‘This can’t be real’

Families in Union County battle heroin addiction, and one Cranford mom asks ‘why my little girl?’

CRANFORD — There was a time when Lynn, 44, of Cranford, lived a normal life in this sleepy river town of 23,000, but not anymore.

That was a lifetime ago for this mother whose face betrays the living hell of knowing that tonight, tomorrow or next week, she could get a call informing her that her little girl, the one with the promising future and azure blue eyes, was found dead of a heroin overdose.

Earlier in the summer when LocalSource first spoke with this petite woman whose hair was casually pulled back in a ponytail, lines of worry edged her pale, pretty face. Voice flat and devoid of any emotion, she told the story of her 25-year-old daughter’s descent into the dark, destructive world of heroin addiction.

LocalSource changed the names of those involved to protect their privacy.

Tears brimming from her tired blue eyes, Lynn clutches an 8×10 high school graduation picture of her blonde daughter with the brilliant smile and eyes that mirror her own asking: “Why? Why my little girl? I don’t understand where we went wrong,” she says, her voice falling off to a whisper.

“Look at her. Look at how happy she was, because you know, she was a happy child and teenager,” she said, adding that Amy was into sports and very popular.

Her voice trails off at this point, because, as experts have told her time and again, there are no easy answers for why someone so young, and with so much promise, would sink into the hell she now exists in everyday.

Lynn tries to explain in a halting, thick voice about the night four years ago when she discovered her daughter was an addict.

“It was raining and I went up to her room to make sure her window was closed. She always left the window in her bedroom open, you know,” she said with a motherly half smile that quickly faded as she went on to describe opening the door and seeing her daughter sitting on the bed and a look of surprise on her face.

“I remember seeing that needle sticking out of her arm, the trickle of blood running down to her wrist and the only thing I remember is thinking this can’t be real,” the mother said, adding, “I kept thinking I would wake up because something like this couldn’t happen here, in this house, to our little girl in this town where our kids are supposed to be safe.”

Amy had just completed her second year of college in another state at a very well respected school and was home on summer break. Until that night, she admitted, when she opened the door to her daughter’s room and saw the needle in her vein, Lynn thought everything was fine.

After all, they had the beautiful Victorian house on the right street, in the right neighborhood in the right suburban town with great schools. Her husband commuted to the city by train every day to a well-paid job on Wall Street and she had been lucky to stay home since their three children were born.
It was, she said, “a good life. A happy life.”
“I often wonder if I hadn’t gone up there, maybe I would never have known and we wouldn’t be living this nightmare,” Lynn said softly.
At first Amy denied she was an addict and stormed out of the house. She was gone for several days, only to return to hastily pack a bag and say she was leaving to spend time with friends in the city.

Although Lynn begged and pleaded with her daughter not to go, her cries fell on deaf ears. After that, nothing was the same in that lovely home on that sleepy suburban street.

Lynn and her husband went into the city three or four times a week, driving aimlessly around, hoping and praying they would catch a glimpse of their daughter on the street, but they never did.

Eventually Amy came home but Lynn admitted it was a shock to see how much her daughter changed in a year.
“Her beautiful long hair was chopped off and unkempt, her skin this awful grayish color with oozing sores that she picked at constantly until they bled, “ said Lynn, pointing out that she knew Amy only came home to ask for money.

“I remember screaming at her. I had never screamed at her before, but I wanted to try and get through to her. I tried to take her in my arms but she shoved me away and I fell on the floor,” Lynn said, explaining what her daughter’s last words were to her that day.
“She grabbed money from my wallet, looked at me and said,‘Mommy, I love you, I’m sorry,’” the Cranford mother said.

Lynn believes her daughter’s heroin addiction began after she was injured playing soccer and was prescribed OxyContin for pain relief.

This mother, like countless others, had no idea this drug was considered a “gateway” to heroin. Before doctors started tightening up on prescribing this drug to an excess, though, OxyContin was the drug of choice. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010 alone there was enough OxyContin prescribed to medicate every person in New Jersey for a month.
OxyContin has been the nation’s most prescribed pain reliever for years, bringing in nearly $3 billion in sales annually.

When physicians began to tighten up on prescribing this painkiller, those already addicted turned to another opiate, heroin, which was cheaper and more readily available on the street.

Heroin actually mimics the action of natural chemicals, known as endorphins, which are produced by the body in response to pain. This activation produces a euphoric rush, a warm feeling of relaxation, a sense of security and protection and dissipation of pain, fear, hunger, tension and anxiety.

When heroin is snorted or smoked, the rush is intense. Any sense of anger, frustration or aggression disappears. Users enjoy a feeling of “being wrapped in God’s warmest blanket,” according to Drug Policy Alliance, a national company promoting drug policies.

Heroin was first developed from morphine in 1874 and was marketed as a cough suppressant and non-addictive morphine substitute, until it was discovered that it rapidly metabolized into morphine.

Heroin is manufactured from opium poppies, which are mostly cultivated in South America, Asia and Mexico. Although Afghanistan produces the majority of the world’s heroin, South American heroin has become the most prevalent here in the United States.

Known on the street as Big H, Black Tar, Chiva, Hell Dust, Horse, Negra, Smack and Thunder, heroin is typically sold as a white or brownish powder but it is rarely pure. Most street heroin is usually “cut” with other drugs or substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk or quinine.

With regular heroin use, a tolerance develops and the abuser must continue to use more heroin to achieve the same level of intensity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is extremely easy to not only become addicted to heroin, but also physically dependent on it as well.

Physical dependence occurs when your body adapts to the drug’s presence, causing intense physical withdrawal symptoms such as muscle and bone pain, diarrhea and vomiting, cold sweats and extreme discomfort.

Long term effects of heroin, which actually begin in an extremely short amount of time, destroy the body. Common conditions that plague heroin users include infection of the heart lining and valves, liver and lung disease, hepatitis and HIV and Aids.

Meanwhile, like thousands of others, Amy’s descent into drug addiction continued to spiral out of control over the next few years.

There were court appearances for possession and professionals who tried to reach out, but while she always promised the judge and her parents she would enter a rehabilitation facility to “get clean,” Amy always backed out or ran back to the city and the heroin that she seemingly was unable to live without.

In August, when Lynn called LocalSource to explain that Amy was home again, it was the first time her voice was not flat.
“Amy came to us and said she is ready to get help for her addiction. Isn’t that great news,” she asked, adding that this was the first time her daughter ever made such a move on her own.

“I think she is going to make it this time and get better,” the mother said, mentioning that her daughter asked that LocalSource come to the house before she left.

On the day LocalSource visited, Amy sat curled up on the couch in sweats even though it was a sunny 85-degree day. Dozing on and off, she eventually laid her head on her mother’s shoulder, which made her appear even more childlike and vulnerable.
Lynn’s eyes darted back and forth to her daughter, as if watching to see if she would disappear or bolt from the room. Her father paced back and forth in the foyer near a designer travel bag on wheels, periodically checking his cell phone for messages.

Amy appeared sick. Her face was a pale grayish yellow color, her skin covered with both dried and fresh sores. Her blond hair, no longer tumbling in curls down her back, was thin, short and lank, while she appeared to be underweight and malnourished.

When Amy’s cell phone rang, Lynn visibly stiffened. Both mother and father shot each other worried, nervous glances, while Amy walked into the kitchen to take the call.

A few minutes later Amy returned and seemed to be more awake and cheerful. She began to talk about “getting better” and going back to school. The change was startling.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” she said softly to no one in particular, adding that she was afraid of detox. Her mother, voice strong and loving, assured her she could, encouraged her to go one day at a time.

In the foyer, her father wiped away tears with a sparkling white monogrammed handkerchief and just shook his head.
A few days later Lynn called and said Amy never made it to the rehab facility. She disappeared into the crowd at the airport right before their flight was called and they have not heard from their daughter since. Lynn choked back tears, admitting she did not know how much more her family could take.

“What can we do?” she asked, but added “she is our little girl and we can’t help her. We don’t even know if she is alive or dead.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, treating addiction is an imperfect science. What may work for some, fails for others. The stigma of heroin addiction also has made families hide the problem, but unless the public replaces fear with empathy, addiction will remain a problem in the United States.

More importantly, addiction does not discriminate. It can and does end the lives of everyone from suburban teens to Hollywood actors.
NEXT WEEK: Another town, another story.