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Sean Kirst: After darkness of heroin, woman hopes to light a path for others

Jessica Falco stopped using heroin on June 25, 2014. The third anniversary of that decision will be later this month, but she cannot allow herself any early celebration. They teach you in 12-step programs to go day by day, to break life into small segments that begin with each new dawn.

Falco sat in her Dunkirk home last week, her infant son in her arms. She said she has an overwhelming reason to stay clean, one person whose future is entirely at stake.

"It's him," she said of her 2-month-old baby, Ethan David Cave.

Every day, once she wakes up, she thinks of the child instead of her addiction. She climbs from bed and goes to his crib. She feels the warmth, the full dependence, of the baby on her shoulder. He is a blessing, she said. In that way, he becomes her hope.

Two weeks ago, Falco officially completed her treatment court requirements at a graduation ceremony in Dunkirk. The audience for the event offered quiet testimony to the depth of the opioid crisis: The courtroom at City Hall was packed with everyday people, with parents and grandparents, with children moving restlessly on wooden benches.

Falco's boyfriend, Zach, was among those applauding as a handful of young men and women picked up certificates, then received hugs or handshakes from Dunkirk City Court Judge Walter Drag, counselor Mike Tramuta and treatment court coordinator Lee Ann Lazarony.

In Dunkirk's treatment court, Lazarony said, it is now commonplace to encounter men and women, such as Falco, whose opioid addictions escalated into full-blown heroin use. Buffalo recently began an opiate intervention court whose advocates hope it will be an even swifter, more muscular version of a traditional drug court: The idea is to quickly identify – and then treat – addicts moving through the judicial system.

While Erie County has become one of the most lethal staging points for heroin use in the state, people are also dying in such Western New York communities as Dunkirk and Jamestown, smaller cities where staggered economies intertwine with a shadow culture of addiction and despair.

According to state statistics, there were 15 deaths in 2015 from opioids in Chautauqua County, with a population of not quite 131,000.

Those numbers are climbing, Lazarony said.

"Every community has a problem with heroin," she said. "If you think they don't, you're wrong. There are kids in high school bathrooms, shooting up with heroin."

Falco's name was the last one called at the treatment ceremony. Lazarony embraced her. She has worked with hundreds of people in the throes of addiction, and she is impressed by Falco's resilience. If a recovering addict stays free of opioids for an entire pregnancy, if an infant is born untouched by narcotics, Lazarony sees it as a victory.

It wasn't that long ago that "Jessica was in stripes," Lazarony said, jailed for probation violations.

She was an addict who had lost custody of two older children. "She didn't want to hear anything from me," Lazarony said.

What Falco wanted was a route out of jail.

Lazarony was blunt.

She told Falco her only way home was cleaning up, and that would demand time in treatment, and then in a group home.

Falco agreed. She eventually completed the program, despite some obstacles: She ended up with a harassment conviction after a family altercation. She was thrown out of a rehab program for smuggling in a cigarette.

Jessica Falco at home with her son Ethan in Dunkirk.  (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

But she stayed clean, and she kept faith with the treatment court mandates. Now, she is focused on a dream of creating some new 12-step meetings for opioid addicts in northern Chautauqua County, a dream she and Lazarony are shaping into a plan. Her long-term goal is returning to school and studying to be a drug and alcohol counselor.

"She's unusual," Lazarony said. "I'm amazed by how much she wants to give back."

Falco said that philosophy amounts to therapy, a means to heal. She was an only child, raised in Fredonia by her mother. She said she never met her father until she received a call from him, out of the blue, when she was a young woman.

She was a good student as a little girl, she said, but in her early teenage years she started to rebel, sneaking out at night in search of boys and parties.

At about the same time, she fell while rollerblading and hurt her knee. Her doctor, she said, prescribed Hydrocodone, an opiate. She was 15. What started as pain relief turned into something else. The pills, she said, "became a problem pretty quickly. Before long, your body's used to them and you're just feeling the good stuff."

By the end of high school, "Hydro" was far more than medicine. She was a good enough student to get accepted at a community college. But she was on a downward spiral, at accelerating speed.

Before long, she was snorting cocaine on top of the pills.

Before long, she was seeing a string of different men who shared those habits, and she was selling coke to earn the money to buy more.

Before long, she was stealing from the people she loved most, taking their cash and credit cards.

She is particularly haunted by the times she stole from her maternal grandmother, who died seven years ago. Falco's memories of childhood are fragmented – damage done, she believes, by many years of addiction. But she vividly recalls her grandmother's kindness. The older woman would comfort Falco when the child asked why she didn't have a father. Her grandmother taught her to plant flowers in the garden.

Falco remembers crouching in the grass, side by side with her grandmother, the little girl placing small fingers in cool soil. In the peace of those moments, her grandmother gave her a gift she'd rarely known: She made Falco feel as if she mattered in the world.

"I wish I could tell her about now," Falco said of her recovery. "I wish I could tell her I'm sorry. But you can't make amends to someone who died."

Falco's oldest daughter, 12, was taken from her years ago by the courts, custody transferred to the girl's father, after the toddler wandered outside, alone, while Falco said she was sleeping off a night of alcohol and drugs.

Another daughter, 5, was born from a marriage that blew apart. The courts assigned the girl to Falco's mother, and Falco is allowed scheduled visitation.

She began using heroin about five years ago, while living in Buffalo. She could no longer receive easy supplies of her pills. A friend told her heroin was cheaper and far more powerful. Falco vowed she would never use a needle. Many opioid addicts make the same promise, she said.

It rarely lasts.

She bought a baggie of the powder from some men who lived upstairs. For a while, she sniffed it for the high, a means of staving off withdrawal. Her friend said she was crazy, that she was being wasteful. A needle, the friend said, was far more potent.

Falco gave in. Her friend was right.

With a needle in her arm, Falco "got 10 times as high."

The revulsion to needles quickly wore away, despite the physical price she paid in the early days. For a while, until she learned how to efficiently inject herself, "I was bruised all over my body."

Eventually, she mastered the injections. The power of the addiction almost goes beyond words, she said. While high, it involves a whole body surge that sweeps away all needs and worries. Quit using, she said, and you go into withdrawal.

"You've got the chills, you're throwing up, you get chest pains, it's like the flu a million times over," she said.

At worst, she was shooting up "five or six times" a day. Her anxiety levels spiked with her drug use. She said there was no single moment of revelation that led her to quit.

"I was either going to stop," she said, "or I was going to die or lose my mind."

Around her, she saw plenty of death. People she'd shot up with, people she met in jail. Over the years, she said she's known dozens of men and women who died from opioid abuse.

Lazarony, when she heard that estimate, said it's completely true.

"This is an epidemic," she said, "and the way it's going now, we're going to lose."

For that reason, Lazarony sees Falco as a powerful example. She has been homeless. She has been jailed. It is easy to move to quick judgment, Lazarony said, unless you are part of any family with a son or daughter – or a parent – addicted to opioids.

If you are, maybe you have watched people you love disintegrate in a way you did not believe was possible. Maybe you have seen people in whom you once placed absolute trust steal from you or turn their backs on their own children, forgetting everything except their search for what they want.

In that case, all you seek is a glimpse of the man or woman you once knew.

For that to happen, they need to stop using heroin.

Falco made that choice, almost three years ago.

"Addiction is ------- terrible," Falco said. "You don't think about consequences. You just want to get high."

With sobriety, with clarity, comes unbearable remorse. It brings a feeling of such pain, such jagged regret, that she knows it drives some addicts back to using. She thinks often, she said, of people she's hurt. She sometimes daydreams of how things might have turned out without drugs, the career she might have built, the peace and stability her children might have known.

She knows she is being scrutinized about the dominant and most powerful question in her life: Will her path with her newborn be different than it was when her girls were small?

But she said going backwards is impossible, a flight into despair. The only healing she can see comes by moving forward. As she held her baby in her Dunkirk apartment, she talked about all that she needs to do, how she wants to show other addicts there is hope, how in the end her future hinges on this figure in her head.

At that moment, it was two years and 346 days.

What matters, once each day is done, is that she adds one more.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at, write to him in care of The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, Buffalo 14240 or send him a message on Facebook or Twitter.   

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