One Family’s Spiral Into Long Island’s Addiction

Editor’s Note: In the May 2014 issue a piece on heroin addiction generated much discussion online. The below story is one that was submitted to us as telling the story of heroin addiction from the view of an addict’s family. The response has been edited for length and style but has not been fact-checked to the same standards as the original piece in the May issue.

“I can’t wait until he gets arrested,” Charlotte, a 21-year-old Long Island resident said casually. So, casually that the coffee I’m drinking catches in my throat.

She’s talking about her own brother. Adam, 24, is a heroin addict.

For Adam and a surprising number of people like him on Long Island, heroin addiction has become the new normal.

The drug claimed 121 lives in Nassau and Suffolk Counties in 2012, and at least 120 people in 2013, the highest totals on record according to police. And Heroin-related arrests have more than doubled in Nassau County during a two-year period with 500 in 2013, up from 228 in 2011, police data shows.

Charlotte’s wish for her brother came true one wintry evening. Police pulled Adam over for a traffic violation. He had 89 bags of heroin on him and was arrested on multiple counts of drug possession, with intention to sell.

“My parents were just waiting for the day that somebody would call and say he’s dead,” Charlotte said. “When he was arrested, my dad was happy as a pig in shit… When I got the call, I was happy too. I honestly thought he was dead.”

Heroin disproportionately affects young people like Adam, possibly in part due to their still developing brains and their social networks.

“If you’re pouring heroin into your body then obviously that development is in some ways stunted, in other ways it’s rewired,” Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (LICADD) said. “Your body adapts to whatever you give it.”

Heroin becomes popular among young people so quickly due in part to an exponential network effect.

For example, one young person decides to try it after experimenting with prescription pills becomes too expensive. Once they use heroin for a couple of months the habit spirals out of control financially. So to fund their use, they turn to dealing, often to their friends.

“Young people have larger social networks than folks in their 30s and 40s,” Reynolds said. “So the average heroin dealer now is not some guy carrying pounds of heroin in an Escalade with darkened windows. He’s a kid on a cul-de-sac that has simply found the easiest way to finance that habit.”

The descent into addiction is hard to watch.

Charlotte said she’d have had to been blind not to notice the changes in her brother’s appearance and behavior. He had been athletic and outgoing. And then suddenly he wasn’t.

Adam lost 40 pounds as a result of his addiction.

“He was all skin and bones. And when you looked at him, you saw it. He was acting different, and then stuff started going missing.”

In the two years before he got arrested, Adam stole and pawned his brother’s laptop, his sister’s iPads and countless pieces of jewelry. He even tried to pawn his mother’s wedding and engagement rings.

The family was torn between wanting to help and wanting to throttle him.

“We started locking everything up. It was just too much that we had to worry about,” Charlotte said. “Like can I leave my wallet right here for ten minutes while Adam is sitting right there? You couldn’t do it.”

At times, Charlotte is quick to judge her brother. She blames his drug-use on boredom: “the problem is whenever he’s got money in his pocket and he’s bored… he feels like there’s nothing else to do. He’ll tell you that’s his problem.”

Adam was not interested in being interviewed, nor were any other members of the family. The last few years have been hard to swallow. “It’s just too upsetting to talk about,” his father said.

Adam’s rehab experience has been long and tumultuous.

In 2012, Adam’s family sent him to detox at Nassau University Medical Center for a week. It cost $40,000, but they were lucky, their insurance company covered it.

Adam went right back to using after his detox stay. He overdosed not too long after while at his girlfriend’s house. His family wasn’t informed until hours after the fact. Adam’s girlfriend never called them.

Now more panicked than ever before, Charlotte and Adam’s parents decided an intensive inpatient rehab program would be best for Adam. They chose a private, church affiliated facility in South Carolina. That didn’t do any good either.

Following his arrest, Adam was mandated by Nassau County to comply with rehab as a part of his sentence. This after spending a few months in jail, which Charlotte thinks was best for him.

“It can’t be mommy and daddy saying you can’t do this. It’s either you want to do this, or you want to go to jail. That’s it.”

Adam was sent to Odyssey House in Manhattan, a co-ed social services agency that helps individuals and families deal with substance use disorders, mental illness, homelessness, and medical problems.

Charlotte was no fan of the place, or the way they treated her brother.

“He had a problem with a roommate who was gay. The roommate would wake him up in the middle of the night and proposition him. He asked to be removed and they wouldn’t do it.”

The problems with other patients didn’t end there.

“They had people in there with gun charges and possession of marijuana that said they were addicted to marijuana to get a rehab sentence that they don’t even need… it doesn’t help, because you’re not in there with people who really need help,” she said.

However, despite their many problems with Odyssey House, the family was content with the therapy Adam was receiving. Adam’s counselor was an addict himself and was able to understand many of his problems on a personal level.

Traditional methods of counseling are invaluable to the rehab process, but Charlotte thinks the best course of action is the use of methadone, a synthetic opioid used as maintenance anti-addictive.

Reynolds is more cautious.

“Methadone will help readjust your body to not using heroin or opioids, but it won’t deal with the psychological or spiritual aspects of addiction,” he said. “And unless you deal with those things, you’ll wind up on medication for the rest of your life.”

Methadone is not the only choice. Suboxone, is harder to abuse because its effects are limited even in large dosages. It is more manageable and is available in a doctor’s office.

On the road to recovery, the identified addict isn’t the only one that struggles.

For Adam’s family, it’s been a living hell. They are in a constant state of fear.

“I call my dad every day and all we talk about is Adam. Is there anything anybody can do? Is he going to his meetings? Is he doing drugs? You just worry and you think the worst,” said Charlotte.

Part of the work Reynolds does with LICADD is to help families like theirs reclaim their lives.

“If you help a patient get well and they come home to a family that’s still in that place where they were running after them, it’s not helpful,” said Reynolds. “Just as the patient’s brain adapts to the drug, the family adapts to this reality. Getting back to normal can be very difficult.”

Reynolds stresses the importance of therapy and support groups for all parties, but Charlotte isn’t into it.

“My dad wants to go, but I’m completely not interested. Adam can’t feed me any more bullshit,” she explained. “There’s no way he’s going to stop any time soon.”

Reynolds, who has never met with Charlotte or her family, says that this response is not uncommon.

“It’s a survival response. Some people choose to go all in, they’re in therapy 4 times a week… other people say ‘just stop it. I just need to get off the merry-go-round right now,’” said Reynolds. “Sometimes the best thing we can do is to say ‘long term, you ought to talk to someone about this in order to try to work it through. But if you need to get off the merry-go-round for a period of time, I get it. That’s your right.’”

Charlotte is exhausted.

“I’m not angry. I don’t have remorse [for the situation]. He put himself in it. We all tried to help him. Even now, we all try,” she said quietly. “Any time he says anything, we’re like why are you doing this? We’ve supported you this whole entire time. You stole from us. We’re still here, a lot of families wouldn’t do this for you.”

“There were times when we just wanted to throw our hands up, like ‘screw you, do your own thing!’ My parents threw him out at one point, but my siblings and I still called him to make sure he was okay,” Charlotte said. “You just have to support them, as much as you don’t want to.”