A quick glance at Devin Reed's piercing green eyes and bright smile could never reveal that the 25-year-old from Hoffman Estates was a heroin addict for more than two years.
Now sober for almost four years, Reed is sharing his story of how the drug turned him into a "selfish and self-centered" person at the age of 18, shortly after graduating from Fremd High School.
Heroin Highway -- An awareness presentation on the dangers of heroinWhen: Wednesday, Sept. 5, and Thursday, Sept. 6
Time: 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: John Hersey High School Academic Resource Center, 1900 E. Thomas St., Arlington Heights (Wednesday) and William Fremd High School, Room 125, 1000 S. Quentin Road, Palatine (Thursday)
Tickets: Free, reserve online at senatormattmurphy.eventbrite.com
Info: Visit senatormattmurphy.com or call (847) 776-1490
"My family gave up on me for the most part," he said. "They wanted me to get help, but at the same time I was beyond hope. In my mind I was going to go on (using heroin) until I passed away, and I became really OK with it, really quick."
Like a rising number of suburban residents with the same addiction, Reed bought heroin from Chicago's West Side, traveling daily along I-290 -- dubbed the Heroin Highway -- to get his fix.
Two heroin awareness presentations sponsored by Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine will be held this week to educate the public about the Heroin Highway, the reasons behind the suburbs' growing heroin problem and ways to prevent and combat heroin abuse.
Local law enforcement, drug addiction experts and an affected family, along with Reed, who will speak at one of the presentations, will be on hand to educate others about the drug.
"If you're a parent and you don't know what the 'Heroin Highway' is you need to be at this meeting," Murphy said. "It scared me enough to make sure my kids understand how dangerous this is and to run like hell from it if they ever see it."
The presentations take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 5, in the Academic Resource Center at John Hersey High School, 1900 E. Thomas St. in Arlington Heights, and from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 6, in Room 125 at William Fremd High School, 1000 S. Quentin Road in Palatine. Neither district is sponsoring the event.
"It warrants a couple hours of your time to really ingrain this not only in you as a parent, but the kids," Murphy said. "This can be a one and done drug."
Gateway to heroin
In high school Reed was a good student, a varsity wrestler, a varsity gymnast and a member of a national cheerleading team. He also smoked marijuana every day, starting in freshman year.
Reed said when his parents learned he was using marijuana, they tried various tactics to stop him, but they, like many other parents he knew, didn't really frown upon it.
Smoking marijuana, however, resulted in Reed's experimentation with other drugs, like cocaine. The original gateway drug, he said, was cigarettes, which he smoked for the first time at age 10.
"It was easier to get drugs than it was a case of beer when I was in high school," he said. "I could find anything (drugs) you want probably within a 15-minute driving radius when I was in high school."
In the summer of 2005, Reed severely injured his hand at work, resulting in surgery and a prescription for the painkiller OxyContin. Reed quickly became addicted to the medication, a drug some of his friends already abused to get high. Soon after the prescription ran out, Reed hung out with those friends and snorted heroin for the first time.
"I did it once and from that point on I thought it was the solution to all my problems," he said. "There was only one thing on my mind from the morning to when I went to sleep: how to not get sick (from withdrawals)."
Four or five months in, Reed's parents discovered he was doing the drug and became very upset. Reed lied, saying he only tried it once and it wasn't a big deal, but the problem spiraled out of control.
"It didn't matter what they said," he said, adding that his family tried to put him through treatment and at times he found himself crying over how much he was hurting them with his drug abuse. "I was loved, but there was no stopping my actions."
Whenever Reed got his hands on money, he spent it on heroin. He used it anywhere he could, from inside cars -- where he also often slept at night -- to gas station bathrooms. His heroin use escalated from once a day to every four to eight hours.
Eventually, after multiple arrests, Reed was given a choice: go to prison or enter a drug-treatment program. He decided to get treatment from the Start Here Addiction Rehabilitation & Education or SHARE center in Hoffman Estates and Lutheran Social Services in Elgin.
Every addict, he said, needs to submit themselves to treatment if they want to get well and avoid death.
"No matter what it seemed, my life just kept going back to drug use, whether it be drinking, smoking weed or using heroin," Reed said. "When I got the treatment I finally just quit thinking I knew the answers and trusted in what they had to say to me."
A growing problem
According to a study released last week by Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, heroin overdose deaths doubled in Lake and Will counties in the past four years.
The study -- titled "Heroin Usage in National and Illinois Perspectives" -- found that heroin-related treatment in Illinois emergency rooms jumped 27 percent for people age 20 or younger between 2008 and 2010. It also showed that the Chicago metropolitan area has more heroin-related emergency room visits than New York, Boston or Detroit.
Dr. Dan Lustig, vice president of clinical services at the Haymarket Center in Chicago, said in the last two to three years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of heroin addicts coming into the agency, which provides comprehensive alcohol and drug treatment programs.
The increase, he said, may stem from the center's location at 932 W. Washington Blvd. in Chicago's Near West Side neighborhood. Another reason may be because large cuts in state funding for drug and alcohol treatment centers have caused other places to cut services or shut down.
Many of the addicts visiting the center, he said, are suburban residents in their late teens or early 20s. Reed was one of them. He would occasionally stop at the center during his trips to Chicago's West Side, but it never helped.
"I'd go there for about six hours and then I'd leave," he said.
Lustig said there are many variables contributing to the spike in heroin use in the suburbs, including less invasive ways to take the drug and the common perception among teens and young adults that drugs are less harmful than they actually are.
"When the perception of risk goes down, the consumption of the drug goes up," he said.
This year alone Reed has attended six funerals for suburban friends under the age of 30 who died from heroin or alcohol abuse. He said there is hope for addicts though, and he hopes more people will become educated on prevention.
"It can be stopped before the whole process starts," he said.
Education and help
Lustig said the majority of suburban heroin addicts used drugs in pill forms prior to using heroin. He said combating the use of pills like OxyContin or Vicodin by teens and young adults -- who often sneak the drugs out of their parents' medicine cabinets -- is part of solving the suburban heroin problem.
"If you are not taking the medication ... destroy it," he said. "Throw the medication out."
Parents should also take tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use seriously, particularly if their children begin using them at a young age.
"When a child starts using drugs early, like 11, 12, 13, in that age bracket, the course of the addiction (to heroin, other drugs) is more severe and chronic," he said, adding that he wants parents who discover their kids have a drug problem "not to ignore it, not to be afraid of it."
Lustig said he would like to tell parents who see signs and symptoms of heroin use in their child that it's not always a hopeless case.
"Parents feel like they don't know what to do or that it's their fault," he said. "A lot of parents in the suburbs have this perception -- I send my kid one time to treatment and they should be cured. When the kid relapses they see it as failure.
"I want to normalize the myths, I want to normalize that treatment does work," he added.
Reed's family certainly felt hopeless at moments. His dad, Brian, called heroin an evil, nasty thing.
"Being a parent, we were always worried people would think we were horrible parents," he said.
After a while though, he said, Reed's addictions were ruining their lives too.
"We got to a point where we did some family counseling and that helped us out a lot. It changed our perspective totally," he said, adding that parents should understand heroin abuse is a disease and not something they should be ashamed of. "We came to the conclusion that instead of trying to save Devin, we realized he had to save himself, we realized that we had to save ourselves too."
Reed now works building and repairing cellphone towers and regularly speaks about his experiences on behalf of Hearts of Hope, a drug awareness and support group based in Kane County. He said he just recently reached a point where he never feels an urge to do drugs.
"My goal is to educate people so people don't have to go down the same road I went down," he said. "I believe this is the reason I walk this earth."