Recovering heroin addict starts over at 21
AURORA, Ill. -- Just out of Cook County Jail after being arrested with 15 bags of heroin, Cody Lewis had all of $11 in his pocket. But not for long.
Almost immediately, he spent $10 on yet another bag of smack, making the buy on the Chicago streets last May as he headed to a police station to retrieve his cellphone. He shot up in a grocery store parking lot, and continued on his way.
By then, Lewis was a $100-a-day addict. Heroin was no longer fun. He needed it to get rid of the sweats and the shakes, the body cramps, the aches in his bones. "I had to use," he says, "to feel normal, like a regular person."
Lewis was consumed by heroin. Every day was the same: Get up sick if he hadn't used in 12 hours. Figure out how to get money. Drive 35 miles from his suburban home in Aurora to Chicago to score. "My whole existence," he says, "was just finding ways to get high."
In many ways, Lewis represents the changing face of heroin in America. He is in his 20s, lives in the suburbs -- two traits that fit a growing number of users -- and graduated to heroin after years of getting high with other drugs.
When Lewis snorted his first line at age 18, he'd already used almost every imaginable drug: Marijuana. Cocaine. LSD. Ecstasy. Mushrooms. Pills. Heroin, though, was much more seductive.
"It was just like someone had wrapped me in a blanket," he recalls. "I'd found the drug I was looking for ... all the depression and anxiety and all that stuff that I was going through ... heroin kind of filled the hole. It helped me just completely forget about anything bad. ... I felt like I was king of the world."
As his habit grew, so did his need for cash.
He shoplifted video games from stores and resold them. He broke into cars, pawning anything he could steal along with his mother's jewelry and laptop. He knew he was living dangerously, but that was part of the allure.
"I just felt like I had a lot more excitement in my life when I was a full-blown drug addict," he says. "It was just very dumb."
Lewis, who is 21 but looks younger, is matter-of-fact when describing his addiction. He's quick to offer an unvarnished account of his mistakes and the pain he has caused himself and his family.
Lewis' upbringing was distinctly middle class. He played Little League and skateboarded, growing up in suburbs filled with cul-de-sacs and strip malls carved from farm fields. Dad designed computer networks; Mom now works for a shipping company. As a child, Lewis took regular family vacations to Florida to see his grandparents and visit Disney World.
Still, he traces his problems to a troubled childhood: Constant fights between his parents, who later divorced. The death of a beloved grandmother. And harassment from school bullies. He was a C-student, but his class work started faltering in third grade. A doctor diagnosed attention deficit disorder and prescribed Adderall. A year later, he was put on antidepressants.
At age 12, Lewis started using marijuana. By freshman year, he was smoking weed daily at home or outside school. "It would bring my mood up," he says. "I felt ... like a normal teenager."
Lewis began abusing other drugs, too, scouring the family medicine cabinet for painkillers and anxiety pills. "It made me forget and just not have to deal with real life," he says.
Though his mother tried different approaches -- punishment, lectures, praise when he entered rehab -- nothing stuck. About a month after his release from a court-ordered, 8 1/2-month residential treatment program, Lewis, then 17, reverted to his old ways.
He returned to marijuana and cocaine, then moved on to heroin. Within six months, Lewis was mainlining.
Lewis never thought of quitting until last May when a childhood pal called, frantically seeking help. He and a girlfriend had taken heroin with a woman who'd overdosed and died. Lewis urged him to call the cops. Afterward, he says, his mind raced with thoughts of the death -- and the prospect his friend could face criminal charges.
After a few days, he decided to get clean.
Lewis completed rehab and started taking methadone. But after six months, he says, he realized he'd replaced one addiction with another, so he entered a detox program. He has been sober since Oct. 12.
Lewis attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings and group therapy and has begun speaking to church and school groups about his heroin use.
His mother, Karen, who attends Nar-Anon family group meetings, is proud of her son's progress but says the past few years have been an ordeal.
"I really hate to admit it, but there's been a time or two when I thought ... it would be better for all of us if he could be put out of his misery," she says. "I'm not proud of it, but I try to explain to him that until you're on the receiving end, you don't know how I feel."
She worries that sounds too harsh but says she knows parents of other addicts have similar thoughts. She remains devoted to her son. "I will be there for him as long as I can," she says tearfully. "Cody's finally ... coming back to the person that he used to be."
Lewis says he now knows there are many good things he can do in life. But he still thinks of heroin.
Being an addict, he adds, is "definitely in the past. I'd like to keep it there. I'm working on keeping it there. ... I never know what the next day will bring. I may feel depressed or something may happen that makes me feel like I want to use ... but I don't think I'll be having the urge anytime soon. I hope."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at scohen(at)ap.org
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