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"Not in My Backyard": How the Street's Most Feared Illegal Drug Has Found its Way into the Living Rooms of Virginia Beach Homes

Sara Nichols Photo

In 2014, more Virginia teens were killed by an overdose of heroin than in a motor vehicle accident. This shocking statistic has gotten the attention of legislators and municipalities across the Commonwealth, and this terrifying trend is a national one. The incidence of heroin abuse has skyrocketed across the country, and we are not immune from its devastating impacts. As parents, we assure ourselves that our children would know better; that our parenting has been effective enough to render heroin use in our children simply impossible. But, more and more of us are finding out that we are wrong. Dead wrong. And we don't find out until it is too late.

When our daughter Caitlyn was a teenager, she was a kind, funny and very athletic girl. Unfortunately, she had the back of an 80-year-old. A compressed disk caused her to be in constant pain. We took her to the doctor, specialists, physical therapists, a chiropractor, and even flew to Texas for treatment from a reflexologist. Nothing helped - not even taking long breaks from physical activity. A local doctor decided to give her heroin - he called it Percocet. In high school, during the district soccer tournament, Caitlyn headed the ball and collided with another player. This sports injury resulted in a broken nose and years of dental procedures that included nine root canals, the loss of three teeth, and more pain. A dentist once again prescribed her heroin-this time it was named Vicodin. A while later, Caitlyn experienced her first kidney stone. She left the emergency room with more heroin, this time disguised as Dilaudid.

Does this sound exaggerated, extreme and crazy? Well, it's not. I'm not a doctor, but let me briefly explain some basic drug chemistry that I've learned through my own family's experience. There are three medicines that present abuse liability: 1) stimulants - Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall; 2) depressants - Valium, Xanax and 3) opioids - Percocet, OxyContin, Vicodin, Dilaudid, Fentanyl, Demerol, Darvon. Legally prescribed opioids or painkillers have almost the same molecular structure as heroin. They are all derived from the opium poppy. So, how do they work?? Painkillers attach themselves to proteins called opioid receptors found on nerve cells in the brain, GI tract and other organs in the body. They reduce the perception of pain, slow respiration, and produce a state of euphoria since they effect the reward/feel good part of the brain. When you take these medicines, your body stops making its own opioids, or endorphins. Now you need more of the chemicals to make up for the loss. Your brain has been hijacked and is now a chemical mess. Your tolerance builds up, followed by dependence and then addiction. Once addicted, the body needs the drug to simply feel "normal."

In the past 15-20 years, there has been a huge increase in addiction and deaths from opioids. In 1991, Americans were the recipients of 76 million prescriptions. In 2013, 207 million prescriptions were written. Americans account for almost 100 percent of Vicodin and 81 percent of the world's Percocet use. Why? Lack of education and awareness on the part of both patients and medical professionals. Also, the notion that "a pill can fix anything," accompanied by aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies have served to exacerbate the problem.

Now, our nation is witnessing a spike in heroin use, addiction, and death caused by this evil opioid. The monster is here, in Virginia Beach. No longer is the face of heroin an urban, filthy, hardened criminal. The faces of this drug are sweet girls who loved soccer, college students, moms, retired folks and neighbors.

Some of you reading this may say "There is no way my child would ever do heroin. That's what we thought. After all, Caitlyn was one of five children living in a safe, loving and stable home. We did things right-read to our children, supported their individual interests and passions, went to church, encouraged education, laughed, played and ate dinner together. We also had rules, expectations, responsibilities and consequences. Not in a million years did we ever imagine that one of our children would die from this. So, how did our precious daughter slide down that slippery slope of prescription drugs and heroin?

Her siblings, Billy and I will never truly know or understand. It is simply beyond comprehension for us. At some point, however, the prescription drugs were no longer available or potent enough to ease her pain. That's when Caitlyn turned to the unthinkable and started down the path from which she would not return. Within four months of trying heroin, she was gone and the rest of us are left with memories and questions for which there will never be an adequate answer.

It is our hope that our suffering will not be in vain; that our story might shine the light into this dark place. It's a place that we, as parents, would rather not look, but the cost of ignorance is too much to bear. We can't turn back the clock for ourselves, but if we can help even one family be spared the grief we've endured, then this horrible journey won't have been in vain.

As parents and as a community, it's time to wake up. The answers lie in improved legislation, easier access to treatment and more effective communication between parents and teens. The first step, however, is AWARENESS. That's why Virginia Beach City Public Schools and Protecting Children Foundation are partnering to offer a free workshop Dead Serious: The street drug that is in your medicine cabinet. Join us Dec. 3 at the Virginia Beach Convention Center to learn more about how children are becoming addicted and hear from professionals about the local resources available to families. You can click here to register. It's a subject too important to ignore.

Carolyn Weems
Vice President, Protecting Children Foundation

About the Author

Carolyn Weems is vice president of Protecting Children Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Virginia Beach. In addition, Weems has served as a school board member of Virginia Beach City Public Schools since May 2002. She is married to her college sweetheart, Billy, and all 5 of their children graduated from Virginia Beach schools.

Read More

Are you as involved in your child’s education as you would like to be? See what new research shows about parent engagement in our schools.

Whether it is helping a child with homework, volunteering at a school event or simply working with teachers when an issue arises, parents are taking an active role in our schools. A recent survey shows that levels of parent involvement are increasing. But, there is always room for the school division to create new opportunities for parents and the community to become in engaged. We wanted to know how satisfied parents are with current opportunities and what barriers may be keeping them from being more involved. The school division recently worked with the local research firm Issues and Answers to survey parents about their involvement and communication needs. You can learn more about the survey and see the results here.


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Last Modified on Monday, November 16, 2015