Thomas Heard never expected his son's addiction.
He and his wife, of Fenton, knew their college-aged boy Michael was having trouble adjusting to an adult life away from home, but when he told them in early 2007 of his heroin problem and asked for help, they were shocked.
Both embraced him though, and tried to get him the best support they could.
"When we started down this path with our son, we assumed you went to rehab, followed the prescribed steps and presto, you're cured, like fixing a broken arm," Heard said. "Sadly, we know how naive we were."
Heard told his story Wednesday night during a community forum on drug and alcohol abuse. About 70 people showed up for the event at North Kirkwood Middle School.
Michael went through four periods of treatment, one lasting nine months. His drug use began with marijuana. He moved on to prescription drugs and eventually heroin.
Heard saw the "narcotic rocket fuel" destroy his son. His conscience, integrity, morals, body, even spirit — all were claimed by the drug and he ultimately died in October.
The main speaker, Dan Duncan, said about half of the younger heroin users the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse finds did prescription painkillers earlier.
"We have this problem of too many prescriptions being written for too many things for too many people," he said of the drugs' easy availability.
He works as community services director for the group, which is based in St. Louis.
Deaths from prescription drug and heroin use in the area have risen dramatically in the last few years. There were 46 in 2005, he said and that figure is likely to pass 300 this year, as of March. Those numbers come from the county's and city's coroner offices, he said.
Dr. Dale Stegeman, who specializes in addiction at Des Peres Hospital said if someone is on drugs, they have to realize they're addicted and recognize how serious it can be.
"Once you put it in your body, it has the control," Stegeman said.
Some signs of addiction, Duncan said, could be pin-point pupils, money disappearing around the house, a drop in grades and someone who wears long sleeves, even in hot weather, to cover up injection marks.
He described alcohol as the biggest gateway to this and other hard drugs. An organization at Kirkwood High School tries to keep freshman students from drinking by bringing in older peers to give presentations during classes.
Pam Hughes, a former teacher involved with Kirkwood's Try Putting Off Drinking program, said 1,700 students have seen the lessons over four years and feedback is positive.
Nora Ryan is a volunteer parent for the group. As a social worker, she said Heard's story about addiction rang very true—it can impact anyone.
It was a message Duncan echoed earlier in the evening.
"You can be the perfect parents," he said. "You can do everything right and you're kid can still make a mistake."
Dr. Shirleas Washington, with the Kirkwood School District, said the district plans to put on other informational events like this one.