‘Heroin Was My Life Preserver’

Why teenagers across the country are finding love in heroin

  December 11, 2018

Vicki Allendorf noticed that her oldest son Zachary was losing weight. “Mom, I’ve just been working out,” he’d say. But Allendorf, who is Midwestern-nice with a big pinch of Type A, knew that her skater son was no gym rat. “He looked gaunt,” she said. In the early 2000s, drinking and partying was how kids typically passed the time, especially in small cities on the edge of the Mississippi River. Around 2008, opioids like OxyContin, and eventually heroin, spread across the Midwest. Zachary was one of the tens of thousands of teens who had gone from using OxyContin recreationally to being trapped in a full-blown addiction.

Shortly after Allendorf realized that her oldest son was using opioids, she learned her two other sons were also addicted to heroin. “Eventually, it was their whole friend group,” she said. Terrified, Allendorf sought support from a local Families Anonymous group, which pushed a religious approach to addiction treatment. “Parents were telling me to ‘let go and let god.’ If I ‘let go and let god’ my kids will die tonight,” Allendorf thought to herself. Frustrated by the lack of resources and information, she took matters into her own hands.

In 2012, she filled in the blank fields for a new Facebook group. She called it I Hate Heroin. “The only thing I could feel at that moment was how much I hated this drug,” Allendorf said. “It’s destroying my kids. It’s destroying me.” She loved her sons, who were sensitive and caring boys, whose lives revolved around music and snowboarding. But she hated heroin’s grip on their lives.

Allendorf had unwittingly tapped the internet’s jugular vein. Anger and hatred multiply like bacteria on social media. Add a dose of grief and desperation and I Hate Heroin snowballed from a few dozen parents in Midwestern towns to thousands of struggling families nationwide searching for help on Facebook. Unlike online groups like Fuck Heroin Foundation and The Addict’s Mom, I Hate Heroin was less about posting irreverent memes, selling T-shirts, or driving people to partnered treatment centers. Allendorf’s motivation was to fill a gap in resources for the Midwest. She has no staff, and no ties to treatment facilities looking for patients on the internet.

I Hate Heroin became a thriving online community where parents could procure naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, and share information about what kind of treatments work and which don’t. Maybe most importantly, parents sought advice in staying sane and maintaining healthy boundaries. I Hate Heroin morphed into a sign-off tag, Allendorf explains, “People were sharing their life story and they’d end a sentence with IHH.”

Anger and hatred multiply like bacteria on social media. Add a dose of grief and desperation and I Hate Heroin snowballed to thousands of struggling families searching for help on Facebook.

As the group grew, Allendorf’s kids continued to struggle with addiction. Her sons stopped and started treatments, going days and weeks off heroin, only to go back to it, a cycle that’s increasingly difficult to survive. On April 9, 2016, Allendorf’s worst nightmare materialized: Two of her sons, 31-year-old Zachary and 27-year-old Terry, overdosed on illicit fentanyl that was sold as heroin. (Illicit fentanyl overdoses jumped a whopping 540 percent that year.) “IHH will be shut down for the next week,” Allendorf posted. “I lost two of my sons to overdose tonight. Pray for our family and for peace for my sons. I will never again be the same. Vicki.”

But Allendorf never shut down IHH, and as she grieved and planned their funerals, her page lit up. The post announcing the overdoses of her sons is still live, and has over 8,000 comments. “My heart hurts for you,” one commenter posted. Another said, “I am so very sorry. We lost our nephew to heroin two years ago. My sister has not recovered.” Thousands of posts echoed a shared grief.

I Hate Heroin today is a community of over 190,000 people and growing, both online and offline. Though most of the group is made up of family members of addicted loved ones, sometimes those who are suffering from addiction show up, too. Allendorf is grateful to everyone involved, but recently something has shifted in her relationship to I Hate Heroin. She no longer believes in the group’s name. Hate and anger are typical — and rational — knee-jerk responses to the damage wrought by addiction. But they’re also dead ends. While it may be painful, Allendorf has recognized that moving beyond hate and abandonment toward love and connection can keep people safe and alive. She’s no longer a fan of the name, but, she says, “It’s too late to change it now.”

Allendorf reminds me of my own mom, and maybe I remind her of her own sons. In 2007, around the time Allendorf discovered her sons were using opioids in Iowa, I had graduated high school in the suburbs of Chicago, supremely addicted to OxyContin, and was just beginning to dabble with heroin.

It’s weird to realize one day that you and your friends are part of a nationwide “epidemic,” but my path toward opioid addiction was practically boilerplate. After pills became scarce and expensive, twentysomethings all over the country turned to a cheap and plentiful heroin market, and started dropping like flies. By 2015, heroin overdose deaths had more than tripled. Today, overdoses are the number one cause of death among Americans aged 50 and under, with the steepest increases among 15- to 34-year-olds. As if heroin were not lethal enough already, the market is now poisoned by super-potent fentanyl analogues, manufactured in China and Mexico.

Contrary to popular belief, managing an addiction doesn’t look like a hedonistic party, but rather a fight to stay alive. If it’s so bad, people ask me, why’d I start using? To answer this, I defer to psychologists, neuroscientists, and writers who have dedicated their careers to untangling addiction, and why humans succumb to it. “Heroin gave me the comfort that all the other drugs had only teased me with,” neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz writes in Unbroken Brain, her bestseller about addiction. “Soaring on heroin, I felt safe, wrapped in a cozy protective blanket… For what seemed like the first time ever, I felt truly safe and loved.”

Heroin was my life preserver, and though it may sound strange, it kept me afloat for a long time. The love and warmth was an antidote to living an alienated life in a garish world.

I’ve also come to describe the feeling opioids gave me as a warm embrace, a feeling I wasn’t finding from friends, partners, and family, nor in books or art. The world felt flat and desolate, like I was floating alone in the middle of a steel-gray ocean with no one in sight. Heroin was my life preserver, and though it may sound strange, it kept me afloat for a long time. The love and warmth was an antidote to living an alienated life in a garish world.

“Nearly every behavior seen in addiction is also found in romantic love,” Szalavitz writes, explaining that both reactions share many of the same pathways and neurotransmitters in the brain. I know this is true, because I felt it in my body.

Much like the way you identify a specific smell attached to the person you love, the object of addiction becomes associated with sights, smells, and sounds that heighten anticipation. I’ll never forget the faint smell of vinegar that lingered in the air slightly as I heated up the heroin, watching the powder rapidly dissolve into an injectable solution. Just writing that sentence, six years later, causes my stomach to churn. The cue is still there, a sign that my brain can’t shake what’s been deeply learned.

Whether in love or a heroin high, the human brain is firing on all cylinders, and will naturally seek out more of a good thing, even though it could be detrimental in the long run. Our desire for the drug eventually morphs into need, and our capacity to exert control over it slowly diminishes. The thing we desired, that made us feel at ease, turns on us like a bad lover.

Addiction can feel like a self-constructed prison, perpetually escaping sickness every six hours, only to wake in the same cold place. Punishing us further only amplifies our need to escape the hell we’re living in. If an embrace is what we’re after, throwing us into literal concrete rooms ensures we won’t obtain it.

Throughout history, America has oscillated between compassion and punishment for addiction. Who gets treated and who gets punished largely depends on who is addicted. In the late 19th century, 60 percent of opium users in the U.S. were white women, according to historian David T. Courtwright, author of Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America. Opium and its derivatives were not criminalized until their use was pegged to Chinese migrants and members of the “white underworld.” No one had previously thought to punish sick old white ladies.

A recent New York Times headline sums up our current stage of this cycle: “White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs.” But old habits die hard, and the impulse to punish and shame people pervades America’s treatment approach, sometimes playing out in ways that are both subtle and explicit, like at facilities that use old-school, confrontational therapies that humiliate patients.

When Allendorf created I Hate Heroin, she felt like her sons had turned into “sociopaths,” and didn’t know how to help them, let alone sympathize with their suffering. She had her own stigma to work through.

Drug users know a lot about what makes their addiction tick, and what kind of support they need to get better. Trying to help a population without knowing what they need creates too big a blindspot to be effective.

Over the years of running the group, her mindset, mired in anger and uncertainty, slowly began to change. What helped her see beyond her outrage was talking to young, addicted people who had joined the group. At first, Allendorf wanted nothing to do with them. “They’re the problem!” she said about the young people in the group, who reminded her too much of her own sons.

But one day, a young woman messaged Allendorf on Facebook. She was currently using heroin and shed new light on the behavior of Allendorf’s sons. If their eyes looked like pin points, they were using; if they ached and moaned and hid in their rooms, they were dopesick. Allendorf quizzed her on everything from what motivates her to use, to how she gets along with her parents. “I knew nothing, and here she was educating me about addiction,” Allendorf said. She came to realize that her understanding of addiction was misguided. “They’re not the problem, they’re the solution. These kids are my solution.” Drug users know a lot about what makes their addiction tick, and what kind of support they need to get better. Trying to help a population without knowing what they need creates too big a blindspot to be effective.

Allendorf has left behind hate in favor of a philosophy she calls “radical love.” She uses her group to share articles about harm reduction rather than lectures about going cold turkey. She fights local cops on policies like syringe exchange, which reduces the spread of blood-borne diseases. She distributed naloxone before her local government gave her permission. Allendorf began to break all the undignifying rules that negate the base humanity of addicted people. “Dead people can’t recover,” is a popular slogan in the group.“I’m not so much about more ‘toughness’ anymore,” she told me. “It’s about more love.”

Talking to Allendorf, I can’t help but think about my family, and my journey from hate toward love. I think of how I watched my parents become afraid for me, and then afraid of me. My mother had been an operating room nurse and my father was a successful executive, but their status and resources didn’t provide them with the answers they needed to help me. Eventually, they sent me away to a pricey treatment facility, where I lived for three months. I agreed to go, not because I wanted to get better, but because I was exhausted. I could barely lift my bruised arms to sign my name on the admission forms. Beneath the exhaustion, I was also afraid of losing my parents.

At times, inside that facility, I was berated by the staff. I was called a selfish, lying junkie. Old habits. My mental agony was outmatched by the physical withdrawal, which feels like a boomerang barreling right at you twice as fast as you threw it. Heroin made me feel warm and the withdrawal made me freezing. Feeling nothing and numb gave way to hypersensitivity, feeling everything, viscerally. The facility didn’t believe in using medicine that would’ve made me feel better, a cruel extension of an even weirder religious tenet that somehow posits suffering as noble, that it’s the first step to realizing deeper spiritual truths. Withholding medication led to no such awakening, only insomnia and diarrhea.

The connections I have today, with my family, my partner, is why I no longer feel the need for heroin’s embrace. I found the love I had been chasing, and I’m able to feel it.

Feeling the pain and suffering, being yelled at and called names, wasn’t what helped me. But the bonds that began to form between me and the other guys inside the facility did. And when my arms weren’t so sore, I started writing letters to old friends and family. Slowly, I reconnected with the world. For the first time in a long time, I began to feel loved and cared for. I learned that I didn’t need to inject a synthetic version of those feelings.

The connections I have today, with my family, my partner, is why I no longer feel the need for heroin’s embrace. I found the love I had been chasing, and I’m able to feel it.

Allendorf may not ever like heroin, and she may forever hate April 9, but those emotions no longer fuel her work today. Allendorf prefers to share stories of people who’ve gotten better. She’s most proud of her middle son, who now has three years of recovery under his belt. For job security and privacy, he requested anonymity.

Last April 9, he posted, “I will hate this day forever” on Facebook. He’s said that when he’s bored, he thinks about calling his brothers and asking what they’re up to. A year ago, he posted, “Even though I [sic] fuking hate you at times we are always brothers.” But more recently, like his mom, he has found ways to love them. “Stay close to the ones you love,” he said, “life is truly too short to feel hate, anger, jealousy. Now days, I feel nothing but love for everyone, even if I don’t know you, you are a friend.”

Addiction nearly tore their whole family apart. But they’ve stuck together. Today, when Allendorf signs off using “IHH,” she means, “I have hope.”

“I still have one son,” she said. “If that isn’t hope, I don’t know what is.”

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply