Suburban teen, family hopeful after heroin addiction
Editor's note: This story is a follow up to Daily Herald investigations in 2001 and 2002 that chronicled a growing number of overdoses among suburban teens.
It was a night when two prayers defined Nick Blasucci's young life.
He lay in his bed, facing prison time for residential burglary and reliving his ill-fated attempt to get drug money.
The 17-year-old had broken into that home twice before, always entering through a back window. The things inside - jewelry, video games, a PlayStation - were ripe for stealing and selling to buy more heroin and crack cocaine.
But on this particular October 2002 afternoon, the window shattered, thwarting the plan. Nick got scared and ran to the safety of his parents' Glendale Heights home.
Neighbors heard the glass break and saw the boy flee. They called the police first, then his mother.
Nick hid in the house as the police pounded on the door and the phone rang incessantly. It was his mother calling from work, leaving messages imploring him to open the door.
He never imagined his mother, who had dedicated the past two years to keeping him out of harm's way, would give police permission to go inside and arrest him. He felt safe until the moment the police broke in the door.
The officers forced Nick to the floor and cuffed his hands behind his back. He lay there, listening to his mother's voice pleading through the answering machine.
"Please, Nick," she said. "What's going on? Please."
Nick, a heroin addict since he was 15, wanted it all to end.
His mother's begging. The officers' orders. The crimes. The insatiable need to get high.
That night he offered the prayer he had been reciting since drugs hijacked his life.
"Please, God, don't let me wake up in the morning," he said.
His mother, with an almost crippling guilt, made the same request.
"If this is going to be my child's life," she prayed, "let God just take him now and spare him from all this pain."
The prayers, as they had for nearly two years, provided no instant relief. Nick's destiny seemed a life held hostage by drugs, crime and the prison system.
In an effort to avoid the latter, Nick entered an inpatient rehabilitation program. It marked the beginning of a painful journey that has required both time and his parents' willingness to let go of their only child.
"If I say I'm never going to do it again, it's too far in the future," he said a week ago, at home while on a day pass from his halfway house. "I'm not going to get high today, though."
At 18, Nick Blasucci is among the thousands of people whose lives have been swallowed by the heroin crisis in the Chicago area. A recent Roosevelt University study suggested the problem has reached epidemic proportions, with the region ranking first nationally in the number of heroin-related hospitalizations and second in the number of deaths.
The researchers contend the scourge has been spurred, in part, by suburban youth like Nick who are attracted to the high purity levels of today's heroin. Higher purity levels make the drug easy to snort and, therefore, more attractive to teens who want to avoid the "junkie" label attached to needle injections.
Nick began snorting the drug at 15, after two older friends swore he couldn't become addicted by inhaling it. Before his 16th birthday, he was shooting up and losing weight.
His mother became so alarmed by his appearance she took him to his pediatrician who tested his thyroid and did a complete physical. She says the doctor missed the track marks on the teen's arms, just as she and her husband had.
There were other signs, too. Nick's grades started to slip. His parents struggled every morning to get him out of bed.
They knew he was smoking marijuana and had placed him in an outpatient program. They didn't realize he had graduated to a more dangerous and even deadly drug until he overdosed in June 2001.
He lost consciousness while shooting heroin in his living room with two adult friends. They fled the house when Nick started hemorrhaging from his nose, stopping to call 911 before leaving.
That day, Nick became one of the 12,982 Chicago-area residents hospitalized for heroin-related reasons in 2001. The number - the highest in nation - served as the cornerstone of the Roosevelt study suggesting an area heroin epidemic.
The report's conclusions mirrored those of Daily Herald investigations in 2001 and 2002. Two years ago, the newspaper identified at least 30 Northwest and West suburban teens who died of heroin and club drug overdoses in a 12-month period.
As part of the investigation, the Daily Herald at the time spoke with Nick about his drug use. He claimed then to have been sober for seven weeks but had refused to enter an inpatient program.
He discussed his continued desire to get high and his disdain for sobriety. He said he resented his parents, who began a support group for families dealing with drug abuse.
Rick and Theresa Blasucci had become de facto prison wardens in their quest to save their son from heroin's grasp. They didn't allow him to be alone at home or to go out at night.
They sent Nick, then 16, to a neighbor's house before and after school, a practice he likened to day care.
"I'm never alone," he said in 2002. "It gets boring after a while."
His mom now acknowledges her desire to help her son may have had the opposite effect.
"The hardest part is to let them suffer," she said. "The longer you try to protect them, the deeper and deeper they're going to fall."
Theresa didn't know where Nick's bottom was. At the time of the April 2002 interview, he already had hawked some of his mother's jewelry and his father's music equipment.
He wasn't completely clean, either. He now admits that though he wasn't high during the interviews, he still was doing drugs.
He lied, he says, to spare his parents the embarrassment. They were so enthusiastic about his sobriety, he didn't want to disappoint them again.
"I was ashamed," he said. "They had to go through a lot of pain they didn't deserve."
Yet the shame wasn't enough to persuade him to stay clean. In the six months that followed, his addiction would lead to a half-dozen hospitalizations. It also would prompt additional crimes to pay for his drug habit.
"Once I started doing it, I really didn't care how they felt," he said. "I just wanted to get high."
Nick's parents never gave up on him. They raided his college fund, exhausted their savings and filed for bankruptcy protection to pay for their son's rehabilitation and legal bills.
They still saw the good in the boy who had been an honor student at his Catholic grade school and remained a polite teenager despite his addiction. In his weary brown eyes, Theresa said she could see the baby she brought home from the hospital.
The mother-son relationship, however, changed a few nights after Nick was arrested for residential burglary.
Frustrated by her inability to save him and scared for his future, Theresa broke down and sobbed in her child's arms.
She told Nick that she loved him. He said the same.
"I felt his arms tighten around me as if he was afraid to let go," Theresa said. "I didn't want it to end. I wanted us to hang onto each other forever."
Instead, she turned him over to the legal system. Nick was put in DuPage County jail in Wheaton, where the skinny, baby-faced teen lived among the facility's adult population.
He might not have minded jail, if not for the boredom that constantly gnawed at him.
The tedium convinced him he didn't want to go to prison. A conviction, which was almost certain, would carry a mandatory prison sentence.
The only other option was the DuPage County drug court, a recently revived program that allows addicts to avoid incarceration in exchange for going to rehab. After being accepted to the program, he spent six months in jail waiting for a bed to open at an area facility.
He eventually - and without much enthusiasm - went to Gateway treatment center in Lake Villa. The place, he thought, would be like all the others he had known.
"At first I went because I didn't want to go to prison," he said. "That was the only reason."
But something happened at Gateway. Nick clicked with his counselor and the other patients. After being clean for a few weeks, he says he decided he actually liked it.
"I realized I was happier than I had been in a long time," he said. "I felt free, even though I wasn't."
Nick began attending weekly church services. He had been baptized Catholic as a baby, but he decided to be christened again. An adult baptism, he said, offered him the autonomy he didn't have as an infant.
He grew to guard his independence during recovery. He even declined the option for family counseling, telling his parents he had to conquer his own demons.
His mom and dad agreed to take an uncharacteristic step back.
"It felt good," Theresa said. "It was a relief to let go."
Nick is acutely aware of the hardships his parents have endured because of him. The financial strain alone has left them with only one car and made losing their home a possibility.
"They didn't deserve this," he said. "They tried to help me, but they were powerless over me."
Theresa doesn't want Nick to leave rehab with any lingering guilt. She says she and Rick did what any parents would do.
"I don't want him to be ashamed because I am not," she says. "If he had cancer people would view it differently."
If he had cancer, his chances of survival might be better. Studies suggest less than 50 percent of heroin addicts successfully kick the habit.
With the odds against him, Nick made enough progress during a seven-month Gateway stay to be placed in a Waukegan halfway house. He moved in Dec. 22 and quickly gave in to temptation.
On his first day of job hunting, Nick drove around Lake County with two halfway house residents. The two men began talking about blowing off the job search and getting high.
Nick said he listened quietly, hoping his silence would be rewarded with an invitation to join them. It was. He did crack and heroin, a clear violation of his drug court deal.
If authorities discovered his relapse, he could be expelled from drug court and sent to prison. If he kept it hidden, he would remain on track to graduate from the program and receive two years of probation.
The decision was simple. Nick turned himself in as soon as he returned home.
"Once you want to stay clean, you feel guilty after you get high," he said.
He doubted he would be allowed to stay in drug court. He already had relapsed once before at Gateway, when he drank a bottle of cough syrup for the buzz.
The judge surprised him with a reprieve but made it clear the pardon would be Nick's last.
Nick knows he's out of chances. The next time he screws up, he'll find himself an initiate of the state corrections system.
He says he has obeyed the rules of his halfway house since his relapse. He leaves the home each morning at 8:30 a.m. and heads to his job at a Libertyville fast-food restaurant.
The 90-minute trek requires two bus transfers and a mile walk. He passes dozens of burger joints along the way, but none that are as willing to hire a convicted felon with a heroin and crack habit.
After work he goes to support group meetings at the halfway house. He returns home to Glendale Heights every Tuesday for court and Sunday to see his parents.
He doesn't like the visits very much. The old neighborhood - which police estimated had at least 14 heroin users within an eight-block radius two years ago - holds too many temptations.
Instead, he stays inside watching television or surfing the Internet. He occasionally helps with HEAL, the support group his mother started after his overdose.
Nick despised the group while in the throes of his addiction. He felt like a hypocrite at the meetings, listening to his mother praise his progress and share her hopes for him.
"I didn't want to have to go," he said. "Now, I want to help."
It's the same reason Nick gives for publicly discussing his rehabilitation. When he talked to the Daily Herald two years ago he politely - but clearly - participated at the insistence of his parents.
Now, he says, he has the opportunity to share his story and possibly save somebody else from the heroin nightmare.
"Society gave me more than one chance," he said. "I want to give back to society, even though I can't give it all that it's given to me."
Last week, Nick was accepted to a group home for recovering addicts in Waukegan. The move will allow him to work full-time at the restaurant and begin saving money for college.
"Nick is a kid who just needed the system to help him," said his public defender, William Padish. "I'd rather help him now than have him become one of my permanent clients."
Nick earned his GED while at Gateway and says he would like to become a youth drug counselor someday.
He also intends to keep praying - though now he asks God for something entirely different.
"I pray that I wake up in the morning," he says. "I actually like getting up now."