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Alarming heroin addiction topic at school meetings in New Berlin and Muskego; recovering addict shar

May 12, 2014

There was silence as 20-year-old recovering heroin addict Conor Brennan told the audience of parents mainly from Muskego and his hometown of New Berlin how he had entered a drug spiral that sucked him into a $200-a-day habit.

Brennan addressed an audience last week of about 200 at New Berlin West Middle/High School about the growing popularity and dangers of heroin, a drug that was once thought to be the bane of inner cities and now has ravaged good homes and families of Waukesha County.

The "Heroin Crisis in 'The Burbs'" program was sponsored by the cities of Muskego and New Berlin and their schools. Waukesha County law enforcement officials and Brennan were featured at the anti-drug program, which was repeated at Muskego High School on Monday where some 400 people had signed up to attend.

Brennan revealed the details of his descent into drug dependency, enlightening listeners who likely wondered if their own children were secretly falling into the same darkness.

He spoke of smoking marijuana and drinking in sixth grade. That's about the time he also started weight lifting and found that prescription pills took away the pain of his sore muscles.

Instead of using addictive opiates such as Oxycodone, he used a drug with the brand name of Suboxin, used to help heroin addicts kick their habit. The young Brennan thought he would be safe with such a substance. It wasn't only for physical pain that he used the drug. It eased psychological pain, too.

"I was unconformable in my own skin," Brennan said.

With the drug, Brennan felt bigger, stronger, more in control, which he finally lost by the time he entered high school. He had taken Suboxin and on the weekends added drinking and smoking weed, but that finally caught up to him as a freshman.

"I started losing control," Brennan said.

As a sophomore, he transferred to Nathan Hale High School in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District where he received outpatient treatment. And he got better. Then he stopped seeing his counselor and he went right back to the pills.

But after a while the pills stopped working. So he made the fateful decision and tried heroin with devastating results.

"I'd gotten that high and I never wanted to lose it," he said. He stole and became a drug dealer to be able to afford his heroin habit that hit $200 a day. He dropped out of school, had no friends, and forgotten how to have fun without drugs.

His desperate parents took him to visit a drug rehabilitation center, but he was convinced he could handle it. Iinstead, he hit bottom.

"I couldn't do it anymore," and he wrote a suicide note, he said. Brennan, only 17, intended to kill himself with his father's gun. He fell asleep before he could carry out his plan. Two days later, Brennen told his parents he needed help.

Drug recovery experts said Brennen would have died before his 18th birthday if he had continued his heroin use.

The rehab center helped Brennan put his life back together and he enrolled in school again, going from a grade point average of 0.5 to 4.0. He worked full time while in school.

"Life is great for me now," he said.

Smart kids and honor students get in trouble all the time with heroin, speaker Brad Schimmel, Waukesha County district attorney, said. Many desperately heartbroken parents whose children have died of overdoses have spread out their children's stellar report cards in front of him, he said.

"That's what I find in case after case," Schimmel said. "What do users look like?" Schimmel asked. "Like the kid up the street or next door or the kid who slept over with your kid overnight."

Young people often start with prescription pain killers such as Oxycodone in their parents medicine chest and find themselves sucked into heroin just because it's cheaper. The strongest prescription pain killer is $90, verses $20 for heroin, said Detective Chris Kohl, who is with the Waukesha County Metro Drug Unit.

Besides not realizing the problem in the suburbs is as big as it is, parents often mistakenly belief that marijuana is relatively harmless, speakers said. Some parents may have even smoked a little weed in their younger days. But today's marijuana is up to six times as strong as it was in the 1970s, Kohl said.

"It's a different drug," he said.

Drug cases are skyrocketing in Waukesha County, Schimmel said. Waukesha County is second only to Milwaukee County in submissions to the State Crime Lab for tests, he said.

In his 24 years in the district attorney's office, Schimmel said, "We've never seen anything like what we're dealing with right now."

Drug dealers target suburban kids because they have money and they don't have guns, Brennan said.

New Berlin Police Officer Steve Dodson said when he started with the department 10 years ago, there were no heroin cases. In 2006 and 2007 they just trickled in, he said. "Then all of a sudden it just skyrocketed."

According to the Waukesha County Medical Examiners Office, there were 12 heroin-related deaths in 2012, the latest year for which full information is available, compared with five in 2008. There was one in 2009, two in 2010 and four in 2011.

The drugs are so widespread and have such a strong pull that society can't arrest its way out of the problem, said speaker Dana Brueck, communications officer with the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

Schimmel agreed, saying, "If we're going to win, we're to have to win through prevention."

Parents need to talk to their children, especially about heroin and synthetic heroin in the form of prescription drugs Oxycodone and Oxycontin, Brueck said. The speakers emphasized that young people mistakenly think that because prescription drugs come from doctors that they are safe.

But how young is too young to talk to kids about heroin?

The detective said he has a 6-year-old and he will just say heroin is bad but not come down in a heavy-handed way.

Brueck also said young people need to see a series of videos called The Fly Effect in which recovering addicts tell their stories of the spiraling effect of heroin.

"No one can explain the impact of heroin as those who have experienced it," Brueck said. The videos are available online at theflyeffect.com.

In the question and answer session after the speaker presentations, the question came up again as to how young is too young, but this time in connection with school anti-drug classes.

From drug cases that have gone to court, users say they started popping pills at parties at age 13 and 14, Schimmel said. In addition, Brennan said he started in sixth grade, making him 11 or 12.

The anti-drug D.A.R.E. program administered in fifth grade has had mixed results and many communities have dropped it.

But developing a different program for elementary school students was debated by Dodson of the Police Department and Scott Gillard, assistant fire chief with the New Berlin Fire Department. But they worried about angering parents who might complain that children are being told too soon about heroin, Gillard said, "Even though that's when they're starting."

Speaker Linda Lenz who lost a son to a heroin overdose urged them to persevere.

"Young people are dying," she said.

WHAT TO DO

Experts spoke of many things parents could do to find out if their children might be using drugs. However, Linda Lenz who is spearheading a drive primarily for prevention but also for better treatment accessibility said after the session that by the time parents find these red flags, they already have a bad problem on their hands.

What to do and look for:

Check your children's computer and cell phone

Check social media and Instagrams

Check their bank accounts because heroin costs money

Young people making their own "vitamins" could well be making ecstasy

Wax smudges are probably concentrated THC, the active ingredient in marijuana

Lock the medicine chest so that young people can't get at prescription drugs.

Take leftover medicine to the periodic medicine collections.

Check children's bedrooms for things such as cigarette lighters, aerosol cans and a safe. All are used for drugs. Police once found that a dictionary was actually a safe containing thousands of dollars in cash.

Learn more about drugs and alcohol than your kids know.

Young people getting rid of things they love, they could be selling them for drug money

Missing jewelry or other valuable items that children may be selling to get drug money

Making their bedroom off-limits

Mood shifts, different friends, not wanting parents to meet their friends so they are picked up in the driveway instead of at the house

Secrecy in their activities

More sleepy than normal or less sleepy, weight loss

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