The heroin problem in the United States

Millions of families are affected by heroin addiction. Why is this a growing problem in the U.S. Dr. Howard Samuels weighs in here.

minute read
By Dr. Howard Samuels, Author of Alive Again: Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction

Whether you’re interested in the state of the union regarding heroin, or in helping a heroin addict…this article provides insight into heroin as a growing American problem.  We invite your comments, questions, or feedback at the end, including where to get help for heroin addiction or identifying symptoms of heroin addiction. We try to respond to all comments with a personal and prompt reply.

A Thousand Points of Light

When he discovered he’d been elected president at the 1988 Republican National Convention, George Bush delivered an acceptance speech where he likened America’s clubs and volunteer organizations to, “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” Never one to waste the turn of a good phrase, he repeated the sentiment months later in January of 1989 during his inaugural address.

But it wasn’t entirely his to begin with. Author C.S. Lewis had used the phrase in a 1955 novel and before him, H.G. Wells had also done a variation of it himself in a novel entitled MR. BRITLING SEES IT THROUGH in 1917. It wasn’t realistically updated, however, until 1991, when The New York Times noted that the phrase had inspired, “a host of caustic political satires, including cartoons of devastated communities as ‘A Thousand Points of Blight.'”

The heroin problem in Vermont

Which brings us to the annual address given by Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, which — in its entirety — focused on the state’s Heroin Crisis. Gov. Shumlin noted that two million dollars worth of heroin is pumped into Vermont each week while noting that 80% of the state’s inmates are in prison for drug crimes. Heroin-related deaths in Vermont nearly doubled in the last year and the number of people treated for heroin addiction had increased 770% since the year 2000.

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The loss of Phillip Seymour Hoffman

And then we lost Phillip Seymour Hoffman, an actor whose commitment to his work and incredible range knew no boundary. I remember leaving the theater after watching one of his movies and thinking to myself, “That wasn’t a performance, it was a Possession.” But then, just like that, he was gone.

Heroin is an American problem

And, just like that, the nation’s attention was brought right back around to the crisis that is devastating our communities. It is astonishing to me that people still view heroin abuse and drug addiction as a “Hollywood Problem”, and that — despite the overwhelming data — everyone still refuses to believe that overdoses are occurring daily in our own backyards.

This idea needs to be smashed.

I wrestled with heroin addiction for most of my adult life. It alienated me from my siblings and friends, estranged me from my parents, and annihilated everything I loved before I found the strength and fortitude to check myself into rehab and turn my life around. But, even then, it was an uphill battle, fraught with relapse and disappointment until — during yet another stint in rehab — my father died, and I was allowed to go home alone to mourn with my family as we made ready to bury the man who had never stopped loving me. And, I stood there, at his graveside, for a great long while and swore to him that he would never have to worry about me ever again.

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It was a promise I wish I’d made when he was alive, but that simply wasn’t in the cards for me. This was my path, and I had chosen it, again and again, while in the throes of my addiction. And, it’s funny, I watched an interview recently with TV Star-Turned-Songstress Demi Lovato (I have two daughters; don’t judge me) who talked openly and courageously about her own plight and that of her close friend Selena Gomez. “It’s not even a conscious decision,” she said, “When you’re a drug addict, you are in pain and this is the only way you know how to medicate it.”

This wisdom from a 21 year old woman? How is that even possible in today’s world? I mean, isn’t she supposed to be pining over a boy or standing in line in the rain for a show? Instead, she’s standing at ground zero, looking around at the wreckage and thankful her friend is standing beside her; still alive.

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Joe Jonas, Justin Bieber, Cory Monteith . . . the disease of addiction, like cancer or diabetes, does NOT discriminate; it is an equal-opportunity destroyer. Our children are watching this horror unfold on their televisions everyday, and then stepping into schools all across America and laying flowers down against the lockers of their own friends who have overdosed and died on heroin.

Talk about heroin with your kids

This is why I feel that it behooves us to sit down with our kids and actually talk with them about what is happening — not just to their favorite celebrities, but to people all around them. We cannot afford to shield our young people from what is happening in the world. Shumlin saw this. I imagine that’s why he didn’t bury the story about what was happening in Vermont beneath a bunch of rhetoric about stop signs and past times; he got to the point and pulled the curtain back and let the entire country know that Vermont was not all Snowy Fields and Maple Syrup.

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Which brings us, lastly, to my 12-year-old son. He turns on the TV and he sees Olympic Athletes competing against one another as we push the limits of human endurance and prove to the world all that we are truly capable of. He sees the best in people and is constantly pleading with me to find a way to get us a seat on Virgin Atlantic’s Space Flight (although, at $250,000 a ticket, I promise you, the kid’s got a better chance at winning the lottery than he does shooting into space with his old man, I’ve gotta tell ya’).

But, it’s a harrowing notion, I think, to imagine he and myself in a rocket looking down on the planet Earth. Because, I think we’d see two entirely different things as we rounded the dark side of the globe and looked down at America. For him, I think he’d see everything we’d ever accomplished — electricity to stave off the threatening night; the warmth of the lot of us, living side-by-side in communities that promote the same love for values that many of our parents had, and the burgeoning future that those self-same values are fueling.

Millions of families are affected by heroin addiction

But, I’d probably imagine a thousand points of light, each one represented by a candle that had been lit to commemorate those who have succumbed to heroin addiction; the men and women still using this nightmare drug.

That there are a thousand candles may seem daunting to many of you, but the truth of the matter is, they number up in the millions. Can you imagine that? Millions of families devastated by the growing numbers of loved ones who are overdosing and dying, alone and anesthetized, in our streets?

We can’t hide from this anymore.

It’s time we acknowledged the points of light these candles are generating, once and for all, because it is up to each and every one of us to blow them out before our country catches fire.

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About the author
Howard C. Samuels, Psy.D., author of Alive Again: Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, is an internationally renowned recovery expert. He is the founder and president of the prestigious The Hills Treatment Center in Los Angeles and he appears regularly on national TV news shows about the challenges of drug addiction. For more, visit The Hills Treatment Center.


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  1. I am a 40 year old user and sometimes abuser of prescription opiats and benzo’s, I have been on them for years and after 4 stents in detox and a short stay at a rehab facility, I really see no way off of these damn drugs that I have loved to haye and hate to love. I am also a paraplegic and I do suffer from chronic pain due to ware and tare on my body from my wheelchair and a bad withdrawal from Chantix. I started this journey almost 5 or 6 years ago. I had a decent job, a car and a couple of women who wanted to marry me. All that is gone due to me putting drugs in front of it all. I get 180 15 mg quick reelease oxycodone, 90 30 mg Mscontin and 90 Klonopin a month, not to mention the pharmacy of other drugs I am prescribed. I have lost all but my closest friends and my family. I am now on Social Security and medicare. Every time I have attempted to quit I end up in so much pain that I go right back on them. I would like to know if there is a treatment for me to come off the opiats and the benzo’s and something none narcotic for my pain and anxiety issues.

    I am seriously tired on living and worrying about my meds. Will I make it through this month, will the pharmacy have my whole order and what happens when my doctor decides to retire? Will I be able to find a new doctor that will prescribe these drugs that I have been so accustomed to taking. I don’t want it anymore and I just do not know whete to turn.

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

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