In Heroin’s Heartland

January 3, 2018

As the opioid epidemic spins out of control, a grassroots network of activists is fighting it at the source.

“I’ve been arrested 18 times, incarcerated 496 days, and spent 2,556 days addicted to heroin,” Nicole Walmsley says before about 70 people at an event center in Lodi, Ohio.

It’s April of 2017, and Nicole has been sober for over four years. The better part of her recovery was spent in what she calls fight mode, driving all across Ohio to save addicts in the midst of the state’s rising opioid epidemic. Since 2015, when the state’s opioid epidemic hit record numbers, Nicole has been a major figure in a loosely connected coalition of treatment coordinators, police liaisons, and 12-Step program leaders convinced that the only way to remedy Ohio’s public-health emergency is to take action on their own.

Gathered around Nicole at the Family Day Center is her aunt, Alice Eckley, along with Nicole’s 20-something clients and partners-in-recovery. Next to Nicole stands her 12-year-old daughter Haley. “I got clean when she was seven,” Nicole says. “One time we were watching The Walking Dead and Haley said: ‘Mom! Do you remember when you looked like one of those?'” Haley smiles, embarrassed. “Here I am thinking I looked good in my addiction, and the whole time my daughter says I looked like a zombie.”

Born in April of 1985, and genetically predisposed to addiction, Nicole grew up in Rootstown, an Ohio township of 7,000. When she was 11, a counselor diagnosed her with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and prescribed her sleep medication. When she was 19, Nicole ended up pregnant with her daughter, which left her with endometriosis that required back-to-back surgeries. For abdominal pain, her doctor prescribed Vicodin, a pill made from opioids. Nicole obliged, needing relief.

“I became addicted,” she says. “They didn’t take me off properly and I got bad.” In 2007, a dealer who had been selling Nicole Oxycodones, a different opioid pain pill, hinted at something cheaper: heroin. She was sick; this was remedial. Months after, cognizant of her self-decline, Nicole gave up custody of Haley to her parents after her first trafficking charge. “It’s not that I didn’t love her,” she says. “I was just gone.”

For roughly a decade, Nicole owned the life of a wandering addict. She worked odd jobs in landscaping, lived with dealer boyfriends, would claim up to 15 phone numbers and addresses—from rural townships to trailer parks—to escape piling up warrants. She lived a life of close calls, she says: “Car crashes, overdoses, guns to the head.”

Nicole once was sent to jail for trafficking heroin outside her old high school. In a Days Inn outside of Ravenna, an officer caught her with a stolen wallet and two hypodermic syringes tucked under a mattress. Another time, in Tallmadge, she was busted lifting a cell phone charger at a Walmart, found in her purse alongside two needles.

“That’s one thing we didn’t leave home without,” a friend of Nicole’s tells me, “our needles and our cell phones.”In the spring of 2013, after being released from a jail sentence on her second felony, Nicole fled to a tiny village an hour outside of Youngstown to care for horses. She was broke, estranged from her family, and now fitted with an ankle bracelet. The year before, she attempted to study become a paralegal—”to live a life of normalcy”—but that only lasted three semesters. She had a clean spell, took prescription Suboxone, a narcotic used for withdrawal, but relapsed after missing a dose. Now, she was on house arrest, alone, and 61 miles away from her daughter.

On the night of March 14th, 2013, Nicole relapsed. She decided to drive “all over God’s creation” to scout for heroin. The officers assigned to keeping tabs of her whereabouts were baffled. Nicole got lucky. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she injected what turned out to be fentanyl, a substance used to sedate horses. She blacked out. EMS from nearby Springfield Township rushed over. “When I came to,” she recalls, “everyone looked scared. I had blood and foam coming out of my mouth. My chest hurt. They thought I was dead.”

Revived, Nicole turned herself in to authorities the next day. She begged the Mahoning County judge to keep her locked up for longer. Convicted of a second felony of the fifth degree, Nicole was ordered to a Youngstown corrections facility without visitation rights—though Haley saw her once—until October. She would, after months, return home anew.

Around her, Ohio’s epidemic was worsening. Police were arresting drug users, but relapses were expected. In about a year, morgues in Summit and Montgomery County would fill up to capacity. Fentanyl would explode around the state, upping fatalities 20 percent, taking many of Nicole’s friends. She asked herself: “Why was my life spared, and not theirs? And what can I do to save the next?”

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