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A still from the film "Kleine Dealer", not a photo of the intervieweevia Wikimedia Commons

The heroin epidemic ravaging America’s youth

The drug has rocketed in popularity – we speak to an 18-year-old recovering addict who lost a lover and came out the other side

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Heroin has always been seen as a seedy drug. A dirty drug that junkies use. Shooting it up into their track-marked arms. When people think of heroin, they think of Trainspotting, dead rock stars and skinny, nodding-out city dwellers. But in the United States, the old stereotypes don’t hold. America is in the midst of a heroin epidemic that has clawed its way out to the suburbs. Referred to as ‘beans’ and ‘buttons’ that can be bought cheaply for $5-$10 dollars a hit – lunch money for kids these days – powder heroin has reared its ugly head in white, middle-class America, and kids are OD-ing and dying.

A once-illicit drug that involved needles, finding a vein and tying off your arm, heroin is now going mainstream in the form of designer pills. To find out more, we talked to a former addict who is now in recovery, 18-year-old Katherine Casagrande, from St Charles, Missouri, a county that has reported close to 30 overdose deaths this year.

“It shocked a lot of people that I was doing heroin because they were like, ‘I didn’t expect it to be you,’” says Casagrande. “But heroin doesn’t discriminate.” Casagrande, who has been clean for for about ten months now, started using drugs very young, at the age of of 14. Trying to fit in with her classmates at St Charles West, she experimented with marijuana and alcohol, but that led to other things.

“I got pressured when I went into high school,” she says. “I got involved with a lot of messy people. (During) freshman year I really didn’t do that much, but sophomore year I started going to parties and smoking, drinking and doing pills.” She found that OxyContin, Percocets and Xanax use was very widespread. It seemed that everybody was on pills, and Casagrande indulged.

“I don’t even remember half of my sophomore year,” she says. “I was on Xanax most of the time. Looking back now I hate Xanax but I’m an addict – if you put it in front of me I’ll take it. It started off every weekend. Then it started becoming every other day during the week, and then every day. I eventually ended up bringing alcohol to my cup in school just to get me through the day.” And from there she progressed to heroin.

“My boyfriend and I used to go down to the city to get some stuff but I never knew what it was,” she says. “But I was like, ‘Let me try it.’ I just thought it was, like, Percocets or something. We just started snorting it. We would say, ‘It’s not that bad because we’re only snorting it.’ I’ll think I’m an addict if I start shooting up, but obviously not.”

Casagrande found that her heroin habit progressed really fast. She was stealing money from her mother and was no longer able to hide her drug use. Her mother, distraught, blamed her boyfriend, but things really came to a head when that same boyfriend died of a heroin overdose on December 31 2014.

“She knew my boyfriend was on something,” says Casagrande. “A few days after James passed away, my mom just kept asking me, ‘Were you doing it? Were you doing heroin?’ Because obviously something is going to pop up in my mom’s head since my boyfriend just died of a heroin overdose.”

Three days after her boyfriend’s death, Casagrande’s mum cornered her about her addiction. She immediately got her daughter into treatment, but it didn’t work and Casagrande was caught at school nodding out. But she was in denial thinking that, because she only snorted the drug, that she wasn’t an addict. Even though her boyfriend OD-ed from snorting the drug.

“It’s crazy to think how my mind was like that,” she says. “To me it was no big deal because I was in active addiction. But now when I think about it, it makes my stomach sick because I didn’t care about who I hurt or what I did. If I wanted the drug, I was going to get it.”

Casagrande swore to herself that she was never going to use heroin again because her boyfriend died doing it, but after staying clean for a short period, she lapsed back into addiction. “Obviously his death wasn’t enough to stop me,” she recalls. “I didn’t think I had a problem. I was 17 at the time and I went to rehab again. I thought it was stupid and the thoughts kept coming into my head. People are always saying that snorting isn’t as bad as shooting it, but people don’t take into account your body tolerance, because you can only take so much and then your body gives.”

“I didn’t care about who I hurt or what I did. If I wanted the drug, I was going to get it”

Eventually, Casagrande learned that she had to surrender and go about things a different way. With Narcotics Anonymous and her counsellors at Preferred Family Healthcare, she has focused on keeping her side of the street clean in an honest way. With drugs easily available in the suburbs, the temptation is still there, but Casagrande doesn’t want to use any more. She feels like that part of her life is over. She knows that she is the only one that can keep herself clean.

“Doing heroin isn’t worth it,” she says. “The feeling is only temporary. It only helps you and pushes you along for so long, because one day you are going to fall. You need to figure out who you are first before you get involved with people like that. The pressure is just so unreal. The peer pressure. People are so time-invested with their drugs now. It’s like I need my money. When it gets to that point it’s pretty obvious that you need help.”

Casagrande has gotten the help she needs and seems well into her recovery, but there are tens of thousands of other kids going through the same thing she went through. They need help before they become just another overdose or statistic in the epidemic that’s engulfing America.