Local teens: Heroin is going to keep killing our friends
New breed of anti-drug crusaders trying to reach their peers on heroin's danger
Chris Weaver had a sparkle behind his brown eyes that his older brother Jordan said was symbolic of his personality. "He lit up the room every time he was in it. He had the biggest, most infectious smile," Jordan said.
He loved being fashionable. He was on the bowling team in high school. He had never been arrested. Friends said his goofy attitude could brighten any day.
That sparkle dimmed as Chris struggled with challenges in his life, but Jordan said it had recently returned. He believed his 21-year-old brother, who was majoring in international business at the University of Missouri at Columbia, was doing well.
That sparkle went out forever, however, on May 21 when Chris, home for the summer, became another on the long list of young people in the suburbs to die of a heroin overdose.
Jordan Weaver, 24, who now lives in Mundelein, said his family moved to Vernon Hills from Chicago in 1994 so he and his brothers could attend good schools away from the gangs and violence of the city.
"It's sadly ironic that this happened instead," he said. "You can find trouble wherever you go."
As more and more people find that trouble and the number of suburban heroin deaths continues to rise, groups of young adults are organizing to try to lead a change.
Their hope is to do what parents, teachers and police haven't accomplished -- reach peers with a message about heroin and reverse the trend of drug use and death that experts say hasn't yet peaked.
"We're feeling the effects of this and we see it," said Shannon Brody, 21, of Lake Zurich, who along with her mother and several other young women started a group called "Take A Stand" this year to raise awareness and money through events in the area.
"Death was becoming a regular thing, and that's when you realize something needs to be done," added Lindsey Dulian, 24 of Lake Zurich, a member of the group.
Vernon Hills High School alumna Lauren Hansen, 24, now of Kenosha, gathered her younger brother, Mike, and his friend Greg Harmon -- both recovering heroin addicts -- to create a Facebook group called "Let's Save Our Friends Lives" after Chris Weaver's death last month.
"It's here and it's going to keep killing our friends," Lauren said of the drug.
The group has made videos documenting the heroin struggles faced by Hansen and Harmon in an honest, straightforward way -- from talking about how they started doing the drug and what they lost through the addiction, to withdrawal and the path to getting clean.
Their videos have more than 6,000 views so far.
"It's a tragedy, and the best way we can honor (Chris') life is to raise awareness and try to keep it from happening again," Harmon said.
In the fall, "Let's Save Our Friends Lives" will look to visit area high schools and talk to students about their experiences.
Weaver said spreading the message isn't just a good idea, but is a responsibility young people have to one another.
"Your friends are going to do things you don't like and you don't know how to deal with, but our job is to help them anyway," he said. "Everybody strays and it's in those darkest times that you need a forever friend."
The group isn't the only one trying the approach.
In Naperville, two teenagers spoke with more than 20 former and current drug addicts about their experiences for a 90-minute documentary called "Neuqua on Drugs" about the growing problem they saw at Neuqua Valley High School.
"We just filmed kids talking about the drug problem to show what the situation is. Now it's up to the community to do something about it," said Kelly McCutcheon, 18, of Naperville.
The documentary doesn't use students' names and blurs some of their faces, which allowed the teens to speak freely.
More than 200 people attended the first screening of the documentary last month, and DVDs will go on sale next month.
"When you watch those other anti-drug movies in health class, it's always moms or teachers or doctors telling you not to do drugs. It's not as personal," McCutcheon said. "Since it's coming from high school kids, other people will find it easier to relate to."
A growing epidemic
Heroin use and deaths continue to rise in the suburbs.
A 2010 study by researchers at Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy shows the Chicago metropolitan region ranks among the worst in the nation for heroin use and problems associated with it.
According to Lake County coroner statistics, deaths attributed to heroin use have jumped from 13 in 2007 to 30 in 2008 and 2009, to 34 in 2010 and 35 in 2011. Numbers in DuPage and McHenry counties reflect the same trend, county coroners said.
It's common for drugs to become popular in waves, as was the case with cocaine in the 1980s, said Lake County Coroner Artis Yancey. The strength of the heroin being peddled now contributes to the high level of addiction and death.
"The heroin is so potent that it could be your first or second time or your hundredth time using it. You never know when it's going to take you," he said.
"I have to look at the faces of the parents of these young people, mostly under 30 years old, that are dying from heroin. These people were valuable and loved by their families. It's just a horrible thing," Yancey said.
For many years, heroin was a city drug used mainly injected through needles, Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran said. As fears about diseases spread through contaminated needles increased, use of the drug fell. However, in recent years, as the drug could be taken in pill form or by snorting, its use grew and spread to the suburbs.
Curran said the drug is mostly coming from Mexico and South America. Chicago is a hub in the distribution network, meaning there is a large amount in the area, driving down prices for consumers in the suburbs.
Officials said the cost of heroin can be as low as the price of a six-pack of beer.
Sharing their stories
The common goal among this new breed of anti-drug crusaders is to use their personal stories to start the conversation with teens and young adults concerned about losing friends to the drug.
Mike Hansen has been clean just more than a year; Harmon around four months. The men, 22 and 21, respectively, both of Vernon Hills, said sharing the stories of their darkest days on YouTube and with others in the community has helped make them stronger.
"I was very uneducated about what I was getting myself into," Harmon said. "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."
"You don't realize until you're already in the deep end," Hansen added.
Watching a family member struggle can be as difficult as the addiction itself.
"It destroys your family," Lauren Hansen said. "I had to separate my brother from the addiction because I love him, but that wasn't him."
Hansen's family gave him an ultimatum -- stop doing the drugs, or get out -- so he hit a low point, walking aimlessly around the city and sleeping in restaurants.
"I would rather walk around all day carrying my drugs than be around people who loved me. What rational person chooses drugs over people who love you?" he said. "That's when you know it's rock bottom."
Since many families, including Hansen's and Harmon's, have no idea about the heroin use until the user tells them, the former addicts say they are trying to educate parents as well.
Parents should look for small pupils, or as Hansen called them, "snake eyes," as a key sign of heroin use. Other signs include a raspy voice, slow movement, circles under the eyes, irritability and spending a lot of money with nothing to show for it, they said.
Harmon suggested parents look at their I-PASS bill for evidence of unexplained trips to Chicago.
Changing the message
Young adults and officials say the message about drugs needs to be clearer.
"When people say, 'Drugs are bad,' and your frame of reference tends to be marijuana or a lower-level drug, people don't understand the seriousness, by comparison, of something like heroin," said Kathie Kane-Willis, executive director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.
The message needs to be that heroin use is different from other drugs, she added.
Part of that message includes a more realistic look at what using heroin can do to someone's life, Harmon and others say, which is why they aren't sugarcoating their stories.
"It's not like drinking socially where you can do it sometimes -- there is no in-between." Harmon said.
Kane-Willis said having young adults spread their stories can be a straightforward way to make peers pay attention to the harsh realities of heroin.
Steps such as taking young users to a morgue or to see a panel of friends and family of the dead are needed to reinforce the message, Jordan Weaver suggested.
"You need more tools than just saying no," he said. "Kids think they're invincible. They're not."