, guardedly.
Many are members of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing), and all of the 100 or so audience members came to hear a panel discussion on the new face of heroin in the suburbs. Some could have been panelists, themselves, knowing first-hand that heroin is no longer the last-ditch drug of those shooting up on the streets of the inner city.
Retired Chicago Police Captain John Roberts, co-founder of Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization (HERO), opened the discussion by sharing the heartbreaking loss of his own son, Billy, in 2009.
Billy was 11 days into recovery when he relapsed.
"His best friend called and said, 'Mr. Roberts, I don't think Billy's breathing,' " Roberts said, the audience hanging onto his every word. "It's the thing we feared the most, the thing every family dealing with a drug problem fears the most."
What is it About Heroin?
Heroin has creeped into our schools and communities so quietly, even Robert Crown Center for Health Education, a premier resource in suburban Chicago for educating kids about their bodies, didn't see it coming at first.
Heroin isn't quiet any more. It's so bad now, DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said, that every eight days somebody in DuPage dies from a heroin overdose.
Seventy-two people have died from heroin overdoses in DuPage County in 20 months, and the number is growing, Berlin said. Thirty-four heroin deaths have been recorded so far this year. No drug is more addictive, and the heroin of today is "far more powerful" than heroin of the 1960s and 70s, he said.
"Heroin knows no boundaries," Berlin said. "It's not just teens. It's adults, professionals. We've seen overdose victims from 15 to 64 years old. Every socioeconomic area of the community is affected by heroin."
So why, when the outcome is so devastating, would anyone even start using heroin? For one thing, users no longer have to stick a needle in their arm to get high.
"There used to be a stigma associated with heroin. People were afraid to use it because you had to inject it," he said. "That is no longer the case. People are snorting it, smoking it."
The level of perceived risk also has dropped across the board. Young people think if it's not injected it's less addictive or not addictive at all. As perceived risk drops, usage increases.
"They don't think using it one time can get them addicted," Berlin said.
It's cheap and convenient—just a short drive east on I-290, the Heroin Highway, to the west side of Chicago to pick it up. And, dealers will often give it away for free because they know that after the first, second or third time, "they've got you hooked," said Dan Lustig of Haymarket Center, a substance abuse treatment center in Chicago.
That Fateful First Time
Lustig said there is a strong correlation between heroin use and pain medications, like oxycontin and vicodin.
Athletes who have been injured and end up on pain medicines sometimes become addicted, then go looking for that next high. The majority of heroin users begin opiate addiction through legal means, Lustig said, citing a young man who was introduced to opiates after a dental procedure.
Lustig urges parents to remove unused medications from the home immediately.
"I had surgery done once, and they gave me three different bottles, a 90-day supply, of (pain medication)," he said. "It was over the top. Why does anyone need that amount of pain medication?"
Audrey Albright's son Michael tried vicodin, codeine, hydrocodone, xanax and klonopin before trying heroin for the first time. Michael went to York High School, then moved to Lombard with his family when he was 18. He died at 21, one year ago, after three stints in rehab.
She said his attention deficit disorder and depression, combined with prescription drugs and peer pressure, eventually led to his heroin use.
"No one wakes up and says, 'Gee, I think I'll be a heroin addict,' " she said.
She spends her time now trying to get the word out to others.
"If I could help save just one person, it's worth it," she said.
No Profile of a Heroin User
"Every child is at risk," said Kathleen Burke of Robert Crown Center.
Those with risk factors, such as a family history of mental illness or addiction, have a greater chance of becoming addicted.
The days of parents saying, "It can never happen to my child," must end, panelists said. Stigma is still keeping people from seeking the help they need.
One woman who spoke after the panel presentation said her son graduated from York in 2005 as a heroin addict. She, too, got a phone call that her son wasn't breathing. The Elmhurst police saved his life, she said. He's in jail now, which she finds comforting. He can't O.D. in there.
"He relapsed 13 times," she said. "He's in DuPage County and he's going to prison. I'm relaxed for the first time because he's in jail" where he can't use heroin.
She said her daughter, a senior at York, told her she could go to school "tomorrow" and buy heroin.
She said it took her seven years to be able to say her son is a heroin addict, and there is still a stigma attached to it. The schools try to "shove it under the carpet," and people still look down on her as if she's a bad mother, she said.
"I'm just like everyone else who lives in Elmhurst," she said. "We just need to make sure no parents have to go through what I've gone through."
So, what should a parent look for? If your child is using heroin, would you know? Warning signs include:
- Failing or diminishing performance in school
- Lack of regard for personal hygiene
- Changes in lifestyle
- Tendency toward recklessness
- Disregard for consequences
- Withdrawal from friends
- Runny nose
- Needle marks on the body
- Slurred speech
- Nodding off
- Display of hostility
- Having no future plans
Treatment is almost never successful the first time. Or the second. Or, even the third, Lustig said. It usually takes 20 years to reach one-year sobriety.
"People don't understand that when they go into treatment, this is a lifelong problem," he said.
Of those who use heroin, more than 50 percent will be dead before the age of 50, he said.
"In the last two years, we've lost more people to heroin than the entire Vietnam War," he said.
Carry the Message Home
"The silence has to stop," Burke said.
Robert Crown Center is working on a pilot program to systematically tackle the problem of heroin in the suburbs. Law enforcement is doing its part to step up prosecutions, but it's going to take a lot more than that to get it under control, Berlin said.
"We're not going to arrest and prosecute our way out of this problem,' " he said.
The panel stressed the most important thing parents and community members can do is to spread the word.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please, do not leave here tonight and let this be the epidemic that nobody's talking about," Roberts said. "Please join us. Be a hero. Take a stand against this drug. Push back with everything you've got. Doing nothing is not an option. We have yet to see how bad this can (get)."