"I started using more often, maybe once every two weeks, and then once a week … then the entire weekend. Then I screwed up and made the mistake of using it for several days in a row, and at that point I had become not only mentally, but physically addicted," she says.
Because O'Connell often had trouble scoring in her "quiet college town," she drove to Atlanta's inner-city areas to buy drugs.
"I saw a lot of horrible things and went to a lot of scary places," O'Connell says. But despite knowing what she was doing was destroying her life, she continued to use.
"Gradually my addiction caught up to me. My tolerance got so high that I could not afford to buy the amount of heroin my body needed to function. When I didn't have enough money, I started missing school and work because I was sick. I got behind on my bills and maxed out credit cards that I had no way of paying off. I started selling valuable possessions and borrowing money from friends, a lot of which I never paid back. I ended up dropping out of school after 3 years of college ... I would have graduated one year later," she says.
"I wound up getting arrested for the first time for a misdemeanor 'theft by taking' when I got caught stealing a few steaks from the restaurant I worked at. I couldn't afford to buy food ... all my income was needed for drugs," she says.
O'Connell eventually kicked her habit, but not until she was arrested and served jail time. Eventually she substituted alcohol for heroin, became addicted to the alcohol and was arrested and charged twice with driving under the influence. Today she is dry, substance-free and on probation.
"It is frustrating and humiliating when I think about how much easier and more successful my life would be today if I had not gone down that road," she says.
The rear view mirror
O'Connell looks back and sees now that she had it all: Money, opportunity and a supportive family and community. Despite knowing that drugs were dangerous and addictive, she went there anyway — and she's certainly not alone.
It's no secret kids often make poor choices, but in this world of 24/7 media, there seem to be more opportunities to make mistakes, many of them often originating in the child's own home.
Dr. Robert Hanser, head of the Department of Criminal Justice and director of the Institute of Law Enforcement at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, says that violent crime in general has been declining, with the exception of areas with high gang activity; however, the perpetrator base is no longer simply male and from lower socio-economic brackets. Criminal involvement by nontraditional youth perpetrators undoubtedly reflects the growing influence of the Internet. "Cyber bullying, for example, is an important development we didn't have 10 years ago," Hanser says.
Not only are there new types of crimes since the Internet became a fixture in most homes — illegal downloads and hacking, for example — but the old stand-by crimes of prostitution and drug dealing receive a boost from the Web's ability to reach kids who might otherwise not have been exposed to them.
The availability of information has become another factor in affecting the public perception of youth involved in criminal activities. What once might have been a short paragraph on the inside of a daily newspaper across the country is now a featured segment on several news shows, repeated on cable news channels and featured on Yahoo's and AOL's home pages. "You will hear about it much more quickly than you did, say in 1981, before the Internet proliferated," Hanser says.
One recent case that received tremendous amounts of media play involved a group of Florida cheerleaders who lured another girl to a private home where other girls ganged up and beat her. The victim suffered a concussion and multiple bruises. The entire incident was videotaped — the tape repeated many times on both television news and the Internet.
"That is what you're seeing among the violent female offenders — they tend to be younger," Hanser says. He notes cases like this tend to reflect a socialization pattern that has emerged over time, saying "It's an almost soulless attitude."