DIXON – Heroin addiction starts with freedom. Unparalleled freedom. It’s a release, an escape from the pain, a numbing for all of life’s problems.
At first, anyway.
And then comes the sickness.
Soon, using is part of the daily routine: Wake up, go to the bathroom, figure out how to get your next fix.
Sometimes you use once a day; sometimes you use twice. But it’s always there, because you don’t know how to live life any other way.
And then you lose your job. You’re so intent on fending off the sickness, on staying normal, on getting your fix that you can’t do anything else.
Staying high becomes your job.
Addiction is passing out on some mattress or in a car because your heart rate gets too low. It’s waking up in a hospital bed without knowing how you got there, a tube down your throat – a machine breathing for you.
It’s hitting rock bottom, only to pull out a shovel and keep digging.
It’s life-consuming, and in the state of Illinois – according to the Illinois State Crime Commission – it’s “an epidemic.” On Aug. 16, the commission released the first in a series of anti-heroin ads meant to combat the drug’s popularity.
Heroin usage is on the rise in the Sauk Valley, too. And while local officials aren’t quite calling it an epidemic, it’s high on their agenda.
That is especially true in Dixon, where, since Sept. 1, 2007, police have made more than 80 arrests for heroin and have seen 20 heroin overdoses – eight of which resulted in deaths.
Dixon Police Sgt. Matt Richards says it’s affecting a surprising demographic: young people – high schoolers, even.
“It seems like they’re skipping alcohol and skipping marijuana and going straight to heroin,” Richards says. “We’ve heard rumors of 16-, 17-year-olds. It’s just the trend right now. Ten years ago, it was ecstasy.”
There’s been an increase in Whiteside County, too. Where 5 years ago there was no heroin, recently both Rock Falls Police Chief Mike Kuelper and Sterling Police Chief Ron Potthoff have started seeing it come up in their drug investigations.
“For years, you didn’t hear of heroin around here,” Potthoff says. “But if you look at Lee and Whiteside counties, it’s here now.”
In Sterling, the numbers are smaller than in Rock Falls, but they’re there: three cases involving heroin since 2009.
Kuelper says the increase in Rock Falls has been steady. His department has handled six cases since 2011 – but none before that.
“We’re assuming we’re going to see more,” Kuelper says. “It’s become the drug of choice.”
Dixon’s Richards says he’s seen a dramatic increase over the past 4 or 5 years, one he attributes to a decrease in the price of heroin – especially compared to its popular prescription drug equivalents: Vicodin and Oxycodine.
For one Freeport man, a recovering addict we will call Ryan, that’s exactly how it began. But he was able to overcome the disease.
It started when he was living in Dixon. He was 24 and had broken his ankle. His doctor prescribed painkillers.
“The prescription ran out, and I still had pain.” he says. “So I went and found something to make the pain go away.”
Ryan was never much involved in drugs growing up. He dabbled – some cocaine here, marijuana there – but had no serious interest. He wasn’t even really a drinker.
But heroin he liked. It was that sense of freedom, the release, and the numbness. Heroin took away the pain from everything.
“You feel invincible,” he says. “For a little while, nothing hurts.”
Soon he was using daily, then twice a day.
“You use three or four times in a row, and if you don’t have that fifth one you don’t feel good,” Ryan says, describing the sickness that accompanies heroin withdrawal.
“It’s like the flu times 10: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shakes, cold, hot, sweating,” he says. “Backaches, neck aches, every bone in your body hurts. It’s a horrible, horrible thing.”
And so to avoid that sickness, Ryan would do anything: driving up to Rockford sometimes twice a day to spend $20 for a tenth of a gram of heroin. Finding needles wasn’t hard; they’re stocked in plain sight in any drugstore. And then he would shoot up wherever he could, as soon as he could. “Addicts aren’t very good at saving,” he says.
He would go anywhere for his high: gas stations, bathrooms, cars.
“It’s like a little kid on Christmas,” he says. “You can’t go very far without using.”
You mix the powder with water, or anything, really, he explains. He knows of people who have used Gatorade, rainwater, whatever they can. And then you cook it, mixing it up in the bottom of an aluminum soda can, or a spoon, before shooting it up.
It’s a high that would last Ryan 6 to 10 hours before he would need another fix.
His usage got to a point where he was just doing it to maintain a sense of normalcy.
“It creates a trap,” he says. “If you wake up with the flu every single day, eventually you’re going to take something that makes that flu go away. With heroin, the only thing that makes that flu go away is more heroin.
“It encompasses your whole life. There’s no time for friends, family, family gatherings, social events because it takes so much effort.”
After 6 years of usage, Ryan finally got clean, although it took going to jail to get him there.
“I was done,” he says. “I was tired. I was broke: physically, mentally, spiritually. I was done, but I didn’t know how to stop.”
All of his friends are gone now, he says.
“They’re either dead or in prison,” he says. “That’s how it works. People don’t realize that.”
He has seen four friends die from overdose in the past 2 years.
He’s overdosed a number of times. But as soon as he would go to in the hospital, he’d sign himself out, go home, sleep, and then start the cycle over again.
He’s been clean for 19 months and finally sees an end to it all.
He talks to his parents every day, has a good job, moved to a new town, and went back to school.
For Ryan, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
By the numbers
• From 2008 to 2010, the number of emergency room mentions for heroin in the Chicago area increased by 27 percent among those 20 and younger, with a 12 percent increase among those 21 to 29.
• Chicago has more heroin mentions for emergency room admissions than any other city in America: 24,360 in 2010 compared to New York's 12,226 — the city with the second highest number of mentions.
• From 2009 to 2010, the average age of first use of heroin in America decreased from 25.5 years old to 21.3.
• Initiations to heroin have increased in America by 40 percent since 2002, from around 100,000 a year to more than 140,000 in 2010.