Heroin hits close to home

*name changed for anonymity

After saving $600 to buy a new car, Ainsley’s* money vanished. Yet, the whereabouts of her savings was no mystery. Her older sister, Clare*, had been stealing from her for the past four years to feed her heroin addiction.

“Obviously, I was really upset when my sister would steal from me,” Ainsley said. “[My family] had to start locking our doors anytime we would leave our rooms, even if we were just going to take a shower. It wasn’t a normal way to live. I just never knew what to expect when I would come home.”

Ainsley’s mom, Sarah*, found out about Clare’s heroin addiction after she started noticing a change in her behavior and the people she started hanging out with. After Sarah saw needles in Clare’s room, she sent her to rehab in Florida.

“I was so heartbroken,” Sarah said. “I never thought she would shoot up heroin, and she never thought she would either. But after she started isolating us, getting angered easily and stealing, I knew she was hiding something.”

Sarah said after Clare returned from rehab her behavior improved for a while, but she eventually relapsed. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 4.2 million Americans age 12 or older used heroin at least once in their lives in 2011, and 23 percent of individuals that use heroin become dependent on it. Sarah said she was forced to give Clare an ultimatum: go back to rehab or get out of the house. So Clare packed a bag and set off for the streets of St. Louis, living in her car and doing anything to get her next fix.

“When she was out on the streets it was really hard on us, but we knew we had to have her reach a bottom,” Sarah said. “We were not going to let that kind of thing go on in our house especially around our youngest daughter [Ainsley].”

When Ainsley found out her sister, who was 24 at the time, had left she talked to some family members to see if she could find out anything about her sister’s whereabouts. This is when she learned Clare had moved into a hotel room and started stripping in order to pay for the heroin. After living on the streets for a few months, Clare decided to return to another rehab center in St. Louis.

“After she came home from rehab the second time, it finally felt like I had a sister,” Ainsley said. “Everyone had always said I was just like [Clare], but I never really had the chance to find that out or get to know her before because she was always using drugs or screaming at me.”

Sarah said Clare improved after attending this rehab. Clare attended NA and AA meetings regularly. She was almost a year clean until she heard the news about the deaths of two close friends that, within the span of two weeks, had passed away from heroin overdoses.

“If that wasn’t a wake up call for her to stop using I don’t know what is,” Ainsley said. “Clare was very upset about their deaths. Two people she was very close to had died from what she was addicted to. She grew very depressed but that led her to what she thought would make her happy again, heroin.”

Clare checked back into rehab recently when Sarah discovered more needles. Although Clare is not physically at home now, Sarah said living with an addict left the family with a lot of stress.

“Living with a heroin addict is like living with a tornado,” Sarah said. “Their whole life is consumed with where, how and when they will get their next fix and then how they are going to pay for it and sneak it. It’s chaos.”

Sarah and her husband started to attend Al-Anon meetings, a support group for the families of addicts, in order to get a better understanding about her situation. Through Al-Anon she said she learned addiction is a disease and her family was doing the right thing as hard as it was.

“After attending the meetings, I knew [my family] needed to learn to take care of ourselves,” Sarah said. “When you live with an addict, it makes the whole family sick. You start obsessing, you take things personally, you want to stalk. It makes you start to go crazy. You lose your peace.”

By connecting with other people who also have an addict in their family, Sarah said she was able to recognize that addiction affects people of all races, incomes and genders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin usage more than doubled in young adults age 18-25 in the past decade.

“It’s so common in families, and affects everyone from every area, every socioeconomic class,” Sarah said. “It used to be only the city junkies would use heroin and now it’s in suburbs and in nice areas. It’s everywhere.

In 2013, there were 8,260 deaths from heroin in the U.S., four times as many as in 2000. Sarah hopes people recognize the need for more resources for addicts, a better public understanding that these people need help from their disease and that recovery is something to be celebrated.

“The hardest part was watching [Clare] destroy herself, lose all of her happiness and not really have a life,” Sarah said. “Her friends were out there with [careers] and here she is wasting her life away, isolating herself from her family. It’s hard to watch your daughter go down this dark hole when there is so much potential.”