Steve Lunardi, Jr., recently told a standing-room-only crowd in Lake Forest how he started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana while attending Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, and then became a heroin addict.
"It took over my life. … It's truly a miracle that I am here today," he told an audience of more than 150 at the Gorton Community Center.
Mundelein resident Lunardi, sober for two years, joined a panel of Lake County officials and physicians on Feb. 26 to discuss what they are calling an "epidemic" — drug abuse and heroin overdose in Chicago's collar counties, including Lake County.
Parents, a few students, drug abuse treatment caregivers and several Lake County residents who lost a loved one to heroin overdose listened quietly as Lunardi and the rest of the panel delivered hopeful, as well as sobering, messages.
Although they've taken a dip in the past year, drug overdose death numbers have risen over the past decade in Lake County, panelists said. Health and law enforcement officials are tackling the problem by working to get drug dealers out of the county. They also said parents must be vigilant.
"We are one of the leading counties in the U.S. for drug overdoses," said Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim, one of the panelists.
Gateway drugs like marijuana can lead to heroin addiction, he said. But the biggest worry is that middle-school students are experimenting with prescription drugs they are taking from their parents' medicine cabinets. Misuse of these drugs also can lead to heroin addiction, Nerheim said.
He said the heroin is coming from Mexico and that Chicago is the No. 1 distribution hub for the United States.
Street gang members are bringing heroin into the suburbs, Nerheim said.
"There's a lot of it, and it's very cheap," he said. "You can get it five minutes from here and get it for five bucks. You can snort it or smoke it now. The first time you try it, you can overdose."
Georgia Katz of Lake Forest said she came to the meeting because she wants to stay informed. She asked her 14-year-old daughter, Vanessa, to attend the meeting, hoping to get the point across that "it can happen to anyone."
After the meeting, Vanessa said she learned that "taking any kind of drug can lead to heroin use."
That was true for Lunardi, who was joined by audience members after the meeting who wanted to share their stories and thank him for sharing his.
Lunardi said he started smoking marijuana because his friend did. He believed, he said, that marijuana would not lead to more dangerous drugs.
But by the time he was 18 years old, Lunardi was using heroin — every day — and selling everything he owned to get his fix.
Even after overdosing one day and waking up in the hospital, he continued, he said.
He went into rehab eight times before he got sober. Today, Lunardi, 25, is in a recovery program, works one-on-one with counselors and receives support from parents and friends. He also works a full-time job.
Beth Abbinanti of Arlington Heights told Lunardi that her 30-year-old son has struggled with heroin addiction for several years. It's difficult to know what to do, she said.
The key is that he has to want to change, Lunardi said.
"There is a way out," he said. "I'm living proof."
He said wanted Abbinanti to know that children with drug abuse problems often have good parents.
"My parents did everything right," he said, adding, "If your kid has an addiction, don't enable them. Don't bail them out of situations."
Lake Forest Police officer Steve Huck said parents need to be vigilant.
"Start with your kids young," he said. Search their bedrooms for signs of drug use and talk to them, Huck said. "We are the first line of defense. We're not their friends. We're their parents."
Lisa Aronson of Riverwoods congratulated Lunardi for seeking treatment for his heroin addiction.
She told him about her 23-year-old nephew, Jordan Miller of Highland Park, who died this January after a heroin overdose.
"He had been in rehab for five months," Aronson said.
Lunardi said there's no explanation for why some addicts overdose and die while others live.
Nerheim said a fairly new drug called naloxone, if administered in time, can save the life of someone overdosing on heroin and other opiate drugs.
"We want to have every squad car in Lake County have naloxone," he said. "It will reduce deaths."
Nerheim, who last May started a drug abuse prevention strategy task force focusing on heroin and other opiates, said the large turnout at the Lake Forest meeting was encouraging.
He also is forming a Lake County regional gang task force in spring to stop the infiltration of illegal drugs into Lake County via gangs. The meeting was sponsored by LEAD, Linking Efforts Against Drugs, based in Lake Forest. For more information, go to leadingefforts.org.