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"Heroin Took Over Our Town"

Nathaniel Welch/Redux

What’s it like living in the middle of a drug epidemic? These teens wish they didn’t know, but they do.

On a rainy night  last February, more than 200 people—all ages, all walks of life— gathered in Parade Plaza in New London, Connecticut, holding flickering candles in paper cups. During the summer, this is the bustling epicenter of local tourism, where beach-bound travelers stop to take a selfie next to a sculpture known as the Whale Tail. But that night, the crowd was there to call attention to a darker side of the surrounding area, which has been particularly hard hit in what experts are calling a nationwide epidemic of heroin use. In fact, that very week, 20 people had overdosed, though not all fatally. 

“When my son died of a heroin overdose in 2014, no one was talking about it,” says Lisa Cote Johns, whose grief led her to found the organization Community Speaks Out, which helps the families of heroin and opiate addicts. “Now you can’t ignore it. It’s everywhere, in every community—rich or poor; white, black, or brown.”

Experts say our nation’s heroin problem took root around 2008, when new guidelines encouraged doctors across the country to prescribe strong opiate painkillers for everything from headaches to sports injuries, largely unaware of just how addictive these drugs were. “It was, ‘Here’s your prescription, see you later,’” says addiction specialist Dr. Mark L. Kraus.

Soon opiates were everywhere. Some patients became addicted right from their hospital beds, while others started using the pills recreationally—grabbing them from their parents' medicine cabinet, for example. But once they were hooked, pills got too expensive. They learned that heroin is the same high for less.

To fully understand how a heroin epidemic can take hold, Choices traveled to New London to speak to four teens whose lives have been devastated by drugs. Their stories remind us that substance abuse doesn’t just affect those suffering from addiction—it touches everyone around them too.


“I didn’t know I was an addict.” —Justin Gellar, 18

“They say that you can be born an addict, and I think that’s true for me. From the moment I tried marijuana, I wanted more. Heroin, though, was something I said I’d never do. That was a dirty drug—nothing like the stuff I used.

What I realize now is that you might say, ‘I’ll only smoke weed,’ but sooner or later, other drugs will get put in front of you. And by then, you might say yes. That’s how I ended up trying pills, then heroin.

While I was using drugs, my parents and I fought constantly. Sometimes, the police even came. But I didn’t care. All I wanted was to get high. Eventually, my mom said I couldn’t live with her unless Iwent to rehab. After a few weeks of sleeping in my car, I finally caved.

I’ll be honest: I fully expected to come back and start using again. But when I started getting clean, things changed. I learned about addiction—how one person can try a drug and move on, while for another, it’s instant. Now I know I’ll always be an addict.

When people warn you about drugs like weed and prescription pills, listen. I’m only 18, and I’ve already made choices that will determine the rest of my life. My memory is affected, I have drug-related tattoos. You just never know what a drug will do to you until it’s too late.”

“I watched his addiction take hold.” —Hannah Gellar, 16

“The first time I knew my brother Justin had a problem, he was 13 and I was 10, and we got a call that he had overdosed on prescription pain pills at a party. When he survived, I think my parents thought it would be a wake-up call. But it was just the beginning of a painful period of fighting and run-ins with the law.

Over time, the craziness became routine. I remember my mom picking me up one day and saying, ‘Well, I spent last night with the police. Your brother got caught with drugs again.  She just said it conversationally, how you’d talk to a friend.

People started to make assumptions about our family: that my mom was a bad parent, that we must live in a dirty house in a bad neighborhood. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I still got labeled. The thing is, drugs don’t discriminate—addiction can happen to anybody.

Eventually, my parents, who are divorced, decided they needed to get tough. My dad kicked Justin out, and my mom told him he had to go to rehab if he wanted to live with us. Justin didn’t think he had a problem, so he wouldn’t go.  

Those weeks were terrifying. I didn’t know where he was, or if he’d still be alive when I woke up in the morning. He’d call crying, begging to come home. I cried right along with him.

Justin finally agreed to get help, and when my mom found him a spot in an out-of-state program, he had to leave immediately. I was at school, so all I could do was duck into a stairwell to say bye on the phone.

It’s been six months, and Justin does seem better. I think he's clean. I hope he is.”


“It all started with partying.” —Dillon McCarthy, 19

“When you think of a heroin addict, you think of someone who’s strung out, someone you could never be. At least that’s what I thought. Until senior year of high school, when I was captain of the wrestling team, part of a loving family—and carrying a serious heroin addiction.

I started by drinking a little and smoking marijuana, but it wasn’t until a friend offered me prescription pain pills that I got hooked. Then a guy I knew said, ‘Here, try this. It’s basically the same thing but cheaper.’ It was heroin. And while I’d told myself I’d never do hard-core street drugs, at that moment, I needed it to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

After graduation, my life went into a tailspin. I did things I never imagined doing, like stealing money from my family. I knew I needed to get sober, and I tried. But I always hit a wall.

Finally, my mom got me a spot in a rehabilitation program in Florida. I’ve been away for six months, first there and then in a sober living house. I’ve been working, so I have money in the bank, which never would’ve happened before. I just bought a truck, and I’m planning to use it to start a lawn care business.

I don't know exactly what's going to happen in the future, but I’m happy right now. That’s a start.”


“I miss my sister.” —Samantha Sisco, 15

“I never expected that health class could make me cry. But last year, I was sitting there listening when my eyes started filling up. The teacher was talking about what happens to a baby when a pregnant mom uses drugs. My sister was eight months pregnant at that point, and I knew she was using heroin.

I’m the youngest of five kids, born nine years after her, and she has struggled with drugs basically my whole life. The last time she overdosed, she was technically brought back from being dead. It’s so sad and painful, because I wish we could be close like sisters are supposed to be. But there’s no way.

My sister is in jail now, so my mom has custody of my nephew. We ran into a friend of hers at the store the other day, and my mom said, ‘This isn’t what I expected to be doing at age 53.’ We’re not living the life I expected to be living either.

My mom and I are close, and we used to do lots of things together. I’d say, ‘Mom, can you take me to the store?’ Now, she has to take care of the baby. I used to have friends over all the time, and we’d laugh and make noise. Now the baby might be sleeping. I love my nephew to death, but I have to admit—I feel like I’ve had to grow up a lot faster than other kids.”


Could You Get Hooked?

How taking a single pill can turn into a life-shattering addiction


A friend offers you a prescription painkiller. It contains opioids, which flood your brain with dopamine (the same happy brain chemical that’s released when you eat a cupcake or score a goal). 


Some people can try a drug just once, but not you. Both your age (the earlier you use a drug, the more likely you are to become addicted) and your genes (they account for about half of your addiction risk) may be to blame. 


You start taking the pills regularly, and your brain now requires more of the drug to achieve the same high. This is called tolerance. Pills get too expensive, so you switch to heroin. 


You try to quit, but you are now physically dependent on the drug. Withdrawal symptoms hit hard—pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting. 


The drugs have changed your brain so much that you’ve developed addiction, a chronic brain disease. You’re driven to use the drug every day, no matter who tries to stop you and what you have to give up to continue using. 

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