Taking heroin feels wonderful.
“It’s been described as returning to the womb, and I think there’s some truth to that,” said David Cohen, who was addicted for years. “There’s an instant sense of safety, almost an orgasm feeling at the beginning: 10 seconds of bliss and an overwhelming sense of warmth and comfort and safety from your head to your toes, like you’re in a cocoon.”
At first, that is. The bad part quickly follows.
“You build a tolerance so quickly,” said Cohen. “It’s not uncommon to need to shoot up three or four times a day. Pretty easy to get a $100 a day habit.”
So users steal to support their habits — that’s what Cohen, now 42, did in his early 20s.
They also have an increasing tendency to die. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that between 2010 and 2013 the death rate from heroin overdose nearly tripled, from 1 in 100,000 people to 2.7 in 100,000. And unlike the cliche image of heroin addicts being youth in the inner city, the group most likely to die from heroin overdose are early middle-aged white males, 25 to 44.
Why the surge in deaths?
“People are dying from heroin for two reasons,” said Cohen, who managed to kick his habit with the help of his parents, first, and then rehab, AA, and Hazelden Betty Ford Chicago, which he entered as a volunteer and now is clinical director. “First, there’s more of it, second more people are attracted to it” because it’s cheaper and often more pure — except when it’s cut with drywall or other drugs, or even Ajax or poisons.
Officials have been trying to respond to the upswing. In 2013, the DuPage County created a program to distribute Narcan, the nasal anti-overdose medication, and already credit it with saving 32 lives. The Schaumburg police started carrying Narcan kits in January.
The FDA hasn’t yet approved the sprayable form of Narcan, and Sen. Mark Kirk is pushing for it to do so. Late last year, he formed the Suburban Anti-Heroin Task Force to combat the drug.
“There is no typical heroin addict,” said Cohen, a member of the task force. “I am a heroin addict.”
Cohen was born in Peoria, went to Niles West then Highland Park High School, where he was smoking pot every day at age 15 and, like many, he started taking harder drugs using the most convenient source: his parents’ medicine cabinet.
“Prescription medicines are the hidden gateway drug,” he said. “There’s a message there. If you have a medicine cabinet full of unused medications, stimulants, sedatives, be smart. Lock up your drugs. When you are finished with your medications, dispose of them properly.”
Cohen overdosed on his 21st birthday, was in a coma for three days, then spent three years living the junkie scramble, until a concerned friend pushed his parents to action, and they shipped him off to rehab. He credits AA for helping save his life.
“AA worked for me, I loved it,” he said. “I found hope for the first time. They took a hopeless dope fiend and turned me into a dopeless hope fiend.”
Which is his message now.
“While heroin is killing people, there is hope,” Cohen said. “No parent should have to go through this alone. There’s help out there.”
To reach Narcotics Anonymous, call their helpline at (708) 848-4884.