When his 17th birthday rolled around, Michael Rubicz knew what he wanted to do.
Before his birthday, the St. Charles teenager had vowed to add heroin to the list of drugs he has tried. So when he got together with his friends the night of his birthday, they all made good on that promise.
Four years later, Rubicz and his friends are still trying to recover from that birthday celebration and the experimentation that eventually turned into addiction.
The drug that delivered a high better than any Rubicz or his friends had ever tried, also delivered criminal records, jail sentences, deception, family strife and a habit that has forever changed their lives.
Stories like Rubicz' or his friends' are becoming more common among suburban teens as heroin grows in popularity.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse's "Monitoring the Future" study in 2000, some 2.4 percent of high school seniors reported having used heroin in their lifetime. In 1994, only 1.2 percent said the same.
The same study showed similar results among high school sophomores. In 2000, some 2.2 percent reported having used heroin in their lifetime compared to the 1.5 percent who answered the same in 1994.
For Rubicz, heroin was just another drug to add to his list.
He had spent the night of his 17th birthday with his buddies at friend Duane Bean's home drinking beer and smoking pot.
"I just wanted to try something new," Rubicz said.
So he pulled out the "China White" a friend bought for him.
There were no needles. No cooking spoons. So he didn't worry about using heroin - he didn't know much about it.
He just snorted the white powdery substance through his nose.
It gave him the best high he ever had. He felt warm all over. It felt good.
"It felt like nothing could harm me," he said.
The reaction for Bean and others at the house that night wasn't quite the same.
When he saw the heroin in its white powdery form, Bean mistook it for cocaine. He had tried that before, so he didn't think twice about taking some.
It was only after he snorted it that he realized it wasn't the drug he was used to. His nose burned. Cocaine never did that.
When Rubicz told him the "China White" was heroin, Bean was upset. But then the high set in.
"I was looking for something and the high kind of filled it," Bean said. "So I didn't mind too much after that."
Later that night, Bean and Rubicz met up with other friends, including Dan Simmons. Simmons at first held out against trying the drug, but eventually gave in that night.
Other friends, such as Christopher Foley, would eventually try the drug too. Foley waited six months after the others before snorting his first dose of heroin. He never liked how the drug made his friends sleepy and relaxed, so he never tried it.
But on New Year's Eve that year, he gave in.
It didn't take long for any of the small group of friends to realize that heroin wasn't just another drug they'd add to their list.
Within months of their first use, heroin became a daily ritual that ruled their lives.
They forgot about the other drugs they had tried. All they wanted was that heroin high.
They would spend their days figuring ways to get money to buy it and how to get to Chicago's West Side to buy it.
"Two months later, I was using the drug every day," Foley recalled, adding that the withdrawal symptoms would push him back to using again. "I'd be getting sick and the only way to get off my sickness was to get the drug."
Bean made his first trip to the city to buy heroin with Rubicz, Simmons and another friend. He didn't want to go by himself, but after a while he started making the daily trip alone.
He said it didn't matter that he might get shot or robbed. The risks were part of the high.
"The first few times I was scared," Bean recalled. "But after a while, I just didn't really care."
Bean took the same attitude when he switched from snorting the drug to injecting it.
Foley remembers snorting up to 40 dime bags a day - or 40 doses - to stay high. At $10 a bag, his habit was getting too expensive.
A friend had told him that he could get a good high off one bag just by injecting it. Plus, shooting up would give a rush that snorting just couldn't deliver.
"I don't know how I did it," Bean recalled. "My friend just said stick out your arm and he showed me how to do it. It was pretty much over from there.
"I shot up once in the bathroom on 17th Avenue and never snorted a bag after that."
Simmons' father caught Dan shooting up on three different occasions. The father still remembers the first time he caught his son.
The father had stayed home from work one day when Simmons was upstairs in the bathroom. The parents suspected he was using again, so Simmons' father looked through the keyhole and saw his son was getting ready to shoot up.
"I walked in there and he was ready to put the needle in," recalls his father, who did not want his first name used. "The look on Dan's face ... he was devastated.
"I just grabbed the needle and woke up my wife and said 'This is what he's been doing the whole time,' " he said.
Tearing at the family
As with his friends, Simmons' addiction eventually began affecting his family.
He would leave for days at a time and his parents wouldn't know where he was. His sister would stop talking to Simmons whenever he started using again. Simmons would promise his parents he would stay clean but each time would return to the drug.
"It always happened on a holiday, always," recalls his mother, who also did not want her first name used. "Mother's day, a birthday or Christmas. It would hit us hard each holiday."
Like his friends, Simmons also struck close to home when it came to getting money to buy the drug.
He would take checks from the back of their checkbook so they wouldn't notice right away. If his parents left money out on the counter for groceries, he would take it for drugs. The $450 he was given for high school graduation was used on a heroin binge for him and his friends.
Simmons parents estimates that between the money their son stole, the cost of his various treatment programs, and physical damage he did, they have spent the equivalent of a college education on his addiction these last four years.
Eventually, as their addictions worsened, each of the friends had to find other ways to get drug money.
Some admit that stealing from stores became their source for cash. The items they stole would either be returned for a cash refund at the same store or sold in Chicago for cash.
Bean took more drastic measures.
He was arrested after robbing convenience stores in St. Charles. Armed with a knife, Bean robbed three convenience stores to get cash for the drug. He is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for his crimes.
His first armed robbery on June 18, 2000, came out of desperation. Rubicz was on his way over to make a dope run. Bean didn't have any cash, but knew he - or his friends - couldn't get through the day without making a buy.
Shoplifting would require too much effort that day. He was too sick and could barely walk. He needed something quicker.
"Robbery, you go there and take cash only," Bean said.
He knew it was a dumb idea, but he wasn't up for rationalizing anything. All he could think about was that Rubicz would be at his friend's house in 15 minutes and he needed cash to feed his $300-a-day habit.
"That's all I thought about," Bean said. "Get money, get back to the house in time to go to the city."
He grabbed a knife from his friend's kitchen and walked a few blocks to a mini-mart. He walked in, showed the knife and demanded cash.
"She didn't really say anything," he said about the attendant. "She just handed me the cash."
He doesn't think he would have used the knife.
"If she would've said no, I probably would've left," he said. "I wouldn't have had it in me to do anything stupid."
The first robbery netted $135. It was enough for 13 dime bags. Bean did eight bags and Rubicz and Bean's friend split the rest. The drugs lasted them about an hour.
Two days later, Bean robbed another store - this time to get cash to bail Foley out of jail, Bean said. When he only got $150 from the robbery, Bean opted to go on a dope run instead.
Bean eluded police at first, but eventually decided to turn himself in. Rubicz drove Bean to his mother's office the day he turned himself in. Just a few days earlier, he had driven him to stores to rob them.
"For the first time in my addiction I felt remorse," Rubicz recalls, "for using with him and doing the things I had done. He was one of my best friends."
Paying the price
Today, Bean isn't the only one paying for the crimes he committed for his addiction.
Foley was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for theft and possession of a controlled substance. He hopes good behavior will allow him to be released early from Taylorville Correctional Center, in central Illinois, to be home by Christmas.
He was arrested the night of a friend's 21st birthday on Jan. 8. Foley, Rubicz and some other friends were arrested at a St. Charles hotel when police got a tip that they were there and using heroin.
Foley could have opted to participate in a two-year program through Kane County's drug rehabilitation court, but opted for prison time instead.
His friends - including Rubicz, and Simmons - signed up for the program. Rubicz is still complying with the rules and getting treatment.
Simmons was arrested the day before a friend's fateful birthday party for stealing his parents car. He signed up for the drug rehabilitation court program, but dropped out in August and left the state. He was arrested on Oct. 29 on a warrant when police in Tennessee stopped him for speeding.
"Did you think you were not going to get caught?" Kane County Judge James Doyle asked Simmons during a Nov. 14 court hearing. "That's real serious - fleeing from justice."
Simmons will spend the holidays in the county jail. It will be another holiday marked by his drug addiction. This time, it will be the first time Dan is away from his family for the holidays.
Doyle, who runs the county's drug rehabilitation court program, will sentence Simmons on Jan. 2. Simmons had pleaded guilty to auto theft, possession of a controlled substance and theft as part of the agreement to get into the drug rehabilitation court program. Doyle told prosecutors they could add fleeing from justice to the counts.
Though he could face three to seven years in prison, Simmons' parents say their son just wants to do his time and get on with his life and over his addiction.
"He's ready to face the music," Simmons' dad said.
The friends who grew up together and used heroin together are now having to face conquering their addiction on their own.
Bean hardly talks to his friends anymore. Simmons came to visit Bean in prison once in August - just before Simmons left the state. But Rubicz hasn't talked to Bean since he was sentenced to prison.
During his time at Danville Correctional Center, Bean has finished his GED and is taking college courses.
"Whatever they have I'm going to take," says Bean, now 21.
He says that prison has helped him stay clean - a habit he plans to keep once he gets out. Bean signed up for a drug treatment program in prison, but was told he would have to wait for treatment until his release date is closer. But he's not letting that stop him from keeping off the drug.
"It took three years of my life, and it's going to take more," he said. "It's just not worth it."
Foley also has spent his time finishing up his GED and taking college courses. He also has been in treatment his entire stay at Taylorville Correctional Center.
Though he's tried to get off heroin before, he says now he knows what to do to stay off it. He knows he can have fun without heroin.
"Now I realize I have to go to meetings, I need to remember what I've been through," Foley said, vowing to attend narcotics anonymous meetings regularly once he's released.
Simmons is waiting to find out what his fate will be. He has told his parents he stayed off heroin the entire two months he was out of state. His father said he knew he was telling the truth when he saw him in court last month.
If Simmons was using, he would have looked paler and thinner, his parents said. The day his father saw him in court, he looked healthy. He even gave his dad a smile before court guards led him back to jail.
"He seemed OK with everything," his mom said. "He just wants to get on with it."
Of those in Doyle's program, Rubicz has stayed clean the longest - a feat that Bean is happy but somewhat surprised about.
"That's a shock to me; he was the one who got us all started," said Bean, who has been off heroin since his arrest on June 26. "But I'm proud of him."
Rubicz says he takes his sobriety "one day at a time." He attends the meetings, talks to counselors and follows the 12 step program.
He has a job and is looking forward to his future - heroin-free.
"I'm thinking more clearly," he said. "I'm able to have better relationships with people. Before I didn't care.
"My track of mind was on one thing - drugs, give me drugs," he said. "Today, I do things for people."