Rootstown’s Nicole Walmsley overcame addiction, now helps others
By Dave O’Brien
By her own account, Nicole Walmsley spent 2,556 days of her life “married” to heroin.
That’s more than seven lost years spent abusing both legal and illegal drugs.
Her addiction consumed her life from the ages of 21 to 28. During that time, she spent exactly 496 days behind bars, she recalled.
“I’ve had a lot of time to count, sitting in jail,” the 32-year-old said.
She accrued that time during 18 separate trips to county jails in Northeastern Ohio on charges of receiving stolen property, forgery and theft in 2009; possession of needles and drug paraphernalia in 2010; and eventually for heroin trafficking.
And while she looks back with some anger on her travels through the justice system, Walmsley has turned some of that into action.
These days, she spends her time traveling throughout Ohio, telling her story of addiction and recovery and trying to give addicts like herself the hope she took years to find.
How it began
Born to a mother who was battling her own addictions, and adopted by a Christian family in Rootstown, Walmsley started smoking marijuana “and drinking Boone’s Farm” at age 16. She briefly used methamphetamine — “It wasn’t for me, I could get high just using my prescribed Adderall,” she recalled — and went to rehab for marijuana addiction at age 18.
Following the birth of her daughter and a surgical procedure at age 21, Walmsley was prescribed Vicodin for pain.
Taking more and more as her body developed a tolerance, the painkillers made her feel that “everything is OK.” She developed a “false sense” that the drug filled the void in her life.
Raised to “believe in government, law enforcement officers and doctors,” she said the anti-drug DARE program in school never taught her “there will be this man in a white coat with medical degrees who will prescribe me something and you could get addicted,” she said.
Walmsley’s parents offered to take her daughter and got full custody after it became clear she was an addict.
“I felt like a failure,” she said, and sought more drugs “to feel normal.”
“I told myself ‘I’m classy. I’m not a junkie,’” because she was “only” snorting crushed-up pills and not shooting hard drugs, she said.
For a time, Walmsley was paying $50 per pill to feed her habit. One day, her dealer “ran out” of her pills of choice and offered her a free bag of heroin.
She became what she called “a ‘new junkie’” — staying “classy” because she was “only” snorting heroin. Experts say upwards of 80 percent of heroin users started on the drug after getting addicted to prescription painkillers, then switching to cheaper heroin when painkillers became too expensive.
A series of bad boyfriends and shady dealers encouraged, supported and enabled her addiction. The dealers made her feel like she was their friend, she recalled, while police officers who arrested her turned her into a “snitch” to catch other dealers. Soon, it became harder to get drugs because dealers and other addicts knew she was talking to police.
“I didn’t care. I was paid cash to snitch and the cops didn’t [expletive] with me,” Walmsley said.
Originally sent for court-ordered drug treatment in April 2010, she said that sentence was suspended, and she was put back out on the street to “snitch” on others.When she wanted out, she said, the justice system caught up with her again. Walmsley was arrested in 2010 on a heroin trafficking charge, allegedly for selling drugs in a school zone — a case that still bothers her as she insists the transaction was never completed (she is weighing legal options regarding that case, she said).
At times, medication-assisted treatment was worse than the heroin addiction. Prescribed a regimen of suboxone — itself an addictive drug that, when it works properly, is supposed to help opioid addicts get clean — she said she relapsed every time.
“It was like doing heroin, except it’s legal and I could get away with it,” she said.
In trouble with the law on and off for several years, Walmsley successfully got clean through the Northeast Ohio Community Alternative Program, but was indicted on more drug charges in Mahoning County while in treatment at NEOCAP in 2012.
On March 14, 2013, while on house arrest in Mahoning County and still on probation in Portage County, Walmsley overdosed on a mixture of heroin and the powerful painkiller fentanyl. She survived and turned herself in once she got out of the hospital, knowing full well she had a potential two-year prison term hanging over her head.
But “two years in prison sounded better than one day on the street, addicted to heroin,” she said.
Walmsley “divorced heroin” on March 15, 2013.
“I didn’t want to be addicted. I wanted to move on,” she said. “I was ashamed I made those decisions. I wanted to do my time and move forward.”
She checked into a halfway house in Mahoning County and got a job at a hotel in Boardman. But making $8.45 an hour cleaning wasn’t going to cut it, she said.
One by one, her old friends and fellow addicts started to die from their addictions — some while waiting to get into treatment. Walmsley began to wonder why no one was taking action to get addicts into rehab.
Told she needed to write letters “to the person who upset me,” Walmsley started writing “letters to heroin” on a personal blog called “Dear Addiction.”
A Facebook message from a stranger who read her story began to make her think deeper about purpose, and that she was destined to help others battle their demons.
“He said, ‘I think this is what you’re meant to do.’ I thought he was crazy,” and she blocked him, she recalled with a laugh.
But the two resumed talking, she said. After helping to organize a “Walk Against Heroin” in 2015 in Portage County and speaking at the event, she found the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative, or PAARI, during an online search.
The program was created by police officers and recovery advocates in Massachusetts and helps addicts find recovery options instead of putting them into the jail or prison system. Its governing boards and advisory council are made up of homelessness advocates, recovery specialists and health experts, attorneys and current and former police officers.
Walmsley wrote PAARI’s founder, and he wrote her back. She flew out to Massachusetts for training, and upon returning to Ohio began working to convince law enforcement there are other options than just putting addicts in jail.
She said she put 40,000 miles on her car in the first year of work with PAARI, visiting 50 Ohio police departments. More than 30 of those signed on, mostly in Cuyahoga County but also the Cuyahoga Falls and Norton police departments in Summit County and the Lodi Police Department in Medina County. They have since placed hundreds of addicts in treatment centers across the country, from Florida to Arizona and California.There aren’t any Portage County police departments involved in the program, but Walmsley said she hopes to change that in 2018.
Since 2015, Walmsley has spoken at dozens of recovery walks, at colleges, schools and “compassion roll call” training seminars at police departments. Many officers are shocked when, after giving her talk, Walmsley tells them she’s the person they might arrest every day on the street.
“Most don’t know I’m an addict,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I was the junkie you didn’t want to (give) Narcan’” after an overdose.
Not long ago, a treatment center called Satori Waters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., reached out to Walmsley and offered her a job: Treatment coordinator and law enforcement liaison, which has allowed her to continue to rebuild her life in Ohio.
The job pays well, and Walmsley now works helping more addicts.
Recovery meetings “helped for a few years,” and they do help many others, but Walmsley’s job now allows her different options, she said.
“It wasn’t for me anymore. Now if I do ’12 steps,′ it’s with a paid psychiatrist,” she said.
Walmsley credits her probation officers with wanting to help her when she finally decided to stay clean. She views being on probation “in such a different way” now.
Walmsley’s probation officer “was really there to care, wanted to make sure I stayed clean, and helped me through relapses,” she said. “As much as I resented being on probation for five years, the probation officers do want us to succeed.”
She’s also working to get her daughter back in her life, and recently bought a house with her boyfriend, who is a police officer.
“My life is 1,000 times different. I wish I knew it was possible, because no one came for me in my darkest days … I had to grieve heroin,” she said. “There are many stories like mine out there.”
David O’Brien is a Reporter for the Record-Courier.
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