There were inklings of a heroin problem among Long Island teenagers. The local news channel showed up at a high school asking the principal about it. The Long Island Press ran a story on the subject. Parents were talking about it, quietly at PTA meetings and soccer games. But everyone said the same things. We have no problem here. Not my kid. Our kids are good kids. It wasn’t until a pretty 18-year-old named Natalie Ciappa made the front page of Newsday when she was found dead after a party. A few days after her death, it was revealed that she died from a heroin overdose. It was then that her parents came forward and said their daughter had a heroin problem. She was an honor student. A cheerleader. A good kid.
The death of Natalie Ciappa, a Plainedge High School honors student with a singing voice her mother says was too good for American Idol, has confirmed what police, prosecutors and federal narcotics agents say has been a growing problem on Long Island: Cheap, potent heroin available for sale in school hallways, malls, parks and just about anywhere young people congregate.
Long Island, we have a problem.
And so do a lot of other places around the country. You can’t take one overdose of one teenager and call it an epidemic, or even a widespread problem. But when you start to hear more stories about kids like Natalie, and when you research and find out that this is happening all over, your “they are creating a panic” radar dies down and you become horrified at the reality.
In Tuscon: “Oro Valley police officers noticed an alarming trend: more and more of the addicts they encountered were teens and young adults hooked on heroin.
In Oregon: “In the wake of Oregon’s crackdown on methamphetamine, police say, heroin has become a cheaper, more plentiful alternative..”
In Michigan: “Heroin is among several narcotic opiates, including some prescription drugs, that seem to be rising in popularity.”
There are stories like this in every state, and they are almost all about kids from white, middle/upper class communities. So many parents think of heroin as a drug for dropouts and rock musicians, or something people who have lives already thrown away take. Not their kids. Their kids may dabble in drinking or smoke some pot, but heroin? Heroin is for junkies. Heroin is for losers. Not for kids taking AP classes or their sons and daughters who are playing three sports and belong to the Key Club, who have just applied to 20 colleges.
Then why? Why is this addictive opiate making its way through the suburbs, taking down kid after kid while the parents remain naive and oblivious to its presence? Why are kids who seem to have it all reaching out for a drug that has more of a social stigma than methamphetamine and ecstasy, the drugs of choice of the teenagers before them? The answer might be found in looking at the effects of those drugs. While meth and ecstasy are stimulants and offer a user increased energy and heightened awareness, heroin is a depressant that blocks out pain, dulls the thought process and takes one away from life.
We need to step back to the early ’90s, when today’s heroin addicts were starting off life, to try to figure out why these kids are dying for escape. It was at that point parenting became almost a competitive sport. Never before had a generation of children had so much of their days laid out for them. From infant swim classes to Gymboree, these kids hadn’t even yet learned to crawl and they were being enrolled in activities that could fill their mothers’ personal planners for months ahead of time.
Pre-school became a necessity, not a luxury. What used to be a fun, social experience for kids was now a “must” if you didn’t want your kid to fall behind the others. Preschool was the new kindergarten. By the time a kid finally started regular school, they needed to know far more than we ever knew at that age. We used to learn letters in kindergarten; all of a sudden they were labeling your kid as a slow learner if she was five years old and couldn’t write an essay on impressionist artists of the 18th century.
The pressure started early and built up, and at the same time these kids were being pushed and scheduled and overwhelmed with homework, the self-esteem movement was in full force. Every child is a precious snowflake. Every child is special and wonderful and everyone is student of the month! False, empty praise was encouraged, just to make your child feel like he was worth something. Every little thing a student did was awesome. Teachers stopped using red pens to mark papers for fear of making students feel sad about themselves. Everyone was praised. Everyone was perfect. And everything was arranged so these kids would never have to have a bad feeling. Competitive games were gone. Gone from gym class were tug of war and dodge ball. Instead, there were cooperative games where everyone was made to feel like a winner. Anything that could single one child out for positive attention was eliminated, as that only served to make the other kids feel bad. It was an era of overprotectiveness, as parents and teachers wrapped the kids in safe, warm cocoons, trying to protect them from both physical and mental harm. Playgrounds were renovated to provide the least likely scenario for a child getting even the slightest boo-boo. Some schools had a “no touching” policy for fear children who were brushed up against in the hallway by another child would feel harassed. Every small playground argument resulted in peaceful mediation by peers and administrators.
At the same time these kids were being coddled, cocooned, and raised on false pedestals, they were also being pressured into perfection. The overscheduling that started when they were infants continued into grade school, middle school, and high school. Kids who played sports played multiple sports. Being in the Honor Society or Key Club wasn’t enough. You had to be in several clubs. You had to do more than the neighbor’s kid. You had to do more than everyone. Colleges were becoming increasingly competitive, and kids were being forced to make career choices as early as 7th grade. One or two AP classes weren’t enough. Everything academic and extracurricular were focused on one thing: the college application. Parents hovered over their kids, making sure ever project was perfect, every essay was golden. The helicopter parent was born, and these parents had no idea what they were doing to their children.
So here was this generation of kids who were led to believe they were each the most special person on the planet. They were kept from harm, kept from failure, kept from any kind of mental anguish. When these kids hit 16 or 17 years old and life started taking on some emotional dramas, and maybe they started to realize they might not get into the college of their choice, an interesting result of how these kids were raised emerged: they have no coping skills. These kids were never taught how to handle duress. They were not taught what to do when things don’t go your way because things always were made to go their way. The pressure their parents put on them to succeed, the normal pressures of applying for college and facing life after high school, together with the realization that they are not special snowflakes and there are thousands of kids just like them out there, all vying for a place in that perfect school, caused a crash and burn for a lot of these kids.
Drugs and alcohol are readily available to teenagers. They know where to get them if they want them. There isn’t a school out there that doesn’t have that sector of kids that provide the action to the others. The statistics show that a good portion of high school seniors will drink and smoke pot. But there are some kids for whom recreational use of beer and pot isn’t enough. They don’t want to get drunk or high to party. They want something more. They want escape. They want to turn off the helicopter parent voices in their heads and not feel that pressure for a while. And maybe, just maybe, some of them choose heroin — the most stigmatized of all drugs — as a subconscious rebellion.
“No one starts off saying, I want to be a heroin addict,” says C.P., a former addict himself. “These kids might be at a party and someone convinces them to try it. They like how they feel. For the first time in a while, they feel relaxed. It’s not like doing coke or meth. For a teenager who has been under a lot of pressure and is maybe feel anxious about life, it is very much like escape. ” One of the reasons cited for the surge in heroin use is its relatively cheap cost. But the inexpensive high is, for the most part, a myth. Heroin is a very addictive drug. “It’s very easy for someone to go from a ten dollar chance at escape to a $400 a day habit,” says C.P.
Users agree that it does not cost much money at all to get into the game. A small bag could cost as little as $7. Once the heroin habit really begins, junkies may start to buy in “bundles,” which could be as many as 11 or 12 bags, but usually an even 10. That could cost about $200 or less. The typical user buying in that quantity would get about two bundles, or 20 bags. One local teenager I talked to said she knows of a girl in her school, a honor student, who works two jobs just to support her heroin habit. This girl hangs out with kids from nearby towns, kids just like her. Good kids. Good students. Athletes. Heroin abusers.
This is what happens when you raise a generation of kids who have no coping skills. They’ll quickly turn to something that will help them cope, even temporarily. Unfortunately, for a lot of first time heroin users that temporary fix turns into a habit. It’s the historic stigma of heroin that keeps any mother from believing her prom queen daughter could do such a thing. Alcohol? Marijuana? No parent would be happy about their child using those drugs, but they are almost accepted, in comparison to heroin use. No one wants to imagine their kid sticking a needle in their arm. But with today’s heroin, track marks may not even be the tell tale sign of abuse.
Many teens using heroin snort the drug rather than inject it. “Unfortunately, because it can be snorted, kids think the stigma of being a drug addict is removed,” said John Gilbride, the DEA’s special agent in charge of the New York office. “There’s not the same stigma as when a hard-core drug user injects it.”
I don’t know that I totally agree with that, as their will always be a certain stigma attached to heroin. Maybe not with the teenagers using it, but certainly with their parents and teachers, who still think of heroin as a last resort drug for people who have hit rock bottom. “That’s a dangerous way to look at it,” says C.P. “Most heroin users I knew didn’t hit rock bottom until after they started using.” Maybe parents, instead of looking for tell-tale signs of abuse, should focus more on looking for the tell-tale signs of a kid at his stress breaking point.
There has been an increase in new, young users across the country who are being lured by inexpensive, high-purity heroin that can be sniffed or smoked instead of injected. Today, the average addict is a white, middle-class teenager.
Whatever the reason for that, whether it is my theory or perhaps something as simple as availability, price, and a complete naivety on the part of the teenagers, there is a problem. It’s not an epidemic, it’s not a widespread phenomenon, but it is enough of a problem that parents should stop thinking “not my kid.”
“I sat at her wake and what broke my heart was that so many confident parents walked up to me…And I’ve seen their kids with my daughter and if they were with my daughter, they shouldn’t be so confident.” — Natalie Ciappa’s mother.