Addicted teen struggled to feel connected
Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of reports about area teens and young adults whose deaths this year are attributed to suspected drug and alcohol abuse.
Justin Hirschenbein was like a champion boxer, one friend says. He was determined to survive the fight, taking punches as if the pain could not penetrate and hitting right back.
Plenty of punches landed on the 17-year-old.
He was given up at birth and adopted by parents who divorced seven years later. An only child, he was raised by his mom, living in myriad homes and watching people walk in and out of his life. He ended up with his dad, sharing a life with a new stepfamily.
He sought a reprieve from reality with drugs, starting in sixth grade and graduating to heroin before he could graduate from high school.
He lived to be high.
By the time Justin was a teenager, friend and former therapist Doug Bolton says, a sad boxer's mentality was set: He could hurt himself far more than anyone ever could hurt him.
Love him too much and he'd find a way to make you mad, dancing out of reach in the ring to stave off heartbreak.
Put him in detention for an hour and he'd stay a whole day, threatening never to return to class.
Pressure him into rehabilitation and he'd threaten to run away. Get him there and he'd come with 20 tabs of Ecstasy stuffed in his boots.
"If you told Justin you were going to take off one of his toes, he'd chop off the other nine and say, 'OK, you can take my toe now," says Bolton, who agreed to talk about him with his parents' consent. "Justin really didn't feel in control of his life, so he was a master of being in control."
Until the drugs mastered him.
On Mother's Day just months ago, he collapsed in the foyer of his father's Arlington Heights townhouse, fluid trickling out his nose; his hands crippled in awkward, horrible contortions.
He shook and made horrible noises, "like he was trying to breathe," his father remembers.
The shaking and heaving stopped. He never breathed again.
Justin died from the effects of butane lighter fluid he'd inhaled that night.
"As a therapist, I learned a lot from Justin," Bolton said at Justin's funeral. "Justin taught me about the power of addiction. The only sure thing in his life. He gambled everything to maintain it."
A boy disconnected
Some say Justin was pre-disposed to addictions and depression. Some say he made bad choices. Some say he was, in a way, a victim of circumstance. He was a gift for the 1984 holiday season - coming into Don Hirschenbein and Susan Preston's lives when Don's brother, a doctor in San Diego, phoned to say he'd found a girl who was going to put her child up for adoption.
He was born in February 1985.
His adoptive parents, each about 30 years old, welcomed him. He was their precious "California Kid."
"It was stable," Preston says. "We had a beautiful home."
Justin's first years of life were spent mostly in Buffalo Grove, attending classes at Longfellow Elementary School before his parents' divorce.
Afterward, Justin, then 7, lived with his mom. The duo moved to Glenview. They would move more times, living at one point with Preston's parents, who, she says, loved Justin dearly.
His father played the "typical divorced dad," Hirschenbein says, taking his son every other weekend and sometimes during the week.
Both parents say they did their best to spend time with Justin. Hirschenbein took him to Sea World. Preston played catch with him and taught him to ride a bike.
"This child was loved," Preston says. "We gave him a good life."
She called Justin her better half.
Growing up, he was fiercely loyal and never judgmental, making friends easily. Dozens of buddies, including some from grade school, showed up for his funeral.
He was a good kid, Preston says, and bright. He was a gifted writer, could draw well and read Stephen King books in sixth grade.
About that same time, though, he started experimenting with drugs - alcohol and marijuana at first.
He started middle school in Glenview before moving to a new school in Lake Forest. During his junior high years, his mother worked from home to be with him.
She'd spend time with him working on his homework, keep a close eye on him and make sure he went to bed around 10:30 p.m.
He admitted later to her that he'd frequently sneaked out.
"You can't lock your kid up," Preston says. "You can give them good advice. You can teach them - but if they don't buy it. ...He just made some bad decisions."
The coming years would bring anger and frustration, repeated pushes for help and defiant pushes back - an "unending spiral" that spun out of control, Preston says now.
When Justin and Preston moved to Lake Forest, their home provided Justin a huge room of his own and an outdoor pool. They celebrated with a pool party. Justin seemed to have it made. He saw it differently.
"He said, 'Why do we have to live in such a big place?' " his mother recalls.
It was during those years, by most accounts, that Justin's habit gradually worsened.
The addiction can be tracked in school photos. A cloudiness surfaces in his eyes, and his weight fluctuates as the years progress.
Another picture shows him as a preteen at summer camp, donning dark sunglasses.
"I guarantee he was on something there," Preston says now.
Justin began going out with a "death metal" crowd (a darker form of heavy metal music), dressing in drab, gothic clothing and listening to the music of Marilyn Manson.
His girlfriend, Brittany Meyer, didn't know him then, but she knows what he told her - that he'd trip on acid in the bathroom or smoke pot in the garage. Sometimes he'd huff, burying his face in rags soaked with chemicals and deeply breathing in the toxins.
He'd inhale air fresheners, lighter fluid, "anything and everything" he could get, Brittany says.
She calls it rebellion.
Bolton says it's something more.
"I think one thing he knew was that getting high was his most reliable thing," Bolton says. "It was always there. It was predictable. It made him feel good. This is what made him feel OK about himself."
Sometimes, his mother would ask him if he was high.
He would deny it.
When old rags were found in his room, he'd dismiss them nonchalantly, saying he was cleaning.
"Kids get very smart at how to outdo their parents," Preston says. "He was real smart. You can't beat him. What could I do?"
He'd have run-ins with the police, sometimes for stealing. He'd run away, once overnight. When his mom picked him up at the police station, he was acting "like a wild animal," she says, and refused to submit to drug tests. She put him in the hospital for a week in a drug treatment program.
"He hated my guts. Hated my guts," Preston says. "Because he thought he didn't need any help."
In eighth grade, with his attitude sinking and his schoolwork suffering, Justin was transferred to North Shore Academy, an alternative school for middle- and high-schoolers nestled in a quiet Highland Park neighborhood.
It seemed like a wise move.
Looking back, Hirschenbein says, it may not have been.
"It reminds me so much of a prison setting, in the sense you're there and you're in this," his dad says. "He was going to these schools where the element of kids there were as bad as he was or worse. These became his friends now."
Still, Justin liked it there, friends say. It was there that he met Bolton. It was there that he felt like he truly belonged. He returned once, shortly after leaving, to say hello.
It was proof that an aloof Justin Hirschenbein cherished a sense of belonging, Bolton says. Still, he struggled to feel connected.
Most times, he was wary of relationships and skeptical of love.
"He wasn't hardened like most guys," Preston says. "He was very, very thin-skinned. He wouldn't let people get (in too deep)."
He'd often warn his girlfriend: They could be in a relationship, but couldn't actually use the words "girlfriend" and "boyfriend." And, he would never, ever fall in love.
Let go of my heart, he wrote to Brittany once. It hurts my soul. When you look at me, your love burns a hole deep inside me.
"He said, 'I don't ever want to be in love,'" Brittany, 16, says, "because love is the worst thing in the world because it always gets wrecked.'"
The final years
Justin's drug habits were no secret.
His parents knew there were problems, though they say they never realized the extent of his addiction.
Justin moved in with his father as a sophomore in high school.
That way, his mother reasoned, he'd be in Arlington Heights, miles away from Lake Forest and the crowd he'd chosen to hang with. He didn't have a driver's license.
"It would give him a more stable life, as much as I would miss him," she says. "If that's not a mother's love, I don't know what is."
But the addiction to drugs overpowered any chance at stability. He needed drugs, and needed to be with the people who had them.
Drugs gave "the only flashes of light in his darkness," Bolton says.
Justin started class at Northwest Suburban Academy, an Arlington Heights alternative school operated by the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization.
It was there that he met Brittany - a girl with long brown hair and blue eyes who became someone to whom he could let himself grow close.
He told her more than most.
The two shared similar backgrounds. Brittany also was a child of divorced parents who was into drugs. It was her way to rebel, she says.
The two spent hours together talking - sometimes all night on the phone - and doing drugs.
They'd pop Ecstasy pills together. Sometimes, they'd sell them to make quick cash. When they had money, they'd head into the city to get some heroin.
When Justin couldn't get to heroin, he'd fall back on the easy, reliable highs: alcohol or huffing chemicals.
"I came home one Saturday night and found him on the couch, holding a can of butane," Hirschenbein says. "I hit the ... roof. I just couldn't believe this."
At his father's house, Justin faced more change. Hirschenbein had remarried, and Justin had inherited a stepmom, stepsister and a stepbrother - one about the same age as him who excelled in school. The two shared a bedroom, but rarely talked.
On one occasion, when his dad found him growing marijuana and angrily threw out the plants, Justin took off to the store for vodka.
He stole it, mixed it with lemonade and came home drunk. That led to an argument with Hirschenbein's new wife, Bobbi. The police were called.
Bobbi eventually moved out of the home, to allow Hirschenbein to spend time with Justin.
"This whole family unit here now is falling apart," Don Hirschenbein says. "My life was a living hell."
Justin took the blow and the blame for the new living arrangement.
"He didn't like what he had to deal with. He didn't like what was going on," Brittany says. "As much as I miss him now, I really have to think that he's in a better place."
A new life
In July, Brittany discovered she was pregnant. She also discovered Justin was shooting up heroin.
They'd not done that before.
"I always told him please don't do it," she says. "Just don't become a junkie. Don't become a piece of trash."
In January, he shot up heroin and overdosed, leading his companions to throw him out of the car and phone for an ambulance.
He was taken, unconscious and turning blue, to a hospital in Humboldt Park on Chicago's West Side, where he'd gotten his drugs.
He recovered, though it's not clear that's what he really wanted.
Darkness - the most peaceful, quiet, serene darkness I've ever touched, he wrote after the episode. Awakened by a heavy dose of Narcan (a drug that reverses the effects of opiates) like falling back into your body after touching heaven in a dream and waking up back in hell - just covered with ice.
Justin's dad continued to try what he could. With Bolton's help, he researched drug rehabilitation programs, but they cost thousands of dollars he couldn't afford.
"I wanted to get this kid help so bad," Hirschenbein says. "You become powerless."
The birth, in mid-March, of Justin's baby boy seemed as if it could be a potential turning point in a life gone horribly wrong, those who loved him say.
Justin and Brittany named their son Dani, after the lead singer of one of his favorite death metal bands, Cradle of Filth.
In too deep
With the birth of Dani, Justin seemed ready to change. He loved how the boy represented a perfect blend of himself and Brittany. He wanted the best for his son.
"He was so proud to be a dad," Brittany says. "He didn't want anything to be wrong from this point on."
But not long after Dani's birth, he overdosed again - this time on alcohol.
After that overdose, he made a pledge. He wrote it down, just days before his death: Drugs can take a ... hike.
Hirschenbein had been able to arrange for his son to stay at Rosecrance, a residential rehabilitation program in Rockford.
He was set to go May 16. He died four days before he got there.
Bolton is left to speculate about what might have been.
"Do I think Justin would have gone into treatment, gotten out and be OK? My hunch is it would have made us feel better about ourselves, and it may have put six more months onto Justin's life," Bolton says. "I think Justin was playing all his cards. He was going to lose at some point."