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updated: 9/28/2014 5:54 AM

Heroin user still striving to 'get better eventually'

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  • Jon Dennison has done four stints in rehab since he became hooked on heroin at 17. "Once the needle hit the vein, it was over from there," said the 21-year-old who attended South Elgin High School. "As soon as I felt the heroin hit my system and as soon as I got high, I kind of knew it was something I was always going to do." He marked the date of his first overdose -- the day his heart stopped -- with a tattoo on his arm.

      Jon Dennison has done four stints in rehab since he became hooked on heroin at 17. "Once the needle hit the vein, it was over from there," said the 21-year-old who attended South Elgin High School. "As soon as I felt the heroin hit my system and as soon as I got high, I kind of knew it was something I was always going to do." He marked the date of his first overdose -- the day his heart stopped -- with a tattoo on his arm.
    Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • Jon Dennison, a heroin user who grew up in Elgin and South Elgin, points out the tattoo he got to remember the day of his first heroin overdose: Nov. 16, 2012. His heart stopped and he nearly died. Two more overdoses followed.

      Jon Dennison, a heroin user who grew up in Elgin and South Elgin, points out the tattoo he got to remember the day of his first heroin overdose: Nov. 16, 2012. His heart stopped and he nearly died. Two more overdoses followed.
    Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • "Death must be easy," says one tattoo on the left arm of 21-year-old heroin user Jon Dennison. He says he got that tattoo "because life is hard." Dennison says he started doing heroin when he was a 17-year-old at South Elgin High School and he has not yet been able to completely stop using the drug.

      "Death must be easy," says one tattoo on the left arm of 21-year-old heroin user Jon Dennison. He says he got that tattoo "because life is hard." Dennison says he started doing heroin when he was a 17-year-old at South Elgin High School and he has not yet been able to completely stop using the drug.
    Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Why people try heroin

 
 

Jon Dennison isn't over it.

His addiction to heroin, which first gripped him when he was 17 and playing football at South Elgin High School, hasn't let him go.

Rather, at 21, he still hasn't let go of it.

"The heroin just keeps pulling you in," he said.

Dennison knows his own choices landed him where he is today: Dopesick from trying not to use after his latest high, lovesick for the girlfriend who died of an overdose while he was in rehab, homesick for the days when he lived with his mom. Dennison is a high-school dropout with a GED, a criminal history and nearly five months in DuPage County jail; a 21-year-old with no career experience and no place to stay, save with friends in St. Charles or Sycamore -- a face among the suburban heroin users who find themselves unable to stop once they try the drug.

"Once the needle hit the vein, it was over from there," Dennison said. "As soon as I felt the heroin hit my system and as soon as I got high, I kind of knew it was something I was always going to do."

When he was younger, football was all Dennison thought about. Then it became heroin. Now, he doesn't know what to think about, what he might aspire to be.

"As I grew up, drugs kind of took away all my dreams," he said.

But he's not done trying to get them back.

'Something cool'

Dennison says he hung out with a bad crowd as he started his freshman year at South Elgin High School. He was still playing football, but he started doing party drugs -- ecstasy, cocaine -- on the weekends. And he started taking pills -- Xanax, Oxycodone, Dilaudid.

His mom, Holly Grimm, heard about the pills but says she was at first in denial.

This was Jon, her son whose ADHD she chose to control by keeping him active in sports rather than keeping him on medicine like Adderall. This was Jon, a hyper but good kid.

The stories about pills couldn't be true, Grimm told herself.

But they were.

By the time he was 17, Dennison found himself spending more time with the wrong crowd. Doing drugs during the week led him to the South Side of Chicago, to the "Wild Hundreds" where streets have names like 123rd, where a friend paid for his first dose of "a drug that's better than coke, something that's going to get me way higher," he said.

Shoot it, don't snort it, the friend told Dennison.

"Snorting it would be a waste, anyway, and I wasn't going to waste his money because he was paying," Dennison said.

As soon as the drug was injected and the carefree feeling began, Dennison's addiction took hold.

He had somewhere new to fit in, though he wasn't sure why he wanted to belong there in the first place. He had something to fill the hole in his life, though he never could identify what was missing.

"You won't fit in with heroin users until you use heroin," Dennison said. "What makes (anyone) want to fit in with that crowd, I don't know."

But there is an appeal, Dennison said, to the nonchalant attitude of the heroin user, portrayed famously by the late rock star Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.

"There's something cool about not giving a (expletive) about anything," he said.

Heroin creates that cool.

"There's so much stress in society. When you use heroin, there is no more stress," Dennison said. "As long as you have your heroin, nothing matters."

Not even death.

'Numb'

A friend named James was the first in Dennison's circle to die of a heroin overdose. Dennison thinks it happened in 2011, but he loses track of time.

He remembers feeling sadness, but then suppressing the emotion with another dose of heroin. He's done that three more times as three more friends have lost their lives.

"You become numb to things," Dennison said. "You can't go to a heroin addict and say, 'My friend just died,' because three of their friends just died, too."

But then there was Adrianna.

Dennison has her name tattooed across his collarbone, followed by a heart. She was his girlfriend for a year. Was.

Dennison met the young woman named Adrianna Diana through mutual friends and they started living together in a Carol Stream apartment. The relationship took a tragic turn in September 2013.

The couple had a fight, so Dennison moved out and went in October to rehab at Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment in Chicago. While he was gone, another man overdosed and died in the couple's apartment. Then another of Dennison's friends died, and he left rehab. The dual losses brought Dennison and his girlfriend back together. It wouldn't be for long.

In November 2013, Dennison and Adrianna went to a Dairy Queen while "obviously high." They both began "popping pills," and although Dennison says they were prescribed to his girlfriend, it was almost closing time and Adrianna showed some attitude to the employee. So the cops were called. Searching Adrianna's purse, police found heroin, but Dennison took the fall. He told officers it was his, and off he went to DuPage County jail.

His mom had bailed him out once before, on a misdemeanor theft charge for which he was sentenced to 22 days. But she wasn't about to rescue him from the lockup this time.

"I already bailed him out once for retail theft. That's how he was paying for drugs," Holly Grimm said. "I bailed him out and he went right back. I said, 'I can't do it again.'"

Three months later, it appeared Adrianna might be heading to jail, too. She was charged in February with one count of criminal drug conspiracy and one count of drug-induced homicide resulting in the death of 21-year-old Christopher Houdek, the man who had overdosed and died in the apartment she shared with Dennison.

The next month, Adrianna was dead from an overdose of her own, the DuPage County coroner's office said. And her death was different to Dennison.

"When it very first happens, you're in so much pain that all you can think about is using more heroin," he said. "Even though they died from the very same thing, you're going to use to cure the feelings you get from them dying."

It's a vicious cycle, Dennison knows, but he hasn't found the right way out.

"Even though there's pain and sorrow and all these emotions -- negative emotions coming in and you know it's from heroin -- it's the only thing that's going to make you feel better and take the pain away," Dennison said. "As soon as you do shoot up, you forget all about Adrianna dying or about James dying."

'My heart stopped'

The power of the drug to erase all worries just might be what has continued to draw Dennison back, despite four stints in rehab or sober houses.

He said he first spent three months clean while living at a halfway house at Wayside Cross Ministries in Aurora in 2012. James had just died, and Dennison said, "I knew I was going to die, too." So he entered the six-month transitional housing program for men and worked at a thrift shop the charity operates.

Halfway through the program, though, he left and got high on a date that's now tattooed on the inside of his left arm: 11-16-12. The date of his first overdose.

"My heart stopped," he said as he gazed at the tattoo that marks the moment. "It was one of the worst overdoses. Man, it was bad."

There have been two other overdoses since.

Medical experts say overdoses are common among heroin users who have been clean for a while. So are the withdrawal feelings users get when their most recent dose leaves their system.

The hurt extends deep into muscle and bone, and it's impossible to get comfortable -- anywhere, Dennison says. Focus isn't happening. Hot one moment, shivering the next. Throwing up. "Going to the bathroom on yourself."

They call it dopesick.

"It's almost like you got in a really bad car accident while you had the flu," Dennison said.

Avoiding that feeling is another reason people use -- and use too much -- despite efforts to give up the habit and turn around their lives.

"When it comes to heroin, it's pretty much straight-up truth," Dennison said. "Heroin users are really depressed and will tell you the truth: This is probably going to kill you eventually. You're probably going to go to jail. You're probably going to go to prison. You just learn to accept those things."

'You have nothing'

Dennison's second stint at rehab in October 2013 brought him to a more medically focused treatment center: Gateway Foundation Alcohol and Drug Treatment's location on the West Side of Chicago. Everything counselors said while he lived there for 29 days of a 30-day program "hit home," he said -- in theory, at least.

"It made me realize that I really was an addict, and that I need to want to change for myself and everyone else," Dennison said. "But it still didn't stop me from using."

Neither has his most recent attempt at rehab, although it was the longest of his stays and the only program he has completed. Dennison went early this year to Cornell Interventions in Woodridge for a 90-day program after getting out of DuPage County jail.

While he was at Cornell in March, his mom gave him an update about Adrianna. It wasn't a good one. His girlfriend was dead.

The thoughts of using more heroin to cure the pain kicked in, but another train of thought took hold more powerfully: The thought of purpose, or lack thereof.

"It just kind of hit me at that moment, 'You have nothing to go out there for, because she's dead now,'" Dennison said. "She was the only reason I wanted to leave."

With nothing on the outside calling his name, Dennison stayed. And when it was over, he left. He wasn't all the way better.

"I've relapsed multiple times since getting out of rehab. I've used. No matter what comes my way, I always continue to relapse and use," Dennison said. "It sounds really messed up, but when you're actively using, you hope that you overdose. You're not necessarily going to push for it. But there's a common theme among heroin addicts that maybe this will be your last time and you won't have to worry about it anymore."

New worries

Dennison completed the Cornell program late this spring and began his latest challenge: Figuring out what he wants to do with his life despite his jail time and drug history.

"Things are better in the sense that I'm not focusing on getting high -- that's not my main focus," he said. "I'm more focused on what I'm going to do with my life. Unfortunately, I've still gotten high, but that's not my focus."

Ask Dennison what he would do with his life if he could do anything, and he has to think about it for quite a while. He hasn't considered his life in such broad terms, he said. He just doesn't know.

After a long pause, he said he'd probably do something with carpentry. He thinks he has a shot at that.

He's looking to get back into Elgin Community College, where he had taken a class or two until he met another heroin addict and they both dropped out together. He's applying to a sober halfway house in Elgin, where his mom works, so he can have easier access to her car when he needs to get somewhere. He renewed his driver's license. He got a job through a temp agency. He's still trying to get better.

"I keep wondering when it's going to stop. When the endless circle of destruction is going to stop," he said. "When you stop wondering is when you know you're going to be an addict forever because you're no longer worried about it anymore. As long as I'm still worried about it, I know I can get better eventually."

• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries

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