Liz Cohen remembers the exact moment she gave in to heroin. Sitting in a rundown motel room with her boyfriend and starting to feel the intense pains of withdrawal, she says she begged him to get her more drugs. But when he told her that all he could give her was heroin, she balked. Up until that point she’d stuck to prescription painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycontin, uppers like cocaine and speed, and drinking—heroin, she says, was the line she wouldn’t cross.
“In my mind, I wasn’t really a drug addict, I was just a girl who liked to party. But heroin was serious, heroin was for junkies on the street,” she says. “So I told my boyfriend, ‘No, anything but that. We promised we’d never do that.’”
His reply shocked her. “You’ve already been doing heroin for months,” he said bluntly, explaining that while she’d thought the powder she was snorting was crushed-up painkillers it turns out he’d been giving her the cheaper narcotic heroin, instead. And, he added, he knew a faster, easier way to get the high she so desperately craved. He handed her a needle.
“I was devastated, I’d become what I’d always said I wouldn’t be,” she says. But that feeling disappeared quickly. “The second I stuck the needle in my arm, the whole game changed. I was in love. Heroin became my life, my love, my everything.”
A popular, pretty, former high school basketball star, Liz was the last person you’d expect to end up a homeless drug addict. Yet it was her beloved sport that first introduced her to the opiates that would consume her life.
Her freshman year, she was goofing around and turned her ankle, tearing all of the ligaments. At the ER, the doctor prescribed her Percocet, an opioid painkiller. At first she says it made her nauseous, but it didn’t take long before she realized the powerful pills killed not just the physical pain but also the emotional pain. And facing a year of surgery and recovery instead of playing ball with her team, the teen had a lot of emotional pain.
“They made me feel so euphoric and invincible that I used up my one-month prescription in one week,” she says. After that, she lied to her doctor about her pain levels to keep the prescriptions coming.
Liz is not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "past misuse of prescription opioids is the strongest risk factor for starting heroin use," and three out of four new heroin users report having abused opioids before using heroin.
Eventually, Liz moved on from her opioids to harder drugs, and she forgot all about the basketball team, academics, and her dream of getting a sports scholarship. By her senior year of high school, she flunked out and ran away from home to move in with her dealer boyfriend—the one who would get the teen hooked on heroin.
Not long after she embraced shooting up, Liz, who'd always known she was adopted, found her birth parents and made plans to meet them.
On the day of their visit, her biological mom answered the door, handed Liz a handful of painkillers and said, “Nervous? These will make the conversation easier.”
Liz felt like she’d finally found her people. She soon moved in with her biological parents, getting high with her birth mom every day. And then Liz’s world was shattered. A lifetime of drug abuse and hard living caught up to her mom and she died of liver failure.
“She was only 43 years old—way too young to die—but she looked 90,” Liz remembers. “One of the last things she said to me was to ask me to sneak her drugs into the hospital, she didn’t even realize how messed up that was. And it finally hit me, is this really what I want for myself?”
Liz, now in her early twenties, made a commitment to get clean. At first she thought she could break the habit on her own, but eventually she checked into treatment at Caron Treatment Center. It took her two years and two separate times through the program to finally free herself from heroin, a grueling process she describes as the hardest thing she’s ever done.
Now, at 28, she’s six years sober, is in a healthy relationship, has reconciled with the parents who raised her, and is in school studying to be a social worker. And, as a happy bonus, she says she’s rediscovered the “natural high” of exercise, doing weekly Zumba classes.
But when it comes to medication, she still worries. After a recent eye surgery, she took nothing but ibuprofen rather than risk taking an opiate, and she says she wishes that more people understood how powerful those medications are.
“It’s so scary, doctors need to be more careful prescribing painkillers. I wish they would have warned me or my parents of the risk of addiction. What happened to me could happen to anyone,” she says. “Because you think, hey, if a doctor prescribes it, it should be safe, right?”
But she says she finally found peace, both with her past and her future. “I had such self-hatred for so long, I was suicidal,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d survive—but not only did I survive, I came out even stronger.”
If you or someone you know has a problem with drugs, find help and resources at DrugAbuse.gov or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
This article first appeared on Women's Health.