Heroin use on the rise
URBANA — You could call Vanessa Askew the prodigal daughter.
Even though she frequently saw the mother who raised her and the older brothers she looked up to, she was essentially gone from them for about 10 years because of drug use. And from early 2010 to the middle of 2012, she was in the special hell reserved for heroin addicts.
"It made me feel euphoria and happy and excited and gave me energy. It would last about three to four hours, then you would need to take more," said Askew, 28, of Champaign.
"You will lose your home, your family, your friends, your health. The only thing that will become important to you is getting more pills. It's a horrible way to live."
She speaks from first-hand experience, an embarrassing and humbling tale that the recovering opiate addict is willing to share in hopes of sparing even one person a similar fate.
Askew has made the transition with the help of Champaign County's drug court and is enjoying life again.
Her grateful mother is also feeling joy again.
"I didn't even know who she was. It was horrible. There was something inside her missing," said Cathy Dietz, 54, of Decatur.
"There were several times when I had to kick her out of the house. I no longer gave her money and she had nowhere to live and it killed me. She had to want to get better on her own.
"I was her rock. When I let go, she finally realized, 'I have to do this for me.' I wasn't sure she'd get to this point," Dietz said.
An enduring drug
Askew's story is all too familiar to people in Champaign County whose careers are built on drug addiction.
"Heroin has always been there because it's so highly addictive," said Sgt. Tom Walker, a Champaign police detective working drug investigations for 18 years.
"It goes straight into the bloodstream and to the brain, which makes it more addicting and difficult for people to go without or get over," said Lt. Curt Apperson, a Champaign County sheriff's investigator who spent seven years in his department's drug unit.
Although it's difficult to quantify the number of local heroin abusers or even the number of arrests for it, police, a probation officer, a prosecutor and a physician who helps addicts all agree the local numbers appear to be following an upward national trend.
According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of people with heroin dependence or abuse in 2012 (467,000) was about twice the number as in 2002 (214,000).
In Champaign County, Coroner Duane Northrup reported that 46 people died from drug overdoses in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Of those, 29 involved heroin.
"I think the increase in the amount of heroin we've been seeing since 2012, 2011 maybe, has to do with, in my opinion, a lot of people who were addicted to pain pills. They go to heroin because it's easier to get than a prescription," Walker said.
Assistant State's Attorney Sarah Carlson, a veteran prosecutor who has handled drug cases for 13 years, agreed.
"Most people seem to get into heroin when the doctors figure out they're abusing prescription painkillers. At some point, heroin can become cheaper than actual prescription drugs, and it's much easier to drive to your dealer than to try to outsmart the good people at the pharmacy and the emergency room," she said.
"There's definitely been an increase in the usage throughout Champaign County over the last year to year-and-a-half," Apperson added.
Mike Carey, a Champaign County probation officer for 23 years, agreed.
"It is the No. 1 scourge in drug court for the past two years," said Carey, a member of Champaign County's drug court team since its inception in 1999.
Carey estimated a third of the people sentenced to drug court in the last two years have been heroin addicts. There are currently 70 clients, 46 of whom are active in the program. The rest are graduates still on probation.
Cocaine and crack cocaine were the rage when Carey began his career. Around 2000, he said, the abuse of prescription pain pills such as hydrocodone and oxycontin picked up.
"Once these people are hung up on opiates, it becomes a very expensive drug to use. In the beginning, people use three to six pills a day and it rapidly grows to unbelievable amounts of pills, and the pills are costly to buy on the street. They've probably exhausted their emergency room and doctor visits, usually alleging migraines or back pain. Those are the two favorites because they cannot be diagnosed in an emergency room situation," Carey said.
From back pain to addiction
Askew said her heroin use started because she got hooked on Vicodin, prescribed for back and neck pain she suffered from three car accidents in 2009. She had been using other recreational drugs earlier, however.
Having exhausted legitimate sources and the people from whom she could buy Vicodin on the street, which she said included working mothers supplementing their incomes, Askew said someone offered her a line of heroin.
She inhaled it through her nose, naively rationalizing she could limit the damage by snorting instead of using a needle to inject the drug.
"It does feel really amazing, but the effects of that are short-lived. As soon as a few days go by, you need it in your body to not get sick."
"You can't even enjoy it to the degree you want to unless you have a large amount," she said, explaining that an addict has to immediately turn to getting the next dose.
"If you have to choose between heroin and food, heroin wins every time," she said.
She estimated she went through the torture of withdrawal 30 to 40 times in her almost two years of use.
"You want to die, but you won't," Askew said of the vomiting, diarrhea, cold sweats, convulsions and blurry vision.
"Imagine the worst case of flu you're ever had and times that by a thousand and you'll have an idea what it feels like to withdraw. Then imagine that feeling for five to seven days. That's what keeps people going back to the drug. They can't deal with that feeling."
Newton's Third Law of Motion
Dr. John Peterson, 66, of Urbana has been a doctor for 24 years and has spent a good deal of his medical career working to help clients addicted to pain medication and heroin manage their addictions and lives.
He runs Recovery Options in Champaign and is also an emergency room doctor in Hillsboro. From about 2001 to 2011, he worked in an addictions clinic in Downers Grove in suburban Chicago.
While Carlson and Carey are opposed to the use of methadone for heroin addicts because they feel it trades one addiction for another, Peterson notes that methadone dispensed by a doctor is legal.
"With me, what matters is how they are functioning in society no matter what they are on to do it and how long it takes. If I take someone on the street and I get them on a stabilizing medication, be it for diabetes or heroin addiction, and they start going to school, paying taxes, that's the bottom line for me," he said.
Currently the president of the Illinois Society of Addiction Medicine, Peterson gets much of his heroin perspective from clients.
"Here in Urbana-Champaign, it's coming out of Chicago, and Chicago has the best supply in the country. Clients are telling me the purity of it is going up considerably," he said.
As a medical director for an emergency room in Hillsboro, Peterson said he's trying to write a policy that limits the distribution of opiates from the emergency room, part of a national trend.
"The idea being, we weren't going to be a shop where you come in to get stoned Friday night. We see a lot of it from Friday night to Sunday," he said.
But just as Isaac Newton proclaimed in the late 1600s (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), that action has an effect.
"Unfortunately, what's being pushed out on the other end is that the demand is being met with heroin. The market is increased, the availability and purity is increased despite the drug war. We're seeing trade in central Illinois that we didn't see before like in the suburbs," he said.
"The same sort of thing happened with methamphetamine when we made (over-the-counter) cold medication a controlled substance. The Mexicans stepped in with industrial production — cheaper and better," Peterson said.
Lucrative business, horrid fallout
While the price of heroin depends on whom you talk to, it's safe to say it's cheaper than prescription pain medication.
"You can go to Chicago and buy a gram of heroin for $100 and sell it anywhere from $200 to $500," said Walker, the police drug investigator.
"We get a lot of people who come over here from Indiana. They will come here from small towns and buy it for $200 a gram ... then take it back there and sell it for $300 to $500 a gram. They can support their own habit and make their own money," he said.
Askew said she could get a tenth of a gram for $20 that would last three to four hours.
Police often find that the drug dealers are not users of the drug, but of people.
"They are making money. They don't care about the people they are selling it to. We're seeing high school kids doing it, snorting it in powder form," Walker said.
Apperson said he has seen women prostitute themselves to get their supply. Carey said they have drug court clients who have stolen prescription pads from doctors' offices. Shoplifting almost anything that can be traded for heroin is common, Walker said.
Just last month, the sheriff's office identified human remains found in late August by fishermen in rural Mahomet. Kelsie Blackford, 23, of Sidney, had not been seen or heard from in about nine months nor had she been reported missing by anyone, including her own family.
Apperson said that was not that shocking to police after learning she was addicted to heroin. Her cause of death has not been determined.
"It definitely has destroyed families," Apperson said, citing as an example children who steal from parents to pay for their drugs.
A high school graduate, Askew said she had good jobs such as a legal secretary and for a time could afford her drug habit. But when her poor health caused her to quit and money ran scarce, she borrowed from family or friends, who never got repaid.
Once her family learned of her addiction, they cut off financial support.
"My mom wouldn't let me live with her. They would not provide money, not support me. She would talk to me on the phone and feed me once in a while. They would not support my addiction. Her kicking me out of the house and not supporting me saved my life," she said, adding that she "can never fully forgive myself" for what she put her family through.
Fluke arrest leads to help
Askew said she still might be using if not for being arrested in mid-2011.
Standing on a sidewalk in Champaign outside a store talking to friends, Askew said a drunk man confronted her. Someone called the police, who, because of Askew's previous police contacts, searched her purse.
"They found a Vicodin and a crushed-up Xanax. I wasn't even using pills at the time. They must have been in there a long time," she said.
"I was stunned. I had to go to jail and detox and get clean and think about what I had been living. For me, it was a matter of not being able to get clean on my own. I didn't know what it cost. I probably wouldn't have gone anyway because I was so addicted. To be forced into that process and have to follow through was the best stepping stone for me. The emotional desire (to continue using heroin) was still there and will be until you get therapy and counseling."
There was no special treatment in jail as she went through withdrawal.
"They don't treat you badly, but they're not going to give you special treatment because you did that to yourself," she said. "I was deathly ill in jail for a good month-and-a-half. How insane is this? I went back out and did it again."
Askew said it took three or four arrests for her to get into drug court, an experience that has worked for her.
Clean more than a year
Askew said she has been clean and sober since July 29, 2012, and plans to graduate from drug court in December.
She works part-time at a fast-food restaurant and despite the demotion from earlier jobs is "OK with that."
"When you have a record, you have to swallow your pride, start from the bottom, and work your way up," she said.
Instead of addicted friends, her life is filled with fellow recovering addicts, supportive counselors, anywhere from three to five recovery meetings a week, and God.
"I go to Celebrate Recovery at the Windsor Road Christian Church on Friday nights. It starts at 5:45. We have dinner and either a lesson or testimony every week. We talk about recovery issues and get support from other women in the group," she said, adding that the addiction could be greed, pride or sex, not just drugs.
"I really believe you need God. I don't think anyone can do it on your own. When you use drugs, you're filling a void in you. In order to recover and stay off the drugs, you have to fill (the void) with something positive like God and support groups," she said.
Dietz said her faith in God helped her endure her daughter's abusive lifestyle.
"That's the only thing that kept me going. I don't mind hard times. We all have to suffer. I'm just so glad of the result. It was all worth it. So many people prayed for her for so many years," Dietz said.
Carlson, from the Champaign County state's attorney's office, said the number of people prosecuted for possessing and selling heroin is about even.
"We don't treat it any differently than any other drug if you're caught with it on you. If you're caught and it's heroin, you have a problem," she said.
Peterson said most major users of heroin are young adults under 30.
"It drops off after that (age) in all addictions but alcohol. In terms of hard drugs, it drops off as you hit 30 for two reasons: people start to find themselves or they start to die," he said.
Carlson advises anyone anywhere who has prescription drugs in the cabinet to take stock.
"Parents really need to watch their medicine cabinets. Kids will get their hands on Dad's Vicodin or Grandma's oxycontin and trade it out in kind for what they want," she said.
And as for the parents who weren't able to prevent their children's addictions, Dietz has a word of advice:
"Try to get them help but realize they have to want it. You gotta let them go and don't enable. Just let them hit the bottom," she said, even if it can be a long ride down.
"I kept wondering, 'What the hell is bottom for you?'"
|Narcotics deaths, Champaign County|
|Year||Narcotics||Men||Women||From heroin or methadone|
|Race of deceased|
Source: Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup