Heroin use and overdose rates are rising across many demographics, including race, age, gender and income. One former addict, Jude Hassan, works at a St. Louis-area treatment center and is working to raise awareness of drug abuse and addiction.
Jude Hassan was once a typical high school student– active in school extracurriculars and just wanting to fit in. But before he completed his time at St. Louis-area Lafayette High School, he was using heroin eight to 10 times a day.
Now, after more than eight years of sobriety, he's sharing his personal experiences of heroin addiction with high school students and working to educate parents and teachers about how to spot opioid use.
He was 15 years old when he first walked the halls of Lafayette High School. Now he returns, not to the halls of Lafayette, but to its sister school Marquette High school, which is just over 10 minutes away.
“I was a good kid. 4.0 student,” Hassan said. “We had always lived in University City and my parents thought it would be better to get us in to Lafayette.”
Hassan’s parents thought his education would benefit by going to a top-ranked high school, but what they didn’t know is within a year he would start using drugs and it would devolve into a more than seven-year struggle with heroin.
“I knew about drugs. Don't do drugs. My dad was a substance abuse counselor and he worked in North St. Louis. He told me about the dangers of it. And so, I knew it was wrong, but I wanted to make friends. So I was willing to risk some things to do that,” Hassan said.
Hassan had a stable family and got good grades, but he soon discovered what he now tries to drive home for high school students, teachers and parents: No one is immune.
By his sophomore year, Hassan began smoking marijuana and partying with friends. Then at one party, a plate of heroin was passed around.
“I forced myself to sit down. I still can’t explain why and the plate came around to me and I tried my first line of heroin that night,” Hassan said.
After that Hassan was hooked. He began to use more and more, and started shooting up during his junior year between five and ten times a day. Every couple of hours.
After graduation, he went away to college, but soon used all his money. He became so desperate he called his father - who drove to see him.
“I was on the brink of death at that point,” Hassan said. “I had lost a bunch of weight. My arms were bruised up. And I looked like a pincushion. I had nothing left. And he knew that, at that point, either he had to take me away or I was gonna die.”
So his father made a decision – get Hassan out of St. Louis, move to Virginia and into methadone treatment. This treatment helped him function, and he went back to college and got a job. But before long he made what he calls “one of the worst mistakes of my life.”
Hassan said he joined a few college friends on their way to the house of a known drug distributor and he didn’t know they intended to steal any drugs and drug money they found. Once there, Hassan stayed downstairs.
“A few minutes later they came running downstairs,” Hassan said. “They had blood on their pants and big trash bags that they were carrying and I pretty much assumed that they had killed this kid and chopped him up and he was in these bags.”
The others had not killed the victim, but beaten him severely. Within days they had all been arrested and charged with five felonies. Hassan said he was just 21 years old and thought his life was over.
While in jail he had no access to his daily dose of methadone and he began to experience crippling withdrawal symptoms.
“For five days I laid on the floor crying and screaming and begging and throwing up on myself,” Hassan said. “Unable to move. And on that last day though, I told myself that if I got out of there, I was going to make everything up to my parents. I was going to make it up to my family. I was going to make it up for myself.”
That was rock bottom for Hassan.
After a few days Hassan’s mother bailed him out because his father, who had been diagnosed with cancer, was sick and she was worried his father would die while he was in jail.
After this experience Hassan got clean. He did in-patient treatment for a month and nearly a year of suboxone treatment before he felt comfortable going off the medication-assisted treatment.
He ended up with only one felony conviction and served no jail time. And within a few years, Hassan reconnected with a girl from high school, got engaged and prepared to return to St. Louis.
“I never thought I would come back in my lifetime,” Hassan said.
Now he works at treatment facility Bridgeway Behavioral Health, and focuses on a new outreach effort. He goes into high schools to talk with students and speaks with parents, teachers and professionals about addiction.
Hassan said sometimes it’s difficult to get parents and schools to agree to let him come in and talk, as some do not want to admit there is a problem. He adds that he hopes by sharing his personal experiences, he can get people to listen.
“I think it helps tremendously that I have the background that I have. That I can relate to the person that is sitting across from the table,” Hassan said. “And I think that they respect that about me. And see also that there is hope in recovery. People don’t just die and go to jail. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
During his June visit to Marquette High School, Hassan was asked by a student if he still feels the draw of heroin - the urge to use - and he responds it is something he just takes day by day – just 24 hours at a time.
“When I think of heroin, I would rather die,” Hassan said. “I would rather die than even try it again.”