Heroin-related arrests and overdoses are climbing across Western Massachusetts, including in small towns that haven’t seen serious IV drug use in decades. But some people are trying desperately to kick the habit. We focus on one recovering addict as he tries to rebuild a life – with some unexpected help.
I first met Lance Rice last May, on the day before the 23-year old was scheduled to move from his mother’s apartment in Turners Falls to a rehab program in New Bedford. Friends and family come in and out to say goodbye, as he packs his bags and pages through newspaper clippings from the previous, miserable year.
“That is definitely when I was at my very worst, right there,” Rice says.
Rice frowns at his unflattering mugshot, which appeared over and over in the local paper, the Montague Reporter. He was among several heroin addicts arrested during a spate of robberies that consumed this former mill town for months. He was the subject of angry community meetings – and, when he got out of jail, many dirty looks. He’s glad to be leaving town.
“I’ve been here for a lot of years, and I don’t think after everything that happened that I have a real good chance out here,” he says.
But before he moves to rehab – a condition of his probation — he’s trying to make amends. He’s about to meet Nina Rossi — an artist and shopkeeper in town.
“I’m definitely nervous,” he says. “I feel like I owe her a huge apology.”
Rice has never laid eyes on Rossi, but he’s been in her house. He was caught with pills he stole from her bathroom and an iPod from her desk. After the police returned her iPod, Rossi found a photo on it that Rice had taken of himself.
“At first, it creeped me out, finding that,” Rossi says.
But Rossi — a 54-year-old mother of two — kept looking at Rice’s vacant expression and heavy-lidded eyes.
“He just looked like a lost soul,” she says.
Rossi is a recovering alcoholic herself. She took a day off work to attend Rice’s hearing, and sat in the Greenfield courthouse as police led him through a crowd of angry spectators.
“I saw Lance go by in shackles and orange and…I just burst into tears. Just this beautiful young man, could be my young man. In shackles? He’s an addict, he’s not a criminal.”
Lance Rice says he first discovered drugs as a 15-year-old trying to escape the stress of a violent home. Like many addicts, he started with prescription opiates like Percocet and Oxycontin.
“I was spending up to 2 or 300 dollars a day. It just wasn’t doing it for me. I wanted something cheaper, I wanted something to get me higher. And a friend of mine introduced me to a bag of heroin.”
At first, he functioned well on heroin; he finished high school, managed a restaurant. But the more he used, the less anything else seemed to matter. When he got fired from his job, he started dealing, bringing heroin up from Holyoke along what police call the I-91 drug corridor. The profits weren’t enough to support his habit. So he and a friend started stealing — from businesses and homes.
“I think we must have been very desperate and really sick. When you’re in that state of mind, you come up with the quickest way that you can feel better,” he says.
He only stopped using when he got arrested. After a 60-day sentence, Rice wrote an essay for the Montague Reporter…describing the hell of addiction, and asking the community for a second chance. Nina Rossi read it.
“That convinced me that my instinct was right about him, that there’s something worth saving there,” she says.
She got Rice’s email address from the editor and asked him to stop by her Turners Falls art shop — Nina’s Nook — before leaving for rehab.
Turns out her shop is around the corner from his mother’s apartment. So under the late day sun, his suitcase half-packed, he lights a cigarette and ambles down the block.
“It’s a little nervewracking, an intense feeling, to face her,” he says.
He pokes his head inside her shop. “Nina?” She wants to talk in private — so he goes in alone.
A lot has happened to both Lance Rice and Nina Rossi since that day last May.
They’ve invited me for tea at Rossi’s house, where Rice comes a few nights a week for a home-cooked meal.
“Last night we had – what was it? Steak and fruit salad,” Rice says. “And I don’t know what the other thing was.”
“Oh, that was fried potatoes with some kale and brussel sprouts,” Rossi says.
“It was wicked good.”.
After that first emotional meeting at her store, Rossi gave Rice a hug and a heart-painted pebble for good luck. Rice promised to write from rehab. Today, Rossi pulls out a stack of his letters — all of them decorated with colored pencil.
“Oh yeah, I forgot about these,” Rice says.
When he wrote to Nina from his first program in New Bedford, he was feeling good and taking prescribed anti-depressants. But after the first 90 days, he was transferred to a long term recovery house, and things fell apart. He says the staff belittled him for taking any medication.
“I was only there for about three hours, and I ran and hitchhiked back home,” Rice says. “I didn’t feel welcome.”
Back in Turners Falls, Rice turned himself in. He was promptly sent back to jail for 30 days for violating probation. Rice’s public defender couldn’t find him another rehab slot, so he ended up in a special ‘drug court’ program — he lives at home, but has to attend therapy and AA meetings, submit to random drug tests, and appear weekly before the judge. Yet, his sobriety still feels fragile.
“Even after ten months of having nothing and being clean, I was still having like terrifying cravings for heroin — unbearable,” Rice says. “I was really feeling I was ready to get high, and I don’t want to do that.”
He got a prescription for Suboxone, a drug that binds to the brain’s opioid receptors. He says that’s helped fend off the cravings. But what’s helping even more — is his friendship with Rossi.
“I’m so grateful there’s people like Nina out there,” he says, “because the normal person would automatically hate somebody who did that to their home.
“Well, I did hate you, Lance. For a few weeks. Everybody did,” Rossi says. “We had your picture from the newspaper with ‘F.U.’ written on it on the refrigerator. Because we felt violated.”
Rice says he has no memory of breaking into Rossi’s house.
“Apparently i came though that window right over there. Was the screen broke?”
“You pushed the screen up,” Rossi shows him.
And he doesn’t remember seeing the piano in her living room. Now, he plays it often. “This is the song I played for Nina the first time I came over,” he says, sitting at the piano.
The song is called, “Too Late to Apologize.” Only he has apologized to Rossi, many times. She not only accepts – and cooks for him – but drives him to the courthouse, pays for taxis, and offers him paid work.
“I always say there’s some type of higher power that made me rob Nina’s house,” he says. “I could’ve picked any house on the street. Why did my instinct bring me here?”
“Just don’t tell anybody my address!” Nina says, laughing. “They’ll be lining up!
Rossi says she does identify with Rice, given her own history with alcohol-fueled behavior, but that’s not her primary motivation.
“I’m really concerned about the whole heroin epidemic but I can’t do anything about it, but I can help Lance.”
Since Rice returned to Turners Falls, he says five of his friends have died from overdoses. He wishes there were more beds for rehab, and a detox center closer to home. But his focus now is keeping is own addiction at bay – as Nina Rossi watches on with crossed fingers.
“I think about, my god, what would happen if he started using again,” Rossi says. “That would be devastating, and I’d have to practice some real detachment to get through that.”
“You know, it wouldn’t be Nina’s fault if I went out and did something,” Rice says. “And it would suck that I would probably lose her over something like that. That also probably does help me stay clean.”
If all goes well, Rice hopes to enter Greenfield Community College next Fall. He plans to bring Rossi’s good luck pebble along.