The Heroin Problem Hitting Home in Suburbia

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Ron* remembers vividly the first time he felt “the warmth of the opium embrace,” as he puts it.

“I was 23 at the time,” the now-33-year-old Norfolk resident recalls. “I’d been doing a lot of cocaine and pills but had always been afraid of heroin because I didn’t want to stick a needle in my arm. My friend, who’d offered it to me, said I didn’t have to—that I could snort it. I sort of faked it, taking a light snort, but I still got high. I felt like I’d taken some Percocets or something. So it did pique my interest.”

His curiosity notwithstanding, Ron—who was raised in an upper-middle class home in Norfolk—didn’t touch heroin again for another year. And when he finally did, it wasn’t for recreational pleasure.

“I got really sick,” he recalls. “It turned out I had pancreatitis from drinking so heavily. Pancreatitis is really painful, so they were pumping me full of Dilaudid (a strong narcotic pain reliever), and I loved it. I didn’t even want to leave the hospital. I just wanted to lie in bed all day because I felt fantastic.”

When Ron was finally released, the doctor wrote him a prescription for the drug, and he began taking more than the prescribed dose. Realizing he was headed down a slippery slope, he tried to stop, but the withdrawal made him sick. Then one night, a friend offered him a couple lines of heroin.

“I thought, what the hell, and did it. I’d been puking and sweating uncontrollably. I was so sick I barely had function in my arms and legs—but in a span of two minutes, after doing the lines, I was feeling great.”

“They’d told me in the hospital that I couldn’t drink anymore,” he adds. “At that point, I thought, I don’t need to drink—this is 50 times better.”

Stories like Ron’s have become alarmingly common in recent years. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 2.1 million Americans are now abusing opioid pain relievers, and nearly half a million are addicted to heroin. Many won’t survive. According to a December 2016 report by the PBS Newshour, 300,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses since 2000. Heroin overdoses, meanwhile, went up 20 percent in the past year and now exceed gun homicides.

While the problem in Virginia is less severe than it is in some other states, more people in the Commonwealth now die from drug overdoses than automobile accidents, according to VaAware, a website set up last November after the state’s health commissioner declared opioid addictions a public health emergency.

“Deaths from prescription drug overdoses doubled in Virginia over the past 15 years, while heroin-related deaths tripled from 2011 to 2015,” noted Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his comments on the declaration.

The growing problem—which now affects people of all races and income levels—caught a lot of people off guard. After all, a generation ago, mainstream America didn’t think much about heroin. If the middle class did think about it, they associated it with ‘junkies’ in poor, black neighborhoods, or troubled rock stars.

To understand how we got here, it’s helpful to consider the history of heroin. It’s a long one, but a few facts here will suffice. According to a 2004 report by Harvard Medical School, “Opiates are outranked only by alcohol as humanity's oldest, most widespread, and most persistent drug problem.” Indeed, there is evidence that the opium poppy was being cultivated in ancient Mesopotamia, circa 3400 B.C. and that the Sumerians referred to it as the “joy plant.”

In the West, however, it was the discovery of morphine—opium’s active ingredient—by German chemists in 1803 that piqued interest in it. By 1827, the drug giant Merck began to commercially manufacture morphine.

But an even bigger turn of events came in the 1890s when Bayer—as it was first marketing its aspirin—began to advertise liquid heroin as the best cure for a child’s bronchitis.

Even then, however, many people were becoming alarmed by the dangers of opium-related drugs—and by 1923 the U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Division (the first federal drug agency) had banned all legal narcotics sales. But just as Prohibition did for alcohol, the ban opened up opportunities for illegal drug networks—sometimes aided by the U.S. Government. According to a PBS Frontline documentary called The Opium Kings, U.S. efforts to contain the spread of Communism in the 1950s resulted in alliances with drug warlords in Southeast Asia.

“In order to maintain their relationship with the warlords while continuing to fund the struggle against communism,” notes Frontline, “the U.S. and France supplied the drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms and air transport for the production and sale of opium.” The result was a dramatic increase in the illegal flow of heroin into the United States.

Since then, the influx and abuse of heroin has ebbed and flowed. But through the latter decades of the 20th century, it had not been perceived as a threat to families like Ron’s. That began to change around the turn of the new millennium.

Several things contributed to this shift, according to Nora D. Volkow, M.D., in her 2014 presentation to the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. “They include,” she wrote, “drastic increases in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed, greater social acceptability for using medications for different purposes, and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies.”

Today, in other words, the problem is personified not so much by the ghetto junkie looking for a fix, or the Hollywood celebrity using heroin to escape the pressures of fame, as it is by the young suburbanite who gets hooked on prescription pills—sometimes under a doctor’s care, sometimes not—likes them a little too much, then seeks heroin as an alternative because it’s a lot cheaper.

It’s also readily available. “I could have it for you this evening,” a Norfolk waitress—whom I call Isabel—told me recently after I asked her during an early afternoon chat how easily it can be obtained. Isabel says she was exposed peripherally to heroin culture while she was still attending Maury High School in Norfolk, from 1998 to 2002. “There was this elite crowd of people who just had this wildness in them—and this darkness,” she recalls. “It was as if there were this hole that always needed to be filled.” 

Six years after graduating, while working at a local restaurant, she confronted it more directly when a fellow Maury grad started working there as a cook. “I watched him spiral into the abyss three or four times,” she says. “But he was one of those archetypes of the rich, white boy with parents who have an infinite well of money to throw at problems, so nothing he ever did had truly lasting consequences. I watched him become the worst kind of human, admitting to stealing money from his mom. Eventually he ended up going to jail after holding up a 7-Eleven at gunpoint.”

Isabel believes her former coworker and classmate represents a certain type of addict who seeks hard drugs because of simple “boredom” and slips easily into the lifestyle because the drugs are easy to obtain. “These are kids who are home alone a lot of the time, with extra income from allowance or whatever—and they’re drawn to the idea of something dangerous because it makes them feel alive.”

Isabel recognizes that there’s another type of addict, though—people who seek it because they’re trying to escape pain of one kind or another.

A case in point is Joe Porfert, another Maury grad, who went into the bathroom of a local bar one night in May 2015, stuck a needle in his arm, and overdosed. A short time later he was pronounced dead. His story is chronicled in a book published last fall called—ironically—I’ll Be All Right. The book contains selections of Porfert’s own poetry and journal writings, interspersed with biographical narratives written by Virginia-Beach-based author Joe Jackson.

“Joe was a mystery to his friends,” Jackson writes. “On the surface, he seemed smart and easygoing, with an odd sense of humor.” But there was another side of him—a side, according Porfert’s childhood friend Wes Mason, that could be “dark and self-deprecating, almost to the point of self-loathing.”

Porfert’s struggle to maintain his mental health, in other words, appears to have pre-dated his first experiments with heroin and other opioids. And that is not uncommon.

“When opioid addiction occurs, it is rarely someone’s only mental health problem,” writes journalist Maia Szalavitz in a well-documented article on FiveThirtyEight. “The majority of people with opioid addictions have a pre-existing mental illness or personality disorder … Common conditions include depression, anxiety disorders and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, among others. Some studies find rates of these pre-existing problems among people with heroin addiction as high as 93 percent.”

Melissa*, a 28-year-old Virginia Beach resident and recovering addict, says this dovetails with her experience. “The majority of people I see in Narcotics Anonymous have dual diagnoses: substance abuse disorder and something else, like depression or severe anxiety.”

Melissa counts herself among them. “I was never diagnosed with anything as a child,” she says. “But I was constantly depressed and anxious. Before I started drinking and doing drugs, I was really bulimic and also cutting myself. I always used outside things to feel differently. So, I guess you could say was an addict before I was an addict.”

When she was just 13, however, she took the first steps toward full-fledged addiction, drinking and taking pills in an effort to escape her emotional problems. By the time she entered college at James Madison University, she was partying hard, virtually every night. One night, the party cocktail included an Oxycontin that someone had given her.

“I could kind of take it or leave it for a while,” she recalls. “But the more I took them the more I liked them. Pretty soon my drinking and use of other drugs fell by the wayside, and I was on this strict path of just doing [opioid] pills.”

When Melissa graduated in 2010, she moved back home to live with her mother. “I remember one night I was driving around trying to find pills, but I couldn’t. The guy I was with said he knew where to get heroin, and I was like, ‘OK.’” Melissa didn’t shoot up that first time; she smoked it. But that was enough to tighten the grip of addiction and amp up her risky behavior. “I was working as a nanny at the time,” she says. “I’d go off to my job, taking care of someone else’s kids, do what I had to do, then go in the bathroom and smoke a little bit.”

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