Across the country, heroin abuse among new users has increased by 60-percent in the last decade. The nation's problem with opiates, like heroin, has even gained the attention of the country's leaders, following the February overdose death of actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Now, many leaders nationwide are now calling for a public health response.
Nationwide statistics show that heroin usage is more prevalent in, of all places, suburbia. But research also suggests that the drug has no respect of economic, social or regional boundaries.
And local drug treatment professionals say the nation's problem with heroin is mirrored in Abilene.
A 26-year-old former heroin addict recalls the feeling of his bones chilling from inside-out after his first shot of heroin.
"When I was 23 I was introduced to heroin. I became an IV user and from that point on, it ruined my life and destroyed me,” says Zachary, who didn't provide his last name to remain anonymous.
Hoffman's death shined a national spotlight on the uptick of heroin usage, and in Abilene, the spike in heroin addictions is beginning to emerge from the dark, as well.
"Nothing could stop me,” “I used, used and used, no matter what. I just used."
Just as for many of the annual 156,000 new heroin users, for Zachary, other drugs like non-medical prescription pain killers served as a gateway to heroin usage. It's a pattern that Cindy Wier, who is the CEO of the Serenity House in Abilene, has noticed.
"The people coming in for our detox unit, we look at their heroin, methadone and prescription drug usage, and those are all opiats,” explains Wier. “And they detox in the same way. All three of those were beginning to rise and on the increase every month."
The Serenity House was the first drug treatment center to call Zachary out of the three he'd shown interest in once he decided he done allowing heroin to control his life.
“I called my dad and told him to come get me, and said that I was ready for treatment,” says Zachary.
"From our admissions, it seems that heroin use has really exploded with the young people, and it's real prevalent in the young 20s,” states Wier.
The center's admission statistics also suggest that within the last year, heroin has begun to rival the staple drugs of choice.
"For the people who are admitted to detox, it's about 40-45% who claim that alcohol is their drug of choice. Now, heroin and the opiate family, it's percentage exceeds alcohol use, and it's in the high 40-percentale.”
Agents in the Abilene Police Department's narcotics unit are seeing a similar trend.
Laws cracking down on other drugs have played a role in the growing problem with opiate usage, specifically heroin.
"Probably, over the last 2-3 years we've been able to get some ends into the heroin crowd and increase our arrests in that area,” says Sergeant Van Holdbrook.
The unit quantifies drug arrests through a national reporting system. Heroin is in penalty group one, along with a number of other drugs. Sergeant Holdbrook says the system “doesn't allow the narcotics team to separate arrests by specific drugs, only by penalty groups.”
Law enforcement officials both nationwide and in Abilene credit some of the increase in heroin usage to the availability of the drug and a decline in prices. According to Sergeant Holdbrook, in Abilene, street value of a hit of heroin is $20.
Sergeant Holdbrook says most of the heroin supply here in Abilene is transported from larger cities like Dallas. And he says that one hit can sometimes be as small as a finger-tip, but more lethal than many first-time users expect. Zachary, who says heroin became to him what blood is to a vampire, surely didn't think it would have such an impact on his life.
"Coming off of heroin is horrible,” recalls Zachary. “You can die from it. They(Serenity House) have a great detox team to help you detox, but it's not fun. You have to be ready for it mentally and physically.”
Zachary has lines of track marks on his arms from shooting up heroin that will forever remind him of his struggle with the lethal drug. He says, in the end, he's grateful that after trying to shake the drug at least 100 times alone, he finally enlisted help.
"I've had heroin goggles on for six years and now I'm looking at life clear-headed, and it's totally different. We're not put on this earth to be heroin addicts. Once you get treatment and get out, you're life really starts."
***Here's contact information for drug treatment facilities in Abilene:
- The Serenity House of Abilene:
1546 N 2nd St
Abilene, TX 79601
- Jubilee House of Abilene:
433 Reading St
Abilene, TX 79603