You might have gotten the impression that, because she is the attractive young woman talking freely about her onetime opioid addiction in the 30-second public-service ads that began airing last April to promote REACH-NJ, the opioid-crisis hotline, Vanessa Vitolo is eager to share the details of her haunted past. But you would be wrong.
In a recent interview with New Jersey Monthly, Vitolo, 32, answered questions quietly and often with great reluctance. If her hesitancy was surprising, it also made sense: Like a lot of opioid users who can tell cautionary tales about the slide into addiction, she has the basics of a middle-class existence to protect. She won’t divulge the name of the competitive cheerleading squad she traveled with as a teenager in South Jersey, because she wants to shield her fellow former cheerleaders. She hedges before describing her childhood in Absecon, where she grew up in a close-knit, Irish-Catholic family, with nearby aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as a mother and two sisters (her parents divorced when she was five). “They’ve already been through enough,” she says. She won’t reveal her loved ones’ names because she doesn’t want them to hear from readers who might remind them of the hell her disease—addiction—has caused them.
Vitolo, who now lives in Essex County and works at Victory Bay Recovery Center in Clementon as an outreach coordinator, likes to start her story in 2008, when she was 23 and aggravated her right rotator cuff, an old cheerleading injury. The doctor she saw for treatment (she won’t disclose his identity) was her gateway to addiction.
“He sent me to physical therapy and started giving me the prescription,” she says. The prescription was for the opioid painkiller Percocet—she doesn’t remember the dosage—and then Roxicet, a different brand name of the same drug.
“First I took one a day, because you would take it as needed, and then I took two a day and three a day, and quickly I was taking 10 a day or as much as I could get,” she says. This is the part of her story she is accustomed to telling. It comes out slightly rehearsed, as though she memorized it for the REACH-NJ spots in which she appeared with Governor Chris Christie, and later for her meeting with President Trump, in March in Washington, D.C., on a trip with Christie, Trump’s appointee to lead a national opioid-addiction commission. But that doesn’t make her tale any less harrowing.
When her prescription refills ran out, she started buying the same drugs on the streets of suburban North Jersey, where she was then living with a boyfriend; he died last year of an overdose. She would also buy stronger prescription drugs, like OxyContin, from neighborhood dealers. “Somebody would come and drop it off,” she says.
From there, “it became a snowball effect. From the first moment I started getting high, it altered my behavior.” She lied to her employer, an eyeglass company whose name she won’t disclose. She worked there in the marketing department after graduating in 2007 from West Virginia University with a degree in communications and journalism.
In time, Vitolo lost touch with her family in Absecon, including her mother and sisters. “I isolated myself. I was out of control. I was disgusted with myself. And it spiraled bigger and bigger.”
In 2010, she landed in Atlantic City after her boyfriend was thrown in jail. She was alone and jobless, having long ago stopped showing up for work at the eyeglass company. Heroin, a non-prescription opiate whose reputation for wrecking users’ lives she knew little about, was easy to score.
“Everyone has an idea of what it does, but not really how quickly and how much it affects you,” she says. Heroin was also cheaper than the pills that had launched her addiction. She began shooting up regularly. Around the same time, she started selling heroin to support her own habit.
“It’s like there’s this whole underground world of people getting high there,” she says of Atlantic City, where she also became a regular crack cocaine user. Homeless, she joined their network, “staying with random people in hotels, never in one place consistently.” Her mother, desperately worried about her middle daughter, got wind that Vitolo had moved to Atlantic City and would drive around the resort town, asking strangers if they had seen Vanessa.
“I obviously wasn’t in the right state of mind to talk to her,” says Vitolo, though she knew of her mother’s desperation. “I couldn’t even form a thought.” So she ignored the tales she heard from druggie friends about the lady in the car who was looking for her. And then, in 2012, she got caught.
Vitolo spent much of 2012–2014 in and out of the Atlantic City jail, on charges including drug possession, distribution and violating probation. By then, she was shooting heroin several times a day and weighed just 90 pounds. “I’d wake up in the morning and do it, and then I’d do it at lunch, and then again at dinner, and at night…” she says, her voice trailing off. She spent Christmases in jail, and birthdays, and blocks of time that could have been spent in treatment. But she was so hooked at the time that she couldn’t imagine a future in which she could stay clean. And the prospect of jail no longer scared her; the facility provided medication to assist with the effects of withdrawal, she says.
“At that point, I had been through so much trauma with homelessness and selling heroin that it was kind of the norm to me,” she says. “When I would go to jail, it was my mom that would be the first person I’d call. She would cry, and she would come to the jail to see me. She would say, ‘I’d take it away if I could,’” meaning the pain. She couldn’t.
Vitolo began finding her way out of the darkness in November 2014, when she was sentenced to New Jersey’s drug-court program—an option she had previously rejected. Under the program, substance-abusing offenders charged with nonviolent crimes can enroll in a regimen of treatment, counseling and supervision instead of going to prison.
Her recovery, through Integrity House in Newark, included six months at a rehab facility, followed by months at a halfway house and assisted-living program. She also did intensive outpatient work, including group sessions starting at three days a week, to learn how to cope and practice steps to stay sober. She says it saved her life. When she completed the program in May 2017, Christie attended her graduation, alongside 22 other drug court participants, at Essex County College in Newark.
“It’s tough and it’s uncomfortable, but it helps you face the things you’ve done,” Vitolo says. She continues her Integrity House treatment as an outpatient, attends 12-step meetings and, at deadline, had been drug free for almost three years and two months.
In her role as outreach coordinator at Victory Bay, Vitolo has become a role model. “I’m not a licensed counselor or clinician, so I deal with clients on a social level. I want to share some hope with them that they can live a sober life,” she says. Since starting there last summer, she’s worked with dozens of addicts. It helps that Vitolo understands the hopelessness of her clients.
“For the last several months of my addiction, I told my mom I was going to die, that there was no changing me,” she recalls, adding, “It’s the reason I do advocacy work.”
Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.
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