Here's the thing about heroin - it's wonderful. Nothing like it in the world. The Brahms Lullaby caresses your brain, and your blood is warm nectar. The world is perfect, and you are perfect in it.
Heroin is pleased to be the love of your life. All it requires is that you steal from your children, reject your mate, forsake your family and abandon your career. Then, of course, you will be expected to spend your days in the gutter or prison. To earn its favor, you have to pledge suicide when it asks. And it will.
If you attempt to break away, its smile will be knowing. "Remember who loves you," it will say. "I'll be here for you."
Heroin use in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2007. In 2013, more than 500,000 people said they had used heroin in the past year - a nearly 150 percent increase in just six years, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control.
Three reasons are commonly given for the rise. For one, it's said that the street price of cocaine, a main competitor, has sharply gone up and its quality gone down.
Another reason is marketing. The Mexican cartels have cut the price of heroin and flooded our streets with it. Marketing 101. A strategy familiar to any mass retailer. That's how you grow customers. Years ago, tobacco companies used to flood campuses with free cigarettes. Same idea.
Also, black-market prescription opioid painkillers have inevitably joined the drug dealer's inventory. Painkillers are cousins to heroin and attend the same family reunions. When prescription controls were increased in recent years, painkillers became harder to obtain, and the price, naturally, went up. So, here comes cheap heroin to the rescue.
Tanner Kurtz, whom you will meet shortly, is a rehabbing addict in Escondido. He talks about the local availability of heroin.
He says, "I could get it instantly. I wouldn't even have to use my cellphone. I could walk around the corner to different places in half a square mile. Where I'm at right now, I could go across the street to the 7-Eleven and see somebody.
"It's everywhere. It's that horrible. It's everywhere. No matter where you think you are, you could be in the best neighborhood in your city, and your next-door neighbor's selling drugs. A dealer will sell anything, whether it's prescription drugs or illegal drugs, whatever they can get their hands on."
Where do they get the stuff?
"My last dealer got it straight from Sinaloa (Mexico). He would go down to National City and drive it back up.
"I also know lots and lots and lots of people who go over the border. They'll get however much product they want of heroin or methamphetamines. Then, they'll literally stuff it up their butt and come back across the border."
Aren't they afraid of the drug-sniffing dogs?
"Not when it's in your intestines going the wrong way. Probably not."
Why had heroin fallen out of favor until recent years?
"Heroin has always been frowned upon in the drug industry, period, because it makes people like I was. Eleven days ago, I weighed 20 pounds less than now. I looked like I was going to die. I was going to die. I was on my deathbed. I couldn't walk to the bathroom without being in major pain, and that's from cutting off the heroin."
The user has been warned by a thousand barrels of ink, hundreds of TV talking heads, and lectures from experts until their words turn into a hoarse whisper. Don't do it, they plead. It will destroy your life.
Then why-oh-why did you deliberately take that needle in hand and inject death into your vein?
Tanner does his best to answer that question. But only in a roundabout way, because I don't think he's totally certain of the why. Or maybe he knows there is no why.
Tanner, 31, contributed to the CDC report - as a statistic. He is a heroin addict who fits the profile like skin-tight jeans. He grew up in Escondido in the midst of a drug-dysfunctional family. The family has long since dealt with their problems, but Tanner didn't.
I'm sitting with Tanner in the garden area of an Escondido rehab facility for men. He's been here 11 days and has gone through withdrawal. Tanner is a pleasant guy. He's friendly and intelligent. With his buzz haircut and black-framed glasses, he could hide among a group of techies. He's the kid next door grown up. Drug-free, he'd probably make a great neighbor.
Over his employment years, he's laid tile, framed houses and worked with audio/video. His work ethic when sober is mid-American. Fortunately, for everyone's sake, he's never been married and has no children.
Heroin was not his first stop on the drug smorgasbord. He used ecstasy at 15, cocaine at 17, crystal meth at 21, then a long-term affair with painkillers.
Marijuana has been his constant companion since he was a teenager, it goes without saying, but we can put pot aside for this story: We're talking really hard stuff here.
Tanner joined the heroin nation a year and a half ago. He smokes cigarettes; that also goes without saying. However, he's never been much for alcohol. Booze can't compete. He's also diabetic, which seems especially dangerous for a drug addict.
He leans back in his folding chair and guides us down the aisle of that store of self-destruction:
Ecstasy. "It's awesome. You feel great. Things that you wouldn't think would feel good become wonderful. If I were to touch you on your knee, you would be just totally ecstatic about it. You would melt in your chair. You feel affectionate toward everybody. You love everything. You love the wall that's next to you. You want to touch it, you want to rub it."
Cocaine. "It's a total euphoric feeling. It makes you happy. You feel like nothing could go wrong. Numbs your face, body, mind."
For how long?
"Twenty minutes. That's about it. Then you ‘fiend' for it, because you want that feeling again. Twenty minutes later you want another line. Every 10 minutes possibly, depending on how good the cocaine was.
"Four o'clock in the morning comes around, and you're still calling the guy you get your cocaine from. He's not answering because it's 4 o'clock in the morning. You're at a hotel, cracked out of your mind, super paranoid, seeing shadows, seeing things, thinking there's bad people walking around.
"After the first elation goes away, you end up staying wide awake for days at a time.
"I wouldn't do cocaine right now for the life of me because it's not like it was when I was 18. Now you're getting baby powder, laxatives or whatever they cut it with."
Crystal meth. "Methamphetamine is the cheapest, and it lasts the longest, by far. It's similar to cocaine. It makes your brain race. It makes you feel like you can work all night, but in reality, you're freaking not working as fast as you think; you're taking longer.
"A crystal meth high can last three days. Totally. Crystal lasts longer, and it's cheaper."
Tanner says he was introduced to crystal meth about 10 years ago when he visited his birth father in Arizona. They smoked it together.
Excuse me. Your father? You got it from him?
"Oh, yes. He didn't want to have to hide while he smoked, so he shared it."
But you're his son.
"I'm not his son. He was never there my entire life. To him, I'm pretty much just a guy."
(Tanner's mother affirmed the accuracy of his characterization.)
If it's so cheap and good, why isn't everyone on crystal meth exclusively?
Well, he says, there's a big downside. "When people are smoking crystal meth, they lose their teeth because of what's in it. It deteriorates your calcium and your enamel. Plus, users grind their teeth a lot, and teeth break.
"Meth users will go days without eating, and they become skin and bones. Then, the junk starts coming out of your skin. Your skin looks like s---."
Tanner says the user never knows what's mixed with meth. For example, Heet, the gas-tank additive, is often used as a meth additive. It absorbs water and allows the drug to crystallize. (From common street talk, Heet might be one of the safer "enhancers.")
When he returned to California from Arizona, Tanner says he started taking Vicodin or Norco pills, opiates both.
I tell Tanner the allure of painkillers eludes me, that I've used them sparingly for pain, and I wasn't floating in the air or anything. So what's the deal?
His answer: "Try taking five OxyContin at one time and you'll see.
"Personally, I'd eat 5 norcos at a time, 20 a day. I was buying these pills for 5 bucks a piece, that's a $100-per-day habit."
He says he got the money at that time by selling marijuana, using his job at a liquor store as a cover. He also became an expert at boosting (shoplifting), at Walmart, for example.
"I'd go to Walmart, and I'd walk out with a freaking all-in-one computer in my hand. Just (walk) right out the door. You know, just cruising nonchalantly like."
If you stole a $500 computer, what would a drug dealer give you?
"He'll give you maybe $40, $50 worth of product, knowing he can do that because you're hurting, you're sick, you want your drugs, so you would give it up cheap because you need the drugs."
He's been arrested "a handful" of times but has done no serious jail time.
When I ask what he's been most ashamed of, his eyes moisten and redden. He looks down and squeezes the bridge of his nose.
"Stealing from my parents," he says softly. "And lying to my girlfriend about my drug usage."
Now your ex-girlfriend, correct?
Tanner says he was a late-comer to heroin, using it for the first time about a year and a half ago. It wasn't a date to commemorate.
What is it about heroin?
"Heroin is a whole different thing. I started using crystal meth again after a few years because I was working long days, long weeks and I was like, ‘This is going to help me work these long days.' No, it made me lose my job. It made me lie to my girlfriend.
"She broke up with me one evening, so I went to my buddy's house and decided that I was going to do some heroin. I was upset. I could have cared less. I had my buddy load me up a syringe full of heroin and methamphetamines."
Tuesday: Withdrawal - a lot of pain, a little promise.
HEROIN ADDICT BATTLES BACK, KNOWING HIS ODDS ARE LONG
On Monday, Tanner Kurtz, 31, of Escondido talked about survival as a drug addict. He's now in rehab, trying to save his life.
Tanner, how does a kid who started on hard drugs at 15 manage to fool everyone, starting at home?
"You use at night. You stay out as much as you can, never come home. And lie. You lie about where you're at, what you're doing, who you're with, what you needed money for at the time, like with your mother:
‘Well. Tanner, I just gave you $20.'
‘Sorry, mum, I spent it at McDonald's.'
"You lie straight out. $20 don't go very far when you're doing drugs."
And, it follows, you steal. Of course you do. The old man's asleep, and his wallet is on the dresser. Mom's in the bathroom, and her purse is in the dining room.
Unfortunately for Tanner, he came into $100,000 upon turning 18, a court settlement from a childhood accident.
How does a young drug addict go through 100 large?
Easy, Tanner says. "I blew $100,000 in six months. As soon as I turned 18, it was in my bank. I spent $25,000 my first day on a car and whatever else I felt like. The rest of it was sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
"It totally was. As many piles of cocaine as I wanted, as much marijuana as I wanted, it didn't even matter."
When the money ran out, it was one menial job after another, for as long as they lasted. He had some talent in audio/video, but it had the same ending.
Being a Type 1 diabetic didn't affect his drug habit except guarantee a legitimate source of syringes, he says.
The years passed in a floating haze between hours of frantic searching, hustling, dealing and stealing for money to buy the next fix.
"You always want to be high. Nothing matters but the high. You want more and more. Your body becomes this dumpster, this trash can for whatever you want to put in it.
"Your body wants more because it needs it. The overdoses happen when somebody stops for 10 days, and then they go back to doing it, thinking they can give themselves the same amount they were taking prior; that's when the overdose happens."
And it happened to him.
Only a couple of weeks before this writing, Tanner ended up in the emergency room, a gift from a heroin overdose.
"Ten days ago, I was a mess. I was in the hospital in the emergency room from slamming freaking heroin. It put me in intensive care.
"When I was in the ICU, the first thing I did was call my guy to bring me some heroin. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, this is going to be great. I don't have to give myself a shot. I already have an IV in my arm. Now I'm going to take this syringe that I have with me all the time because I'm a diabetic and it makes it that easy for me to slam these drugs.' I was slamming heroin and crystal meth both at the same time, in the same syringe."
That experience made Tanner determined to quit. He didn't want to die with a needle in his arm. And that brought him to rehab.
But it's not the end. It's only the beginning. It's easier to stop than stay stopped.
Tanner, let's say you decide you're ready to leave here, you get resettled, and then someone says, "You want to do some heroin?"
"I've quit and tried to quit enough times. This is it for me. If I don't quit this time, I'm going to die."
Have you not said this before?
"Yes, but not to this extreme."
Every guy in here will say exactly the same thing, right?
Tanner nods. "Then they'll turn around and go out and do whatever. Yeah, I know."
Why is Tanner different?
"I love life. I love life a lot, and to watch my life waste away ... "
When was your last heroin?
"Right before I got in this facility. I had some very horrible, horrible days. I don't want this, to ever feel like this again."
But then Tanner speaks the doubts that everyone who cares for him will have. He speaks as though he can read their minds:
"Then, after that feeling (revulsion) goes away, you forget because you remember how good that high was. You remember that feeling, and you just know how good it was.
"It's totally just hardcore dangerous. That's what it is. It (the urge) is there, it is going to continue to be there. Now, unless I stick to this decision, it (relapse) may happen. Am I going to say I don't want it to? Yes, I do not want it to.
"I've watched many people try to (kick heroin). They're doing great, they have good jobs, they have a car, girlfriend, a wife. They've not done it for months, and then they come and knock on my door, knowing that I'm still a heroin addict and, ‘Hey bud, you got a shot?'"
Tanner, we've heard about the horrors of kicking the heroin habit. I'd like to give you a hypothetical: Let's say, Monday morning you decide to go "cold turkey." Describe what you would go through day-by-day.
"If I were to wake up at 6 o'clock Monday morning, I give myself a shot (of heroin). By noon, I want another shot.
"Even before then, my body starts to feel the withdrawal, of not having it, and it wants it badly."
What happens Tuesday morning?
"I really start feeling it. Pain. I start feeling shakes. Twitches that I can't control. My brain is thinking about heroin, nonstop."
What happens Wednesday morning?
I sweat through Tuesday night, soaking my bed. Can't sleep. An immense amount of pain. Body starts to ache. Back starts to hurt. Legs hurt so bad I literally can't walk to the bathroom. A sharp muscle pain, almost like I ran a triathlon out of shape. Body deteriorating."
"It's four days into it now. It's the same as yesterday. I'm still feeling it and thinking of ways of how to get it (heroin). Now, I'm really trying to get it."
What would you do to get it?
"Anything, just about. Steal from mom, automatic. I would rob a drug dealer, totally."
"At gunpoint, yes."
What happens Friday?
"Now we're five days into it, and I'm starting to feel better, but still thinking about it. I'm not sick, per se, anymore, but my brain is still telling me, ‘I want this. I want this. I want this.'"
"The twitches have gone away. I'm still not sleeping. Still sweating, nonstop. My body is now grasping that it doesn't have more heroin, so my body is wanting regular things, like food, but to an extreme. I gorge."
Do you say: I survived that. I'll never do drugs again?
"Yeah, but let's say, if somebody made a comment about heroin or about any of the drugs that I've done, the brain would start thinking about it, and about the euphoria, and the feeling of warmth that comes over the body. My brain would start yearning for it. It never would be over."
How about methadone as a substitute for the craving?
"I've never done methadone. It's just an extreme painkiller, again, and totally just as addictive. It's switching one drug for another. It's just making you do another drug."
The conversation is winding down, but I can see Tanner has more on his mind. I tell him to keep talking. We're listening.
He sits fondling a cigarette. He can't smoke where he sits, but it's comforting.
"To anybody out there, don't do this to yourself, this heroin or any other drug. Don't. Even if I do go back (to using), I'm still going to say, don't do this to yourself. Do you want to have what I have?
"I don't have s---. I lost the love of my life. I don't have anything. I'm lucky to have this freaking shirt on my back because I would have sold it for some dope freaking 12 days ago."
"Don't effing do it. It's not worth it. You will lose everything in an effing heartbeat. No matter how much control you think you have, you are not in control of heroin; it is in control of you.
"Heroin, I can't stop it by me saying, ‘I don't want to do it.'
"It's taken more than me being on my deathbed to stop. It's taken my family wanting me to be alive, to want me to be Tanner.
"I'm not Tanner. After 11 days in here, I'm still not me. I won't be me. It took me a year and a half (on heroin) to get this way; it's going to take me twice as long to get back to just being me."
Tanner pauses and looks down as though to shield the tears rolling down his cheeks.
"It takes from you. It rapes you. It does whatever it wants. It doesn't matter what you want anymore; nothing matters but that freaking drug. It doesn't matter. Nothing in your life will ever matter again.
"My parents didn't matter, my brother didn't matter, the love of my life that I regret every day giving away, didn't matter. It controls you no matter what you do, and you can't get away from it.
"Ten days ago you couldn't have called me a nice man. I would have just been a junkie. I would have sold you for some heroin. I would have told you we were going to Disneyland, and I would have taken you to the border and sold you for slave labor. That made me a horrible person."
If Tanner makes it, his family will rejoice, and all the angels in heaven will sing. However, his drug dealer won't particularly mind. He has a high-turnover clientele, he's a good recruiter, and he has a proven product with repeat customers.
May it come to pass that Tanner will no longer buy his dope, and the lowlife will instead sell it to an undercover cop.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.