Editor's note: Some of the last names of the subjects in this story have been withheld.
There's nothing about Sarah that would lead you to believe heroin nearly sucked the life out of her — on so many occasions, during so many ambulance rides to the hospital, she can't put a number on them.
Sitting across from her ex-boyfriend Brian at the Majestic diner on Ponce, Sarah glows with good health and positive energy. Her long, flaxen blond hair frames a golden complexion, and the green stones in her silver rings heighten the color of her pale, sage eyes.
One night 10 years ago, when she was 17, she and some friends were driving home from a pool hall when a car pulled out in front of them. The impact tore the muscles from the bones in Sarah's back. The guy sitting behind her in the back seat was in a coma for weeks.
While recovering from her injuries, Sarah relied on a cocktail of prescribed drugs, including the pain killer Percocet and muscle relaxer Soma. Then she ran out of insurance money. She no longer had access to the narcotics to which she'd grown attached. So she started buying prescription pills from a drug dealer. That went on for a few months, until the time when she gave her dealer $100 for some Soma, and he gave her a half-gram of heroin instead.
She snorted a little, just to ease the pain. The next time, she snorted a little more. It was bliss. "My world was kind of crooked my whole life," she says. "And I started doing heroin, and everything kind of evened out."
Of course, her heroin use wasn't something she wanted to broadcast, not even to her closest friends. Eventually, though, she mentioned to one of them that she'd been snorting a little smack here and there. Her friend replied that she'd tried heroin before, and that she had a spare needle. Sarah started shooting up.
She quickly retreated into another reality. She became disengaged from the rest of the world and enamored of her every waking moment. She began to think of heroin as a companion. It was like being in love. "It didn't even seem like a substance," she says. "It was like a being or something."
Then she met Brian.
Tall and muscular, with a ruggedness softened by boyish features and pale green eyes that mirrored Sarah's own, he seemed a perfect match. They'd grown up in the same neighborhood, in Snellville, and though he'd known Sarah's brothers, they'd never met. For the past two years, since he was 18, he'd been living on the streets in northern California. He'd only just come home. He and Sarah hit it off immediately.
She soon let him in on her secret. He was intrigued. At around the same time, Sarah got a $25,000 settlement from the traffic accident a year earlier – the accident that, indirectly at least, had led to her heroin use. Now it was as if the accident was pushing her to use even more.
With a big chunk of cash in her pocket and an enthusiastic partner, Sarah entered the abyss. "We just went on a mission," she says. "It lasted for some years."
She and Brian typically bought their heroin from a dealer in East Point. They were going through $300 in drugs per day, each. Life became a constant struggle – a journey not to be sick. The $25,000 went fast.
"That's when it gets bad," Sarah says. "You start hitting your low points, and your morals start bending a little. You start changing a little bit as a person."
She tried to detox. She'd lie in bed for days at a time. She would get up, barely able to move or see, slowly realizing that her only escape was to score more drugs. "At that point in my life, I didn't ever think about being where I am today," she recalls. "I just was like, 'I'm going to live this way the rest of my life.' I got to a comfortable point of just living at the bottom."
Heroin's glamour quickly wore off for Brian, too. "You start off doing it and you're like, 'Wow, it numbs you to the whole world,'" he says. "Like, everything's OK, even if it's not.
"And it's not until you get to a certain point, where you're either out of money or you're like, 'Well, maybe I just don't want to do it today,' that you realize how severely you need it. It's almost like being a vampire. You have to drink the blood to survive."
Traditionally, Atlanta hasn't been much of a heroin town. Cocaine is the city's drug of choice, with crystal meth a close second.
"I hear what's going on in other cities," says Dr. Brian Dew, a Georgia State University professor and the Atlanta representative for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "And Atlanta, to be honest with you, has the lowest heroin problem of any major U.S. city in the country."