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KEVIN CULLEN

A class study of the heroin epidemic

This is the season of commencements and finals and, the other day, Lauren gave her final paper presentation for Stephen Mott’s sociology class at Massasoit Community College in Brockton.

Lauren stood before 20 classmates in Room 445 in Building LA and explained that her paper was about addiction, particularly heroin addiction, and what it is doing to families and the wider society.

She divided her research into three parts: online surveys, random interviews with passersby in Quincy, and lengthy sit-down interviews with people in various stages of addiction and recovery, including the mother of three addicts.

The online surveys didn’t flesh out. The random interviews produced some ignorance and some enlightenment. A well-dressed man in a suit brushed past her and her question, hollering back, “They’re all junkies that just need to be exterminated.” A woman whose adult child is a heroin addict praised her for devoting academic research to the problem.

The in-depth, sit-down interviews produced a narrative that is a window into the heroin epidemic that has gripped Massachusetts as tightly as anywhere.

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A 30-year-old woman who is still using heroin met her at a Dunkin’ Donuts and recounted her life story. She was 9 years old when a family friend molested her. It began a downward spiral.

“Just about every boyfriend I’ve ever had, my first one being freshman year of high school, has abused me in some way,” the woman told Lauren. “Physically, mentally, emotionally, and verbally.”

She became addicted to Percocets and OxyContins through a boyfriend who later died from an overdose. At 17, she fell in love with a heroin addict and soon she was one, too. Within a year, she was pregnant. She used throughout her pregnancy. Her mother sold the family home to pay for rehab. The day she got out of rehab, she began using again. She packed a bag, wrote a note and left her son to be raised by her mother.

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She was raped by two men in an alley in Boston. Beaten and left for dead. In a coma for months. She was traumatized by the rape, by the degradations of the streets.

“Getting high made me forget and it still does,” the woman told Lauren.

She wants to stop but can’t handle being dope sick. Besides, she said, her current boyfriend is an addict and she doesn’t want to leave him to go to rehab.

Lauren’s second in-depth interview was with that woman’s mother. The woman had three children and all of them became addicted to heroin.

“I became addicted to helping them,” the mother said, “trying to save them.”

Two of her children are clean and sober now.

Lauren asked her what her biggest fear was.

“Having to bury them,” the mother replied.

Lauren then interviewed a 26-year-old man named Mike who was in recovery. Clean for three years, Mike described the fulfillment of being a responsible father to his two boys. The interview had to be cut short because Mike had to go to work. They agreed to meet up again to finish the interview but it never happened. Four days later, Mike relapsed and overdosed.

Lauren put Mike’s photo on an overhead screen.

“He died in his bathroom, alone, only for his mother to be the one to find him,” Lauren said. “Because Mike died, I decided to conclude with a case study on myself.”

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Lauren told her classmates the active user she described was her sister, that the long-suffering mother was her mother. Lauren told her classmates that she had been addicted to heroin.

The first time she and her sister talked about the molestation that her sister suffered and that she, at the age of 6, witnessed was during the interview for her sociology paper. The man who molested her sister went on to molest her.

Lauren started smoking at 10. She started drinking beer. Then pot, then pills, hard liquor. When she was 13, a neighbor of her aunt’s raped her. She started getting high daily.

“No matter how much I drank and how much drugs I took to numb the pain, I would always eventually come down and have to deal with me,” Lauren said.

At 16, she started shooting heroin. She lived that life, eventually on the streets, until she got pregnant four years ago and found a reason to stop: the baby boy she was carrying.

“Addiction is a disease,” Lauren told her classmates. “Everyone has a choice, yes, but once someone crosses that line, it becomes a disease. Try to remember this presentation next time you find yourself asking if it is a choice or a disease.”

When she finished, there was a pause, and then Lauren’s classmates, some who had been crying, began clapping. One of her classmates hugged her and thanked her and said, “My brother is an addict.”

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Lauren’s only regret was that after she put up a series of 20 photographs on the overheard screen showing friends who had died from heroin, she realized she had forgotten 10 others. There’s so many, it’s hard to keep track.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com