A little over a year ago, I was at an event where I was representing the newspaper at which I was the editor in chief. A woman came up to me to tell me that she was a fan of an award-winning series of articles I was spearheading called, "Our Children's Brains," which dealt with children's developmental and psychological issues. It turns out she had a suggestion for a new topic: heroin and its growing popularity with white suburban teenagers. Her son, a heroin addict, had just lost his best friend to a heroin overdose, his third friend to die from heroin in a month.
This chance meeting with this distraught mother--and nurse--changed the course of many lives, because our newspaper did follow up on the story and we discovered that this wasn't an isolated tale of her son and his particular group of friends, it was an epidemic on Long Island, and soon we learned that it was an epidemic in high schools--and even junior high schools--around the country.
The series broke big and my colleagues Michael Martino and Timothy Bolger and I won many journalism and public service awards for our groundbreaking (and new-law-making) coverage on the topic. The problem? One year later, heroin addiction among teens has not gone away, in fact, it's gotten worse, even with this new awareness. In fact a new study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the MetLife Foundation found that teens girls in particular are now more inclined to use drugs.
I met a lot of interesting young people during the course of my investigation into the topic of heroin use among suburban teens; I watched kids shoot up, score, suffer through withdrawal and leave for prison or rehab. One young junkie, who had been using heroin since he was 15, and lost several friends to ODs, stopped cold turkey. I spent several weeks following him, and often went to his home. He was an animal lover and had a pet monkey. One day when I visited, he literally had the monkey on his back. Clean for weeks, he began using again, well aware of the potential outcome.
"Why heroin?" I asked. "It's no big deal," he answered. It's how all the young junkies answered.
That was the most shocking aspect of this story to me. After all this time, the one thing that still stands out the most was how off-handed and cavalier these kids were about their addiction. This isn't the ‘40s, ‘50s or ‘60s when heroin was only used by the most lowest-life dregs of society in skid rows and downtrodden ghettos in the worst parts of urban areas around the country. These young junkies today aren't looking to some photo of a scabby, withered lost soul in a magazine or documentary as who their peers are, they are looking at Jimmy the high school football player, Sally the cheerleader and Tommy the valedictorian as their role models--and Jimmy, Sally and Tommy are all high on heroin.
It is rampant in schools, we learned through our investigation. "You can count the people who aren't on heroin, as opposed to the ones who are," one high school junkie told me.
So it is no big deal to them; it's like smoking a marijuana joint. To them, pill-taking, pot smoking or shooting heroin are interchangeable. They know how addictive heroin is, but they just don't care. They know they'll end up in jail, but they just don't care. They know their friends are dying from it, but they just don't care. And this is the most important part, the key to understanding this rise in the use of heroin: this is not a drug-dazed haze that's making them not be able to make wise decisions, it happened well before they started using. These kids just don't think it's a big deal one way or another--there is no stigma any longer, nor is it a badge of honor. It doesn't make them "cool." It's just what everybody does. No big deal.
Parents should know that it's not the taboo that it was to them. The biggest clue to why it's become so popular despite its often deadly outcome is that this new generation of junkies sees so many kids who look just like them, act just like them, live right near them, sit next to them in math class, have grown up with them, and have the same family values as them--they're all doing it, all around them.
When I interview people for an investigative story, if it's a controversial one, they often ask to have their names changed or be off the record. When interviewing these junkie teens, they were too forthcoming with their names, images and actions. For the first time in my career, I had to warn sources that they might want to use a pseudonym, and I had to explain to so many of them that they might not realize now that this public information could impact them later on if they used their names. "I don't care," they would all say. Sure, take my picture showing off my track marks. It might have well been a story on tattoos.
This problem, which is only getting worse, will not change unless the young public's idea of heroin changes. It's bad enough that these kids think that they can just snort it and it's not as dangerous or degenerate as shooting it (they all end up shooting it anyway), nothing seems to be scaring them off--not their vampire-like hunger for the drug, not their sunken eyes and sallow faces, not their loss of interest in sex, not even their dead friends or their own near-death ODs.
When kids stop talking openly about their heroin addiction, then we'll know that they know they're doing something wrong, and we'll be on the way to success in fighting this uphill battle. Until then, being a junkie will remain "no big deal."
Alphabet Kids: A Guide to Developmental, Neurobiological and Psychological Disorders for Parents and Professionals: