OREM — Five of his close friends died of heroin overdoses while a half-dozen others have lost everything to their addiction but continue to shoot up.

Then there's MacKenzie Lamb.

To look at the 22-year-old security systems installer, with his closely shorn haircut and dazzling smile, you'd never guess there were once track marks under his shirt sleeves and a syringe kit hidden in his bedroom.

MacKenzie knows he's one of the lucky ones, an addict who was able to kick his habit before he was found face-down on the floor somewhere, dead after sampling a strong new batch of smack.

"I feel like I'm here for a reason — to tell other young people, 'Don't do it, don't try it, it's not worth the high to lose your life,"' he says during a Free Lunch break at his Orem home. "For anyone who's still doing heroin, I'm proof that you can stop. But to be successful, you'll have to work at it. You'll have to change your whole life."

A former honor student at Orem High School, MacKenzie was 17 when a friend convinced him to try heroin for $5. The teen was already hooked on painkillers, using them to "escape from the stress of arguments with my parents or girlfriend," he says.

"I always felt like I wasn't good enough, that I couldn't measure up. I still got good grades, but I put on a good front," he says. "Nobody knew what I was really like. I thought that I could quit anytime."

At $80 a pill, OxyContin was an expensive habit, says MacKenzie. "I'd steal from my parents and sell anything I could to get high," he recalls. "Since heroin is so cheap, I became addicted immediately. It was a euphoria like I'd never experienced. It made me feel like none of my problems mattered."

When MacKenzie's parents discovered that he was shooting up heroin in his bedroom, they quickly enrolled him in a rehab clinic, desperate to get back the son who had become a stranger before their eyes.

But the allure of the high was too great, even though he'd lost half of his friends to overdoses and had two close calls of his own. Within days of treatment, MacKenzie was forking over another five bucks for a two-hour high. Even after his parents emptied their savings to send him to a treatment center in Samoa, he relapsed and went looking for opiates.

"Heroin is a family disease — it affects your whole family," he says. "The more guilt I felt about what I was doing, the more I did heroin to escape that guilt. It's a terrible cycle."

It wasn't until MacKenzie signed up again for treatment — this time in Draper — and made it through an agonizing withdrawal that he was finally able to stay clean. Now married with a new infant daughter, he often speaks to church and school groups about his experience, hoping to help save a few young lives.

"Heroin is an epidemic in Utah, and people need to sit down and talk about it," he says. "Every morning when I wake up now, I'm grateful to be alive. Once you're clean, it's like seeing the world for the first time."


Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.