How does a person become a heroin addict?

It is a process virtually unimaginable for most individuals, and one little understood even by those who spend their lives treating heroin addicts or those who actually become addicted.

"I wish I knew why I take drugs," says a 35-year-old taxi driver who has used heroin for 16 years. "I'd do anything to stay off drugs."

The stereotype of the heroin user often portrays an ambitionless person in a constant state of euphoric escape, unable to hold a job, ever ready--even driven--to steal or commit violence for money to support the addiction. It is an inadequate portrayal.

These profiles of three heroin addicts were compiled by Washington Post staff writer Ronald Kessler. One of them grew up in a comfortable Northwest Washington neighborhood and has a brother who is a Roman Catholic deacon. Another grew up in a strict family and went off to college. The third has a brother who became a corporation executive. They have held regular jobs for years at a time and hidden their addiction from their closest friends and their families. One has raised a daughter who is about to go off to college. All regret their decision to take heroin.

"It's a living hell," says a 34-year-old woman who lives in suburban Virginia and began taking heroin at 19. "I don't know of anyone I hate enough to turn on to heroin."