Addiction Takes A Toll On An Unlikely Friendship

May 17, 2015
Originally published on May 17, 2015 8:56 pm

It's hard to imagine a friendship with a less auspicious start than the one between Lance Rice and Nina Rossi. In 2013, Rice, now 25, was arrested for breaking into Rossi's home while strung out on heroin. He stole her iPod and some prescription pills.

After Rice was released from jail, Rossi, who runs an art and jewelry shop in Turners Falls, Mass., decided to reach out to him.

"I'm so grateful there's people like Nina out there," Rice told me in an interview last year, "because the normal person would, you know, automatically hate somebody who did that to their home."

"Well, I did hate you, Lance," Nina responded. "We had your picture from the newspaper with 'F.U.' written on it on the refrigerator, 'cause we felt violated."

And yet Rossi — now 55 and herself a recovering alcoholic — believed Rice had a good soul and just needed support. What first appealed to her about Rice was that he owned up to his actions.

As he went in and out of rehab and jail, she became his character reference with the courts until Rice's public defender got him into a program that offered treatment instead of jail. The conditions were strict — regular check-ins with a probation officer and a judge, near-daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, random drug screenings.

Rossi paid for Rice's taxis to the courthouse, cooked for him, offered him odd jobs — all in the service of his sobriety. "I think about, my God, what would happen if he started using again," she said in the interview last year. "That would be devastating."

"It would suck that I would probably lose her over something like that," Rice added. "That also probably does help me, you know, stay clean."

But it wasn't enough.

Last June, a few months after that interview, Rice had a relapse. He had moved in with friends who were still using heroin. Every day, he watched them get high.

"It triggers something in you," he says. "Even just seeing people on TV doing it can trigger you and set you off. And for awhile, I was able to hold on, but it did suck me back in."

He takes an opioid-blocker, so it wasn't heroin he turned to. Instead, he went on a cocaine binge, which was caught through a urine screening. He went back to jail for a month — and while the judge decided to give him another chance in treatment, some relationships couldn't be fixed.

Rossi has not spoken to Rice in months. She says a rift started to grow around the time of his relapse — which coincided with changes in her life. She had a surge of personal expenses, including car repairs and her wedding. She had to stop giving him money. "I felt bad that we were in a situation where he was dependent on that very little bit that I could do," she says.

Their weekly dinners ebbed and then she heard about his cocaine binge — but not from him.

"I felt like he didn't turn to me when he needed somebody and felt things were going downhill," she says. "And maybe I'm not being very helpful at all if he relapsed."

For his part, Rice felt harshly judged after his relapse.

"I thought that we had a different friendship than I guess we ended up having," he says. "And the friendship kind of fell apart, and I wish her the best, and that's about it."

He still appreciates how much Rossi helped him — and that she forgave him for robbing her. That's something Rossi does not regret.

"It's a selfish thing, in a way, to forgive other people, because it's the best thing for yourself," she says. "And if that's the only thing that comes out of this whole thing, it's fine. And maybe it's made a difference for Lance, having been forgiven."

In April, after 18 months of supervision, Rice graduated from the drug court. On his last day, he faced spectators in a Greenfield, Mass., courtroom and delivered a speech.

"A few years ago, I was knocking on death's door and I didn't know how to get away from that," he said.

Nina Rossi didn't come to his graduation. He expected his grandparents, aunt and cousins to show up, but they didn't. The only witnesses were two of Rice's friends, their toddler son, two other drug court defendants — and me.

"This is very hard," he said, "and I know it's gonna be hard for the rest of my life, but it's been worth every minute."

If Rice can stick with recovery, his will be a rare success. In the past year, he says four of his friends died of heroin overdoses.

This fall, Rice hopes to enroll in community college — a goal he missed last year.

When Nina Rossi hears about this plan, she smiles.

"I just hope he makes it," she says, "and that now and then, he'll send me a note, saying he's doing well."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Lance Rice and Nina Rossi are friends who met in very unusual circumstances. He is a recovering heroin addict, and she is the woman whose house he robbed. Addiction takes a great toll on every relationship. Rice may have found friendship and support in unlikely places, but he's lost them, as well. From New England Public Radio, Karen Brown reports.

KAREN BROWN, BYLINE: It's hard to imagine a less auspicious start to a friendship than the one between Lance Rice and Nina Rossi. In 2013, Rice was arrested for breaking into Rossi's home while strung out on heroin. He stole her iPod and some prescription pills. After Rice got out of jail, Rossi decided to reach out to him. At the time, he was deeply touched.

LANCE RICE: I'm so grateful there's people like Nina out there because the normal person would, you know, automatically hate somebody that did that to their home.

NINA ROSSI: Well, I did hate you, Lance. We had your picture from the newspaper with F.U. written on it on the refrigerator and stuff 'cause we felt violated.

BROWN: And yet, Rossi, herself a recovering alcoholic, believed he had a good soul and just needed support. As he went in and out of rehab and jail, she became his character reference with the courts until Rice's public defender got him into a program that offered treatment instead of jail. The conditions were strict - regular check-ins with a probation officer and a judge, near-daily AA meetings, random drug screens.

RICE: The hardest thing was honestly keeping track of it all.

BROWN: Nina Rossi paid for taxis to the courthouse, cooked for him, offered him odd jobs, all in the service of his sobriety. Here's what they told me last year for a previous NPR story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROSSI: Well, I think about, my God, what would happen if he started using again? That would be devastating.

RICE: And it would suck that I would probably lose her over something like that. That also probably does help me, you know, stay clean.

BROWN: But it wasn't enough. A few months after that interview...

RICE: Last June, I had a relapse. It was around the time of my birthday.

BROWN: Rice had moved in with friends who were still using heroine. Every day, he'd watch them get high.

RICE: It triggers something in you. You know, just even seen people, like, on TV or something doing it can trigger you and set you off. And for a while, I was able to hold on, but it did suck me back in.

BROWN: Not with heroine - he takes an opioid blocker called Suboxone. He went on a cocaine binge, and predictably, he was caught through a urine screen. He went back to jail for a month, and while the judge decided to give him another chance in treatment, some relationships couldn't be fixed.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIMES)

ROSSI: Hi.

BROWN: Nina Rossi meets me in her art and jewelry shop in Turners Falls. She hasn't spoken to Rice in months. She said a rift started to grow around the time of his relapse, which coincided with some changes in her life. She had a surge of personal expenses - her car transmission, her wedding. She had to stop giving him money.

ROSSI: I felt bad that we were in a situation where he was dependent on that very little bit that I could, you know, do.

BROWN: Their weekly dinners ebbed, and then she heard about his cocaine binge, but not from him.

ROSSI: I felt like, well, this is, you know - he didn't turn to me when he needed somebody and felt things were going downhill. And, well, maybe I'm not being very helpful at all if he relapsed.

BROWN: What first appealed to her about Rice was that he owned up to his actions.

ROSSI: And when he faltered, it seemed that he was not willing to do that, although he may just have been very embarrassed and ashamed of having messed up.

RICE: Me and Nina - you know, I thought that we had a different friendship than I guess we ended up having.

BROWN: For his part, Rice felt harshly judged after his relapse.

RICE: And it just - the friendship kind of just fell apart. And I wish her the best, and that's about it.

BROWN: He still appreciates how much Rossi helped him and that she forgave him for robbing her - something she does not regret.

ROSSI: It's a selfish thing, in a way, to forgive other people because it's the best thing for yourself. And if that's the only thing that comes out of this whole thing, well, that's - it's fine. And maybe it's made a difference for Lance having been forgiven.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lance Rice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Your Honor, Lance Rice (inaudible)...

BROWN: In April, after 18 months of supervision, Lance Rice graduated from the drug court. On his last day, he faces the spectators in a Greenfield, Mass., courtroom and delivers a speech.

RICE: A few years ago, I was knocking on death's door.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BABBLING)

RICE: I didn't know how to get away from that, and...

BROWN: Nina Rossi didn't come to his graduation. He expected his grandparents, aunt and cousins to show up, but they didn't. The only witnesses are two of Rice's friends, their toddler son, two other drug court defendants and me.

RICE: This is very hard, and I know it's going to be hard for the rest of my life, but it's been worth every minute.

(APPLAUSE)

BROWN: If Lance Rice can stick with recovery, his will be a rare success. In the past year, he says four of his friends died of heroin overdoses. This fall, Rice hopes to enroll in community college, a goal he missed last year. When Nina Rossi hears about his plan, she smiles.

ROSSI: Just hope he makes it and that now and then, he'll send me a note saying he's doing well.

BROWN: For NPR news, I'm Karen Brown in Western Massachusetts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.