Washington County: A Town Plagued by Heroin

James Siwiak with his friend Dylan at Lake Haven rehab in Florida.

By Madison Vranish

Danielle Hertzler was only 16 years old when she became addicted to heroin and prescription pills and nearly lost her life.

Heroin put such a grip on Dezmick Matthews, 22, that he found himself facing prison due to heroin, while James Siwiak, 21, fell into the realm of heroin and he struggled to become clean.

Shannon Young watched her younger brother Shaun struggle with addiction to heroin since he was twenty-one years old, breaking her heart and causing estrangement.

Shannon Young and her brother Shawn.
Shannon Young with her brother Shaun. Photo by Shannon Young

These are just some of the faces of addiction in a county overcome with it. While some have eased off the highly addictive drugs that overwhelmed them, others—several at young ages — face a life of uncertainty or worse due to their addiction.

Heroin is currently Pennsylvania’s, specifically Washington County’s, number one drug problem. There have been more than 220 overdoses alone in Washington County related to heroin and opiates since 2011 according to Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone.

“Drug dealers know how vulnerable these addicts are in Washington and take advantage of them, that’s why heroin addiction will not go away from here any time soon,” said Matthews.

Hertlzer was fifteen-years-old when she started using heroin to stifle depression. The crowd of people she was hanging out with pressured her into drug use which led to addiction.

At the time a high school sophomore, all she thought about when she woke up was when and how she was going to get high.

“Heroin controls your life, it is something that changes your life forever,” said Hertlzer.

She would soon find out this was true when one day last year she decided to take Xanax and heroin simultaneously, leading her to overdose.

“All I remember is waking up in the hospital bed and seeing my dad crying over me, that was the moment I knew that I had to stop,” Hertlzer said.

After overdosing Hertlzer attended rehab and narcotics anonymous meetings to help keep herself clean and off of heroin. Hertzler said that it is extremely hard to stay clean and though the temptation is still there, she has remained sober.

As of the month of April 2016, Hertlzer is now 7 months heroin free.

Hertlzer’s advice to those who are also struggling with addiction is to sit back and think if you really want to keep living life this way.

“I pray every single day for those who are suffering from addiction because I know that getting clean is a very difficult thing to do,” said Hertlzer.

Matthews grew up in Washington where dealing heroin was just as prevalent as addiction to it. Matthews surrounded himself with the wrong crowd, which led to his arrest on March 16, 2014 when he was found with 164 stamp bags of suspected heroin. Matthews served 6 months in the Washington County Correctional Facility for this crime and is still currently on probation today.

Matthews said the reason why he started selling was because he thought he could take care of himself, leading him to develop an arrogant personality.

Matthews was brought up in a big and religious family. He said that the choices he made heavily impacted his family, but the person who was most affected by those choices was his mother.

Matthews now works at Pizza Hut and says that he works all the time to keep himself out of trouble and to keep the temptation away.

“It’s not worth throwing your life away over a dollar bill because eventually you will get caught,” said Matthews.

Matthews said that his past actions are a closed chapter in his life and that he is extremely excited for what the future has to offer him.

“I’m really not sure what I see in the future for myself, but I see myself being someone important, that’s for a fact,” Matthews said.

Siwiak said that his addiction to heroin and crack-cocaine started when he was in the ninth grade of high school. His addiction stemmed from a state of depression he was in during this period of time. Siwiak said he often resorted to robbing people and stores for money to be able to afford drugs.

Siwiak said the choices he made during this time affected his mother and father immensely, especially when he was arrested for an incident related to heroin. Siwiak said that because of the emotional distress he put his parents under, he decided to make his next step to become clean.

Siwiak said that he went to approximately nine rehabs and seven detoxes, all located in Florida. Siwiak went to Lake Haven, The Recovery Place, Ocean Breeze and a few others in order to receive treatment in hopes of becoming clean. Siwiak said that it took him a while to find a treatment center that worked best for him.

James Siwiak with his friend Dylan at Lake Haven rehab in Florida.
James Siwiak with his friend Dylan at Lake Haven rehab in Florida.

While receiving treatment Siwiak learned many different ways to cope with his depression and stress to avoid using drugs again. Siwiak said he learned that he won’t have to resort to drugs as long as he follows the steps that he learned while receiving treatment. So far, it is working.

Siwiak also made many friends while receiving treatment. His best friend was Dylan. Siwiak said his favorite memory with Dylan was enjoying his twenty-first birthday with him, sober on the beach.

Since his stay in Florida, Siwiak has been 9 months sober from heroin and other drugs. Siwiak says he now chooses to work out when he is stressed instead of resorting to drugs and is planning on attending school for nutrition.

Although Siwiak remains sober he says he says he knows why the heroin epidemic is so bad in Washington County.

“It’s [heroin] so cheap, easy to find and makes you feel amazing when nothing else really will,” said Siwiak.

Young and her brother were only two years apart in age. Growing up, the two were nearly inseparable and often people thought they were twins.

Young said that her younger brother Shaun first became addicted to heroin in his early twenties, but he had always struggled with mental health issues that went  undiagnosed until later in his life, just prior to his addiction.

Young said that Shaun had gone to rehab a few times, but would leave within a few days of checking himself in. During his short stay in rehab, Shaun was diagnosed with manic depression and bipolar disorder and was put on medication to treat these disorders.

After many short stays at rehab, Shaun had been able to remain sober, but was homeless. Young allowed Shaun to move in with her, her husband Brandon Young, and their two little boys while he got back on the right track.

A few months after Shaun moved in, Young and her husband noticed a change in his behavior. Shaun began to spend less time at their home and the two became suspicious.

“I knew he was using again and I did not want him to put my children in danger,” said Young’s husband Brandon.

Shortly after this, the two decided to search the room Shaun was staying in, where their children would frequently play, and discovered a needle, a spoon and heroin.

After the discovery, Shaun was told to pack up his things and move out. Young has not spoken to him in almost two years, and is unaware of his whereabouts but checks the local jail websites every week to see if he has been arrested.

Young says that she is almost a hundred percent positive that her brother will never be saved from his addiction and that his future is looking dimmer by the day.

“I have had to learn to completely emotionally detach myself from him because I have to come to terms with the fact that he will be dead soon,” said Young.

Ryan Duritza, 21, of Washington County struggled with prescription pill addiction during his late teens and into his early twenties.

Duritza was 19-years-old when he first became addicted to heroin.

Duritza said his addiction first started when the prescription pills he was addicted to became too expensive to afford.

From that point on, things went downhill for Duritza. He started stealing and robbing people, and was eventually arrested for selling drugs to a confidential informant.

After these events occurred, Duritza decided that his only option was to receive treatment to become clean. Duritza admitted himself into rehab four times due to how difficult it was for him to get himself clean from heroin.

During this difficult time, Duritza said his mother, although heartbroken, was his biggest supporter.

“I love my mom more than anything in this whole entire world, she does everything for me and has never stopped believing in me,” said Duritza.

Ryan Duritza with his mother. Photo by Jordan Duritza.

Since Duritza’s last stay at rehab, he has been clean for five months and is planning on managing his father’s store [Shop N’ Save] in the near future.

Duritza’s advice to those struggling with addiction is insightful.

“Get help and change the most important things in your life which are people, places and things,” said Duritza.

Dakota Hadix, 20, of Washington County, Pennsylvania was 14-years-old when he lost his brother Shawn Hadix to heroin addiction.

Hadix’s brother struggled with heroin addiction for over half of his life. Hadix had never known his brother while he was sober. In just the 14 years of Hadix’s life, his brother battled an addiction to prescription pills that eventually lead to his addiction to heroin.

Hadix said that while his brother was alive, he had been in and out of jail for numerous reasons, mostly for aggressive behavior related to his addiction.

Hadix said he can remember a time when he and his family went to a WWE match downtown while his brother was on heroin. Hadix said that due to being on drugs his brother had been extremely aggressive and had started a fight with a group of people leading him to be arrested and stay a few nights in Allegheny County Jail.

“Although my brother was crazy, I was always able to look past his addiction and see him for who he really was,” said Hadix.

Hadix said one of the worst days of his life was coming home from school and seeing all of his family members’ cars parked in the driveway. He knew as he walked up the long driveway leading to his house that someone had died, but never would have expected it to be his favorite big brother.

Hadix was completely heartbroken when he was told his brother overdosed and died. His pain paled in comparison to his mother, Beverly, who was devastated.

“I don’t think I will ever really be able to live life the same without him—his death completely destroyed my world,” said Beverly Hadix.

Hadix, who has never used drugs, said he cannot believe the town he grew up in and calls home is getting national attention for this horrendous plague.

“It’s mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters that are affected by heroin—this is more than an addiction, it’s a plague that is destroying everyone’s life that comes in contact with it,” said Hadix.

Madison Vranish is an Advertising/Public Relations major graduating in the year 2019. You can reach her at: mlvrani@pointpark.edu