Nicole Aronson has lost so many friends to addiction that she struggles to count them.
Heroin and crack cocaine have taken her to “hell” and back, the 36-year-old Passaic County woman says. She has been homeless and absent from the lives of the two young children who need her. She has brushed with death — on four occasions, she survived overdoses.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck last year, Aronson was trying to stay sober, back at home in Wanaque and taking methadone to control her cravings. But as society locked down, Aronson said, she was overcome by the isolation, and began relapsing to the drugs that have already stolen years from her life.
The stresses of the past 13 months are legion: lost jobs, shattered personal interactions, sickness and death. There’s widespread agreement in the drug treatment community that those anxieties have only fueled the heartbreak of addiction, as New Jersey’s opioid epidemic rages alongside a virus that has upended many of the fragile social supports that those in recovery rely upon.
Yet for Aronson, the pandemic was also motivation to get clean, and she is approaching seven months of sobriety. With all the death that COVID-19 dealt, Aronson said she was jolted into the realization of how lucky she was to be alive.
“It scared me. It made me realize how precious life is and I should be thankful to wake up ever morning,” Aronson said. “I never ever want my children to have to cry for their mom, that is my biggest fear. ‘Where’s Mommy. I need Mommy,’ and she’s not here.”
In some ways, the state’s addiction crisis in the past year has followed the bad-news, good-news trajectory of Aronson’s story. On the one hand, fatal overdoses leaped as coronavirus spread last spring, with May marking the highest number of deaths ever recorded, when nearly 10 people a day died from drugs in New Jersey. On the other hand, taken as a whole, the year ended without the explosion of drug deaths that advocates and public health officials feared. In 2020, there were 3,046 suspected fatal overdoses, 25 more than in 2019, an increase of less than 1%. That came despite myriad hurdles the coronavirus presented for those seeking help, with many drug programs still remaining largely remote, without the face-to-face peer interactions that have long been seen as vital.
That has produced a fraught year for Aronson, for Ocean County’s Moccollie Mabry, for Camden County’s Michael Nocella and for three others in recovery who shared their stories with NJ Advance Media. At a time in which the battle against substance abuse silently continues, they have faced pitfalls that make addiction — always a day-to-day struggle — all the more difficult in the age of COVID-19.
“All those things that everyone had to deal with only made drug use worse and alcohol abuse so much worse,” said Katie Walker, who works with people in recovery at the Center for Prevention and Counseling, a nonprofit in Newton, Sussex County. “But we’ve also seen people come back and strengthen their recovery, almost as a result of what they were going through.”
“Last year, the world shut down,” Walker added. “People lost their jobs, people were home maybe for the first time. It gave you some time to maybe evaluate your life, what is going on.”
Moccollie Mabry, who is 60, said he had to quarantine on three separate occasions as he sought a suitable inpatient program after years of abusing drugs and alcohol. A self-described hothead who served time in Ocean County Jail for assault and other charges, Mabry said the pandemic brought new worries: There were no buses to get around, businesses were closed and it was hard to find food to eat.
But Mabry is now at a sober living home in Forked River and is assisted by the New Jersey Reentry Corp., which aids former inmates as they transition into society. He hopes the six-month binges he used to go through — when he would drop 70 pounds and not eat or sleep — are a thing of the past.
“Just shows that if I could do it, anybody could do it,” Mabry said. “There’s a light shining on me today, but before, I was in such a dark hole.”
It is harder to get into treatment now, said Michael McDonel, who sought help for his heroin addiction in January, when the 34-year-old was homeless and living a hand-to-mouth existence in Atlantic City. He is enrolled at a sober living house in Bridgeton and had 67 days of sobriety when he spoke recently to a reporter.
“When you’re out in the streets and you have an addiction, I’d say it’s a lot easier to catch COVID,” McDonel said. “People in addiction, they tend to share needles and all that stuff. All they care about is getting high.”
The opioid crisis has rocked the U.S. for more than a decade, and it hit New Jersey hard, especially with the rise of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic often tied to overdoses. And unlike some states, New Jersey has not seen its deaths begin to ebb, with overdoses consistently claiming more than 3,000 lives in recent years.
Nationally, health officials warn of a rash of overdoses aggravated by the pandemic. In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that in the 12 months ending in May 2020, drugs killed more than 81,000 people in the United States, the highest number ever recorded and an 18% increase over the prior year.
New Jersey announced its 2020 overdose figures on March 4, the one-year anniversary of the state’s first announced COVID-19 case. State officials said the toll could have been even more dire, while still calling it unacceptably high.
“While 3,046 may not have been our worst fears, may I say unequivocally, it is 3,046 precious lives lost too many,” Gov. Phil Murphy said.
Many in the treatment community say there is little silver lining for a year in which suspected deaths still increased, from 2019′s 3,021.
“I feel horrible about that,” said Erika Shortway, who directs recovery services at Prevention is Key in Rockaway in Morris County. “That’s like 25 brothers, sisters, daughters, mothers, fathers. That’s terrible. It is heartbreaking.”
New Jersey has long worked to build up its tattered treatment system, expanding access to naloxone, an overdose reversal drug, and promoting opioid maintenance medications such as buprenorphine or methadone, which reduce cravings. As the pandemic hit, New Jersey ramped up those efforts, and pulled down barriers to telemedicine, making it easier for those with addictions to reach their counselors and doctors virtually.
Across the state, providers embraced new ways to reach the at-risk as demand soared and the treatment system was disrupted.
The Center for Prevention and Counseling, the Sussex County nonprofit, sent personal notes and care packages to clients, to try to let them know someone cared. In Camden, one of the state’s heroin epicenters, the Cooper Center for Healing began allowing walk-ins without an appointment, permitting those in crisis to seek immediate help, said Dr. Kaitlan Baston, its medical director.
Meanwhile, a flood of prisoners across New Jersey were granted early release this winter in response to the pandemic, under emergency credits that were expected to free about 3,000 inmates. Many of them struggle with addiction at a time in which the treatment network is in upheaval, said Jim McGreevey, a former governor who chairs the New Jersey Reentry Corp.
Joseph Vadimski, 52, earned parole from state prison in April 2020 after serving nearly 4½ years on burglary and theft charges fueled by cocaine and heroin abuse. He spent nine months at a therapeutic community at Integrity House in Secaucus and is now at a halfway house in Paterson.
COVID-19 has made treatment that much more difficult, especially in the early days when facilities were turned upside down responding to it, Vadimski said. Recovery meetings can be frustrating, given social distancing and mask wearing that makes it hard to interact with, or even hear, each other, he said.
Then there are the fears of infection, which offer a ready-made justification for those drawn back to their former lives.
“People left because they used that excuse. ‘I don’t want to get COVID,’” Vadimski said. “Whether they would have or not, I don’t know.”
Vadimski said he has stuck with it because he wants to change.
“My mindset has been that I need to get my life together,” Vadimski said. “I’m 52, not that that’s an excuse to get better, but it pushed me in the right direction.”
Last year should have been one in which New Jersey’s efforts to fight addiction finally paid off, said Angela Conover, the director of opioid response and prevention for the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey. But not with the headwinds of the coronavirus.
“The hope was if 2020 had been a normal year, for lack of a better description, we would have seen the fruits of our labors,” Conover said. The ultimate overdose numbers were “distressing for a lot of people who were in this field.”
Robert Budsock is the chief executive of Integrity House, which is one of the largest nonprofit treatment providers in the state. In the past five years, he said, he has seen more tragedy than in his first three decades on the job. And looking ahead, neither the pandemic nor its effects on addiction are over, he said.
“The concern is that there is going to be a backlash, or an aftershock. We know it is going to happen,” Budsock said. “A lot of people are just getting by right now, in that when you experience something traumatic, you focus on just keeping one foot in front of the other.”
So far this year, deaths continue apace.
In January and February, there were 540 suspected overdoses, four more than 2020 and nearly 100 more than 2019, Murphy said at the March 4 announcement. On the same day, Morris County warned of surging opioid deaths fueled by a more potent form of fentanyl circulating in North Jersey.
In total this year, 24 people in Morris County have already lost their lives to opioids, said Meghan Knab, a spokeswoman for the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, on Thursday. That compares to 78 in all of 2020.
And neither Morris County nor the state’s figures include deaths from alcohol abuse, which advocates say has also gotten worse.
At 61 years old, Michael Nocella has struggled with alcoholism since the 1990s, when he said it cost him his career as a police officer in Riverton and an EMT in Camden. All these years later, Nocella said he is still grappling with the trauma he underwent on the job: a suicidal man who pulled a gun on him and tried to shoot, a father who terrorized his two young children and Nocella with a machete during a standoff.
Nocella, who has long tried to get sober, was nearing his end a year ago. He was living in a squalid apartment in Hamilton Township, Mercer County, and drinking a 30-pack of beer or more a day. He’d largely stopped eating and was so weak that he had to pay a cab driver to carry his booze into the house for him.
He was isolated. Before COVID-19, he paid an elderly woman to drive him to and from the grocery store. But she had to stop, for fears of the virus. Township police officers, worrying he would wind up dead, had threatened to arrest neighbors who had been procuring him alcohol.
“It was an awful experience. I wasn’t living,” Nocella said. “I should be dead today.”
Nocella said he wound up in a motel in Bordentown after New Jersey Adult Protective Services came to his aid. In his struggles in recent years, Nocella had connected with City of Angels NJ, a grass-roots group that works with people in recovery. They and an area police officer helped get him into treatment.
Nocella spent five days in detox and 14 days in a psychiatric ward for depression and is now living at a boarding home in Winslow Township, Camden County, where he receives outpatient counseling.
He has managed to keep his sobriety, he said. He hopes to eventually move into an apartment of his own.
Like Nocella, April Spigelman has new hopes.
The 38-year-old Cherry Hill woman is pregnant, expecting her third child in October. It would have been unthinkable 13 months ago, when she was struggling with alcoholism that had her hiding vodka in the bathroom and drinking while she pretended to her family that she was taking a shower.
Spigelman enrolled in rehab on March 8, 2020, the day after she said she tried to take her own life by overdosing on Adderall. She spent eight weeks in an inpatient facility, with her husband and two sons, then 14 and 10, only able to visit her on the first week before coronavirus restrictions kicked in.
Spigelman said that as a drinker, she isolated, keeping others at arms distance as she got lonelier and lonelier. When she left rehab, she resolved to do the opposite, despite a disease raging around her that made it all the harder.
She made friends at online support meetings, and shared her name and phone number with them. They’d meet for coffee outside. She’d hear about meetings that were being held in parks that she’d attend. She found a therapist and a psychiatrist.
“I put myself out there because if not, I could have easily reverted back to old ways,” Spigelman said. “If I didn’t want to text that person because I was alone, then I would text them.”
It is a daily struggle. For Spigelman. For Nocella. For Vadimski. For McDonel. For Mabry. For Aronson. For countless people in recovery.
Some days are better than others, said Aronson, the Passaic County mother. She is working part-time and studying to become a peer specialist who helps others facing addiction. At home, her elder child, who is 8, is navigating hybrid learning that has him attending school virtually some days.
The temptations can sneak up on her. She’ll hear a song on the radio that will take her back to her days of abusing drugs, and her heart will start to race. Driving past a highway exit where she used to go to use, she’ll break into a sweat. Even some smells can act as triggers.
Addiction was a “roller-coaster ride,” she said, that she hopes stopped with the brake the pandemic provided her.
“It gave me more of a motivational drive. It made me want to struggle to get better,” Aronson said. “It gave me more of a reason.”