They are human. They were kids.

They are human. They were kids.

Before my friends were junkies, they were your kid’s best friend, left wing on the soccer team, homecoming queen. By the time most people can admit they have a problem, they are already in handcuffs. There needs to be a change in the way people look at and treat addicts.

I have been lucky to be able to keep a safe enough distance from heroin, but many people I grew up with were not so fortunate. Most of my friends got hooked on dope when they were 15, 16, and 17 years old.

If you believe these people started out as thieves, junkies, and liars, then you simply have no heart. They were kids.

I am writing these words on behalf of all my dead friends, the ones who are dying, and all the people who think their only purpose right now is to get high.

I am writing for everyone in recovery who continues to be judged daily.

I am using this opportunity to advocate for everyone I know and love who has been affected by heroin, the people who use it, and people like me who love someone who does.

I have seen this drug change so many people; it has changed me, and I have never even done it. It changed my whole hometown in the matter of a year.

It is like I woke up one day and all my friends were addicted to heroin.

At first, no one thought it was a big deal; I remember people saying things like, “It's just heroin” and “I could stop if I wanted to.”

Finally, a year or so later, people wanted to stop, but no one knew how. No one knew what they were getting themselves into. And yes, we all took health class and got that lecture.

* * *

It breaks my heart knowing that people in my town have so little empathy for what is going on.

A week ago, my now-ex-boyfriend stole my car, took my ATM card, and spent my money on heroin. As angry as I am at him - and I do not want to defend his actions - there was a point where he was my best friend. He would never dream about doing the things he did.

He loved me, but he was cheating on me with heroin. I've heard there's nothing like her; nothing I could do would compete with her.

This problem surrounds me daily. I get accused of doing drugs because of the people I associate with, but people forget that before they were junkies, they were your kid's best friend, left wing on the soccer team, homecoming queen.

I grew up with these kids, played tag with them, and went to late skate at the Greenfield skating rink with them. I still picture my friend, the goofy, yellow-haired, awkward kid I knew in middle school, when I think about him robbing convenience stores at gunpoint for his next fix a few months back.

I do not know why we dehumanize addicts the way we do, but we need to remember that they do not want to be that way, either.

A life that may seem exciting at first soon becomes exhausting. I still chose to hang out with these people because I am one of their only sober friends left, because I am a good friend and a good person, and because I make the choice to see the good in other people.

I have seen the desperation in my friends' eyes when they talk about wanting to quit; it is the same look of desperation they have when they are throwing up in cold sweats asking for $10 to buy another bag and stop the pain.

It is a seesaw effect, and the only way to stop it is to get them off the streets. Get real help. Not these half-ass halfway houses that people sneak drugs into, and not just Narcotics Anonymous meetings. (People sell drugs right outside those doors because they know people love getting high before and after.)

There is a court house half the size of the YMCA in Greenfield in the works, and a train station that is sure to bring in more drugs, but no sign of a rehab.

* * *

There needs to be a change.

Imagine these were your children, snatched up one day by the drug monster. Would you want to throw them in jail? Or would you remember their innocence and try to save them from what damage has not already been done?

This whole thing is incredibly sad to me. I have seen some people get better because they were sent away to a rehab because when they got in trouble they were under 18. I have seen people get better and then relapse because of the lack of support and understanding in the community.

Nothing messes with an addict's recovery like the word “junkie.” That title is like a scarlet letter stamped on their forehead once they earn it.

There needs to be a change in the way people look at and treat addicts, and it starts with the judicial system.

By the time most people can admit they have a problem, they are already in handcuffs. They get out on probation, and it is just a matter of time before they go back to using because they do not know how to stop; they do not know how to cope or live at all.

I have seen people do well and recover on their own, only to be too tempted when that first paycheck comes.

I have seen people go to jail as addicts and come out as drug dealers to pay the court fees - not because they want to, but because for some reason society has made them believe it is their only option.

How can you even get a job when you have the word “junkie” stamped across your forehead?

* * *

These are not stories that I saw on TV or that I am making up. These are my friends' stories, the stories of children, the stories of people no one listens to because they are “no-good junkies.”

My friends are not criminals; we are kids. Everyone, even functional adults, is just looking for an escape, whether it takes the form of a vacation, retail therapy, lighting up a joint, having a beer after work, or taking a cigarette break.

To these kids, that escape was presented to them one day on a dollar bill, in a line, by someone they trusted: their mother, boyfriend, best friend. Then one day, in a needle.

I am not saying to send these people off to a cushy facility; because their addiction did drive them to do some bad things that they should be held accountable for; but it is clear to me and should be clear to you that throwing people in a cell or “treating” them with drugs like methadone and suboxone (drugs that they sell on the streets as well) is not helping.

These people have problems that go deeper than being a criminal, deeper than addiction. They are people trying to die but gripping onto life with everything they have because they are scared of everything. They are human.

* * *

Treatment that works for some might not work for others. But one thing that always goes far is love, empathy, and compassion. I know that addicts have to want and work for sobriety, but sometimes people need to be shown that there is something worth working and living for beyond addiction.

Most of the words I hear coming from people about addicts are not motivational. What hope do you expect a young person to have (who already has little self-confidence and is afraid of the world) when everyone is calling them worthless, criminals, junkies?

I have seen too many people go through this. There is nothing that I could ever say to make my friends feel better when they think the whole world is looking at them like trash, like they deserve everything they have gone through and to be locked away to face their punishment.

In some cases, this is true. Addiction can drive people to do crazy things.

But should a young person really face punishment for something that may have not been in their control? As “normal” people, we think, how could they not realize what they are doing is wrong?

The answer is they do, and they feel guilty about it every day. Without a reason or a way to stop, that guilt drives them to rob someone and pick up a needle instead of motivate them to move forward to sobriety.

Just the other day, a beautiful 16-year-old girl told me she would have to die before she could stop. There needs to be help available before a child's addiction reaches this low.

I tell you these things from experience, from living in the same town you live in. I am the girl who hangs out with the hippies, the preppy kids, the ghetto kids; if you live around here I probably know your kids.

Everyone has been affected by this drug. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, social class, or even the way you were raised.

You need to stop and listen to what is going on if you want to save our community.