Benjamin Muise, 28, remembers how he “celebrated” his 27th birthday. It was the day he was ordered to serve a year in Middleton Jail for dealing heroin out of his house in Gloucester.
“I was dealing just to get money to support my own (heroin) habit,” he says. “I had nothing. If I didn’t get a lot of help, I wouldn’t even be here now.”
Lillian Salah, 23, recalls the days when as a 19-year-old addicted to heroin, she lived under a bridge in Lawrence.
“It was pretty scary — very scary,” she says now.
These two Gloucester residents have come a long way over the last two years. Both are clean and sober — Salah for 18 months, Muise for about 16 — and were just named as the first Gloucester recipients of $1,000 Stefanie Jesi Memorial Scholarship awards, presented Wednesday night by the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative.
The awards, in their second year, are named for the Middleton woman who went through a PAARI opioid treatment program, but relapsed and fatally overdosed in December 2015.
Salah: ‘Sick of living like that’
That was around the time that Salah — addicted and, by then, living in Pennsylvania — decided to call the Gloucester police station and Lt. David Quinn for help.
“I was sick, and that was the turning point,” she says. “I was just sick of living like that. I knew I couldn’t.”
She said the quick response by Quinn and police to place her in a treatment facility through the Gloucester-based Angel Initiative proved essential in her fight against addiction.
“I think there is such a short window of time when addicts are willing to reach out and get help,” she said prior to Wednesday night’s PAARI awards ceremony. “I had thought about (seeking help) a lot before, but then I just didn’t go for it. This time, I knew I needed help, and (police) helped me get it.”
Salah has battled addiction since her high school years, when she went to a treatment facility in Montana, then found herself in and out of detox programs closer to home. She overdosed after leaving a sober house in Dorchester; “I didn’t even know what happened — I just woke up in the hospital,” she recalls now.
But after coming out of the PAARI program, she returned to her family in Gloucester, entered the Discover program at Addison Gilbert Hospital, and has remained drug-free since January 2016.
Muise: ‘Getting easier, but not much’
Muise, meanwhile, had overdosed on heroin in 2014 on the streets of Lowell. He was revived through the use of naloxone, also known as Narcan, and went right back to using.
“I convinced myself I knew what I was doing, that it would never happen again,” he said.
It didn’t, but he was arrested the following May for dealing heroin after police, acting on tips, had his home under surveillance and nabbed him with 10.35 grams of heroin and $935 in cash. Shortly after that, he found himself still using, and reached out for help.
“I called the detective who arrested me,” Muise said, referring to Gloucester police Detective Jonathan Trefry. “I guess that shows you how much I needed help. ... I reached out to a guy I thought I hated. But he helped me; he was the one that got me into the program, and I’m so thankful he did.”
Muise was treated that summer and into fall, when he still had to serve a year of two-year jail sentence with one year suspended. He concedes he used when he was in jail —but has remained “completely” clean since February 2016.
“It seems to get a little easier all the time, but not too much,” Muise said of maintaining his sobriety.
“I see it as something you have to work at and do for the rest of your life,” Salah said. “And I know that’s what I have to do.”
Looking to the future
Both have been working — she at her family’s George’s Coffee Shop and Salah Scoops, he for a contractor installing appliances and other equipment. Neither has plans to go to school, but both say they will use the $1,000 PAARI grants to move forward with their newfound second chances at life.
“Right now, I just want to use it to help me be a good mom, and continue to work on my sobriety,” said Salah, who is pregnant with her first child.
Muise said he plans to use the money to get his driver’s license, then perhaps move to Boston. He said he does not dislike Gloucester, but recognizes it can pose a hazard.
“It’s a small town,” he noted. “I go into a store and I’m apt to see and start talking to five people I used to use with — and they’re still using. That makes it tough. I want to get to a city where there are more things to do, and where I’m not running into (past user friends) like I do here.
“I’m so grateful,” he added. “Every addict needs help when they need it. I was lucky. I got it.”
Staff writer Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.