MILWAUKEE -- It can be found anywhere -- in any community, any school, any home. Officials say the heroin epidemic is reaching staggering heights. Hundreds of families in Wisconsin are struggling with it. Alex Hoffmann's family was one of them.
“Shay was an incredible son,” said Alex Hoffmann, “He was amazing. Very bright, very outgoing, sociable.”
“I think it might have been the summer of his junior year,” Hoffmann remembers. “I walked down in the basement, and we still didn't know he was using. He had the whole heroin rig on and he was shooting up. I`ll personally never forget that day.”
Just a few years later, at the age of 22, Shay died from an overdose.
But like so many who turn to heroin, it didn't start with heroin for him.
“Very few people start with heroin. They start with something else. Most people start with actually tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. There's no doubt about that. But in the opioid area, people start with prescription drugs,” explained Michael Miller, medical director of the Herrington Recovery Center at Rogers Memorial Hospital.
Miller says from there, the shift to heroin is easier than many think.
“Most people have thought of heroin as a drug people use by injection -- a drug that`s used in big cities, used in poor neighborhoods, used by minority populations, and that's what people think of when they think of heroin. The current situation is that heroin is used by nasal routes, as well as by intravenous routes. It's smoked. It's everywhere in the United States," Miller said.
That includes in the hands of teenagers.
“With marijuana or alcohol, you can usually see outward signs. You can usually smell outward signs that the child is using,” said Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel.
But that’s not the case with heroin.
“So many people have come to me and said 'I had no idea.' People can function on heroin. Actually some people function somewhat better for a brief period. The problem is it's going to take you,” said Hoffmann.
Shay Hoffmann is also living proof that the addict’s life may not be the only thing the drug takes.
“We got divorced, went bankrupt, foreclosure, lost the company,” explained Hoffmann. "It’s terrible for the other children -- not only losing a brother, but going through the addiction process -- because they don`t get the attention growing up that they deserved. It`s a bloody nightmare and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.”
Now, Alex Hoffmann dedicates his life to preventing all of that.
“All I want to do at this point is save another family from what we went through," Alex Hoffman said.
Hoffmann is a co-founder and manager of 'Yo Cool' - a frozen yogurt company that donates its proceeds to local charities. It provides an opportunity for Hoffman to talk about the heroin epidemic and raise awareness.
“There isn't a time that I do it that goes by that I don`t think of Shay -- and there isn't a period where it doesn't hurt. But I'm willing to take that pain if I can help somebody else out,” Hoffman said.
Hoffmann also has reached out to state officials -- like Attorney General Schimel.
“He gave me hope,” Hoffmann said of Schimel.
“For a long time, our approach was the traditional law enforcement approach. We`re going to find some drug houses, we`re going to catch some dealers, we`re going to stop this. After awhile, we came to the realization the volume of this was so big, and every dealer we arrested, there are 15 waiting to start dealing because it`s so profitable. It`s the demand," Schimel said.
So now, the focus is on treatment and prevention, which starts, according to Schimel, with people like Hoffmann bravely sharing their stories.
“If something good comes out of this epidemic that's positive -- it might be that we see that this addiction can strike people of all walks of life, all types of people and maybe people start recognizing it for what it is. It is a disease. And we should focus on getting people help for it,” said Schimel.