Seven months ago, ABC News' "20/20" began following the journey of a young woman named Ashley. The story below describes the early days of our profiling of Ashley, in March and April of 2010.
Outside of Minneapolis, Minn., 21-year-old Ashley sits in the furnished basement of her high-end suburban home, a room that she calls her "dungeon."
"I'm literally just rotting," she said, "There's nothing I can think of that's good in my life right now."
Ashley lives the life of a full-time junkie, smoking as many as 100 hits of heroin a day. Her life is consumed by the multiple trips she takes into the city every day to get her fix, and a desperate search for the more than $100 a day she needs to pay for her addiction.
"It's the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning, its the last thing I think of when I go to bed," she said, "It's just what my life is revolved around."
Life wasn't always like this for Ashley. She was a good student in high school and college, and hoped to one day become a social worker.
"She's a beautiful girl and she just had so many dreams," her mother, Cheri, recalled. "And then it all just disappeared."
Ashley experimented with drugs during her freshman year of college, and she regrets that one day, she tried smoking hash with a friend. After a few weeks of using the drug, her friend came clean; the drug that they'd been smoking was actually heroin.
"He was addicted to this, and he wanted somebody else with him to share it," Ashley said.
By the time she realized the truth, Ashley was hooked. Over the next year, she dropped out of school and quit her part-time job as she sank deeper into addiction.
Heroin is a drug that has haunted our country for generations, but in recent years it has posed an increasing threat to American youth. Since 2007, the number of heroin users in the U.S. has nearly doubled, and half of all first-time users are younger than 26 years old, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
"Years ago, when you got a call about a heroin overdose, you'd expect that you were going to find a homeless person in an alley somewhere," said Lieutenant Bill Burke, a narcotics detective in Suffolk County, Long Island, N.Y. "Now we're seeing kids in the suburbs overdosing. First it was young people in their twenties, now there are teenagers."
The number of deaths caused by heroin overdose has shot up by at least 50 percent over the past decade, according to a review conducted by the Associated Press, and some areas have been hit harder than others.
"We've seen a doubling in the increase of opiate-related deaths in the last three or four years," said Steve Levy, County Executive in Suffolk, N.Y. "It's in a very pure form these days. It's not the heroin of the previous generation."
While the purity level of heroin has typically ranged from 5 to 20 percent, the purity of heroin produced in Mexico has started to hover around 40 percent, according to the DEA. This high potency level means that addicts are more often able to smoke or snort the drug, avoiding the needle that might scare away a first-time user.