There’s the college football star who unexpectedly died not long after being kicked off the team.
There’s the young and fit Akron firefighter who collapsed in his kitchen and nearly died.
And then there’s the suburban college dropout whose parents fear he will die.
All three share a common bond. Each is a victim of the heroin epidemic sweeping America.
Those in the trenches of the unrelenting war on drugs say this isn’t just some urban problem facing the downtrodden or hopeless.
More and more, heroin addicts are young, educated suburbanites. These addicts are flooding detox centers, rehab facilities and jails.
They’re also ending up in the morgue in record numbers.
Take Summit County. In a seven-year span from 2002-08, 40 people died of heroin-related overdoses. That’s one fewer than the 41 who had died as of mid-December in 2013 and four fewer than the death toll of 2012. The final 2013 numbers were not yet available.
The victims run the gamut, from a 15-year-old boy from Ashland to a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran from Akron.
Tears come to the eyes of Nick Turner, 27, as he begins to think of the two friends he lost recently to overdoses. He said he’s been sober for more than a year, but his journey into opiate use, including heroin and painkillers, took him to the depths of despair.
Day after day, the Coventry Township man would wake up, aching from withdrawals and anxiousness.
“It breaks you,” he said. “It leads you to insanity, jail or death. I know that for a fact because I’ve seen it. ”
For 22-year-old Jake, his heroin use grew by chance, in a gas station parking lot in Akron. In essence, it was two strangers with one thing in common who would soon become fast friends.
“Your dealer kind of in a way becomes your best friend; someone you see every day,” Jake recalled over a McDonald’s coffee.
Fast forward 18 months. The dealer is in jail and Jake is awaiting his turn at rehab after detoxing from his daily heroin use.
The scenario is being repeated all over the United States as heroin becomes en vogue to a younger set of mostly middle-class, young suburbanites.
The Beacon Journal agreed not to identify Jake or his family in this story at the request of his father, who said the addiction had taken a toll on the middle-class family. They come from suburban Akron.
“I have four kids and three of them are fine. One is an absolute addict,” the father said.
The family has become in tune with the abuse of heroin and other opiates.
“I’m just stunned by how rampant these drugs are,” he said. “And I’m not putting the blame on anyone other than my kid. And I feel I’ve failed myself as a parent. But it’s amazing how prevalent it is.”
Jake’s addiction dates back years. It started with alcohol at age 16 and ended with heroin the past two years. His father, however, noticed changes in behavior much earlier.
He was kicked out of college after one semester. He lost his job when money came up missing. He’s stolen checks and cash from his parents to give to his drug dealer. He’s become a polished liar.
“At one point, he told me, ‘Dad, I like heroin better than food,’ ” the father recalled.
His addiction has taken its toll on the family and his parents’ marriage. It’s reached a breaking point.
“We’re in the middle crisis mode in a sense,” his father said. “I had no idea how bad he’s gotten. He’s a wreck. He really is. And it’s amazing that this has happened right under our nose. It happens and you don’t even realize it.”
He has reason to worry. Statewide, the number of heroin-related deaths is staggering, approaching 500 for 2013 alone. The number of heroin-related deaths has more than doubled in the past three years in a majority of Ohio counties, from 292 in 2010 to 606 in 2012
In Cuyahoga County alone, the number of heroin-related deaths was expected to rise to 200 by the end of 2013.
Heroin use is not restricted to young men like Jake. In early December, Akron paramedics found themselves treating a fellow firefighter, who overdosed on heroin in his home and stopped breathing.
In 2011, former University of Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain died after overdosing on heroin. His addiction began with abusing painkillers. It led him to steal from teammates and friends and cost him his place on the roster.
An entry point
Many addicts start with painkillers and ultimately lead to using heroin.
It happened to Turner. At age 18, he suffered a severe hand injury. A doctor prescribed Percocet, a strong painkiller and one of the most abused prescription medications in America.
After a year of daily use, Turner’s doctor cut him off.
“That’s when I noticed my body still wanted them,” he said.
He didn’t go without for long. A friend’s mother had cancer. Turner then graduated to an even stronger med: OxyContin. Later, fentanyl, used to treat cancer pain, became his drug of choice.
Ultimately, like many addicts, he learned that heroin was easier and cheaper to obtain. By then, he was hooked. Friends marveled at his ability to inject larger amounts of heroin.
“Every day I’d wake up sick unless I had some,” he said.
For Jake, it also started with Percocet. By the spring of 2012, he graduated to heroin when a former girlfriend introduced him to the drug.
It’s a quarter of the price and it keeps you way higher,” he said.
Heroin is cheaper
A single pill of Percocet can cost $10 or more. A bindle, or small sack of heroin, which can last a day, runs about $20.
Jake snorted it at first and stayed high for two days. By October 2012, his tolerance to heroin was so great, he needed to inject $100 worth every day. He did whatever it took to keep his meeting with his dealer.
“There were days I was so depressed that I didn’t care if I died,” he said.
It’s been nearly two weeks of sobriety for Jake. He spent the first days at the ADM Crisis Center, ridding his body of the drug.
He’s now on a waiting list for residential rehab. He’s also seen two friends die from heroin overdoses. He’s been treated before without success. This time, he said, feels different.
“Part of [the sobriety] is because it’s not fun anymore,” he said. “I see buddies of mine graduating from college or getting married and I realize I haven’t done anything except using and going to jail.”
Sobriety for Turner came with his mother’s illness and his own exhaustion. He lives with his grandparents, but works every day helping those with mental illness. His work, he said, brings him the happiness heroin once did.
Still, every day he takes methadone, a prescription medicine commonly prescribed to curve addictions cravings. He concedes the urge is still there, only suppressed by the memories of his lost friends and the drain addictions can take.
“Every day, getting high was your job,” he said. “I just didn’t want to work for that boss anymore.”