“When I was a kid, heroin seemed like a dirty thing for dirty people, but when you’re at the end of your rope, that’s not going to stop you,” said Jack, 19, a graduate of Santa Fe Prep, who is using a pseudonym. “The second you touch a certain drug, especially when you get to the harder drugs, it can become a very difficult addiction to break.”
Jack touched heroin and was hooked.
His story is not unique. New Mexico has one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the nation, and heroin is among the top culprits. In the 2011 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, New Mexican high school students rated second highest for lifetime heroin use. According to the 2013 New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, heroin and injection drug use has been trending upward since 2007.
Other statistics regarding heroin are disturbing. In 2011, the New Mexico Health Department reported the lifetime heroin rate in the state is greater than the national rate by 1.8 percent. The National Heroin Threat Assessment, recently released by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, reports that heroin usage and availability are climbing, with a higher death rate than any other time recorded in the past decade. The percentage of agencies reporting heroin as their greatest concern has steadily increased from 8 percent in 2007 to 38 percent in 2015. And the amount of Americans dying from heroin-related overdoses in 2013 nearly tripled compared to 2010.
There is no longer a typical heroin user, Kris Nyrop, the project director of the Seattle Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, said. “Drug users are really different; they come from all walks of life. They come from every socioeconomic category, racial and ethnic group,” Nyrop said. Instead of asking why people use drugs, he believes we need to ask, “Why don’t people use drugs? What is it about people who don’t use drugs or who don’t become problematic drug users? What makes them different?”
People who use drugs, including heroin, are often trying to fill feelings of emptiness or pain, said Anthony Fleg, a family doctor at The University of New Mexico’s Sandoval Regional Medical Center, who works with addicts. “Often, you’ll hear people say that they are trying to numb away all of what they’re feeling.”
Jack understands that. He said he was feeling alienated. He didn’t know where his future was going, he had dropped out of college, and he got involved with a group of people who were using. When he first tried heroin, he immediately felt elation and happiness: “It was like there was no future or past, and the calm in my body felt great. And I knew I was [screwed], because I’d never felt anything like that in my life before.
“It’s a drug that’s incredibly physically dependent. The lows and the withdrawals are so tough, and if your brain chemistry is a certain way, then the first time you do it, you’re caught. It’s got its claws in you. You’re going to be chasing that first feeling every single time you use and you’re going to want to up your dosage.”
Little time passed before Jack was alienating family members and friends and facing criminal charges — a felony and several misdemeanors — stemming from actions committed while he was using and shortly before he stopped to go into a recovery program.
Heroin often becomes a coping mechanism, and once off it, recovering addicts find it difficult to adjust to reality again. Eva Vasquez, co-coordinator of Healing Oasis Opiate Recovery Program at Casa de Salud in Albuquerque, said, “Life is very different after [recovered addicts] get off of the drugs. They are no longer able to use the drugs to mask their pain and the pain of life.”
Vasquez said early and preventive educational efforts can help cut the use of hard drugs including heroin. “ ‘The Just Say No’ effort has not minimized drug use in any way,” she said. “What’s needed is a way to teach children as young as possible to know how they can get help once they feel their life is getting out of control.
“We all grow up knowing that drugs are bad and never ever thinking that we will become a drug addict. We need to continue the education, but it needs to be a step further and teach people when they have stepped over the line of using drugs and abusing them.”
But it’s not easy to ask for help. Nyrop said another problematic outcome of the stigmatization of drug use is that “the amount of shame and guilt that a lot of drug users feel over their drug use contributes to them keeping it hidden.”
Reaching out for help can be incredibly difficult and sobriety almost impossible to achieve without the dedication to go through all the steps. A relative of a heroin addict who wished to remain anonymous said that his addicted stepson goes directly back to his friends or whichever source he has for drugs even after participating in multiple rehabilitation programs.
“Hanging out with people selling and doing drugs and not making enough of an effort resulted in [heroin] having such a grip on him that he can’t battle or resist it,” the man said. And everyone suffers as a result, he said: “It almost killed my wife, who raised him the best she could. We’ve dealt with it — supported him at rehabs, gone to meetings with him, prayed, done everything we can. But he tells you one thing and does another.”
In New Mexico, other factors are at play, including the ease at which drugs can be smuggled across the border and familial ties to drug use that are difficult to break. Many rehabilitation centers focus on getting addicts back on their feet and away from the drugs, including providing Suboxone (a semi-synthetic opioid medication). Users must find new coping mechanisms, which can come in the form of finding a community that treats them with respect and love.
Elizabeth Riedel, a physician assistant who has worked with school-based health centers in the public school system, recommends “education, community and mentorship.” Ralph Steele, program director at Life Transition Therapy in Santa Fe, said, “The most powerful drug we have is our intention when we put it into action.”
Jack is working on putting his intention into action. He has been clean and sober for 77 days — as of Friday. “It feels great and scary and difficult,” he said of recovery. “It’s never going to be easy, but piece by piece I’m getting my life back. I’m facing some heavy charges in court, but it’s great to be getting that life back.
“When I got clean, I realized how much I lost — I lost more than my job, my money, my self-respect. I lost my dream. Heroin took everything away from me. It’s good to have my dream back.”
Raina Wellman just graduated from the Academy for Technology and the Classics. She will be a freshman undergraduate student at the Rhode Island School for Design in the fall. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.