Dennis Chambers was introduced to heroin on spring break in 2013. “Dude, it’s cool,” a buddy told him. “Why don’t you just try it?”
He was a freshman at Seton Hall University in Pennsylvania, 18, and had been battling prescription painkiller addiction for two years.
Home for the summer, Chambers commuted daily from Mantua, N.J., to Camden, N.J., to feed what quickly became a heroin habit.
“It made all my troubles go away, but it brought me to the lowest point imaginable,” he says. “I had everything going for me. And I lost it.”
Unlike less fortunate heroin addicts – the gifted actor Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind – Chambers didn’t lose his life.
He went to inpatient rehab, stays clean and sober through 12-Step meetings, and attends community college near Scranton, Pa.
“Recovery doesn’t stop when a person gets out of treatment,” says Randy Brooks Miller, a nurse who works in Kennedy Health System’s behavioral health program.
“Recovery is a lifelong commitment,” adds Miller, whose daughter, 27, has been clean and sober for three years.
The death of Hoffman, 46, on Feb. 2 has drawn attention to treatment of drug and alcohol addiction (the actor relapsed after rehab) and also to heroin’s resurgence.
Associated with renegades of jazz and literature in the ’50s and briefly made chic by seemingly anorexic fashion models in the ’90s, heroin has become a drug of choice among some suburban teens and young adults, particularly in the Northeastern United States.
“We’re seeing an increase in heroin addiction among the young people who come through our doors,” says Harold Williams, director of clinical services at the Lakeside Recovery Center, an outpatient program in Sicklerville, N.J.
Like Chambers, users often start by filching prescription painkillers from home medicine cabinets. These powerful pills can cost $50 or more on the street, making heroin at $10 or less a bag an appealing option.
But opiate addiction is no bargain, and recovery is far from easy. Detox is unpleasant at best; relapse is frequent, although certainly not inevitable.
“The biggest myth of all is that people have to want treatment” in order for it to work, says Stephanie Loebs, director of medical services at Seabrook House, an inpatient program near Bridgeton, N.J. “They need treatment.”
Family members also need help, says Chambers’ mother, Barbara Amadei. She teaches English at Clearview High School, where her son recently spoke to students about addiction.
Amadei also recently established a chapter of the support group Families Anonymous. About a dozen people come to the meetings.
Parents often are ashamed that a child has become hooked on heroin – as if anyone could bear the blame for a complex disease that affects the mind as well as the body.
“People don’t choose to become addicts,” Miller says. And suggesting that addicted people should simply straighten themselves up, she adds, is akin to telling a clinically depressed person to snap out of it.
Chambers, in his sixth month of sobriety, says he relapsed several times until he finally decided to get serious. “I had never given recovery a shot,” he says. “I decided to take this opportunity and run with it.”
Treatment professionals like Williams and Loebs say the success stories help them keep the faith.
“There’s help,” Loebs says. “And there’s hope.”