'Dying for the High': The Heroin Epidemic

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - Heroin takes nearly two lives every day around Chicago. It can be cheaper and easier to get than tobacco or alcohol, and it is often used in parks and public bathrooms.

Over the last five months, FOX 32's Elizabeth Matthews immersed herself in what is now an epidemic and shows us the drug does not discriminate.

The road to recovery from a heroin addiction is not easy, and many users will relapse several times. Not helping users, 25 million dollars has been slashed for addiction treatment programs since last summer and the start of the state budget crisis.

“I overdosed, my mother found me in my bedroom upstairs, I guess the paramedics came and they used Narcan to revive me,” said Jan Pyszka, a recovering heroin addict. “I don't have any recollection of this.”

He is now in recovery thanks to a long term treatment program and the help of Mike Young.

“They need somebody and that's what we try to provide for them,” said Young. “Just someone to talk to, someone to come to, someone that they know they are going to get help.”

He volunteers his time at A Man in Recovery Foundation where they help users and their families work through the process of getting treatment.

Their job, though, is getting harder as the state cuts funding. Young and other advocates struggle to find enough beds at treatment facilities for clients, outside of emergency rooms.

“Stop, stop closing these places, start doing something and do something now,” said Young. “These young men and women in this state and in this nation are dying - it is  a generation being wiped out by this drug.”

Lutheran Social Services of Illinois offers addiction recovery options. Since last summer, 43 percent of their staff is gone and 30 programs have shut down. The result? More than 4 thousand users will go untreated. They are owed 6 million dollars.

“You come in spiritually broken and just bankrupt and this place teaches you how to live again,” said Kendra Dewitt, who was only halfway through inpatient treatment when her program was forced to shut down.

Law enforcement - local, state and federal - all agree heroin is a top priority.

“I can take you to pretty much any town in Lake County and we can probably find it,” said a member of the Lake County Gang Task Force.

Police tackle dealers while the DEA goes after distributors.

“Just the other day out in one of the collar counties we took off 35 kilograms of heroin,” said Dennis Wichern, the Chicago Special Agent in Charge with the DEA.

Fighting alongside the DEA are the volunteers at A Man in Recovery. They are former users who have been to hell and back, surviving jail, overdoses and a toxic stigma.

“Those pieces of garbage that they said we were are out there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week trying to save lives,” said Young.

This is a story of education, awareness, information and recovery. They are success stories of people who have turned their lives around and give back.

“Sometimes there's not a lot of hope, but that's when you get other people that hope for you,” said Pyszka.

“As long as I have breath in my lungs, I’m going to keep on trying, I have hope,” said Young. “It’s the one thing that none of us as addicts in recovery have to let go of is hope - you just got to keep hoping.”

America's heroin problem is not new, but the gateway to addiction is. Prescription pain pills are paving the way to rampant heroin use at a pace not seen before.

The Centers for Disease Control says 45 percent of people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers, like morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone. In 2014, more people died from legal medications like oxycodone and hyrdocodone than heroin.

“As horrible as it was finding him the next morning, I’m glad that I was the one that found him because I gave birth to him and I was the one that found him,” said Pam Vannerson.

Her 22-year-old son, Tommy, died March 17 of a heroin overdose. The seven year battle with addiction, they believe, started with one thing: prescription pills.

“When he separated his shoulder in Jr. High and he was given Demerol, he loved it,” she said.

The family explains Tommy would sneak painkillers from the house, but that supply eventually dried up. 

“That's when they turn to heroin because they can buy a pack of heroin for 10 bucks - it's cheap and they are chasing that high,” said Bill, Tommy’s dad.

Mike Young was days away from getting Tommy into treatment and he knows how a relationship with this drug ends. Losing both his father and his little brother to heroin was not enough to stop his own addiction.

“I battled addiction for almost 30 years, institutionalization, incarceration, homelessness, any gambit of everything you could go through in an addiction, I went through,” said Young. “The last thing I didn't go through was dying.”

He volunteers for 'A Man in Recovery Foundation' and helps families and addicts work through addiction. A wall in Young's office is quickly filling with faces of fatal overdoses.

“They didn't start out like this. They weren't scumbags or whatever people think they are,” said an emotional Young. “It's an addiction, it's a disease.”

“Realize that those are somebody's little babies and sweet boys and sweet girls and they are not what you might think they are,” said Vannerson. "They are people that need help.”

Parents, if you are worried about your child, these are warning signs to look for: Missing spoons or other items from your home, someone wearing long sleeves in the summer, irritability or anger, and a change in friends.

Reach out if you see any of these signs.

Last year alone, more than 608 people died of heroin-related deaths in Chicago and surrounding counties. Cook County leads the pack with at least 424 deaths.

Will County – 53
Kendall County – 5
DuPage County – 43
Kane County – 21
McHenry County – 20
Lake County - 42

In the collar counties in 2015, the state lost someone every two days from a heroin overdose. Public overdoses are playing out all around us: in a car, in front of a New Lenox restaurant, on a bike trail in Geneva, and near a gas station in Lake County.

“What's the point of fighting it and not using, so I ended up just using because I felt like I was already back at the bottom,” said a user who’s tried treatment several times and tells FOX 32 what a withdrawal feels like. “Diarreha, nausea, hot and cold flashes, bone cramps, everything. It's something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.”

DuPage County coroner Richard Jorgensen says they've found heroin in every town.

“My kids told me that they could get heroin any time they wanted to,” said Jorgensen. “There were corn fields here when I was a kid, there's heroin here now.”

A heroin user described the drug's effect to FOX 32.

"It starts kind of like at your feet and I get this tingling sensation and to me, it's almost like a full body orgasm, the way the sensation covers you like a blanket."

If you need help finding treatment:

A Man in Recovery
Mike Young (815) 585-6797
Jason Beaty (815) 261-8780



Treatment Facilities:

675 Varsity Dr. Elgin, IL 60120

SHARE-Hoffman Estates
1776 Moon Lake Blvd. Hoffman Estates, IL 60169

Healthcare Alternative Systems (HAS) –Men ONLY
1949 N Humboldt Blvd. Chicago, IL 60647

Southwood Interventions
5701 S Wood Chicago, IL

South Suburban Council
1909 Checker Square Hazel Crest, IL 60429

Salvation Army Harbor Lights (Chicago)
825 N Christiana Ave Chicago, IL

Salvation Army
431 S Genesee St. Waukegan, IL

Haymarket Center
120 N Sangamon St. Chicago, IL 60607

Loretto Hospital
645 S Central Chicago IL 60644

Abraxas Youth/Family Services in Woodridge, IL

Illinois Department of Human Services