Heroin use has been on the rise in Delaware and reaches people of all ages and economic backgrounds.
One Lewes mother watched her 23-year-old daughter fall into the throes of addiction.
“This stuff grabs you quickly. Once is all it takes. It happened in mine, it can happen in yours,” she said. “For the past three years, my daughter has been high all the time.”
The mother requested anonymity, so we'll call her Mary. Her daughter, who we'll call Cindy, went from an average student with designs on a career in the fashion industry to a three-year addiction to heroin.
“I can remember when she first told me. Her boyfriend had been arrested. We knew who it was. I can remember trying to reach her that morning, and she had lied and said she was somewhere else,” Mary said.
“I finally tracked her down, and she came home, and we were screaming at each other. She’s standing right there in the doorway: hair disheveled, makeup everywhere. I said, ‘What was he thinking? How could you hang around someone like that?’ She said, ‘Mom! I’m doing it too.’ And my heart broke. It was like being kicked in the gut.”
The tale begins when Cindy, the third of five daughters, went off to Centenary College in New Jersey to study fashion design. Mary said her daughter had never been in trouble before.
In college, Cindy began taking prescription pills, Mary said after one year, her addiction got her kicked out of school. At that point, Mary said, personal tragedies hit: Cindy's uncle died, two of her friends also died – one in a car accident, another from a drug overdose – and another friend also passed away.
“The poor kid had been to four funerals in a week. That was the beginning of the end,” Mary said.
“I don’t have a clue where it went wrong. Did something bad happen to her? It had to be pretty bad. She said, ‘You don’t know what a bad person I’ve been.’ I don’t know what it was, she wouldn’t tell me,” Mary said.
At age 19, Cindy came home from New Jersey and met a boy; the two became a couple – bonding, Mary said, over their use of pills. Cindy’s boyfriend went to rehab, and when he came back, Mary said, the two discovered that the pills had become too expensive. They switched to heroin, which was cheaper and more accessible.
“The boyfriend was dealing,” Mary said. “And she got in it very heavy, very fast.”
Cindy’s boyfriend was twice arrested for dealing. Her heroin habit soon spiraled out of control, Mary said, with Cindy at one point doing 20 bags of heroin a day. Mary said at first Cindy snorted the drug, but she graduated to injecting. Mary said Cindy had always been afraid of needles in her arm, so Cindy would have someone else inject the drug; if Cindy was injecting herself, she would usually shoot into her feet and toes.
“My kid has track marks all on her arms, all in her feet, bruises that won’t go away,” Mary said, choking up.
Besides physical damage, Mary said Cindy stole money from her older sisters, took her grandmother’s credit card and pawned off anything the family had of value to pay for her habit.
“The resentment built up because I as a mom did not want to believe that my kid would be stupid enough to use heroin. Only junkies and crazy people and poor people use heroin – and that’s not the case. It caused friction between my husband and myself. He didn’t understand how I couldn’t see it. And I couldn’t understand why he was being so mean,” Mary said.
She said Cindy would lie about going to addiction meetings, and when she was sick from the heroin, she lied about going to the doctor by falsifying receipts for treatment. Mary said Cindy’s sisters also resented Cindy for what she was doing; Mary struggled to tell her youngest daughter that the addiction was the problem, not Cindy.
“It’s a nightmare,” Mary said.
She said heroin invaded her home. “In my child’s room, under her bed were needles, blue bags, hundreds of them.”
In a box in her daughter’s room, she said she found 10,000 bags of heroin, typically sold in 13 bag bundles.
"The worst part was all the bags were empty. She had stashed them there. I didn't call the cops. I sat on her floor and cried. I cried like I never cried before. She had already done all of it," Mary said.
She said Cindy was getting heroin from all over the place: Millsboro, Long Neck and Lewes.
Delaware State Police have said the number of heroin-related arrests statewide is on pace to double this year, with 1,000 cases through July. Half of those cases are in New Castle County, where Wilmington serves as the main hub for heroin trafficking downstate.
State police spokesman Sgt. Paul Shavack said there were no definitive hot spots in Sussex County. He said police are combating the spike in heroin use through multijurisdictional intelligence gathering, information sharing, ongoing investigations and undercover operations.
Fighting “the sick”
“My husband could tell she was using again because they stop caring about anything except getting high. And they only care about getting high because the sick is so bad if they don’t get high. I watched my daughter go through withdrawal. It was awful. Her body spasms, she showers, she smokes one cigarette after another,” Mary said. “It’s the sick that scares them the most.”
Mary calls the behavioral symptoms of her daughter’s behavior “The Crazy.”
“Nothing ever mattered except getting high,” Mary said. “And I’ve learned that that’s not my daughter, it’s the addiction, and you have to separate the two. This was a regular kid who played outside. This is not her.”
Cindy has been to rehab three times, the most recent being at a detox center in Pennsylvania; Mary said this is the first time she has felt Cindy was safe in a long time.
While not blaming anything but the addiction, Mary expressed regret over not detecting the problem.
“It happened in my house, and I missed it. Three times I missed it,” she said.
However, rehab has led to its own problems, she said: there are few treatment professionals in the area, and insurance companies do not want to cover the cost of an extended stay. Mary said the cost of treatment has averaged around $1,200 per day.
She said local centers within the state all had two-week waits, a wait Cindy could not afford. Mary expressed frustration with the lack of treatment options available for addicts, particularly young addicts like her daughter.
“There’s a huge drug problem here,” Mary said. “There’s got to be something to help these kids. I didn’t know where to go to help my daughter.”
She said Cindy decided to get clean after being arrested, amidst fear that she was going to die from her addiction.
“She said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to die.’ It’s scary for the kids to get off of it. It’s scary because they are so sick,” Mary said.
The addiction, Cindy’s old friends and the lure of heroin, Mary said, has also made it possible that her daughter may not return to her hometown for a long time.
“We’re going to get through one day at a time,” she said. “I don’t wish it on anybody. But there’s gotta be something to help these kids.”
Since her daughter has been away in rehab, Mary said, “I haven’t even opened her bedroom door because it’s much too sad. My heart is broken. Our hearts are broken.”