Former drug user: 'It creeps up on you so fast'
Kurt Mayer can remember, when he really tries, how things used to be when he was in control.
That was before the needles, the stealing, the arrests and the tiny cell he shared with a young man serving 46 years for murder.
Before a drug manipulated him with its unrelenting hunger.
For most of this year, the 21-year-old has worn a navy prison-issued jumpsuit and a haunting, weighted smile that says he'd do things differently if he could have the last four years back again.
Back then, he was a 17-year-old who went to class at Schaumburg High School and held down a job working with kids in an after-school program. He shot hoops, kicked soccer balls, hung out with his younger brother and went to movies. He did the little things he no longer can take for granted.
He was normal.
Mayer was well-liked but shy, tending to stay away from group activities - though he excelled in sports - and preferring to stay at home rather than go out. His mom took him to counselors to see if there was something wrong.
No, she was told, he was just fine.
He tried alcohol in junior high, but never liked it much. He partied on weekends in high school, hanging with friends and smoking pot, unwinding in the drug's haze.
He'd been told marijuana was horrible and would ruin your life.
But Mayer didn't see any of that. It was a good high; he could enjoy the comforting buzz and get on with life the next morning.
Heroin didn't work like that.
He thought it would, on the day he got curious enough to go to Chicago's West Side with friends and buy his first bag of smack.
From inside the fences of a maximum-security prison, Mayer said he couldn't really remember why he tried it. He wasn't doing it to be defiant, he said. He guesses he was just curious. He had friends who wouldn't mess with it but other friends who used it regularly. How bad could it be?
Mayer snorted his heroin that afternoon after work, one half of the bag at a time. He didn't like it at first; there wasn't much to the high.
He preferred pot.
But he snorted again, about a week later. Just to do it again.
He started liking it more.
And he began losing control.
The drug made him feel like everything was all right. He'd always been reserved, but heroin opened him up. He became talkative and fit in. It made him feel calm, and comfortable. Like nothing else.
It wasn't long before Mayer had his first morning of the sick feeling - the horrible sensation he'd live through again and again, when his muscles would ache and his stomach would hurt and he'd get goosebumps even in hot weather.
His friend told him the truth: He was hooked on heroin. By then, he liked it too much to stop.
"It gets you before you know it," Mayer said from an interview room at the Menard Correctional Center in downstate Menard. "It creeps up on you so fast."
He began driving to Chicago several times a day to get the drug, loving the risk of eluding the cops and the people who lived in neighborhoods that didn't look much like the Schaumburg home he'd known since childhood.
He'd see other suburban kids his age on the West Side getting heroin. They were like him, putting the drug first. Needing it.
But other than the friends who'd shoot up heroin with him, no one knew about Mayer's habit - not his girlfriend, not his mom, not his younger brother. Sometimes, he'd get high with one group of friends and then hang out with others who never knew he was on heroin.
Then his girlfriend found out, and told his mother. It was Labor Day weekend, 1998. Inside the prison, Mayer shifted his weight, leaned his arms across his long legs and looked down when he remembered how it hurt his mom.
She'd never expected anything, even after her wedding ring disappeared and things came up missing whenever her son needed cash.
"I was devastated," Mayer's mother, Jean Brown, said. "My whole world crumbled. My dreams I had had for him melted away. I felt I had failed."
She got him a patch to help with the withdrawal and began taking him to support group meetings.
It wasn't helping.
Sometimes she'd find him so high he was drooling.
But Mayer was 18 and an adult. His mother had no control.
"Even though you know something is wrong, you're helpless at that point," Brown said.
She did some digging and came up with a list of her son's friends who she thought also were using heroin. She brought the list to the Schaumburg Police Department.
Since then, Brown has taken college courses from addictions counselors, gone to family support groups and tried to understand how people get mixed up in drugs.
And she's sick of people saying heroin isn't in the suburbs.
"Heroin is out there, big time, but it gets swept under the rug," she said with tears in her eyes. "I never thought, ever, that my son would be addicted. We have got to wake up. It's worth (my) humiliation if I can open up parents' eyes."
Her son, she said, went through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program at school - a program both she and her son agree needs to be revamped to present drugs more honestly.
"In D.A.R.E., they never talked about cocaine or heroin," Mayer said. "They need to concentrate more on the heavier things. Maybe they can say pot's not good, but emphasize how cocaine and heroin are so bad. If I had more education on what it does to you, I don't think I would have tried it."
Growing up in Schaumburg as one of two sons of divorced parents, Mayer had a good childhood. He loved sports, playing soccer from the age of 4 and dabbling in basketball, hockey and football. He played soccer for his full four years at Schaumburg High School.
By the time he graduated, he already was snorting heroin. He thought about college but knew he wouldn't make it with his habit to worry about every morning.
He injected the drug about a year after he first snorted it, when a friend promised shooting up one bag would be like snorting four.
Mayer did it, even though he hadn't ever thought he would - just like he never thought he'd try heroin in the first place. He used to think doing the drug was stupid.
The high from shooting up was good. Years later, in an ominous prison, he smiled just thinking of it.
"I never snorted again," he said. "From my experience, the first time anybody ever shot up, that's it."
By that time, he was doing eight or 10 bags a day, making multiple trips into the city to get the fix he needed. Three or four bags were necessary just to make him feel like he could function. More than that could bring on the high.
The habit cost between $80 and $130 a day, but Mayer said he just had to keep doing it.
"You'd wake up and that would be the first thing on your mind: 'What do I have to do to get it? What do I have to steal?' " he said. "Your fix comes first. You may not want it to, but it does."
Mayer can't remember the first time he stole to get money for heroin. He just knows he grew to like it, becoming addicted to the rush of successful shoplifting. And he got good at it - so good he could snatch something when people were looking and run out the fire exit to his friends waiting in the car.
He stole daily sometimes, and sometimes more than once a day, things like razor blades that he could resell for $3 a piece or Tylenol and Rogaine he could sell at pawn shops or fence shops.
There was a rhythm to all of it. He could make $500 in a day.
It was part of the lifestyle gleaned from a drug that controlled him. He'd always liked living on the edge; this took that to the extreme.
Then he got caught stealing.
He was arrested.
It happened months after his family had found out about his drug habit. He'd been going strong.
His first arrest earned him time in rehabilitation, but the nearly month-long in-patient program didn't work for him. He wasn't ready to give up heroin. He would dream at night about getting more heroin. He'd think of the happy times on the drug, the good times.
Mayer knew he could control it this time. He'd do it once a week.
He shot up three days after he was released from rehab.
He wasn't in control.
It wasn't long before he was arrested again. And again. And again.
Every time, after every detoxification session and every rehabilitation measure, it got worse.
Mayer gave up a good job working in building construction because of his heroin addiction. He couldn't hold down other jobs when he got them. He stole from Blockbuster Video, where he was working part-time one holiday season to earn money for Christmas.
He'd skip family functions to get a fix. One Christmas morning, he woke up at 6 a.m. and drove to the West Side for heroin. He hadn't gotten enough on Christmas Eve.
He'd only done four bags and been up all night, waiting for a fix.
Mayer's face grew innocently sheepish when he reported this detail months later. "That sounds crazy, doesn't it?" he asked.
After one run-in with the cops, Mayer spent four months in boot camp trying to get clean.
He told himself while he was there that it only was a matter of time before he got locked up, maybe for good, in a prison with the big guys: murderers, rapists.
But "I still had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to feel that one more time," he said. "Maybe I could control it this time."
He couldn't - and things only got worse. They always got worse, Mayer said, after he got out of rehabilitation. Three months out of boot camp, just shortly after his 21st birthday, he was locked up in the Cook County jail.
It was Feb. 27 of this year. He'd already gone down to the city earlier in the morning, gotten heroin and brought it back in time to have lunch with his mother. But it wasn't enough. He needed to do it all over again - but this time he was caught, as he stole more goods ... to get more money ... to take back to the West Side ... for heroin.
His mom feels good about some things from that day: Money Mayer's brother had given him to buy a Sony PlayStation still was folded up in a corner of Mayer's wallet, and a wad of money sitting on the kitchen counter still was there.
He hadn't stolen from his family, and he wouldn't use his brother's money to buy his heroin.
But he was locked up.
He's been downstate, inside the stout brick walls and rows of barbed wire that make up Menard Correctional Center, since July, when he was taken from Cook County jail to his new cell.
He hasn't used since his arrest.
When he got locked up, he says, he quit.
Inside the prison, Mayer said, heroin probably would be available. But he hasn't wanted it. He's said that before, he acknowledged, but now he really means it.
He stopped having the dreams about heroin. When he thinks now about the drug, he can't remember the good times so easily. The bad times - the stupid lies he told his family, the ugly track marks on his arms from shooting up, the risk of the dirty needles, the knot in his stomach on some days of stealing - are much more vivid.
Would he like that high, that euphoric feeling, just once more?
Mayer looked at the prison walls and the guards outside. Thought for a moment. Averted his eyes.
Sure, he said slowly.
But he knows he couldn't control it. He knows it would get worse.
So, he said, he just won't do it.
He hasn't known anyone who's died from it - but he has seen an overdose, when he injected heroin into his pal's veins on a trip back from the West Side when his friend couldn't find a vein himself.
His friend became unresponsive within seconds. His mouth foamed over the cigarette in his lips.
Mayer, terrified, dropped him off at a fire station off the Eisenhower Expressway. He dragged his friend out, rang the bell and left. Blocks later, he called 911. He was so scared he couldn't shoot heroin - for a few hours. Then he gave in.
In rehab, Mayer said, he learned there were three things heroin meant: jail, institutions and death.
"I've done jail. I've done institutions, and there's just one thing left," he said. "I'm not trying to get to that point."
Mayer wrote his mom a letter from prison, telling her he was going to come clean.
He said he's ready to start over, but it will be completely over, with no car - it was totaled during a trip into the city for a heroin fix; no job - he hasn't been able to hold one down because heroin takes control; and few friends - most of his heroin buddies are locked up, and those who aren't, he doesn't want to be around.
He may be tempted again.
"I like the way heroin feels. It's just the consequences. I'm sick of dealing with them," he said. "Hopefully, I'm one of the fortunate ones who can beat this."
He wants to be a role model for his teen brother, who Mayer thinks probably will experiment with drugs but who also, Mayer vowed, will get an earful from him personally if he even touches heroin.
Mayer is set to leave prison today; he will have spent fewer months there than some will spend years. But he also is a 21-year-old with a history of arrests that came when, he said, he was letting "some chemical" own him.
It's been more than three years since he started his addiction, three long, horrible years that disgust him now and make him look down, embarrassed, when he thinks about what he's done. But he's also been clean for most of this year.
"My whole life, I wanted to do it my way," he said. "Obviously, my way of thinking didn't work out too good. I'm a loser. I'm sick of it."
Now, Mayer said, he's ready to listen. He's ready for the advice.
That's the one time, he said, when addicts can be healed.
When they realize they've completely, truly, lost control.
And they want it back.