Intersections: Acceptance as a means of prevention

This is the last in a four-part series exploring the impacts of heroin use on the greater Glendale area.

In 1897, German chemist Heinrich Dreser catapulted two drugs to international fame, making the Bayer pharmaceutical company a household name. One was aspirin. The other, heroin, marketed as a cough suppressant, was an alternative to morphine and its addictive qualities. It only took a year for the truth to unravel. Bayer stopped making heroin in 1913, and the drug's sale and manufacture were banned by Congress in 1924, but the chaos had already been created.

Over a century later, American suburbia has been playing host to an increasing teen heroin addiction, and there's almost always a gateway to the highly addictive drug: prescription painkillers.

According to data released last November by the Centers for Disease Control, the death toll from prescription painkiller overdoses has more than tripled in the last decade. In 2010, 12 million people reported using painkillers nonmedically, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

In La Crescenta, prescription painkillers are a common gateway to heroin. It's a town whose main strip-mall-spattered boulevard is filled with as much community spirit as it is cars full of families, a town where Bela Lugosi once came to seek treatment for his morphine addiction and a town where residents, according to some, remain largely unwilling to confront the realities of drug addiction.

Dr. Dagmar Liepa runs the “Reclaim Your Life” inpatient, medically supervised detox program at Mission Community Hospital in Panorama City. In the last few years, she has seen a spike in the number of patients from the La Crescenta area in their 20s who are addicted to heroin.

Much of the initial encounter to opiates comes through pills, she said.

“When they have trouble getting pills, whose street values are going to be higher, that's often when they use heroin as a substitute because it's cheaper.”

Patients voluntarily come to her when they have had enough of a life full of addiction.

“It really gets to a point where it becomes too painful to be addicted and that's when people think about treatment, if they can't stop on their own, they realize they may need to help stop this cycle.”

She helps them get through the most difficult part of heroin and opiate addiction: withdrawal.

What does withdrawal feel like? According to the heroin addicts I've interviewed, like the worst flu you've ever had. Like your bones are coming out of your skin. Like your muscles are on fire. Like you're one fix away from having all this pain disappear. You vomit yellow foam and defecate on yourself — the physical pain, they said, is outrageous.

Professor Benjamin Salazar, director of the GCC Alcohol/Drug Studies Program says that many in the community confuse the disease of addiction with it being a moral issue.

“They don't understand that people get to a place where they need to use it to feel normal,” he said.

While the prevention of drugs seeping into communities is a largely unrealistic model, a more effective tool is a change in attitudes from parents, who need to be open to their kids hearing the truths about drugs, Salazar said.

“You don't sugarcoat this stuff with children,” he said. “The thoughts they have are so profound on alcohol and drug abuse. Some of them have even seen it in their own families.”

Many parents in suburban communities tend to put their children on pedestals and idealize them, which he said, can be an optimum environment for addiction to flourish.

Matthew Durington, associate professor of Anthropology at Towson University in Maryland has conducted ethnographic fieldwork on the suburban teenage heroin overdose phenomenon in the context of “moral panic,” the heightened public alarm over an issue that is deemed a threat to social order and societal moral standards.

The pattern in suburban communities when it comes to drug addiction, he said, is to treat it as an abnormality — the “How Could This Happen Here” syndrome — which doesn't help.

“The American suburb has historically been constructed as a white social space where problematic social ills like drug addiction and violence are not supposed to occur, particularly when they are affecting upper-middle-class white teenagers,” he said.

So when they do, “the culpability and blame is usually placed outward instead of inward.”

But it takes introspection and dedication from several community components — from parents to educators and law enforcement to solve issues, including drug abuse. In the weeks I have spent visiting rehab facilities, Narcotics Anonymous meetings and talking to addicts, it has been revealed that the roots of drug addiction lie much deeper — depression, family trauma, pressures to fit in, boredom and a lack of life-coping skills. As one former addict said, addiction is like using one hammer to solve every problem. Finding solutions, whether it's in La Crescenta or Chicago's suburbs, requires less judgment and blame and more doses of acceptance and reflection.

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

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