"...it takes a village to help that family raise that child." - Naperville Police detective Shaun Ferguson
In the last 18 months, seven teenagers in Naperville have died from heroin overdose. It's seemed that the "teen heroin epidemic" was all the local media could talk about all of last year, to the point where it started to sound a bit trite and over-hyped, but then in the first six weeks of 2012 eight people died from heroin in DuPage County, including a girl from my high school.
My senior year of high school they installed a plaque on the wall of the cafeteria that was instantly and crudely dubbed "the Tree of Death". It was intended to be a memorial for students who died while attending our school. I believe it was prompted by the tragic deaths of two Juniors, Anthony and Diana, when their car hit a tree and burst into flames. When I left NVHS their names, and the name of a girl who had been a few classes ahead of me who died of complications from a disability, were the only ones memorialized on small, bronze leafs. When a friend and I nostalgically stalked through the halls of our school this past Christmas we visited the Tree. Thankfully, the unnervingly large and lush tree remained by and large blank, but there were several more names up there than when I had graduated. I recognized one boy who lost his fight to cancer the year after I left, and another boy who died from complications of his disability. There were three or four other names, however, of students who had died in the last year who I'm almost certain were victims of this "heroin epidemic". One wasn't supposed to graduate until 2014.
The community has been more or less in a constant state of shock and denial about this over the last year. At first it was older kids, young adults who'd graduated and attempted to leave the nest, and then it was just one or two teenagers from the same friend group. But then the hospitalizations, arrests, and deaths started spreading beyond one peer circle, one neighborhood, one school, and people started getting scared.
I don't know how much of the gradual rising of panic is due to media hype and general mass hysteria and how much of it is legitimate fear that our town's teenagers are spiraling out of control without knowing the risks they're taking. What I do know is this: when I was in high school a mere 6-10 years ago (has it really been so long??) this wasn't happening. There may have been a few students who were addicts, but no one was dying. There may have been whispers and rumors, but there wasn't a pervasive sense that you could easily score from a friend-of-a-friend if you wanted to. Something is different, something has changed, and that icy feeling of hopelessness has settled into the pit of my stomach.
On March 12, 1998 the Chicago Tribune printed an article
warning of increasing herion use among Naperville teens. The article
itself seemed to be more about the ~interesting and ~scary phenomenon of
rich, white kids willingly going to Chicago's west side to mingle with
the poor, black gangs to score heroin than the actual problem of drug
addiction itself, as no student had died from an overdose yet, but it
did quote community leaders being concerned about an escalation in future years. Sadly, I think we're there, and it seems that the awareness and prevention actions taken weren't effective.
The Boy and I have ramped up our discussions about things like starting a family and raising kids (you know, to make sure we're on the same page, and if not, that we can at least openly discuss this sort of thing before we're legally and spiritually bound to one another), and my general fear of not knowing how to raise a child, let alone guide a teenager, has increased a hundred fold. I was and have always been a Good Kid, and my friends have always been of the Good Kid variety, with small variations. We cared enough about school to know it was important to graduate, if not with the highest honors possible. Most of us had after school jobs because we were taught to value money and weren't necessarily given the frivolous things we wanted to spend money on. We loved the theatre department, we loved working hard at tech, and we loved each other. We drank lots of Mountain Dew but never (as far as I know) drank alcohol. We joked about drugs but never tried them, not even cigarettes (most of us). We would tease each other about sex but almost none of us were having it. We assumed some of the kids at our school were doing any or all of these, but it was no one we knew and not really something people talked about.
I have no idea why any of us were like that. We all had fairly different family backgrounds and socioeconomic situations, and were raised by wildly different parents. I don't have the faintest idea why we were good kids and other kids were not. I don't know what it was about my high school experience that, more or less, got all 740 of us out mostly unscathed, and what's killing the kids at my high school now. The terror of not knowing why this is happening is paralyzing me when I pause to think about trying to raise a child in an environment where drugs and death are so pervasive, and I don't even have an actual child to be scared for right now.
I don't know what to do, other than hugging every teenager I see really tight and whispering "don't do drugs!" into their ears. I don't think the police, or teachers, or parents here know either, and that's what's keeping us up at night the most.