Paula Nixon is in survival mode.
The 19-year-old recovering heroin addict from Glenview is now in a Florida rehab facility clinging to the hope that she’ll survive, unlike the peers she’s lost along the way.
For addicts like Nixon, recovery is a tenuous word. It’s impermanent, imbued with the notion that one can—and often will—waver at any moment.
“Overcoming addiction? I’m not really sure what that means,” says T. Celeste Napier, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology and Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center and director of Rush’s Center for Compulsive Behavior and Addiction. “For some, it may be a lifelong battle. It could be that the brain never goes back to the way it was.”
Nixon has struggled through a host of rehabilitation facilities. The Florida clinic is her tenth.
“(Paula’s) been in so many rehabs up in the Chicago area,” says Nixon’s mother, P.J. Newberg. “This judge said, ‘If you don’t get your daughter out of Chicago, she’s going to wind up dead in a dumpster.’ I just couldn’t get that out of my head.”
The sad truth is that Nixon isn’t alone. Across the United States, adolescents are experimenting with and succumbing to heroin. Recent high-profile heroin deaths like “Glee” star Cory Monteith and celebrated film actor Philip Seymour Hoffman reaffirm what Newberg most fears: Heroin use has grown to an epidemic.
Not Your Junkie’s Smack
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Heroin has increasingly grown in popularity since 2008, eclipsing cocaine as the recreational drug of choice.
Wilmette Chief of Police Brian King marks 2009 as the year he noticed an uptick in heroin incidences in his jurisdiction; between 2010 and 2013, five young Wilmette residents died from heroin overdoses. The demographic King cites as the typical heroin user he encounters is frightening: 19 to 41 years old, the average being just 26; the majority are in their early 20s.
“Most of our users who will talk to us go down to the city to score heroin and then bring it back here,” King says. “We get calls off the expressway ramps where people find hypodermic syringes, (and) we’ve had it in commuter parking lots. Young adults have gone down to Chicago to score heroin, and when they feel like they’re in a safe spot, they’ll pull over and inject it in the vehicle.”
The popularity of heroin isn’t all too surprising; its availability along I-290 and 1-88 (“Heroin Highway”) is key, as is its price (you can buy a bag for $10, cheaper than a six-pack of beer, King says). Most importantly, the perception of heroin has changed significantly since its early days of recreational use. “Going back one or two decades ago, it was seen more as an inner-city drug,” King says. “It was seen to be dirty.”
“The stigma for heroin changed dramatically when the purity of heroin was as such that they no longer had to give it intravenously,” Napier says. “You don’t have to be this icky person poking needles in your arms anymore. That was a game-changer.”
DEA Special Agent Owen Putman agrees. “It had a bad stigma,” he says. “Now, you no longer need to (inject it). You snort it, or you can smoke it. It’s not as intimidating to try.”
“When I was growing up, people were scared of heroin,” Newberg says. “People just didn’t do it. With kids today, there’s no stigma. They’re not scared of it, but they’re not educated about it. They don’t know how physically addictive it is.”
Heroin is an extremely addictive drug, both physically and psychologically. “Heroin gets to the brain very quickly,” Napier says. “That’s part of the rush. Initially, you may start taking the drug because it feels good, but eventually, with repeated doses, you don’t feel good unless you have the drug.”
“It Can Happen to Anyone”
Nixon first experimented with heroin at age 16, as a student at Glenbrook South High School. Her boyfriend, GBS Titan football star Dayne Poyser, was already an addict and introduced her to the drug. He suffered a fatal overdose during her first stint in treatment.
“In a matter of seven weeks, it impacted her whole life,” Newberg says. “She couldn’t stay in school. Her behavior changed. She became more disrespectful, started cutting class, sneaking out in the middle of the night. Over the next 18 months, it was the same pattern: She’d do OK for a while and do the right thing and stay out of trouble, and then she’d revert. It’s like she had no control.”
Nixon lost four close friends to heroin overdoses in her first two years as a regular user, and Newberg feared her outgoing, friendly daughter would be next.
“Overdose can happen at any point in the addiction process,” Napier says. Most new heroin users are affluent, white suburban teens and young adults, and their lack of exposure to the drug can lead to fatal choices. Lake County’s heroin death toll reached a five-year high in 2012, with 33 reported fatalities.
“I have to live every day not knowing whether my kid is going to die or not,” Newberg says. “It’s no way to live.”
“The first time many parents become aware of their child’s heroin use is when there’s been an overdose,” Putman says. “A lot of parents aren’t aware. We’ll keep doing our part here, but in order for us to be successful, parents, teachers, coaches [and] practitioners need to get involved and talk to their kids about heroin.”
In early April, Wilmette Police arrested four young adults in connection with heroin distribution. The group, including a 17-year-old girl, were allegedly supplying to lower level drug dealers along the North Shore. Wilmette police are employing a three-pronged approach to solving the heroin issue, using education, resources and enforcement. “Realistically, I realize this is not a problem that you can just arrest yourself out of,” King says, emphasizing that users are not alone. Officials can provide invaluable resources to help fight addiction.
Newberg remains optimistic that her daughter can fight, but she insists it can happen to anyone. “I didn’t raise a criminal,” she says. “My kid’s been in jail in different counties. She had a normal upbringing. She was loved. But I’ve seen her do things and act in ways where I know it’s not her. It’s a miracle she’s still alive.”
To educate other parents and the community about her experience, Newberg started the local nonprofit Northshore Secret Heroin Problem. “I just want her to be happy and healthy. To be sober. To be clean. To have a chance to live a normal life.”
What Parents Need to Know
- The abuse of prescription drugs has contributed to the increased use of heroin, which can be cheaper and easier to find.
- Like Molly, the purity of heroin is unknown, and the drug can be cut with unknown substances.
- Heroin affects the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls decision-making, which is not fully developed in teens and young adults.
- Heroin induces a feeling of euphoria and invincibility among users.
- Research suggests part of the appeal results from “thrill seeking,” with the trip to the city’s West Side viewed as a dangerous and exciting adventure.
- While most users may start by taking the drug through other methods, many progress to injection.
- Mortality rates for heroin addicts are extremely high. Half of heroin addicts will die before 50, with the average age of death at 30.
- Heroin overdose can happen even during the first trial.
“It’s difficult to dig yourself out of (heroin addiction),” King says. “You need the support of your community. You do not walk alone. We can get you the resources to help you on this journey.”