ARUN RATH, HOST:
What often gets lost in the news about the heroin epidemic and the rising number of fatal overdoses is how hard some addicts are trying to get clean. Karen Brown, of New England Public Radio, has been following one young man as he seeks not only recovery, but redemption with some unlikely help.
KAREN BROWN: Nina Rossi and Lance Rice are sipping tea at her kitchen table, talking about their mutual love of good food.
LANCE RICE: Last night, we had steak and a fruit salad and - I don't know what the other thing was.
NINA ROSSI: Fried potatoes with some kale and Brussels sprouts in there.
RICE: It was wicked good.
BROWN: This scene of food and friendship is both ordinary and remarkable. A year ago, Rice and Rossi were strangers on opposite sides of a criminal court case. Rice, who's 23, was among several heroin addicts arrested for a spade of robberies in the small town of Turner's Falls, two hours west of Boston.
RICE: Apparently, I came through that window right over there. The screen - was the screen broke? Or...
ROSSI: You pushed this screen up.
BROWN: Rice says he was too high to remember robbing Rossi's home. He was later arrested with prescription pills from her bathroom, and an iPod from her desk.
RICE: The normal person would, you know, automatically hate somebody that did that to their home. I mean, who wouldn't?
ROSSI: Well, I did hate you, Lance, you know, for a few weeks there. Everybody did, you know, 'cause we felt violated.
BROWN: Rossi is a 54-year-old artist and shopkeeper. After police returned her iPod, she found a photo on it that Rice had taken of himself. Behind his vacant, heavy-lidded expression, she says she sensed a good person, but a lost soul. She took the day off work to watch his sentencing at the courthouse.
ROSSI: 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. The shackles? He's an addict, you know, he's just not - he's not a criminal.
BROWN: Rossi is a recovering alcoholic herself. She knew the road to sobriety would be rough. So when Rice finished his 60-day jail sentence, she invited him to visit her downtown gift shop before he left for court-mandated rehab. He was surprised and touched by her attention. And after a few hugs, she gave him a good luck pebble and he promised to write.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS RATTLING)
Today, Rossi pulls out a stack of his letters, all of them decorated with colored pencil.
RICE: Oh yeah, I'd forgot about those.
BROWN: The wrote each other weekly as Rice stayed clean through his first 90-day program, and then clashed with the staff at a halfway house. He hitchhiked back to his mother's apartment and rather than go back to heroin, turned himself in. He was promptly sent back to jail.
RICE: I lost all hope when they put me back in that cell.
BROWN: Rossi says his letters were full of despair. She wrote to his probation officer, asking for leniency.
ROSSI: I was very concerned about him and unable to get in to see him.
BROWN: Rice was eventually sent home under strict conditions - daily AA meetings, therapy, random drug tests, and a weekly appearance before the judge. He says he probably couldn't meet those conditions if not for the help of Nina Rossi. She gives him rides to the courthouse, pays for taxis, cooks dinner and finds him odd jobs.
ROSSI: I'm really concerned about the whole heroin epidemic, but I can't do anything about it. But I can help Lance, you know.
RICE: I always say that there's, like, some type of higher power that made me rob Nina's house.
RICE: I really believe that way. I could have picked any house on the street. Why did my instinct bring me here? But in my situation...
ROSSI: Don't tell anybody my address. (Laughter) They'll be lining up.
BROWN: These days, Rice comes in through Rossi's front door. He's gotten to know her fiance, her dog and her parrot, and he often sits at her piano to relax.
RICE: OK, so this is the song that I played for Nina the first time that I came over. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF RICE PLAYING SONG ON PIANO, "TOO LATE TO APOLOGIZE")
BROWN: The song is called "Too Late to Apologize." Only he did apologize, and Rossi forgave him. At this point, they'd rather focus on keeping Rice sober. He's come close to relapsing, and got a prescription for the anti-opiate drug Suboxone, which helps fend off cravings. But they know the bleak statistics facing heroin addicts. Most go back to drugs after treatment.
ROSSI: Well, I think about, my God, what would happen if he started using again? That would devastating. I'd have to practice some real detachment to get through that. Yeah.
RICE: You know, it wouldn't be Nina's fault at all if I went out and did something, you know? 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: In the past year, Rice says five of his former drug buddies have died of heroin overdoses. But he has other plans. He's applying to community college for the fall, and he's going to bring Rossi's pebble along for good luck.
For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: Coming up, fun fact from writer Douglas Coupland.
DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Everyone at the age of 40 makes two and a half really bad decisions. The music you get the most nostalgic about later in life is the music that you were listening to when you were 23 and a half. Look up Beetling Pit on YouTube.
RATH: We eventually got to talking about his wicked new novel. That's coming up in the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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