14 Emotional Photos Follow One Woman's Journey Through Heroin Addiction

Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
This article was originally published on January 11, 2016.

Addiction is big — both in the sense that heroin addiction kills thousands of people in the U.S. every year, and that it's an issue that can seem utterly insurmountable. But in the project Closer To Heaven, photojournalist Sara Naomi Lewkowicz brings the battle to a personal level by tracing the journey of one woman struggling with heroin addiction.

Lewkowicz photographed her subject, Alex, for five years, and is still in close contact with her. Starting when Alex was just 20, Lewkowicz would simply call her, ask if she could come over, and hang out — with her camera. From there, she would go with Alex to her job at a strip club and see her drug use up close. Now 25, Alex has been in recovery for two years, and works in a deli that specifically aims to hire those in recovery.

Covering topics like drug use and sex work, Lewkowicz knew it would be all too easy to reduce Alex to a simple stereotype. However, she says the project actually helped her understand the complexities of those issues and the lives of those who deal with them every day.

"The main thing I learned from talking to [Alex] was that the drugs are less the problem than they are a really shitty coping mechanism," says Lewkowicz. "The drugs become a problem, but really the source of the issue is whatever’s going on underneath."

Heroin is a problem that's increasingly affecting women. According to the CDC, the rate of heroin use among women has more than doubled in the last decade. But Lewkowicz wanted to move beyond the statistics and stereotypes. "Their humanity is not erased by the drugs or sex work that they do," she says. Click through to see a few photos from Alex's story, along with Lewkowicz's original captions.

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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Alex, 20, lives in Baltimore. Like many others in "Charm City," she is a heroin addict. Addiction runs in her family; her mother was an alcoholic, and her father became addicted to crack and abandoned Alex and her mother when she was 10 years old. She has not heard from him since. Alex has been using for the past three years, introduced to the drug by a roommate, and has been steadily increasing her usage since her mother hung herself almost two years ago.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Shooting up before going on stage is a requirement; Alex says she can't dance without being high.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Alex struggles to find a vein in a bathroom stall at the club where she works. While she often gets high at work, she is often reprimanded for her drug use, and will eventually lose her job at the club, which touts itself as catering to upscale clientele and frowns upon obvious drug use.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Alex sits in a motel room with Twon after getting high.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
After being arrested with Twon on a burglary charge, Alex was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Since she had no prior felonious arrests, she was offered alternative sentencing that would include time in a rehabilitation center. Twon, who had multiple prior arrests, received a sentence of 12 years at a maximum security prison. With good behavior, he will be released before his 30th birthday.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Between jail time and rehab, Alex was able to stay sober for a year — major achievement for those in recovery. She has since gone back to using, and is trying to get clean again.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Alex waits to lead a meeting for recovering addicts.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Alex cries after running into a guard she knew while incarcerated. She has just graduated from Drug Court, a Maryland program that aims to help recovering addicts stay sober and employed, and in return wipes drug-related felony convictions from their record.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Alex, photographed on the first anniversary of her sobriety. She is now two-and-a-half years sober.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Alex now spends her Saturday nights playing board games with friends, all of whom are also sober and in recovery.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Alex and her boyfriend, Kyle, settle in for the night. The two met while attending meetings.
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