What Parents Need to Know About the Heroin Epidemic

Josh didn’t want to believe he was different than his classmates at Peters Township High School. Diagnosed with a genetic blood disease called Fanconi anemia at age ten, Josh was always pale, sickly and out of breath. Because of his medical condition, he had to take medication and be extra careful about his eating habits and activities.

  “A big part of why I started using drugs was to escape,” Josh said.  He was 17 the first time he smoked pot. Playing in a garage-type band, he knew that some of the other band members used drugs. He understood that drugs were taboo, but, like most kids, he didn’t think anything bad would happen to him.  A few years later, Josh was having a bad day. Upset because he was having girlfriend problems, he was hanging out with a former friend who he knew was stoned. On an impulse, he wanted to try heroin.

  “Give it to me,” he recalls saying. Josh didn’t think it was a big deal. He was wrong.  “That quick, it grabs you,” he said. “Once you use it a couple of times, if you try to stop, you get sick.” That quick, heroin grabbed him. Josh was addicted.


The heroin epidemic

  Gary Tuggle, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Philadelphia division, recently spoke at a press conference at UPMC Passavant to announce that Pittsburgh was selected as the first pilot city to implement DEA 360, a new strategy to combat the cycle of drug trafficking, violence and abuse. 

  Special agent Tuggle recalled that in his lifetime, he had seen three drug epidemics, the heroin epidemic after the Vietnam War, and the crack epidemic in the Eighties.“The heroin epidemic today dwarfs those epidemics,” Tuggle said.

  Last year, there were more than 300 overdose deaths in Allegheny County alone. Washington and Fayette Counties, and parts of West Virginia suffer some of the highest per capita overdose deaths in the country. “A large part of the problem starts with the prescribing practice,” said Michael J. Lynch, medical director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center.

  The non-medical abuse of controlled prescription drugs, like OxyContin and Oxycodone, which are routinely prescribed for pain management, has grown exponentially in the last decade. According to the DEA, the number of drug overdose deaths, particularly from controlled prescription drugs, has surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of injury death in the United States.  “I can’t tell you how many heroin addicts I’ve met who first started because they hurt their back or leg and the doctor gives them OxyContin,” a law enforcement officer told me. “They get hooked and as soon as their prescription runs out, they start using heroin.”

From cartels to the street corner

 Violent, dangerous cartels in Mexico and South America control the supply of heroin to the United States, the world’s largest single market in the world for illegal drugs.  “This country has an insatiable appetite for drugs,” Gary Tuggle said.  This frustrates law enforcement efforts because as soon as one dealer or distributor is arrested, another immediately fills the gap. Supply and demand is one of the fundamental basics of economics and as long as there is demand for illicit drugs, supply will follow. 

  Cartels, street gangs and other organized criminal organizations make enormous profits from smuggling, distributing and selling illicit drugs. According to U.S. government estimates, Americans spend approximately $60 billion a year on illicit drugs.  The law enforcement officials I spoke to repeatedly emphasized that drug dealers are heartless and greedy. They are in it for the money. Some of the lower-echelon street dealers are addicts, as well, and sell drugs to support their habit.

  In the emergency room, Dr. Lynch said he has “seen families ripped apart and patients dead or dying.”  “Drug dealers don’t care,” a law enforcement officer emphasized. “To them, it’s business. If somebody dies of an overdose, it’s the cost of doing business. They DON’T CARE.” 

What do parents really need to know?

   According to the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America, there are 23 million addicts in the United States, both active and recovering. When you multiply that by family and friends, the devastating impact of heroin and opioid drugs reaches deep into every corner of our society.

  There has always been a strong, negative stigma attached to drug addiction. Forty years ago, addicts were viewed as the product of the hippy drug culture and a problem for disgruntled veterans returning from Vietnam. That’s not the case today. As long as the abuse of prescription opioid medications, which feeds into heroin addiction, remains a significant and continuing problem, anyone who is injured or has surgery is at risk. “This is not a character flaw. It’s a disease. We need compassion and empathy to take over where scorn and repugnance has existed,” said Domenic Marks, a representative of The Bridge to Hope, speaking at the DEA press conference.



Friends don’t let
friends use drugs

  The truth is that when someone uses an illegal drug for the first time, it’s not likely they got it from a dealer or from a shady person hanging out on a street corner. Chances are they got it from a friend.  Josh used to think the guy who introduced him to heroin was his friend. As he battled addiction, though, he realized this guy was not his friend, but had damaged many people by getting them hooked on heroin. “He got people addicted on purpose,” Josh said, explaining that if this former friend knew someone had money, he wanted them to get addicted, so they would fund his habit, too.

Addiction doesn’t

  Taylor (not her real name) never touched drugs when she was growing up.  “I come from a nice family,” she told me.   “There aren’t any addicts or alcoholics in my family. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I could ever be an addict.”   After a traumatic, near-death accident involving her young daughter plunged her into depression and despair, a doctor prescribed an anti-anxiety drug, which didn’t help her.          

That’s when a friend introduced her to other pills, including opioid painkiller, OxyContin. Taylor started using pills every day.  Eventually, she realized that she was hooked on pain pills and needed help. She went to rehab, which she described as the worst days of her life  “I had never been in trouble a day in my life and I hated being away from my daughter,” she said.  Three months later was the anniversary of her daughter’s accident, which was an awful day for her. She took a pill.  “I always thought that I was an adult and could handle it,” she admitted. “I always told myself I was only going to take a pill today.”  Taylor relapsed and started taking pills again.

  After another stint in rehab, Taylor still couldn’t stay clean. When she didn’t have any more pills, the same friend offered heroin to her. She was scared, but she rationalized that it was a lot cheaper than the $80 a day she was spending on pills. At first she snorted it, but eventually it didn’t work anymore, so she started shooting it. “That’s how I became a lying, stealing, conniving, manipulating mother,” Taylor said.        

“Oh, I was a great mom after I got high. I tried to hide my arms, but now my daughter was 15, and there was no hiding it.”

  The next time Taylor went to rehab, she was pregnant. She desperately wanted to stop using because she wanted to have a healthy baby. When she had complications during delivery, the doctor gave her pain pills.  Two days after delivering her baby, her friend brought heroin to her, which she shot up in the hospital.  Her parents took her children away from her.  Between December 2012 and March 2015, Taylor overdosed twice and was rushed to the hospital. “Every time I went to rehab before, I never did it for myself. I always went to please everyone else,” Taylor said. This time when she overdosed, she thought she was going to die, and thought about her two beautiful kids. She knew she needed more than two weeks in rehab, so she entered treatment for two months. On the day that I spoke to Taylor, she had been sober 58 ½ days.

Look for warning signs and
get help for yourself

  Sharon O’Brien, of Jefferson Hills, was very involved with her kids at school and thought she knew what to look for.  “At first I was suspicious when I noticed my son’s grades were dropping and he started getting a little rebellious when he was about 14,” Sharon said.

Concerned, she took her son to a rehab facility to talk to counselors and ended up taking him to court, where he was ordered to attend an educational facility for troubled teens. He was there three months and when he came out, he was angry because he felt blindsided. He went back to school, but was sent to another youth correctional facility, where he got his high school diploma.  “I played hardball,” Sharon said. “But at the end of the day, I was at a loss.”

 Sharon recommends that if parents suspect or know that their son or daughter is using drugs, they should seek help from groups, such as Al-Anon, to talk with those who are going through the same struggles. “It will give them the strength to not enable the user, but still love and embrace who they knew to be a better person than the user,” Sharon said.

Parents also need to keep the rest of the family safe. Her son was over 18 when she realized he was dealing drugs. She made him leave.“It’s easy to say, but not easy to do,” Sharon admitted.

After years of struggling with addiction, Richard was 24 years old when he went to Florida for treatment. He was there for 30 days and wanted to stay in Florida because he was finally clean, happy and healthy. But because he had a four year old son in Pennsylvania, he felt that he had to come back to take care of his son. “When he got back, and was in the same place and environment, it must have stressed him out because he had a son, no job, and all that pressure,” Sharon said. Sadly, Richard died of an overdose thirteen days after he returned to Pennsylvania.  In hindsight, Sharon doesn’t think that hard, tough love was what he really needed.

  “He came to me for help. He tried to do all the right things,” she said. “Be there when they want to talk.”  Hopefully it won’t be too late.

Understand that willpower
means nothing to an addict

  The first time Taylor overdosed, she woke up in the hospital surrounded by her mom, dad and sister. Everyone was crying, and it was the first time she saw fear and disgust in her father’s eyes.“My parents never understood addiction,” Taylor said.   “They always thought that I could quit whenever I wanted. They thought I just liked to get high.”

  Josh had been hiding his addiction from his parents for about a year when the family went on a two week vacation to Vermont. It was the first time he didn’t have any drugs with him, and he thought he could handle it. But after two days, he got so sick he broke down and told his parents about his problem.

  “I’m sure they felt devastated,” he said.  “I had no idea,” Josh’s father remembered. “I was probably more in denial than anything. You don’t want to believe it.”Josh listened when his dad talked about “willpower.”   “I don’t think he understood,” Josh said. “Willpower is nothing to an addict, and I was an addict.”

Never give up hope

  For several years, Josh struggled with his addiction. He had trouble with the law, went to rehab twice, relapsed, and nearly died of an overdose. In 2007, his parents sent him to a treatment facility in Franklin for three months.  Josh’s father believes it was important for Josh to leave Pittsburgh.  

  “You have to get away from all the people you know who could lead you back to the way you were,” he said. At this facility, his son cut everyone out of his life, except his parents, who were always supportive.

  Josh has been clean for eight years. He attended CCAC and Cal U, got a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and currently works at a halfway house helping others who struggle with addiction.Josh remembered a well-known saying he heard in treatment. “Change happens when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change.”   “This holds true to anyone who is suffering from addiction,” Josh said. “When you’re an addict,” Taylor said, “one day at a time is too overwhelming. Sometimes you need to take it one minute at a time, or one second. Just pray and look for a better day.”

There is always hope

Ann K. Howley lives and writes in Pittsburgh. She says, “Josh and Taylor are the bravest people I know. When you hug a mom whose son died of a heroin overdose, there’s no judgment or politics, only compassion.”

For more information or help, please contact:

  • The Bridge to Hope 412-635-8080
  • http://bridge2hope.org/
  • Al-Anon 888-425-2666 
  • http://www.al-anon.org/

For online list of treatment facilities in the Pittsburgh region, see:

  • Drug-Abuse.org  http://www.drug-abuse.org/local-treatment-centers/Pittsburgh_PA.htm
  • Addicted.org  http://www.addicted.org/pittsburgh-addiction-treatment-services.html