CRYSTAL LAKE – Michelle Djus remembers rock bottom. She was in a house in Fox Lake with no hot water and barely any electricity. There were lice in her hair and bedbugs in the furniture. There were burn holes and blood stains on almost everything she owned.
She was a heroin addict. But on Wednesday night, she was the voice of recovery.
Djus, along with professionals from Northwest Community Counseling, Centegra Health System, Rosecrance and the McHenry County Sheriff's Office, spoke at a community forum titled, “Heroin, a Community's Response to a Community's Crisis.” A crowd of roughly 200 people packed the McHenry County College auditorium to learn about the prevalence of heroin in the county and ask questions to a panel of local drug experts.
Djus detailed her struggle from addiction to sobriety and described how an addict's mind operates differently than someone who is not on heroin.
“It's craving, needing, wanting, obsessing, running, stealing, lying, selling, pawn shops, link cards, Chicago, Rockford, Waukegan. How am I going to get there? Where am I going to get money from? Who am I going to lie to? Who am I going to steal from? What's valuable in my mother's house?” she said.
“It is just completely a squirrel cage in your brain and you're just obsessing, obsessing, obsessing. And nothing matters. Nothing. And you are not comforted or return to sanity in your own mind until you get your fix.”
But after going to jail, two trips to rehab and finding the right treatment to fight her disease, Djus' $400-a-day drug habit finally came to an end.
She is one of the lucky ones.
Since 2009, 75 people in McHenry County have died from a heroin overdose. The county first noticed an uptick in heroin use in 2002 as area treatment centers were flooded with requests for heroin detox.
At the same time, the coroner's office noticed a significant increase in heroin overdose deaths. That year, the county held its first “Heroin Awareness Forum” to discuss the issue with the community.
Wednesday was the county's second community forum since 2002, and since then the heroin deaths, and the purity of the drug, have continued to rise.
“Back in the late '60s and '70s when there was a huge heroin epidemic throughout the entire United States, purity levels were at the max 20-25 percent back then,” Sgt. Mike Muraski of the McHenry County Sheriff's Office said. “Now you're looking at purity levels that are hitting 60 to 70 percent. We're even seeing increasingly in some sample tests almost 90 percent purity … you're getting three times as much heroin in one dose than you were before.”
Wednesday's forum came just one day after Centegra said it believes the hospital treated someone who injected themselves with krokodil, a heroin substitute made of opiates and gasoline that turns users' skin scaly green and causes it subsequently rot off. But some experts at the forum were skeptical that the Russian-based drug has made its way to the U.S. as it hasn't been confirmed by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The forum was an opportunity for addicts to share their stories, for concerned parents to ask questions and for McHenry County residents to learn more about the deadly and highly-addictive drug. And it gave Djus, who used to hate other people unless they were useful in her search for drugs or money, a chance to celebrate her recovery with 200 people who couldn't have been more proud of her.
“I love people just because. And people love me just because. And it's a really great feeling,” she said.