After Madison Walker quit heroin, he urged Connor Brennan to get clean, too.
Brennan, 20, thought about Walker, who had grown up in the same Fairfax County subdivision and was sober, healthy, close with his parents again. Look how happy he is, Brennan thought. I want to be like that.
A few nights later, Brennan was in a detox program in Chantilly. And Walker, 27, was dead. He’d taken one last hit, in a bathroom of his family’s home in Springfield, and collapsed with the needle still in his arm.
The sentencing last week of a D.C. heroin dealer whose drugs killed three other young adults in Fairfax has cast a harsh light on the problem of addiction in Washington’s suburbs. Even in this affluent, well-educated area, young people are jeopardizing their futures with a drug that for decades was seen as the choice of only the most desperate and hardened city junkies.
Sickened by the taboo surrounding addiction, Walker’s and Brennan’s families decided to speak out about their experiences, hoping that their stories may help others who are headed down the same path. Ellen Walker is mourning the death of her son, while Sue Brennan fights to keep hers alive. They want parents to recognize warning signs, and they want everyone to know how deeply heroin has taken hold. They want more help for addicts and changes that make opiates harder to get.
“I’ve been through the worst thing that a mother can go through,” Walker said. “And she’s waiting for it to happen.”
Police almost never saw heroin in Northern Virginia a decade ago, said 1st Sgt. Matthew McCauley, who leads a narcotics task force for Prince William County Police. “Now, it’s literally any day of the week, I can go out and find it.”
A decade into a federal crackdown on the street use of prescription painkillers such as Vicodin, Percocet or OxyContin, many addicts have switched to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to find.
Heroin use spiked 79 percent in the United States from 2007 to 2012. Heroin-related deaths jumped 58 percent in Maryland from 2011 to 2012 — and nearly doubled in Montgomery County, from 11 to 21. In Virginia, heroin-related deaths jumped from 101 to 213 between 2011 and 2013, according to preliminary data, and more than doubled in the District from 2010 to 2013.
Addicts seeking publicly funded treatment in Virginia face an average wait of 18 days, said Mellie Randall of the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The number of publicly funded residential treatment beds is shrinking. State funding is locked at the same amount it was in 2009, and federal funding has been essentially flat since 2002.
At a packed memorial service for Madison Walker at an Arlington church in February, Connor Brennan’s brother, David Mundy, pointed out familiar faces to their mom:
“He uses heroin. She uses heroin.”
One of their friends, an outgoing young woman who went to W.T. Woodson High School, ended up living in a car in the District, often going without food because she needed the money for dope. Another friend said that every moment not using was agony.
When Mundy, who was Walker’s best friend since childhood, created a Web site to raise money to help the Walkers with funeral costs, he was inundated with donations — and text and Facebook messages from others whose loved ones were addicted.
“Parents telling me their kids have problems, kids telling me their friends have problems,” Mundy said. “We started talking to people we knew and they were doing heroin, too. And for every single one, the correlation was OxyContin.”
Sue Brennan, Connor’s mother, had been noticing odd things at home. She kept having to scrub black marks off of light switches and doorknobs, which it seemed as though she had just wiped clean. She kept running out of tinfoil, when she thought she had just opened a new box.
“There were clues,” she said. “But we had no clue.”
Connor, the youngest of five boys, started smoking marijuana when he was 15. And he was curious when a stepbrother told him about smoking OxyContin, crushing the pills and rolling them in tinfoil.
“It’s an instant warm sensation throughout your body — calming, tranquil,” Brennan said. He immediately thought, “I need to do this as much as possible.”
Getting pills was easy: A friend told him about a doctor in Fairfax who would take $100 in cash and write prescriptions. At 16, Brennan had a steady source of drugs.
His stepbrothers worried when they realized he was using so much, he said. They warned him he would get hooked. But he was getting good grades, playing football at Lake Braddock Secondary School and chosen for a summer program at the state police training academy in Richmond.
He had loving parents, an SUV to drive, college applications to fill out. He thought he might like to become a police officer. He thought he would probably play college football.
Then, Brennan said, “the drugs took over.”
Early last year, one of his stepbrothers told Sue and Marty Brennan that Connor might have a problem. His parents were confused — they had never heard of smoking Oxycontin — and horrified. They Googled it.
Sue Brennan searched her son’s room and found tinfoil rolls behind his bed and dresser, with sooty residue from the drug he had smoked. Now she understood the smudges.
Brennan’s parents took him to his first residential treatment facility, a two-month program in Great Falls that cost $1,500 a day. Their insurance covered nearly two-thirds of the bill. When he was clean for 30 days, then 60, they were elated.
“He beat it! We were so happy!” Sue Brennan said. “We were so naive. We didn’t know anything about opiate addiction.”
Connor Brennan got high as soon as he left rehab. He started dating a young woman he had met there, who was shooting up heroin. Brennan, who had tried the drug a few times before, increasingly used it instead of prescription drugs.
Soon, he was hooked, and found himself constantly fighting withdrawal, the dope sickness that drove him to search for more and more heroin.
Just after he turned 19, he knew he needed help. His parents did everything they could think of: They took away his car keys, turned off his phone, gave him a curfew.
He quit many times, fighting through the triggers, mundane things connected with the ritual of getting high that launch the cold sweats and shaking of intense craving. With heroin, it’s spoons. Bottles of water. Cotton balls, Q-Tips, the ends of cigarettes.
Last Christmas morning, once again in withdrawal, Brennan opened presents with his family. Then he crawled back into bed. He had no more heroin and no more money. By that night, he was throwing up so violently that his terrified parents took him to the emergency room.
They got him on a waiting list for the treatment program in Chantilly. January came and went. In early February, just days before a bed opened up, Walker watched the Super Bowl with Brennan and told him to call any time he needed help.
Brennan knew what he would do when he was clean: Enlist in the U.S. Air Force. Once he was packing for basic training, he would know he was okay. He could become a military police officer. He could go on to college.
On Feb. 10, so high that he was nodding out during the entrance interview, Brennan checked into detox.
Walker — who had been clean, as far as his parents and friends knew, for months — overdosed that night.
Madison Walker had a lot of best friends.
“You never saw him mad,” said David Mundy, Connor Brennan’s older brother and Walker’s friend since Mundy was 9. “You never saw him sad.”
He ended conversations with family and friends by saying, “I love you.” When a boy he had just met admired his shoes, Walker pulled off the brand-new Jordans and handed them over with a smile.
Walker always seemed to have marijuana to share, too. He was arrested and pleaded guilty to selling the drug in 2005, at age 19. Some of his friends and family think he switched to OxyContin when he was on probation, because it was less likely to show up on court-ordered drug tests.
Other opiate users say they first got high on prescription pills for that reason. Or they loved the euphoria from the painkillers prescribed when their wisdom teeth got yanked out, or after they hurt their knee running. Then pills got scarce, and someone offered heroin, a cheaper, stronger high.
Walker tried to hide his heroin use, ashamed. “No one wants to be a drug addict,” said Nick Walker, his older brother. He hated seeing his younger brother high, shuffling along like a zombie. Or watching him nod out, his hand dropping to his lap, and his cigarette burning another hole in his clothes.
One night, Mundy went to pick Madison Walker up and found his friend slumped in a blue recliner chair, a needle in his arm.
Caught in the addiction, Walker drifted in and out of his friends’ daily lives. Sometimes he was back in jail. Occasionally, in moments of painful clarity, he would tell stories.
“Horrible things,” Mundy said. “The houses he would sleep in, the things he would see people do. . . . We had good families, love, support, discipline, everything. We had everything we wanted.”
Last fall, Walker got clean. He moved back home, started working out with his dad. Every day he would text Mundy a selfie from the gym to make him laugh.
On the day that Connor Brennan checked into rehab, Walker came home from a birthday party around 10 p.m. His dad was watching “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
His sister Anna waited to use the bathroom, then knocked. No answer. Nick Walker knocked, and turned the knob. Madison was on the floor, a needle in his arm.
“Call 911,” Nick told Anna, “and get Dad.”
Jim Walker rolled Madison over and saw how blue his son’s face was. For a few seconds, he couldn’t move or think. Then he started CPR — pushing, sweating.
“ ‘He was out so long. Do I even want him to come around? Madison would not want to be a vegetable,’ ” Jim Walker remembers thinking. “I left it up to God. And at the same time I was praying for him to be okay.”
At the hospital, family and friends filled the halls. They held Madison’s hands, curled around him on the bed, whispered to him, prayed, cried.
“I have never seen so many people visit the ICU for one person,” the woman at the front desk said.
Two days later, Madison Walker’s heart stopped.
Several doctors said it’s a common pattern; addicts get sober for a while, then pick up a needle, injecting the dose they used to use. But that dose can be fatal, because their bodies can no longer handle that much heroin.
“If they relapse then the likelihood for overdose is tremendous,” said George Young, the state director of outpatient services at the National Counseling Group, whose clinics in Virginia are treating growing numbers of heroin addicts.
“You’re going to end up dead if you keep using,” Connor Brennan said. “That’s the only thing that happens.”
For a while after Madison Walker died, his mother, Ellen, couldn’t leave the house. Everywhere she went, from the grocery store to the gas station, people would stop her to say how much they loved her son.
Walker considered telling people that Madison died in an accident. But she didn’t think she and her family would get over it if they weren’t honest. And there was something else.
“Everyone needs to know,” Ellen Walker said. “That this bright young man, who was loved by so many, died of a heroin overdose.”
She and Sue Brennan will meet with other mothers whose children are addicted, talking about reducing denial, increasing awareness. They want more long-term treatment options, and help for those who can’t afford them. They want more states to have laws allowing people to call 911 when a friend is in trouble, without worrying about getting arrested. They want first responders to carry Naloxone, a drug that can sometimes stop an overdose before it is deadly.
And they want better oversight. Sue Brennan filed a complaint with the Virginia Board of Medicine against Duc Minh Ngo, one of the doctors who, Connor says, wrote him prescriptions for drugs he could use or sell or trade. Last month, she found out the results of the investigation. Ngo entered into a consent order with the board, which concluded that Ngo had prescribed drugs to Connor and three other patients without an examination, previous medical records or, in several cases, any symptoms.
Ngo, who did not return phone calls and e-mails from The Washington Post seeking comment, agreed to his penalty: Twenty hours of medical education.
“I hope no other parent has to go through this,” Jim Walker said. “But they will.”
On March 8, family and friends met at A-Town Bar & Grill in Arlington to celebrate what would have been Madison Walker’s 28th birthday. Some were sober. Some were tipsy. Some were riding it out on Suboxone, a drug like methadone that helps recovering addicts.
And there was Connor Brennan, looking like a young man home from college, getting hugs from people who were surprised to see him.
He had been off heroin for 28 days. He was able to speak clearly again, but he still sometimes had the shakes, cold sweats, pain and cravings.
And he had just gotten kicked out of rehab. He was caught kissing a woman he met there, a violation of the center’s rules. She was a heroin addict, and a friend of Walker’s.
The staff told Brennan to pack his things and leave right away.
When his mother came to pick him up, he was waiting outside in the dark.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.