Recovering addict: 'I was more lost than anybody knows he could be'

  • Tom Carnevale, a recovering heroin addict from Lisle.

    Tom Carnevale, a recovering heroin addict from Lisle. Daily Herald

  • Tom Carnevale, a recovering heroin addict from Lisle.

    Tom Carnevale, a recovering heroin addict from Lisle. Daily Herald

Updated 4/4/2014 5:41 PM
Editor's note: This story originally ran on Dec. 3, 2001 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

He was 16, had the keys to his mother's forest green Ford Windstar and nothing much to do.

Lisle resident Tom Carnevale, his buddy and their two girlfriends decided one March day to do something completely different together.


So, they drove from the Western suburbs to Chicago's West Side and bought a bag of heroin for $10.

Somewhere along Roosevelt Road, they pulled into a restaurant parking lot and snorted the dope. It was frightening. It was forbidden. It was easy and exhilarating.

Tom and his pals already had experimented with pot and LSD. For Tom, heroin started out as simply another way to have fun. Another way to fit in with friends and yet feel like he was different from the rest of the high school crowd. Another way to hide from the pain of losing his mother to breast cancer two months earlier.

Was he scared? "Most definitely," he says. But that wasn't all he felt. "For the first time in my life, I thought I had what were some real good friends," he says. "Once I started using the marijuana and eventually the heroin, I felt like I belonged and that void was filled."

Tom Carnevale was lost but thought he was found.

He suffered with a weight problem and had always had trouble making friends when he was growing up. He played defensive tackle for the St. Francis High School football team in Wheaton and struggled, with help from his mother, Sue, a Lutheran grade school teacher, to make Bs. He lived in the center of a suburban cul de sac in a modern house with brown siding.

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In so many ways, he was like nearly every other urban and suburban teenager - at risk.

"We wanted to have fun. We wanted to do something that other people weren't doing, and I've seen it I can't tell you how many times," he says. "It doesn't matter where you come from. If you try this drug once, it's going to take you, and it's going to capture you."

Heroin found Tom Carnevale quickly. It captured him.

He tells his story this day from inside the walls and fences and razor-wire of Menard Correctional Center in downstate Chester. Inside prison walls, Carnevale has seen a man paralyzed by the smack of a broomstick to the brain. He's seen a man months from release die mysteriously of pneumonia. He turned 21 in late October, but has shared cells with much older men sentenced to decades, even life in prison, for attempted murder and murder. Still, Tom Carnevale figures he is one of the lucky heroin junkies. He figures there's a reason he isn't dead from the dope. His prison time andexperiences with heroin have convinced him God has a plan. He hopes to work, when he is released later this month, at trying to stop other teenagers from losing themselves to heroin like he did.

Tom already may have saved his younger brother - the ugly way. Matt Carnevale has trouble remembering which of his memories of his brother's problems with drugs and the law was the first. But he thinks he must've been in eighth grade on that early morning when he went to roust his brother. He pushed open the door and saw Tom lying cross-ways on the bed. A belt was cinched around his brother's arm. On his end table nearby sat a cup filled with needles and a couple of empty heroin baggies. Matt, now 17, nursed his brother through the high that day.

And there were the times Matt watched his big brother shake his way through withdrawal, trying again and again to clean himself up. "It all seems like one, big night," Matt says. "I'm trying to use it as an example for what not to do."


For three years, from 16 to 19, Tom Carnevale did it all - for heroin.

He started snorting in March 1997, two months after his mother died. By summer, he needed it every day. And he needed more and more of it. At first, money to fuel the heroin habit was no problem. His dad, Craig, gave him what he needed, Tom says, because his father was relieved he finally had good friends who could help him get over the loss of his mother.

Craig and Sue Carnevale had checked out Tom's friends. They did what they were supposed to, Craig said, meeting the friends' parents and ensuring they all had the same values and goals for their children. None of it mattered. Teens start making their own choices, he said, you just have to pray they make the right ones.

"We felt that (his) being a loner would be a bad thing," Craig said. "Turns out, having friends was even worse."

Tom Carnevale and his friends, like so many other young, suburban heroin addicts, quickly progressed to stealing to support their habit. First, Tom says, he sold a guitar, then amplifiers. He took a lawnmower from his house and pawned it. He stole his parents' good silverware and his great-grandmother's diamond ring, getting perhaps $20 for an heirloom worth $2,500, Craig Carnevale suspects.

Tom and many other young heroin addicts he knows shoplifted from Kmart, Target and Home Depot. Then they would return the items to the same stores or to different locations for cash refunds. Eventually, Tom swiped expensive textbooks from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and returned them, collecting anywhere from $100 to $300 per book.

All of the cash would be spent on the West Side buying "blow," as the dealers now call heroin. By then, Tom didn't just want the heroin high; he needed the steady supply to keep the withdrawal sickness away. "You'll get cold sweats. You won't be able to sleep," he says. "You most definitely won't be able to sleep. ...That is the worst kind of flu you've ever had."

But the withdrawal sickness wasn't enough to make Tom stop. Instead, he needed more. He'd spend all the money he could get on it. After about a year of snorting heroin, he started injecting it.

The kid who complained about cigarette smoke in restaurants was smoking cigarettes. The kid who hated needles was sticking them into himself to get a better heroin high. Before long, he could cook powder heroin into an injectable liquid in minutes flat.

"I guess I heard it's a little bit better this way," he said. "It was by far and away more of an instantaneous rush and a high than snorting was. Snorting took a little bit longer to get to your brain. This was in the clap of a hand; it was instantaneously to your brain. It was a little bit different high too. It was more overwhelming."

Tom's best buddy from Wayne hadn't shot up heroin, but still it had captured him too. Just about a year after his mother died, the pair did some heroin one night. The friend snorted it. Some time the next day, he was dead from a drug overdose. The friend who had most helped Tom, who was with him when he found out his mother died, was gone.

Heroin remained.

"He was there for me, and he never turned his back on me, but unfortunately, heroin didn't turn its back on me either," Tom said of his friend.

By now, Craig Carnevale knew his son had a heroin problem and legal problems. Soon after he got his driver's license, Tom started getting tickets for traffic violations. Once he was arrested for possession of a hypodermic needle, Craig said. He'd miss court dates and the police would come arrest him.

Heroin turned Tom into a terrific liar and an unrelenting beggar. Once Tom took his dad's car without permission and told him afterward he'd had to because a girlfriend had called threatening suicide.

"They'll spit in your face and tell you it's raining," Craig Carnevale said of his son and other teen heroin users.

Time and time again, Tom would call from a police department, begging to be bailed out, insisting he had learned his lesson and would quit heroin. Time and time again, Craig Carnevale bailed his son out of jail.

Eventually, he toughened up. Craig Carnevale said he thinks he called the police on his son for stealing his car or being out without permission four, maybe, five times. Once, he let them inside his home at the center of the cul de sac to search his son's room. They found used heroin paraphernalia and a bag of hallucinogenic mushrooms, Matt Carnevale said.

Craig Carnevale took his son for surprise drug tests three or four times. Tom passed every one. He learned from drug buddies to have a drug-free friend urinate into a condom he would secure inside his clothes, Craig Carnevale said.

"Until they're caught red-handed, they'll bamboozle you ... I would suggest to any parent: The child's going to cry. The child's going to say, 'It's your fault. You don't trust me.' You almost have to shut down the life and make it a completely controlled life from that point on," Craig Carnevale said. "The heroin is more powerful than anything."

Tom was in and out of six different out-patient or short-term rehab programs at hospitals throughout DuPage County. None of them worked completely and none dealt with the emptiness he felt without his mom, Tom says.

Rehab counselors told Tom and Craig he had to find new, clean friends. Tom would find new friends, but they weren't clean, Craig said.

Tom didn't last long at St. Francis and one of the first new friends he met at Naperville North High School lived nearby. He was a heroin junkie too, Tom says. One day, shortly before the friend was to go to Minnesota for long-term rehab at Hazelden Foundation and shortly after Tom had returned from a rehab stint, the friend called and asked Tom to go with him for one last heroin high.

It was just that. The friend went home and died of an overdose, Tom says. This death came just about one year after his best friend's overdose and about two years after Tom's mom's death.

That friend's parents blamed Tom for their son's death. In court later, his friend's father called him "a parent's nightmare."

But Tom says, "It's the drugs that are causing the deaths. No one's injecting other people. No one's planting other drugs. We were both killing ourselves; I just lived ... I don't know why he had to die. That's not something I can answer."

Two friends now dead from heroin. And still Tom was leaving his Lisle home, driving to the crime-riddled West Side of Chicago, often doing the dope there and driving back to the suburbs. "There were so many times I would drive back and I was at home and I didn't know how I got there," he says.

At the height of his addiction, Tom figures, he would go to the West Side two or three times, spending as much as $200 a day, every day. Tens of thousands of dollars spent on heroin in one year by one Lisle addict alone.

Eventually, Craig and Tom Carnevale also tried Hazelden in Minnesota, where a 60-day, in-patient treatment program cost them $30,000. But Tom was asked to leave a week early after he was accused of mouthing off to a woman at a YMCA. He was supposed to spend time at a half-way house, but the only place with an opening on short notice was a place filled with older, male recovering alcoholics. It scared them. So Craig Carnevale once more let his son beg his way out. By the weekend, Craig said, his son was using heroin again.

Tom Carnevale was lost and he knew it.

He was in a car with a friend one day and he'd already done a lot of heroin, but they bought some more. This heroin was purer than the dope he'd already done.

"I injected it and instantaneously I knew ... I told him, 'Man, I know I did too much,' and I fell out completely and I just started turning blue, he told me, and I stopped breathing and he's pounding on my chest, slapping me in the face to wake me up and he started driving toward the hospital and stopped again and started pounding on my chest, slapping me in the face to wake me up. He's driving toward the hospital and right outside the hospital, he's pounding me on the chest, slapping me in the face and finally I come to - barely."

Tom Carnevale avoided an emergency room overdose visit that time. But still, he did not find himself.

It was February 1999 when a drug buddy in trouble himself set Tom up in a deal with undercover police and he was arrested again. Craig Carnevale said the police at first made a mistake. He could have bailed Tom out for only $100. But, this time, he didn't.

Tom eventually pleaded guilty to the charges he faced. He and Craig were hoping that by doing so, he would be sent to a special prison rehab program. Instead, DuPage County Circuit Judge George Bakalis sentenced him to five years in state prison. With time off for good behavior, he will have served a total of 21 months at a handful of correctional facilities before his expected release later this month.

Tom Carnevale finally found himself, he says, in county jail and state prisons.

He completed six more jail rehab programs and got the equivalent of a high school diploma. He found himself, he says, through Christ. Tom was raised Lutheran, but recommitted himself to Christianity in prison. He has been baptized behind bars.

"If I didn't come to prison, I really strongly believe I would be dead right now," Tom says. "I was more lost than anybody knows he could be lost."

When he is released, Tom plans to study journalism at the College of DuPage. This time, he won't steal textbooks and return them for cash. He plans to avoid seeing old drug buddies, unless they want to meet him at his new church in Downers Grove. He may rekindle an interest in music and guitar playing, but his top priority, he says, is to go wherever he may be invited to tell his story to teens and their parents, to preach the escalating danger of drugs.

"I have to strive forward to that one kid ... who could live," he says. "There's hope. There's hope of survival. You can live through this."

Tom Carnevale says his dad meant well, but he says he should not have given him access to a car, a gas credit card, a cell phone. Tom says he should've had a job, more extracurricular activities, a curfew.

Matt Carnevale says suburban teens should be taken on tours of prisons like the ones he's seen visiting his big brother. Craig Carnevale said teens should be talking to drug addicts in prison like his son. He wishes he would have quit bailing his son out even sooner.

Tom Carnevale says heroin is sucking in too many teenagers. Too many who may be a little bit rebellious, or a little bit lost.

"Every parent has an image of who their kid is," he says. "It doesn't mean an earring or long hair will tip it off because I've met friends who look the way I do right now: clean cut, wearing collar shirts and all that, but they're heroin junkies.

"I don't want them (parents) to think their kid cannot do these things, because once they've tried this drug, it can happen and it will happen," Tom Carnevale says. "They need to understand that it is a life and death situation."

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