Addicted to Heroin: 'I'm Literally Just Rotting'

Ashley lives the life of a junkie, smoking as many as 100 hits of heroin a day.

Oct. 29, 2010— -- 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.

A Deadly Combination

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.

Low Price Attracts Youth

"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.

Also attractive to first-time users is the drug's relatively low price. Often, young people will make the jump to heroin after first becoming addicted to prescription opiates, such as Oxycontin. These pills can be pricey -- as high as $50 for one dose -- and the relatively low price tag on heroin -- as little as $10 per dose -- can push young users to try the drug they never would have used otherwise.

"This is a spiral into the abyss for a lot of these young people, who one day very innocently start looking through mom and dad's cabinet and take an Oxycontin pill," said Levy. "It's bad news where it could end up.

In Minneapolis, where Ashley goes on her daily trips, the purity of heroin is the highest of any city in the U.S., and the average price of the drug is among the lowest, according to the DEA. For young users in the area, this is a deadly combination.

'Five Minutes of My Time for That Much Money'

Heroin is famous for its euphoric high, a feeling that lasts 15 seconds, but comes to consume the life of an addict.

"You're just floating on a cloud," said Dylan, a friend of Ashley who's also a heroin user. "There's no care in the world. It's like a rush, just a rush of numbness."

This feeling comes at a price. It's quickly followed by heroin withdrawal -- an intense sickness that Ashley described as "10 times worse than the flu." Ashley said she no longer enjoys the high, but needs to come up with more than $100 per day to "stay well" and avoid the drug's all-consuming withdrawal.

Coming up with this money is a full-time job, and can force users to sink to unimaginable depths in order to feed their addiction. Ashley's friend, a former straight-A student who asked that her name not be used, has had to resort to prostitution in order to "stay well."

"I had no other way," the friend said, "I figured, whatever, five minutes of my time for that much money, it's not that important anymore. I don't care that much."

Because she charges as little as $20 for sex, she needs to sell herself to several men every day to keep herself from withdrawing.

"Lately it's been about like four, five, but I've had days when I've gotten like fifteen guys in a day," the friend said. "I don't feel like there's any lower I could go right now -- besides death."

The fate of Ashley's friend illustrates the Catch-22 of being a parent to a heroin addict.

"I've had a lot of friends say, 'Just kick her out.' Even the police have said that," said Ashley's mother, Cheri.

This can be an impossible decision to make, however, knowing how low a heroin addict will go to get a fix on the streets. Instead, Ashley's parents admit they give her cash and don't ask many questions. Ashley panhandles and steals extra money from her parents to make ends meet.

"It's a really sick feeling to know that's my parents' money," Ashley said, "It really sucks to know that that's how I repay them back."

'I Want to Get Sober'

Shortly after "20/20" met Ashley, she was offered an opportunity to attend the Young Adult Female Program, which is run by Caron Treatment Centers in Wernersville, Pa.

This is not an everyday opportunity. There are more than 23 million addicts in America that need treatment, but last year fewer than 1-in-10 were able to get help at a specialty substance abuse facility, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

With this rare opportunity in place, Ashley is ready to take the plunge. "My mind is just like 'I want to get sober, I want to get sober,'" said Ashley, "I'm going to get sober."

With a relapse rate that several studies cite as higher than 80 percent, the odds are stacked against Ashley.

Click here to hear Ashley and Dylan talk about their recovery and give advice for troubled addicts.