At a Super 8 motel room just off I-494, Lauren Waldemar held out her arm for her dealer.
Just 18, she was too scared to inject the heroin herself.
The dealer cooked the drug in a spoon, filled a syringe and stuck a needle in her arm.
“I just kind of sat back and let it hit me,” she said, recalling the numbing, good feeling that triggered a two-year addiction spiral that landed her in jail three times and nearly killed her.
A onetime athlete who grew up in Bloomington, Waldemar is the face of the growing heroin epidemic: young, middle-class and seemingly removed from the hard edges of the drug world. Many got their start at the family medicine cabinet with prescription opiates like Vicodin, OxyContin or Percocet.
Cities flooded with inexpensive Mexican heroin have seen overdoses skyrocket in the past few years. Some of the users survive with the help of quick-thinking paramedics, but fatalities have climbed, too. Of the record 54 heroin deaths in Hennepin County last year, half were in their 20s.
Now 21 and five months sober, Waldemar recently told her story in front of 1,500 people at Grace Church in Eden Prairie for a drug awareness campaign.
“I’m just learning a lot about myself and how to live a normal life,” she said.
A blue pill changed everything
Waldemar grew up in Bloomington with her mom, dad and an older brother. She played basketball and lacrosse. She liked school.
But her world upended when her parents divorced. She rebelled. A short time after the divorce, when she was 12, she took her mom’s car out for a joy ride one winter night. Her mom picked her up at the police station. It would not be the last time.
Using the e-mail handle “leftbrokenhearted,” she turned her life upside down, using booze and weed and hanging around older kids. By the time she was 14 she had stopped going to school. Her drug use was a steady progression, a search for something new, she says now.
“I was willing to go further and further each time to find out what drug would make me feel the best,” she said.
At 17, she found herself at the Chanhassen home of a friend. A boy there had a blue pill, OxyContin. He showed her how to burn it and suck up the smoke through a straw. “When I tried it I fell in love with it. Just the way it made me feel. It made me feel numb. It was the best feeling I had ever felt in my life,” she said.
At $75 to $80 for an 80-milligram pill, OxyContin was an expensive habit. She stole from her parents or pawned their belongings, doing anything to get one more blue pill. After a year, a heroin dealer told her she was paying too much to get high.
It’s common to hear today’s heroin addicts talk about earlier addictions to prescription opiates. Brian Bennett, 23, said he first tried an opiate medication after having his wisdom teeth taken out. The Vicodin was a revelation for Bennett, who had used marijuana as a teenager. He soon graduated to OxyContin and became a daily user.
“Right when I woke up, it was the first thing I thought about,” said Bennett, now in treatment at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge.
Like Waldemar, he eventually came to see heroin as a cheaper alternative to prescription medicine, and became an addict at 20.
By the time Waldemar tried heroin for the first time, she had been to several treatment programs and was attending Sobriety High in Edina. It was at the school that she met someone who led her to heroin, she said.
“I tried it ’cause my dealer had it,” she said of heroin. They had gone to the motels along Interstate 494 before, renting out rooms to use as private drug dens without interference from parents, she said.
“Once I tried shooting up heroin for the first time, it was over,” she said. “I loved it.”
Her mother, Mindy Nelson, said she remembers finding needles around the house. When she asked Waldemar about them, she just got lies.
“My mom found out when I was 18,” Waldemar said. “She was devastated. She had obviously heard on the news about all these OD deaths. This one kid that I went to school with [at Sobriety High] had OD’d in his basement and died. She was terrified.”
Her mother’s worry was compounded by loss: Just months after her daughter started using heroin, Nelson’s other child, her son Mitchell, killed himself. He had been using Xanax heavily. He had a young daughter, but he was in the middle of a custody battle with the girl’s mother. In May of 2012, police called Nelson to say they had found Mitchell dead in his car.
His death led to an escalation of drug use for Waldemar: “That’s when my addiction got really bad.”
She spent the next year shooting up heroin or seeking treatment for it. Sometimes alone, sometimes with other users, she shot up in gas station bathrooms, or many times in her car. She usually bought heroin at Franklin and Portland Avenues.
“I would call ’em and say that I was sick and needed to grab some,” she said. At first she paid $50 for half a gram, but the price increased to $65 last summer, she said.
She learned to favor Mexican dealers. They rarely did the drug themselves and had a more businesslike approach to dealing, giving her a fair amount of drugs for her money. Other dealers would try to rip her off. The Mexican dealers also had incentives: Bring us another user and we’ll give you $20 worth of heroin for free. Lauren did.
Her addiction grew until she was doing a half a gram of heroin in a single shot. She never thought it could kill her.
Nearly dead, a new awakening
In October, Waldemar told her mom she needed something from Target. Nelson gave her $10. She drove to Dinkytown, to the house of a young dealer she knew a couple of blocks from a McDonald’s.
He was like the dealers you’d find in the suburbs, just “like average, normal-looking kids that are basically just selling heroin to support their own habit,” she said.
She had already taken a prescription Xanax that day, and the dealer had potent “China white” heroin. She shot up twice, then passed out. A paramedic found her on the house’s front steps, not breathing, her lips blue. A shot of Narcan brought her back to life.
At the hospital, Nelson found her daughter woozy and belligerent. Waldemar spent the next week in the psych ward, placed there so she wouldn’t go back on the streets.
The OD was evidence that she had violated her probation, and when she was released from the hospital she was sent back to jail in Ramsey County. Her probation officer there sent her to Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge.
With five months of sobriety behind her, she’s found new purpose in life. She’s winning back her mom’s trust. And she’s hoping her story will prevent others from using heroin.
“Going from getting high every day to going sober is like totally foreign,” she said. “It takes time for the fog to clear. I’m excited. I’ve never woken up and been excited.”