Struggling to Surface

Editor’s note: The identity of the subject in this story has been changed to protect her privacy.

“My name is Althea and I’m a junkie.” This is how Althea, 21, starts her Friday nights –– at an AA meeting. Althea comes from a middle class, suburban family in central Vermont and is one of many youths in the state to become addicted to heroin after graduating from high school.

Althea’s favorite song is “Little Girl Blue” by Janis Joplin. She has an old Hollywood actress and a panther tattooed on her arm in homage to her grandmother who loved cats. She smokes about a pack of cigarettes every day –– menthols –– but complains she needs to quit. Strangers say she looks about 25 but she dresses the same way she did when she was 17. Perhaps the most subtle thing about Althea’s appearance is her wrists and the bend of her elbow where little lines of needle-sized scars are embedded into her skin.

Like many other heroin addicts Althea began drinking at an early age, soon followed by experimenting with drugs. In her senior year of high school she started to have massive panic attacks, “it felt like I couldn’t breathe and like I was about to die.” Not knowing how to cope with these emotions and unwilling to tell her parents about them, Althea began to self-medicate. “I would snort lines of molly in the bathroom at my high school,” Althea said laughingly. “[Drugs] kept me from thinking about all the things that were going on in my head. It got to a point where if they were around, even if I didn’t want to do, I couldn’t not do them. They helped me function.”

From drugs like cocaine and MDMA–commonly known as molly–Althea was introduced to opiates by her then boyfriend. She began with swallowing or snorting them but soon moved onto freebasing Percocet. “Freebasing is smoking the pill. Like, you put your pill onto some tin foil and then light underneath the tinfoil. When the pill starts to slide, you suck the area around it with a straw– I’d usually use a dollar bill or a receipt.” She said that the drug made her emotionally numb, “It makes you numb and warm and it’s soothing. Like nothing matters. You’re not happy or sad just numb or indifferent,” she said.

Realizing that the Percocet she was smoking four to eight times a day cost her $40-80 a pill Althea began abusing a less expensive alternative: heroin. Not only was it more affordable it often came with multiple hits that had a longer lasting effect than opiates. “I mean the cost was one of the reasons I started using heroin, but really I think it was inevitable,” she said. “I wanted to. I wanted to know what it felt like. And it was amazing. Everything in my life then, and really now if I’m being honest with myself, was just so, so bad. And just for those two minutes after I injected. Oh my god. Everything was just perfect.”

In January of 2014, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated nearly all of his State of the State address to the heroin “epidemic.” Shumlin announced, “Since 2000, we have seen a more than 770 percent increase in treatment for all opiates.” Vermont State Police report that heroin has been becoming more of an issue in the state because dealers in New York City and Boston are capitalizing on the open market in the more rural areas of New England. What would normally be a $5 bag of heroin in the city can be marked up to as much as $30 in these rural areas. This poses challenges in places like Burlington and Chittenden County, Vt. The census bureau reported that this county accounts for about one third of the state’s population and is also the wealthiest in the state.

Althea has been in and out of rehabilitation centers for the last two years. Now living with her parents again in Vermont, she has joined a methadone clinic where she gets doses on the weekdays but she still uses heroin on the weekends. “A lot of people say you have to hit rock bottom before you can get better,” she said. “I’ve already done that, a couple of times. I really want to want to get better. But I know I’m just not done yet.”