AURORA, Ill. — Just out of Cook County Jail after being arrested with 15 bags of heroin, Cody Lewis had all of $11 in his pocket. But not for long.
Almost immediately, he spent $10 on yet another bag of smack, making the buy on the Chicago streets last May as he headed to a police station to retrieve his cellphone. He shot up in a grocery store parking lot, then continued on his way.
By then, Lewis was a $100-a-day addict. Heroin was no longer fun. He needed it to get rid of the sweats and the shakes, the body cramps, the aches in his bones. “I had to use,” he says, “to feel normal, like a regular person.”
Lewis was consumed by heroin. Every day was the same: Get up sick if he hadn’t used in 12 hours. Figure out how to get money. Then drive 35 miles from his suburban home in Aurora to Chicago to score.
“My whole existence,” he says, “was just finding ways to get high.”
In many ways, Lewis represents the changing face of heroin in America. He is in his 20s, lives in the suburbs — two traits that fit a growing number of users — and graduated to heroin after years of getting high with other drugs.
When Lewis snorted his first line at age 18, he’d already used almost every imaginable drug: Marijuana. Cocaine. LSD. Ecstasy. Mushrooms. Pills. Heroin, though, was much more seductive.
“It was just like someone had wrapped me in a blanket,” he recalls. “I’d found the drug I was looking for … all the depression and anxiety and all that stuff that I was going through … heroin kind of filled the hole. It helped me just completely forget about anything bad. … I felt like I was king of the world, and this was after doing just one line. It was like, ‘This is GREAT. I’m definitely going to do it again.’”
As his habit grew, so did his need for cash.
He shoplifted video games from stores and resold them. He broke into cars, pawning anything he could steal along with his mother’s jewelry and laptop. He knew he was living dangerously, but that was part of the allure.
“The whole stealing and robbery and going to the city (to buy drugs) … it was thrilling,” he says. “I just felt like I had a lot more excitement in my life when I was a full-blown drug addict. … It was just very dumb.”
Lewis is blunt and matter-of-fact when describing his addiction. He’s quick to offer an unvarnished account of his mistakes and the pain he has caused himself and his family. He speaks slowly and deliberately, stretching out his words, and with his baby face — shadowed by the hint of a goatee — he looks much younger than 21.
Lewis’ upbringing was distinctly middle class. He played Little League and skateboarded, growing up in suburbs filled with cul-de-sacs and strip malls carved from farm fields. Dad designed computer networks; Mom now works for a shipping company. As a child, Lewis took regular family vacations to Florida to see his grandparents and visit Disney World.
Still, he traces his problems to a troubled childhood: Constant fights between his parents, who later divorced. The death of a beloved grandmother. And harassment from school bullies. He was a C-student at best; his class work started faltering in third grade. A doctor diagnosed attention deficit disorder and prescribed Adderall. A year later, he was put on antidepressants.
At age 12, Lewis started using marijuana. By freshman year, he was smoking weed daily at home — hiding his stash in a bedroom vent — or outside school in Batavia, a far western Chicago suburb. “It would bring my mood up,” he says. “I felt … like a normal teenager.”
Lewis began abusing other drugs, too, scouring the family medicine cabinet for painkillers and anxiety pills: Vicodin, Darvocet and Xanax, among others. “It made me forget and just not have to deal with real life,” he says.
Though his mother tried different approaches — punishment, lectures, praise when he entered rehab — nothing stuck. About a month after his release from a court-ordered, 8½-month residential treatment program, Lewis, then 17, reverted to his old ways.
“I just gave in when I got out,” he says. “You can learn every trick in the book to prevent you from using, but you have to use what they teach you.”
He returned to marijuana and cocaine, then moved on to heroin. Within six months, Lewis — who once was so scared of needles he’d look away when a doctor gave his younger sister shots — was mainlining.
Finding the drug was easy. Lewis could always hop on the expressway and head to Chicago. But heroin use also has surged in the prosperous suburbs close to home. In nearby DuPage County, for example, a record 46 heroin-related deaths were reported in 2013, spurring authorities to develop programs to combat the problem.
Lewis never thought of quitting until last May, weeks after his arrest, when a childhood pal called, frantically seeking help. He and a girlfriend had taken heroin with a woman who’d overdosed and died in her sleep. Lewis urged him to call the cops. Afterward, he says, his mind raced with thoughts of the death — and the prospect his friend could face criminal charges.
Nonetheless, he continued using, sometimes blacking out, waking to find heroin bags strewn about the bathroom. After a few days, he decided to get clean.
“I was thinking I could have overdosed. I could have been there. I could be in jail right now. … It was like, ‘This is crazy. What am I thinking?’”
Lewis completed rehab and started taking methadone. But after six months, he says, he realized he’d replaced one addiction with another, so he entered a detox program. He has been clean since Oct. 12.
He’s severed all connections with drug-using friends and won’t even watch his favorite movie, “Pulp Fiction,” because it depicts drug use. He attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings and group therapy and has begun speaking to church and school groups. He also hopes to attend community college this spring.
His mother, Karen, who attends Nar-Anon family group meetings, says the past few years have been an ordeal.
“I really hate to admit it, but there’s been a time or two when I thought … it would be better for all of us if he could be put out of his misery,” she says. “I’m not proud of it, but I try to explain to him that until you’re on the receiving end, you don’t know how I feel.”
She worries that sounds too harsh, but says she knows parents of other addicts have similar thoughts. She still grapples with guilt, she adds, even though her son has told her: “‘It’s not anything you did. I would have done it anyway.’”
She remains devoted to Cody. “I will be there for him as long as I can,” she says tearfully, urging families like hers to do the same. “As soon as they come out of it, that person that you know and love is there. They’ll come out. Cody’s finally … coming back to the person that he used to be.”
And yet, she is cautious, too. “I don’t like to look too far ahead. I don’t want to get too excited because I don’t want to get disappointed again. … The trust is going to take a long time to come back.”
Lewis says he now knows there are many good things he can do in life, and he’d like to become an addiction counselor. But he still thinks of heroin almost daily.
“They call it ‘playing the tape’ … which is about thinking about the negative effects, what it’s done to you and where it’s going to lead — to three different places: jails, institutions and death,” he says. “What I always say is I’ve been to jails, I’ve been to institutions and the only place left for me is dying.”
Being an addict, he adds, is “definitely in the past. I’d like to keep it there. I’m working on keeping it there. … I never know what the next day will bring. I may feel depressed or something may happen that makes me feel like I want to use … but I don’t think I’ll be having the urge anytime soon. I hope.”
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at scohenap.org.