Jerel, 35, began taking heroin when he was 19.

In contrast to his older brother, who became a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church, Jerel said he began smoking marijuana in college, returned to Washington after the first semester and began hanging out at a Silver Spring pool hall.

"When I was 19, I was shy, withdrawn, and passive," said Jerel, who asked that his last name not be used. His friends always seemed to be more relaxed around girls.

Then one weekend he attended a party in Virginia, where a friend suggested he snort heroin. "It was love the first thing," Jerel said. "It made me the person I always wanted to be. I was dancing and hugging the girls and had sex with them. I didn't have the fears and inhibitions I always had."

For several weekends after that, Jerel said, he snorted heroin with the girl he had taken to the party. Soon he was taking it every few days.

"I used to faint when I saw a needle," he said. But a friend said, " 'Do it all the way.' We went to a drug store and got a syringe. I never snorted it again."

Eventually, Jerel craved heroin every three hours.

He said he helped finance his habit by writing bad checks and stealing from his parents. Just a few weeks ago, he took some of his mother's crystal and sold it at an antique shop for $175, he said.

"I call myself a coward junkie," he said. "I never stick up anybody."

Until a few months ago Jerel had been off heroin for some time, taking methadone, an addictive heroin substitute dispensed by a clinic. He had $1,900 in the bank and a girlfriend he planned to marry. She introduced him to bike riding and other activities. "One of my problems is I have to find things so I won't be bored," he explained.

But one evening, Jerel felt he owed himself something good and took a shot of heroin. The girlfriend left him.

"She didn't understand drugs at all," he said. "She couldn't comprehend giving someone $100 for two bags of white powder, which I can't understand either."

Jerel's hands are swollen from needle punctures, and bandages hide the scabs that have formed. He said it is almost impossible to find a vein that has not collapsed or become too hard to penetrate because of the relentless puncturing. When he entered the hospital recently, he said, the doctors had to make an incision near his collarbone to draw a sample of his blood.

"I wish I knew why I take drugs," said Jerel. "I'd do anything to stay off drugs."

Over the years, 10 or 11 of his friends have died from heroin overdoses, he said. Two weeks ago, Jerel quit heroin and again began taking methadone.

"I feel I'm cursed," he said. "Why do I have to be on this? Why do I have to go through this every day?"