Deaths from opioid drug overdoses have hit epidemic proportions nationwide. In Minnesota, the struggle with addiction to prescription painkillers and illegal opioid drugs has left families, friends and communities across the state grieving deaths that could have been prevented. Jared Montgomery and Nick Leclair are among them.
Neither is 21 yet. But Jared Montgomery and Nick Leclair have been in and out of drug treatment programs since high school. They've been in trouble with the law. They've racked up debt from ambulance rides and medical bills.
And they lost their best friend, Dylan Pearson, to a heroin overdose.
More than a year after Dylan died, they're still struggling against the same addictions that took his life.
'I never was going to touch a needle'
Nick played basketball on the team coached by Dylan's stepdad since 5th grade. But Nick, Dylan and Jared didn't become close friends until they started as freshmen at Elk River High School.
The three would hang out in Dylan's basement bedroom, listening to rap, smoking weed. "Doing what teenagers do," Nick said.
When a high school acquaintance scored a bag of heroin in 9th grade, the three boys snorted lines together. Nick said they just wanted to try it.
At first, the young men would just buy a small bag of heroin, but they quickly ramped up their drug use. By his senior year, Nick said he left school almost every day because he felt sick. He and Jared and Dylan would drive to Minneapolis to buy heroin.
"I'd told myself, I never was going to touch a needle — I never was going to be sticking a needle in my arm," Nick said. "You know how those things go. It just kind of happens."
The rise in heroin use in the last 15 years has affected people across the state, both rural and urban. The death rate for opioid overdoses from 1999-2014 in Anoka County, where Dylan lived, was higher than the rate in Ramsey County, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The heroin cravings and drug use affected their lives. Nick couldn't hold a job. He started stealing from his family. He overdosed four times. And a number of petty crimes, mostly traffic offenses, snowballed into more serious charges. He couldn't see a way out.
"It got to the point where I was trying to end my life," Nick said. "That was the best option I could think of."
'Try to make a change'
Run ragged by their drug use, the three young men all enrolled in treatment programs. But like many opioid users, the first treatment program they attended didn't stick. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 64 percent of opioid users who weren't prescribed medication to help deal with cravings relapsed within six months.
Dylan attended six separate treatment programs without success. Jared first replaced the heroin with methadone, another opioid that's distributed by some clinics for opioid users. He said he then had to attend another treatment program to kick.
"You kind of don't know with this drug, it's different than most things," Jared said. "You hope for the best, but if the worst comes, you deal with it."
Dylan overdosed at a halfway house after he got out of treatment. Jared was in the room at the time. "He was dead for like 36 seconds. And that was pretty scary," Nick said. It could have been a wake-up call, but as soon as they got out of treatment, the three boys started using heroin again.
• Opioid overdose, addiction: Get help
Dylan enrolled in Florida-based inpatient program. When Dylan went home for a court hearing in January 2015, Nick was still in Florida.
Nick said Dylan had been excited to go home, see his girlfriend and get his life together. He planned to go to drug abuse support meetings.
Nick said he got a phone call from Dylan's mom, Jennifer Nordeen, while Dylan was home. She said her husband had found Dylan overdosed in his room that morning, cold to the touch.
"I put it on speaker phone, and I thought it was going to be a funny phone call," Nick said. "Me and his roommate, we both started bawling."
Both young men still visit Dylan's parents and try to help out around the house. Sometimes they stay over for days, worrying their own families.
"It's very rough going into his room, he'd always have to be in his room if you were in there. It feels really weird. It doesn't feel right," Nick said. "It feels like he's in Florida or something and we're just waiting for him to come home." Right now, the two friends are just trying to keep it together.
Jared has been in and out of treatment. Nick tries to make it out to support groups, some hosted by Dylan's ex-girlfriend, and some in the company of his father, who is also in recovery. He has been clean for about a year now, but he's not working or going to school.
"It's been rough. There are days when I feel like joining him," Nick said. "But there are days when I'm like, we need to do this in Dylan's name, and make a change. Try to make a change."