A few years ago, I never would have predicted the prevalence of heroin use among the young people we serve today. Not long ago, about 10 percent of the residents at our adolescent treatment programs on Long Island were there because of problems with heroin. Now, heroin is the drug of choice for a staggering 80 percent of our current residents at the Phoenix House Academy in East Hampton and about 50 percent of those receiving services at our Hauppauge treatment center.
Some of these young men and women have heartbreaking stories of abuse and neglect, but for the vast majority, this simply isn’t the case. They are suburban teens whose families are intact and whose parents were highly involved in their childhood. Many will tell us that their mom or dad coached their sports teams. They are our sons and daughters. They may very well have spent time at our dinner tables and played video games in our living rooms. So, what would make kids with seemingly bright futures go from experimenting with alcohol and marijuana to injecting heroin?
Eyewitness News – A conversation with 10 recovering heroin addicts
The answers are often startling. One teenage boy told me that he became addicted to opiates after abusing Vicodin that he was initially prescribed after he had knee surgery. When it became too costly to support his habit, he turned to heroin, which sells for an affordable four to five dollars a bag. Another young man told me that when his parents got divorced, he was left home alone a lot. He was angry and bored and drugs were a way to rebel. What started off as “harmless experimentation” evolved into heroin addiction with three overdoses.
While teens’ reasons for trying heroin are diverse, one element of their addiction stories remains consistent: heroin isn’t just a drug for them. It is a culture, a lifestyle, a full time job—from buying it, to ingesting it, to financially supporting the growing quantity. It’s the first thing they think about when they wake up and the last thing they think about before they fall asleep. Any positive social networks disintegrate because their old friends no longer want to associate with them and they now have a whole new network of “friends.”
The reality we need to face when treating these young men and women is that the absence of heroin creates a significant feeling of loss. Many of our adolescents struggle with mental health problems in addition to their substance abuse disorder. Recently, I had a conversation with one of our young residents who relapsed during a visit home. He was progressing extremely well in our program, so I asked him what made him start using again. With tears in his eyes, he told me, “I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know the first thing about making new friends.”
His response highlights a key priority for those of us who treat adolescent heroin users. It’s not enough to assist them with their sobriety. Without healthier activities to replace the rituals and habits that surround their drug use, the chances of long-term recovery are slim. For this reason, we have incorporated healthy forms of recreation into our treatment framework. We anticipated that our boys and girls would enjoy learning martial arts, but we’ve been surprised by the popularity of our yoga and meditation sessions. An inter-program basketball league is also in the works. In addition, we’re educating the residents about healthy nutrition.
Our goal is not simply to facilitate abstinence, but to foster a whole life change. Recovery is not easy. It requires daily commitment to life-changing choices like any other chronic condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease. Treatment must be transformative. We need to give them the tools to reduce and eliminate high-risk behaviors, live healthier lifestyles, mend broken relationships, and build new ones.
We are daily witnesses to the devastations of heroin addiction on our residents and their families. The tragic reality is that relapse is a part of recovery and at times, a very unforgiving part. But there is nothing more rewarding than watching our kids accomplish goals they once thought were unattainable—achieving success in school, developing positive social networks, exploring new hobbies, reclaiming their place in their families, and becoming productive members of their communities. Rather than struggling with the how’s and why’s, we remain certain that recovery is possible, but only if we focus on the whole child, not just the addiction.
Vice President and Regional Director, Phoenix Houses of New York and Phoenix Houses of Long Island
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