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Shout it loud: Don't take heroin's path to misery

In this Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015, photo, a

In this Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015, photo, a high school graduation picture of Alison Shuemake, center, and her parents Fred Shuemake, left, and Dorothy McIntosh Shuemake, rests on a table at her parents' home, in Middletown, Ohio. Dorothy and Fred Shuemake are drawing attention to the deadly heroin problem by citing the drug in their daughter's obituary. Alison Shuemake, 18, died Aug. 26, after a suspected heroin overdose. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) Credit: AP / John Minchillo

We longtime participants in 12-step recovery programs talk a lot about the changing profile of newcomers. Years ago, when an 18- or 20-year-old trudged down the steps of a church basement for that first meeting, surprised conversation among the old-timers would ensue. Things like: "I wish I'd come in at that age . . . It would have saved me a million bucks and prevented four divorces. Or at least two divorces."

But now there are so many kids in their teens and 20s venturing into the rooms, forced in by a parent or a judge or their own hope. It happens in nearly every meeting, and what's caused the change is heroin.

Drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin in the United States nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2012, and have climbed significantly on Long Island since 2011. Heroin use more than doubled among young adults ages 18 to 25 in the past decade nationwide. And the trend toward heroin has accelerated as prescription painkillers, legal heroin, have become scarcer and more expensive.

Heroin is cheap, at $5 to $10 per high. It is ridiculously available, as Newsday highlighted in a story about networks delivering the drug to homes around Long Island like large pepperoni pies. It is also unpredictable in terms of strength and additives, which makes it a minefield of overdose danger. And it is getting its hooks into nice kids, athletes, scholars -- hard workers from good families who, a few years after they start partying, find their lives have gone completely to hell.

Most of these young people also drank and smoked pot and used cocaine and hallucinogens. People can often abuse other highs for decades, pot and liquor in particular, without completely unraveling their lives. But throw heroin into the mix, for a fearless, careless kid, and it's often a quick flume ride into the darkness.

When I was in high school, there were people who didn't party, and those who drank and smoked pot. Cocaine made its appearance in college and early professional life for the party-inclined. But everyone seemed to know heroin was a bridge too far. It was totally unacceptable in any group I've ever been a part of, whether because the drug conjured images of needles or ghettoes or dead musicians, and most of the groups I've been a part of partied like terminally ill sailors who just won the lottery.

But somehow this message to kids -- that you absolutely cannot do heroin or your life will become a horror show of pain and recrimination -- has faded. That's partly because a lot of them get started with oxycodone and hydrocodone, cute pills from a doctor, and don't move to heroin until they're already hooked on the opiate the pills and heroin both contain.

No matter how much politicians bark, more law enforcement won't fix this. People love to get high, and as long as there is demand for heroin, there will be supply. And treatment isn't as surefire as we'd like. Heroin addiction is, for many, a chronic relapsing condition. Addicts are, subtly and not so subtly, broken, but they aren't cars. Even if you take them to a top repair shop, they may not be as good as new.

Two weeks ago, 18-year-old Alison Shuemake died in Ohio. In her obituary, her parents struck a blow against heroin addiction. They wrote, honestly and touchingly, that she died of a heroin overdose.

We need to be brutal and loud about this. Somehow, in Huntington and Dix Hills and Smithtown and Great Neck and Syosset and Babylon and Bellport, I see talented, beloved young people taking heroin. It's not like liquor or pot. It's absolute poison. And if every parent and grandparent and sibling and friend forced to learn this lesson would shout it from the hilltops, it might help to stop this plague feeding on its ever-younger victims.