MIDLAND PARK – When 26-year-old Samantha Nerney tried heroin for the first time, it didn’t feel like she was playing with fire. The addictive nature of the drug escaped her.

“I didn’t know,” she said matter-of-factly. “I just knew how it made me feel.”

After years of struggling with drug and alcohol abuse that robbed her of adolescence and young adulthood, Nerney has now been clean and sober for eight months.

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In the auditorium of Midland Park High School on Oct. 3, she sat down with 17-year-old Stephanie Reifman of Upper Saddle River on the auditorium stage telling her recovery story with a winsome smile during Reifman’s H.A.P.P.Y. program for the seventh and eighth-grade class. The program was part of a week of activities that kicked off Respect Week.

Craig Rush, student assistance counselor at the junior-senior high school, said the program was age-appropriate. Middle school students are at an age to begin making decisions.

“It’s progressive, so if you can educate them now as to what’s out there, the hope is to make the decision now and not to try it,” he said. “Bergen County is taking the heroin epidemic very seriously.”

The acronym stands for Heroin Addiction Prevents Peoples’ Years and involves an intimate conversation Reifman leads with recovering heroin addicts and people who have had loved ones touched by addiction. Reifman spearheaded the program after hearing her favorite actor, 31-year-old “Glee” star Cory Monteith’s untimely death in 2013 from a heroin addiction. Realizing the opioid issue in her own backyard and the amassing number of deaths from the substance each year, Reifman knew it was apropos to begin the program as a way to give back to students, hoping, she said, to affect and save a life.

After showing a brief montage video explaining what heroin is and some actors who lost their lives to it – River Phoenix, Cory Monteith and Chris Farley – Nerney joined her onstage for a presentation followed by Patty, a mother who lost her teenage daughter to heroin.  

As the narrative to most tragic stories go, both Nerney and Kate were innocent, beautiful girls who seemed the least likely to be in the grip of something as terrifying as addiction. But, in life’s true fashion, things happened.

Nerney, who lived briefly in Bergen County during her childhood before relocating to Middlesex County, and that's where she first dabbled with drugs while attending Colonia High School. Growing up with an alcoholic father, she had been exposed to booze as a child and teen. Her first brush with drugs was in high school at a party when a boy, her now-estranged husband who was snorting prescription painkillers, introduced her to the narcotic.

“They gave me the feeling of being drunk instantly… it got me outside of myself,” she said. “Growing up I was insecure. I never felt like I fit in. This took away those feelings instantly. I thought it made me better, but instead of solving all my problems it became the source of all my problems.”

In an interview after the program, Nerney said it was social anxiety that had fueled her desire to do drugs and wanting to be liked.

“It brought me down and kept me calm and I didn’t feel nervous to talk to anybody anymore,” she said of the effect the prescription drugs had on her. Her hankering for more relief from prescription drugs served as the gateway to dabble in Adderall, cocaine and ecstasy.

When she got to college, the lingering feeling of wanting to feel this good coupled with the scarcity of prescription pain pills and their high price tag led her to opt for a more affordable alternative: heroin.

“Heroin brought me to my knees,” she told Reifman. “With other things I was able to function and maintain [my] day to day life. Once heroin came into the picture and my tolerance grew, I needed it to get out of bed in the morning just to stay up and have a conversation with anyone. I needed heroin and it led me to do things that I never thought I would do. I didn’t care who I took down in that process.”

She said her habit got so relentless, she found herself shamelessly stealing pieces of her mother’s jewelry and shoplifting to supply her habit.

“I pawned all my belongings,” she said, adding that she sold her Xbox and cell phone to get cash.

“I sold everything,” she said. “I didn’t care about anything except getting more drugs.”

Though her family was aware of her drinking problem, she said they were in denial about the gravity of her problem. Meanwhile, her boyfriend had joined the military. Her plans of meeting him to live in England were derailed when he was booted after being caught with drugs. Upon his return Sam discovered she was four months pregnant. It was after her son was born addicted to opioids that her family embraced the reality of her drug problem. When her mother-in-law took her son from her arms, it was the motivation she needed to break her habit once and for all.

“That was the worst feeling in the world,” she explained. “You don’t really see how it affects the people you love. It’s a very selfish disease. But this was the first time I had a handle of it – that my actions affected the one person I loved more than anything in this world. And never meant to harm.”

“I feel like I couldn’t turn to anyone for help, I was just so ashamed of what I had become,” she said.

After the Child Protection and Permanency intervened, Sam was on track to gain sobriety and reclaim her life. She is now in a rehab center and has been clean and sober since February.

“When I first got sober, I would have never talked to people because I used drugs and alcohol as a crutch, it made me better. I wasn’t good enough on my own. So now that im working on my self, inside out, I'm able to stand here and not be nervous or fidgety,” she said after the program.

Her lesson to kids? Doing drugs and alcohol are uncool.

“Growing up I thought that was cool. It’s really not. Even being 26 it was hard for me to grasp that I could never drink again. I’ve learned there’s so much fun to be had in sobriety. And that the least cool thing to do wasto be drunk and high all the time because it just makes you a zombie and no one wants to be around you anyway.”

After grinning and bearing the unpleasant side effects of detox, Sam now lives in a halfway house with 35 other understanding women with whom she can identify. She hopes to one day get an apartment so she can live with her son and make use of her Master’s degree in accounting.

She’s seen a change in herself. The woman who once wished to blame everyone else for her problems now had to take a hard look from within.

“I stopped pointing the finger and I pointed it at myself," she said. "I took a deep look inside and really started to fix myself from the inside out."

If only Patty had been that lucky with her own daughter. Patty’s daughter Kate grew up in Franklin Lakes and had a twin sister Alex. She was a cheerleader and soccer player, someone her mother described as “a nice pleasant little girl.”

It was after her parents divorced that she started drinking and not taking care of herself, according to her mom. Soon, her highly self-critical thoughts corroded her self-esteem. This soon fueled a drug addiction problem. Her short-lived life resulted in a cycle of arrests and rehab stays, and getting into a near-head-on collision with an officer and his eight-month-pregnant wife. When she was jailed, her mother recalled it as a kind of miracle.

“I was able to sleep at night [knowing she] wasn’t overdosed or dead,” she said.

When she was released, her problem didn’t end. Like Sam, Kate was stealing her mother’s jewelry and dipping into the coat pockets for change – all to garner enough money to buy heroin in Paterson. Kate’s behavior was so out of control, it frightened her baby sister.

Her mother recalled her behavior as a “dangerous slippery slope.” One late night evening when there seemed to be a glimmer of hope, Kate had reached out to her sister who was away at college to tell her how happy she was to be home, binge-watching “Sex and the City” reruns. That was the last time anyone would hear from her.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2014, Kate’s father phoned his wife to tell her that her daughter had passed away. In disbelief, Patty had ignored what he told her and instead encouraged more CPR until an ambulance arrived, hoping a few shots of Narcan, a spray that helps revive people who have overdosed on heroin, would resuscitate her. While driving to get to the house, she had hoped the ambulance that had passed by had her daughter in it being transported to a hospital.

It wasn’t. She was dead in her bedroom.

“I walked into her room… I think she had given [herself a] dose of heroin,” said Patty to Reifman. “[At] 1:30 in the morning, she texted her older sister, “I’m glad I’m home watching reruns of Sex and the City and having a sandwich. She had no idea she was going to die.”

Patty said she presumed her daughter had dozed off from the dose and then hit her head on the nightstand before falling to the floor, head first. She placed a comforter over her daughter and prayed over her. 

“I got this. I know what I’m doing. I’m smart, I can take care of it. Nothing will happen to me,” she recalls her saying.

The message from the program: this can happen to you.

“I know if anything, hopefully, I’ve impacted at least one person and that difference alone is worth it,” said Nerney.