Intersections: An exploration of the local impacts of heroin use

Seven years ago, an 18-year-old La Crescenta man was prescribed Vicodin after a routine surgical procedure. The prescription was all it took for a blossoming painkiller addiction to comfortably settle in.

In 2009, when the pills became too expensive to procure without a prescription — sometimes going for up to $80 a pill — he tried heroin for the first time at the age of 22.

He agreed to be interviewed about his experiences on condition that I withhold his identity.

The overwhelming feeling, the rush of the opiate wading through his veins and the clarity he felt while taking it was indescribable, he said. As cars whizzed by outside a seaside coffee shop, he tried to explain the incredible sensation for which heroin addicts often have difficulty finding words.

“The best possible way I could describe is it's like a full body massage,” he finally said, where any sort of tension taking refuge in your muscles and mind is completely released.

He immediately fell in love. The love was devastatingly deep, the kind of love you couldn't escape, the kind that you didn't want to, even as everything — relationships, finances, health, the future — crumbled around you.

It was a love that led to lying, stealing and trips to a downtown L.A.'s Skid Row in search of his next high. It was a brutal infatuation that brought on homelessness, a love lost, a stint at a mental hospital and the self-loathing memories of weaving in and out of emergency rooms in a last ditch effort for a fix.

A brick was found, a wrist was smashed, paperwork was filled out after an award-winning performance and the painkillers, ready to numb his physical and emotional pain, were just minutes away. When his name was called in the waiting room, he could almost feel the endorphins rush to his brain, his appetite whet with the promise of drugs and a warm place to sleep.

He knew what was happening, he said, and that he was turning into “that person,” but he couldn't do anything to stop it — the indiscriminating qualities of drug addiction.

He wasn't the only one.

“The balcony of Southern California” has been the scene of a large and rising heroin problem in the last few years, a trend echoed across the country. From the affluent communities surrounding Chicago and Atlanta to Long Island and Baltimore, the cheap and heart-wrenchingly powerful drug has found a new home in suburbia, where boredom and socioeconomic status, much to the liking of drug dealers, tend to run high.

Last October, the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Illinois released a groundbreaking 10-month study on suburban heroin use that sought to understand how and why it was trending among young people. Among its findings: opiate pill dependency prior to using heroin was a major pathway, especially when users realized how similar they were to each other.

Respondents also said communicating with their parents and drug education programs proved ineffective.

These findings mirrored my subject’s own experience growing up in La Crescenta. Many of his friends in the area found their way to heroin, just like he did, through prescription medication — friends he used to take painkillers with at parties, friends he now has had to distance himself from.

The study also revealed a common misconception about near perfect life in suburbia and how factors that are not as overt as physical abuse or parental drug abuse can lead to the same outcome. This perception can fester unrealistic security and ultimately a sense of denial, the “We did everything right” or “How could this happen here?” syndrome.

La Crescenta, like other suburban communities, shows symptoms of it.

“I feel like parents in La Crescenta are completely oblivious,” he said. “They don't know what's going on — or maybe they do know and they don't want to accept it.”

This is the first a four-part series examining the use of heroin and its effects on Glendale-area communities.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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