This week’s blog is by Janie Chodosh, author of Death Spiral, the very first offering of the Poisoned Pencil,  published this past April. Janie writes here about some of the tough themes that are featured in her book.

Janie, you have the floor!


It’s not just the onslaught of media and technology kids are exposed to that makes adolescence hard. It’s not just the uncertainty of what approaching adulthood will bring: climate change and extinction of species and earth’s growing population. It’s surviving the realities of today: drugs like heroin—cheap, easy to get, and lethal. It’s cutting. It’s screen time and social media and the rapid transmission of information that results in alienation and loneliness. It’s the struggle to connect, face to face, and find intimacy in a world when communication comes in a 140-character tweet or an empty shout into cyberspace.

I recently asked 21 students between the ages of 12 and 17 to write about their experiences as teenagers. Although the sample size was small, I was blown away by the commonality of their answers. Every student, regardless of age or gender, replied with a variation on the theme of loneliness, alienation, and insecurity. One student said, “Although we have countless social networks, we spend less time around friends and family.” Others replied that the sense of alienation left them, or those they knew, more prone to seeking dangerous outlets such as drugs.

The Reality of Drug Use

These days, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, some 9.5% of youths aged 12 to 17 are current illegal drug users. For many of those users, heroin—generally associated with adult use—is the drug of choice. In fact, the image of a listless junkie in a dark alley is no longer accurate. Today, a user could be a suburban thirteen-year-old. Between 1995 and 2002, the number of teenagers in America who used heroin at some point in their lives increased by 300%.

Heroin is cheaper than ever. It is also available in a variety of forms that make it easier to use. For example, a highly addictive type of heroin known as “cheese heroin” comes from a blend of “black tar Mexican heroin” (named so because of its color) and over-the-counter cold medication. Cheese heroin is cheap, just a couple of dollars a hit, and you don’t have to inject it with a needle. According to Texas authorities, since 2004, cheese heroin has been responsible for at least forty deaths in the North Texas region. These facts mean that more families are dealing with the crushing impact of addiction; more teenagers are seeing their friends fall victim to the bewitching spell of drug use.

The Fictional Representation

In Death Spiral, sixteen-year-old Faith Flores sets out to discover the truth behind her mother’s death from a supposed heroin overdose. That part is fiction, but the nature of being the child of a drug addict is real, and it affects every aspect of Faith’s life, and the lives of countless others like her. Never having known a stable life, Faith doesn’t know the basics of—what to most people—are normal human relationships. She doesn’t know how to connect, to trust, and to let people into her life. She is angry and confused by a mother she loved, but who also profoundly let her down.

Although Faith’s exposure to heroin turns her away from drug and alcohol use, adolescence is a risk-taking period during which teens are more likely to try drugs. The part of the brain responsible for reasoning and decision-making becomes less active during this period. To get scientific about it: the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles reasoning, is pruned back during adolescence. This pruning back process increases impulsive, risk-taking behavior and susceptibility to addiction.

The Ramifications

Many teens say the reason they tried drugs in the first place is due to pressure from friends. One can imagine that a dealer, preying upon an insecure teenager, knows this. Stories of dealers approaching teenagers and claiming to be their “friend” are common. Dealers might tell a vulnerable teenager that the drug will “help them to fit in or “make them cool.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s most recent survey of 15,425 students in grades 9-12 from 42 states, three out of one hundred students have used heroin. Heroin abuse often starts with abuse of a prescription painkiller that a teen finds in the medicine cabinet at home. Nearly half of young people who used heroin in this study reports abusing prescription opioids like Oxycontin or Vicodin first.

As if all these alarming facts weren’t bad enough, today’s heroin is more lethal than ever. It is purer. It is stronger, so strong in fact that users can get high merely by snorting or smoking it. Purer + stronger = more addictive. One in four people who try heroin become addicted.

Although the teen protagonist of Death Spiral is not an addict, she is deeply impacted by the addiction of a loved one. Nobody who cares about an addict escapes unharmed, and Faith is no different. In shining a light into the dark corners of a difficult topic I hope to illuminate the reality that many young people struggle with today.

Next week, Part II