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Heroin: Addicts tell their stories

Kelle Lynn • Jul 22, 2015 at 11:02 AM

Imagine being swaddled in a luxurious blanket while being cradled to sleep by a loving “god.”

All your pain, fear and anguish simply melt away like it never existed. It feels like a miracle is happening in your body. Nothing compares to this feeling of tranquility. Nothing in life matters except repeating this sensation over and over again.

According to many, this is what happens after you've injected a very powerful drug into your body, a drug that has taken countless lives — heroin.       

A highly addictive and dangerous drug, heroin is also known as Junk, Smack, H, Brown Sugar, Horse, Skag, Nose Drops, Thunder, Big H and Hell Dust. It can be smoked, snorted or injected. 

Once the drug only existed among what some may have considered the derelicts of society, but heroin has made its way off the street and right into the homes of stable Midwest families who gave their children love, guidance, Christian schools and church on Sunday. The children they raised are bright with once-promising futures, but ultimately became thieves and liars and prostitutes. The families desperately send their children to rehab facilities with high hopes of recovery, only to be let down again and again when their child returns and continues to choose the drug over family and life itself.

The parents become consumed with fear of the worst that could happen to their loved one: prison or death. 

This is the journey of three former heroin addicts from West Michigan who could have faced a life behind bars, or were only an overdose away from death's door. Then they found a whole new approach to living a happy and drug-free life in another part of the world they never even dreamed of visiting. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a lively and cultural city where Spanish is the main language, even though the country achieved its independence from Spain in 1816. The Spanish influence still resides in the countryside where taking an afternoon siesta is a part of everyday life, but not so much in the hustle-bustle lifestyle for the almost 3 million residents of Buenos Aires.  

Nestled inside a modest section of the city is a wellness center called CMI Abasto, a 10-bed facility that opened its doors in 2000 to help people by using their individualized medical and philosophical approach to living a happy life. CMI is not a rehab center; however, it boasts a 99.9 percent cure rate for addiction for those who complete treatment, since it offers patients a treatment plan tailored specifically to each individual. 

Unlike the majority of rehab centers and 12-step groups in the United States, CMI doesn't believe addiction is a disease. Its staff believes you are an addict solely based on the consequences of your own bad choices. 

Jimmy Lont, 24; Brittany Rathjen, 25; and Ben Fris, 32 — all from Holland, Mich. — didn't have a childhood of neglect and abuse to which they could blame their descent into the underground world where needles and guns are a way of life. They had plenty of love and family vacations, but that didn't stop them from experimenting with drugs and alcohol in their teenage years. In fact, it never occurred to any of them that they would eventually cross the line to becoming junkies from heroin. 

"Like most kids, I started with alcohol and marijuana around 14 years old," Fris said.  "But, after years of a debilitating back condition which included surgeries, I became addicted to doctor-prescribed prescription drugs. … The escalation for me was over the course of 4-5 years.  Then I made the leap to heroin. 

“Eventually, I lost the things that were most dear to me — my work, my fiancée, and relationships with family and friends,” he said. “Heroin is the one drug I told myself I would never do." 

Fris went as far as stealing money from relatives to support his addiction. He has been to rehab twice and ended up in jail at least nine times.

Lont said he started smoking marijuana and cigarettes, plus drinking alcohol the summer before his freshman year at Holland Christian High School, where he was a star athlete.  

"I honestly did not think that I would ever end up shooting heroin," Lont said.

When he was 18 years old and a freshman at Ferris State University, he became close with a girl who was on heroin and they started skipping school together. He said the first time he tried snorting it up his nose, he ran to the bathroom to throw up since it was so intense. But that didn't keep him from trying it again. 

"From the second it's in your body, you can feel it work and you don't care about anything,” Lont said. “But once the drug fades away, you feel everything you have done, so it's twice as important to find more and get back to that moment of chemically induced bliss." 

Lont dropped out of college, became a dealer and sold drugs, plus stole money from family members to support his habit. But life took a drastic turn after a good friend from high school, Jeff Christensen, died of an overdose from the heroin that Lont sold him. Lont turned himself in to the Holland police, then waited out his time in the county jail with felony charges looming over his life. 

While in jail, he learned about CMI Abasto from a probation officer, and arrangements were made with the court for Lont to leave the country to seek treatment. 

Lont and Rathjen knew each other from attending Holland Christian High School. Rathjen had a daughter when she was 17, but still graduated high school. When she was 20, she made a decision to move in with a friend in Grand Rapids who was on heroin while her parents raised her daughter. 

"Initially, I was sad for that group of friends, but it looked like they loved the high and it felt great,” Rathjen said. “It wasn't long before I had the needle in my arm and was hooked. It took over my life and soon I was doing anything I needed to do for heroin." 

Eventually, she was living in a house with other homeless people. They didn't even have basic necessities like food and toilet paper. 

"It's different for women in the drug world," Rathjen said. "It's harsher in some ways. I had to shoot up every two hours. If I didn't have the money, then I had to have sex with the dealer or allow the dealer to pimp me out. I went through a lot of rapes and beatings, too." 

Even though heroin costs around $10 a hit (pack), it has a short-term effect. Shooting up every few hours can easily run several hundred dollars a day.   

"I preferred heroin over being with my own daughter,” Rathjen said. "I didn't want her to see me sick. It was a constant battle when I heard my daughter's voice on the phone." 

Rathjen came close to death from overdosing more than once. She said her friends dropped her off at the door of the hospital on one occasion. On another, she was dead for two minutes before the doctor was able to get her heart beating again. When she woke up and realized her heroin high was gone, she left the hospital as fast as she could in search of another fix. 

The cycle is brutal. Once the heroin wears off, the addict becomes very sick — sometimes to the point of wanting to die. Agonizing withdrawal symptoms like sneezing, hot and cold sweats, body aches, diarrhea, restless legs, and vomiting all hit. Plus, inner turmoil and self-hatred become real emotions they aren't yet ready to face.

"There is a crossover between prescriptions drugs and heroin that people don't understand," said Joseph Rannazzisi, the deputy assistant administrator for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency's Office of Diversion Control. "It's a common occurrence for a doctor to prescribe hydrocodone and you get a euphoric rush from the drug. You want that rush again so eventually you take more to get the effect you're looking for. This runs across the board with opioids. Your body starts to build a tolerance to the drug. It's not one tablet anymore — you're taking two to five. 

"Then you move to a stronger class of drugs, which cost around $30 to $40 a tablet, and end up with a $150-a-day habit, which most people can't afford. Now you're addicted and that's when people move to heroin. Heroin is cheap and plentiful at $10 a bag. You start doing things for the drug you wouldn't normally do. You steal, you hurt people. The cycle of abuse turns into the cycle of addiction, which is a tragedy. 

"If we don't settle this pharmaceutical problem, we'll always have a heroin problem," Rannazzisi said. "The movement to heroin is a natural progression from pharmaceuticals."  

Wednesday: The addicts’ families


The Truth About Heroin

*In 2011, approximately 41,340 unintentional drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States, one death every 12.45 minutes.

*Of this number 22,810 deaths were attributed to Prescription Drugs (16,917 attributed to opioid overdoses).

*Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States. 

*The average age youth begin using heroin is 18-22 years of age, but some are starting as young as 14.

*In 2012, more Michiganders were admitted to drug rehabilitation facilities for heroin or other opioid dependency than all other unlawful substances combined.   

*More people die of opiate overdose in Michigan than in car accidents.

*Heroin is one of the most frequently reported drugs by medical examiners in drug abuse deaths. 

*Nacoxone is a life-saving medication for heroin overdose (given by nasal inhalation) and the most under utilized drug there is. 

*Heroin enters the brain quickly.  It slows down the way you think, your reaction time, and your memory. 

*Despite heroin being glamorized as "heroin chic" in music videos, films and fashion, it has tragic consequences.

*Heroin crosses all demographics.

*Kids are getting their drug information from erowid.org

*The most commonly prescribed prescription drug in the U.S. is hydrocodone.  Michigan is fourth in the nation, behind CA, TX, TN. 

*Approximately 40% of heroin users report having misused prescription medications in the past. 

(Information taken from the Heroin Summit 2014 and brochures from the Michigan State Police)

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