Suburbs Grapple with Heroin Epidemic

By Jack Adams

PJ Newberg’s daughter, Paula Nixon, tried to refuse the heroin her boyfriend offered her, but eventually she gave in, becoming a heroin addict at 16.

(Heroin) is just a f***ing nightmare, that’s what it is. It steals your soul,” Newberg said. “I don’t recognize my kid.”

Nixon has been in and out of rehab 15 times since then. Now 21 in a rehab facility in Florida recovering from a surgery to remove the infection that developed at her injection site.

Newberg said she began to suspect something wasn’t right when her daughter began sneaking out at night. Seven weeks after Nixon began using heroin, Newberg discovered it, and placed Nixon in a rehab facility. While in treatment, Nixon’s boyfriend died after overdose; once out of rehab, Nixon dropped out of high school, began shoplifting to support her habit, spent some time in jail, and eventually left home altogether.

“She’s been gang raped, she lived on the street,” Newberg said. “She has two parents who have two nice homes in Glenview, and she chose to live on the South Side in Englewood. This is a girl that was raised in Glenview, (and) she’s hanging with gang bangers.”

Newberg raised Nixon in the affluent North Shore community Glenview, considered to be one of the wealthiest suburbs of Chicago. According to a study released by Roosevelt University’s Consortium on Drug Policy, significantly more people in the suburbs were seeking heroin treatment in 2015 than in 2007.

Nixon and her boyfriend, Dayne Poyser, were students at Glenbrook South High School where Dayne played for the high school football team.

Michael Schofield, Fire Chief of Orland Park, started keeping track of local heroin overdoses in 2009, after he began to notice the increase in heroin deaths.

“People who are my age think of heroin like we did in the early 80’s,” Schofield said.” That it was the skid row bum, not the white kid who is an athlete or a scholar, taking heroin.”

Orland Park is primarily white, with a median household income of almost $80,000, just below that of Glenview, where the median household income is just over $100,000.

Schofield keeps track of heroin overdoses by counting the number of times naloxone is successfully used to reverse an overdose by paramedics, police or the fire department. Between 2011 and 2013, about 30 people overdosed, up from about 20 in 2009 and 2010. In 2014 and 2015, the numbers dipped slightly.

“Parents are clueless, everyone wants to bury their heads in the sand,” said Newberg.

Newberg founded North Shore Secret Heroin Problem after three more friends of her daughter’s overdosed on heroin and died. She speaks at schools, police departments and to anyone who is concerned in the community.

Schofield has spoken at schools in suburbs, where he said people ask him why he’s talking about heroin, since it has nothing to do with their community.

“No one wants the stigma, heroin is like a dirty word,” Newberg said. “They’re more hung up on the image of the community.”

Schofield’s sometimes brings his son, an offensive tackle on the Denver Broncos, and his son’s girlfriend, Olympic silver medalist ice hockey player Kendall Coyne, to speak to high school students about the dangers of drugs.

Newberg is in Florida with Nixon while she recovers from surgery. She said she doesn’t know if this is the end of her addiction or not.

“I live every day in fear that she’s going to die.”

Photo at top: Paula Nixon’s mom said that Nixon spent less time maintaining her appearance after she became addicted to heroin. The left photo is before, and the right is after. (Courtesy of PJ Newborn)

Correction 2/17/2016. Originally this story incorrectly stated that Newberg discovered her daughter was using heroin after 7 months. Newberg actually discovered her daughter’s heroin use after 7 weeks. Medill Reports regrets the error.