Pubdate: Sun, 09 Jan 2005
Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)
Copyright: 2005 The Eagle-Tribune
Author: Sean Corcoran
Bookmark: (Heroin)


When I graduated from St. John's Prep in 1992, I had lots of  friends and
none of them was using OxyContin or heroin.

OxyContin didn't even exist then. And heroin was something homeless junkies
did on Avenue B in New York City, not in Essex County high school parking
lots. But by early last year, I noticed a lot more young faces on the
obituary pages from my hometown of Peabody. These kids, in their teens and
early 20s, weren't dying in cars, boats or of rare forms of cancer. They
were dying of drug overdoses. I knew one victim. Her name was Stacey. She
was 20 years old and a friend of my younger brother. Her nickname was "The
Dude," which was a reference to the cool, care-free protagonist in the 1998
film "The Big Lebowski." I did not know Stacey well. All I knew is she was a
talented painter, dressed like a hippie and had a kind soul. She once
brought my mother some fresh flowers  for no apparent reason.

But she was dead within a year of that impulsive act of kindness. First
heroin stole her spirit, then it stopped her heart.

I can't remember which obituary finally prompted me to talk to my editors.
But after I did, I soon discovered almost everyone in the area seemed either
to know an addict personally or knew of someone who locked himself in a
bedroom at  night crying over one.

In bars, at churches, in clinics and in nasty motel rooms that make you want
to wash your hands and then hug your children, I learned the truth: There is
a  growing underworld of opiate addiction here in Essex County -- a world of
crime,  lies and desperation. And it wasn't here a few years ago. But the
bulk of the people I spoke to about the problem were not featured in the two
days of stories on the substance abuse crisis that appeared this past week.
Most addicts -- especially those in their teens and early 20s -- don't want
their names in the newspaper anymore than they already have been. Without
their names, I couldn't tell their stories. But I listened, and what I heard
kept me awake at night.

I talked to a lot of heartbroken parents, too, many of whom called me after
someone told them what I was working on. But the parents of young addicts --
both dead and alive -- don't want to publicly label their children as drug
abusers, either. In most cases, the addiction had become a poorly kept
family secret. I remember standing on a freshly mown lawn with one grieving
father as he spoke about his only son, whom he'd raised alone after the
boy's mother died when he was very young.

The man was completely broken. He asked me to tell people that OxyContin is
leading suburban high school kids to heroin's door. But he could not talk
about  it himself. It was too hard, he said. And besides, he had kept the
true cause of  his 18-year-old son's death from his own parents and family.
Plenty of people were willing to talk about the drugs' grip on the area if
their names were not used, but few people were willing to share their
stories publicly. Even some local police chiefs and educators preferred to
stay mum and  ignored repeated requests for information about the problem. I
could understand the silence from addicts and their families. But when
police officials and educators stick their heads in the sand and pretend
nothing is wrong, I think they should start looking for another line of
work. Their silence is a selfish disservice to the community. They are part
of the problem. One young man who showed tremendous courage and a strong
desire to save other people's lives was 22-year-old Shawn Harnish. He agreed
to show me how heroin  ruled each day of his life. And because he felt
things could not go any lower,  that he already was the "bottom of the
barrel," as he put it, he was willing to  use his name in print.

The first day I met Shawn last spring, I went to the Beverly motel room
where he lived. It was almost bare. I peeked in his refrigerator and saw
only a half-empty 2-liter bottle of Coke, a tub of Country Crock butter and
a bottle of  Heinz ketchup. Heroin was the only sustenance he needed, and he
kept that in his  mattress.

It was in that motel room I learned how addicts steal, write bad checks and
lie to their families -- in other words, do whatever is necessary to get
high each day and put off dealing with the pain that comes with drug
withdrawal. Young addicts came and went from the place, and they willingly
spoke about how they had gone from being Abercrombie & Fitch-wearing
preppies to  dead-end junkies in just a few years.

One 22-year-old addict in particular still sticks in my mind because he laid
out the problem so perfectly. This young man went to Bishop Fenwick, a
Catholic  high school in Peabody, with Shawn, he said, and it was there that
he first  tried OxyContin. Since then he's moved on to heroin, lived on the
streets and  been to jail a few times.

"What people don't know is it is suburban, white, upper-middle-class kids
that have money," he told me. "That when the Percocets started coming
around, the OxyContins started coming around, they tried it, they got hooked
on it. And then they found ways to get heroin, which is cheaper and more
potent. And that  is how it is."

In my seven years as a newspaper reporter, I have never written for the
editorial page. My opinion generally has no place in the topics I cover. But
this issue needs every drop of ink it can get. And for once, I have a strong
opinion and an important message to give my neighbors: Lock up your jewelry
and talk to your kids, because heroin is here. And until your local
principal, your police chief and you yourself realize it and start asking
tough questions, things are only going to get worse.
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