Rays of hope emerge from dark tales of drug abuse
Drug court worked for some. Or the realization there are reasons to live. People and things to be better enjoyed without the aid of artificial substances. A belief in something greater, a creator. The fulfillment that can come from meaningful relationships.
While many Northwest and West suburban teens and young adults are struggling and dying because of addiction to heroin and other hard-core drugs, many also are succeeding at battling the disease and staying sober.
They've found help from others, from their faith, from realizing they could work at living clean and that that kind of life is worthwhile.
These are some of their stories:
'You're never over it'
Turning 21 was a turning point for Tina Zavitz.
The St. Charles woman spent her birthday, two years ago, in Kane County jail after getting caught with heroin in a hotel room with some friends. It was that arrest that introduced her to Kane County's drug rehabilitation court.
Zavitz recently celebrated her 23rd birthday - on Jan. 8 - drug free. She's been clean for 1 1/2 years.
"I've done a lot of growing in terms of realizing that it's not as hard as I thought to stay clean," Zavitz said.
In October, she was among 18 people who graduated from Kane County's Drug Rehabilitation Court program. On Nov. 19 she gave birth to a healthy daughter - Madison Kay Zavitz. A doctor once warned Zavitz she wouldn't be able to have children if she kept using drugs.
"I look at her (Madison) and I have no reason to (use drugs)," said Zavitz, who plans to enroll in nursing classes this fall. "There are a lot more things going in my life that that doesn't seem to be a necessity."
Zavitz still goes to support group meetings and meets with other drug court graduates. And even though she's done with the court rehabilitation program, she occasionally visits Judge James Doyle.
Zavitz said staying drug-free has had its benefits.
The criminal charges she faced are gone. Graduating from drug court earned her a clean slate.
Her parents trust her once again now that she no longer has to lie about her addiction or steal to get the cash to buy drugs.
But, Zavitz said, being drug-free isn't without its temptations.
She occasionally runs into some of her old friends who still doing heroin. In the past, that could have triggered a relapse. But now, Zavitz says she gives them a quick hello, walks away or lets them know she's "not on that page today."
"You're never over it," she said of her addiction. "It's just a matter of constant maintenance."
'A complete 180'
It has been more than two years since Scott McDonald took his last hit of heroin.
Nowadays, the 25-year-old man from Elburn spends his time telling others about the dangers of heroin and other drugs.
In the past year he has spoken to parents and students at church groups and town meetings and at Northern Illinois University and Naperville North and Kaneland high schools.
"It's one of the most effective ways I've been able to help people," said McDonald, who also helps run a transitional house in Elgin for homeless people and recovering addicts.
His mom, Linda, even has accompanied him on a few of the talks.
McDonald tells teenagers what his life was like when he was on heroin: his arrests, the withdrawal sickness, how drugs hurt his family and how a faith-based program in St. Charles turned things around for him.
"My life has done a complete 180," he said, adding that this is the longest time he has been drug-free.
His mother agrees and attributes Scott's sobriety mainly to his faith.
"That's been really a big connection for him," she said, noting that Scott attends weekly prayer meetings and leads a weekly Bible study. "That's been a real big contributor to his positive recovery and health."
McDonald gets along better with his parents. And Linda says her marriage has improved, without the stress of worrying about her son's addiction or fighting over him.
McDonald remains in Kane County's drug rehabilitation program but said he hopes to graduate this spring.
He says his words seem to have had an impact on parents and teens.
"I think more people have opened their eyes," he said. "Parents are asking more questions about what do we do and where do we go."
'I thought it was a phase'
There was a time when Jessica Scahill thought her life, living on the streets of Chicago and stealing and pawning to feed her $300-a-day heroin habit was no problem.
She had, after all, played the role of the proverbial normal kid only years earlier, pulling decent grades, even while using drugs, at Conant High in Hoffman Estates and joining the musical and variety show casts and the softball team.
So even when things got bad -she was expelled from Conant and kicked out of her house - Scahill kept telling herself it was just a phase.
Even when she lived along sides of buildings and in laundry rooms, hanging onto life at a meager 90 pounds and riding the train at night for something to do. Even as she watched people who had overdosed be tossed into Dumpsters by other users who didn't want to get caught by the cops.
"I thought it was a phase for the longest time," she said recently.
Her overdose proved her wrong.
It came when she was 18 years old, on St. Patrick's Day, 1998.
"I knew I had to do something," she said of her former addiction. "It was life and death for me."
Today, the 23-year-old Palatine resident sits with her hair in a fresh ponytail and her eyes clear at Families and Adolescents In Recovery, a Rolling Meadows-based center she credits with getting, and keeping, her sober.
It's been 4 years.
"Almost five," she said, grinning and reaching out to knock on the wooden desk beside her.
She knows she's a lucky one.
In the hospital after her overdose, the doctors found rat poison in her blood - something sometimes found in hard drugs.
Scahill went through detox, uncertain of where her life was headed and miserable from the wretched symptoms of heroin withdrawal: cramps, seizures, vomiting.
"I didn't know who I was anymore," she recalled. "I had lost my sense of self. It was pretty bad."
Her sobriety lasted a week.
A week later, she went to FAIR, a program her dad found. It wasn't easy, but knowing she needed to turn her life around made it easier.
She stopped talking to her addict friends -"They didn't even care," she said, and now most of them are in prison or dead - and threw out her old wardrobe and "everything that reminded me of using."
She remembered those first precious moments of sobriety and smiled. She'd been using something, pot or alcohol, acid, cocaine or heroin, since she was 13.
"Everything was brand new," she said of sobriety's start. "There were stars and trees. Normal life was 3-D, and it was amazing, because I hadn't seen it in so long. It was like being a little child."
After years of being numbed from heroin, she didn't remember how to talk to people or deal with tough situations, but she made it through with baby steps, she said.
She picked up her General Education Development high school equivalency test and began taking classes at Harper College. Today, she's two classes away from her associate's degree and is embarking on a stint as an addictions counselor at FAIR. She's rekindled her family relationships.
She talks openly about her past and enjoys helping other teens battle their own addictions.
It helps her stay sober.
"It helps me get out of myself," she explained. "Part of the reason I went through what I did was to help other people. I should share.
"I cannot forget where I came from. Would I ever change it? No. I like the person I am today - the good and the bad. I just enjoy life. My feet are planted firmly on the ground. I like me."
'God had plans for me'
Tom Carnevale lived in close quarters with convicted murderers and other violent criminals during 21 months in state prison on drug-related charges.
After all that time, freedom felt uncomfortable and odd when he first was released a little more than a year ago.
"I wasn't used to being around people," he said. "It was tough to be home."
Carnevale, a 22-year-old Lisle resident who lives with his father and younger brother, got hooked on heroin at 16, a few months after his mother died from breast cancer. For three years, he stole from family and others to support his heroin habit, made several attempts at rehabilitation and failed. He also watched two friends die from the drug. He nearly died himself once before a former friend set him up to make a drug deal with undercover police. He was arrested, went to jail and prison and finally got sober.
"If I didn't come to prison I really strongly believe I would be dead right now," Carnevale said in an interview just over a year ago. "I was more lost than anybody knows he could be lost."
There have been some struggles to adjust, but Carnevale will celebrate three years of sobriety next month.
For a long time, he could not find a job. Six employers rejected him after interviews once they found out he was a felon. With help from a fellow recovering addict, he eventually got a job as a waiter in Naperville.
And he began to make real friendships for the first time in his life.
"Before I had friends and they'd say, 'Hey Tom,' but then it was, 'Got a car? Got any money?'" he said. "When my friends call me today, they really want to know how I'm doing."
He has found his footing in his first year of freedom.
He earned top grades in journalism, English, religion and other classes during two semesters at College of DuPage. He's attended an average of 10 to 15 meetings weekly with other recovering addicts. The 12-step meetings helped occupy his time, especially when he was unemployed.
Carnevale said he's followed through on plans made in prison to help others stay off drugs. Now, he regularly attends Naperville Bible Church, chairs 12-step meetings for teens and others and speaks about his addiction as often as possible. He will be part of a discussion panel at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at his one-time high school, Wheaton's St. Francis.
For the past six months, he's worked his way up from part-time to full-time sales work for a worldwide cell phone/two-way radio retailer. He now handles major corporate accounts for the firm and is making enough money to have bought a new car.
Carnevale attributes his success at staying sober to faithfully working the 12-step program, giving himself over to his belief in a higher power. "Everything that's happened to me has been a gift," he said. "I put a little bit of work in and I got more benefit from it than I ever imagined."
He's experienced a bit of what his father, Craig, felt in watching some of the teens he's worked with turn back to drugs, but he also knows from his own experience they can't be helped until they're ready.
"All I can do is say, 'I'm here when you're sick of the pain,' " he said.
Recovery will be a lifelong process, but Carnevale is sick of the pain. He starts each day on his knees praying for the strength to stay sober.
"God had plans for me," he said. "It's up to me to follow and be of service. I'm trying not to have insurmountable expectations. It's all about today."