Heaven, hell, heroin: Lessons learned from one young man's death
Mother and son spoke little that night as they drifted from the teenager in the coffin toward her family in the corner.
The deceased had been a lifelong friend. Her sandy hair and lustrous skin, bathed in the sunset yellow of the funeral parlor lights, belied the cause of death — heroin overdose.
Mother and son cried, knelt, prayed and then — before reaching the girl’s parents — eased together and interwove arms, forming the foundation that had helped them endure so much anguish.
The mother had grown up with the girl’s father and tried to muster a condolence, but her whispers disappeared into the shroud of grief that muffled the room.
Not until she stood alone with her son — the grieving family in her wake — did the mother find her voice. That’s when Sandra Milton pulled her son’s face to hers and said what she had been thinking since they arrived.
“Promise me, Stephen. Promise you’ll never do this to me.”
On that somber night in June 2005, Stephen Pacheco sponged his eyes and scanned the surreal scene before responding, his stare falling on the petite girl in the coffin.
Like her, he was 19, blond, attractive, athletic, loved.
And a heroin addict.
“I promise, Mom,” he said. “I promise.”
You had to hug Stephen Pacheco — he left you no alternative.
Whether saying hello, wishing good luck, bidding farewell, or thanking the effervescent 6-footer for grilling your steak to perfection, every encounter ended the same.
With the Pacheco bear hug.
“He was so affectionate, and you could tell he meant it,” said Geraldine Alston-Jones, a lifelong friend. “It was like he needed it more than you did.”
Even from strangers.
Pacheco, while being treated in 2002 for his addiction, once watched a sickly, old man share his plight during a Friday night healing service at a Roxbury church.
When the man finished and shuffled to his seat, dejection overspreading his face, Pacheco followed. Then he sat and hugged him.
“It’s going to get better,” Pacheco told him. “Just keep your head up. It’s going to get better.”
He couldn’t pass a pan-handler in Boston subways without making a donation, counseled fellow addicts for hours when they sought the refuge of his voice, and pushed himself to exhaustion to help anybody needing it, even though he had lost use of a lung from childhood cancer.
“He wanted to help everybody,” said his mother. “He wanted to save everybody.”
For three years after attending the wake for Brockton’s Shannah Duggan, Pacheco tried to save himself, waging a furious fight to keep the promise to his mother.
Nine times he admitted himself to a treatment facility, often spending days trying to find a bed. Once, he had himself imprisoned in a desperate attempt to break the drug’s hold.
He tried anti-addiction medications, substitutes, therapy, counseling — anything that offered a hint of hope. And he shared his pain, seeking help from family, friends, priests, workmates, strangers, counselors, judges, doctors and God.
But on Aug. 9, 2008, after staying off heroin for two years, Pacheco relapsed, overdosed and died.
“I thought this one we might win,” said the Rev. Rodney Copp, a Waltham priest who counsels addicts and befriended Pacheco during his treatment on the North Shore. “I’m never surprised by an overdose, but for this one, I was devastated.”
Pacheco’s death, however, is not about a broken promise, but an often unbreakable foe. Pacheco proved recovery is possible, even for someone so mired that he once courted death. But his story, ultimately, is one of warning — and one that dozens of recovering addicts in the region are living every day, never knowing when the evil that is a heroin addiction will resurface.
And kill them.
He began the afternoon vigil in familiar fashion — curled around his cell phone on the couch.
It was 2 o’clock.
Time for more heroin.
Pacheco was just 18 but a seasoned heroin addict in 2003. He needed it every four hours.
He knew from the prickling in his knees, the grinding in his gut — the sickness of withdrawal had started seeping in. Soon, everything would hurt.
But his girlfriend, Jennifer Gillis, should be signaling soon — once she had the money.
The two had progressed to heroin a year earlier after sliding into an addiction with OxyContin, the oft-abused prescription pain killer that had become the new gateway to the hell of heroin.
OC was a near-pure opiate intended for the extreme pain of cancer patients.
But ever-resourceful, unknowing teens — Pacheco and Gillis among them — circumvented its time-release structure by crushing and snorting the pills.
Addiction for most was inevitable.
Price and potency soon drove them, and countless other OC addicts, to the cheaper, resurgent street-drug heroin, and now Pacheco and Gillis were mainlining seven times a day while living in Somerville, where his mother had taken him after her marriage failed.
Pacheco, attending Somerville High School, worked at a restaurant part-time, but his pay couldn’t support the addiction. So Gillis supplemented the only way she could — through thievery.
She had left, again, to canvass athletic clubs. Pacheco knew her routine, but never took part — Gillis would slip into the club’s main fitness area, find the box where people leave keys, and swipe a set.
She would then traverse the region and shoplift items — often DVDs — that were easily sold at pawn shops and video stores. She hit so many athletic clubs, mostly on the North Shore, that TV news dubbed her the “Gym Bandit.”
They’d get heroin, get high, get rid of the car and get home. Somehow.
“The whole time, Steve still had a conscience,” Gillis said. “He’d be like, ‘You can’t do that, it’s wrong.’ And I’d be like, ‘You want to get high, don’t you?’ Getting high always won out.”
But after sputtering for months, the relationship finally stalled the day Gillis stole a van and targeted the Wal-Mart in Avon.
It would be a normal heist, she thought — grab a vehicle, steal and sell as much as she could, get Stephen and inject the drug that now dictated their every action.
Gillis had grown numb to the repetition and the repercussions. But not her boyfriend.
Pacheco hadn’t stolen to get heroin, didn’t victimize friends or family as so many others had. But he had become dislodged while on the North Shore, living at times with his mother in Somerville and then Everett, with a friend in Somerville, and then for several months with Gillis in her mother’s apartment.
Having grown up in Brockton’s Pine Estates, a cluster of apartments and courtyards that fostered closeness, Pacheco couldn’t tolerate the transience.
In Pine Estates, he had one mother, but several neighbors he called “Ma.” Each day, he would move from courtyard to courtyard, home to home, cleaning and cooking for his various adopted families.
“I’ve always regretted moving him around so much,” said his mother, who reverted to her maiden name of Milton after her divorce. “It took a toll on him.”
Tired of the impermanence that had fractured their foundation, Milton moved Stephen back to Brockton in 2004, living with her father on Charlene Drive.
Milton knew her son and girlfriend had been using OxyContin, but like parents of many users, didn’t know to what extent, nor where the powerful pain killer often led.
By the time she had come to realize the dangers, Pacheco and Gillis had already moved to heroin, which cost just $10 a dose.
“We’d come down here (to Brockton) and everybody was already using heroin,” said Gillis. “It was like people here had already graduated, and they were getting way more high than we were for less money.”
By now, Gillis spent most nights at her boyfriend’s house. But from her new home in Brockton, the Gym Bandit performed her old tricks. One day in March 2004, she stole a van and, while Pacheco worked, began to re-supply. By afternoon, she had hit several area stores and bought several hits of heroin.
But she wanted more, so she went to the Wal-Mart in Avon, stuffing her bags, shirt and pockets. Laden with the bounty, she triggered the alarm at the entrance. Gillis ran, but a security guard tackled her in front of several shocked customers in the parking lot.
The Gym Bandit had been captured. Pacheco’s source for money — for heroin — had disappeared.
In two weeks, he had no money — no heroin.
One night, pacing, scratching and trying to calm the early quakes of withdrawal, he asked his mother for $40.
He told her it was for OxyContin.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Stephen, do you know you’re asking me to help kill yourself? I can’t do that,’” said his mother. “He just sat down in front of me, on the stairs leading to the dining room, put his arms around me and said, ‘I know, Ma. I know.’ Then he started crying. We just sat there and I rocked him, and we cried.”
After hugging his mother for 45 minutes, he knew it was time to get help. But to find freedom from heroin, he would have to be imprisoned.
Brockton District Court seemed cavernous, cold to Pacheco, especially when court officers bound his hands and legs — standard procedure for someone taken into custody.
Pacheco, 19, and his mother had arrived Monday morning after he called and requested help, in the form of a “Section 35.” The state law allowed someone to be locked up for 30 days at the Department of Correction facility in Bridgewater if they were deemed a danger to anybody, including themselves.
Desperate heroin addicts and their families, unable to find a bed at ever-crowded treatment shelters, used the law as relief from the oppression of addiction.
Pacheco knew he had little choice.
Months earlier, squeezing his insurance card, he had tried to find help, calling more than a dozen treatment centers. Many didn’t take his insurance, others had no room.
He persisted, and a Cape Cod facility invited him down. Pacheco’s grandfather brought him the next morning, but after talking with the 190-pound, 6-foot addict — who had arrived sober — the screening doctor had good news. And bad.
He didn’t consider Pacheco too far gone.
But because of that, he couldn’t admit him.
“What do you mean I’m not sick enough,” Pacheco told the doctor. “Are you telling me that if I came in here high, you would help me?”
Yes, the doctor said.
Pacheco, desperate, soon learned about a Section 35. The move meant handcuffs, chains and a month at the Bridgewater facility.
But it also meant life.
With rivulets of tears lining her face, Milton watched as her son — his arms and legs shackled — shuffled from the room.
Afterward, a court officer who had helped with the restraints approached her.
“Your son isn’t too bad,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people come through here a lot worse. But don’t get me wrong — he will relapse, probably four or five times, before he gets it right.”
Milton couldn’t speak, her silence soliciting the news she knew was coming.
“You do realize you’re dealing with heroin here, don’t you?” the court officer told her.
She didn’t, but nodded, then slumped onto a hallway bench.
A month later, Pacheco sought more help, arranging a direct transfer from Bridgewater to the CAB Transitional Facility in Tewksbury, a halfway house for addicts.
It would be the beginning of a tumultuous three-year journey to sobriety. Along the way, he would relapse repeatedly, escape three overdoses, bury several friends and spend months more in treatment facilities.
But he would also rekindle his faith, finish high school, fall in love and learn to live again.
Sing for me.
That’s what Pacheco told his friend, Geraldine Alston-Jones, he wanted for a graduation present. Pacheco had just received his high school diploma, and he stood with his mother and Alston-Jones, less than a year after leaving Tewksbury, on the back steps of Brockton High after the ceremony.
It was 8:30 p.m. on June 15, 2005. Two hours earlier, Pacheco and his mother had attended the wake, a mile down the street, for the teenage girl who had died from heroin.
They had cried, embraced, mourned — they were crying, embracing again, this time in celebration.
“It was an unbelievable night,” said his mother. “It was hard, but Stephen never thought about not going to graduation. He had worked too hard for it.”
Pacheco, even battling addiction, had attended night classes for more than a year in Brockton, earning a diploma from the school system he had quit two years earlier.
Resplendent in his green cap and gown, he stood in triumph atop the back steps of the high school, along with his mother, Alston-Jones, and several friends from Somerville. Under a spitting sky, Pacheco asked Alston-Jones, a choir singer, to perform Whitney Houston’s 1985 hit “Greatest Love of All.”
Not one stanza — the entire song. The one he and his mother had first heard 18 years earlier, the night before his surgery at Boston’s Floating Hospital.
At 11 months old, doctors had to remove a cancerous growth from his chest in a procedure that would leave him with one functioning lung, a neck-to-stomach scar he would forever struggle to conceal, and a favorite song.
“That became our song,” said his mother, “and we played it a lot. It’s one of the songs we would have danced to at his wedding.”
Alston-Jones complied, and serenaded Pacheco, as well as several dozen parents and graduates. “I believe that children are our future,” she sang. “Teach them well and let them lead the way ...”
In the span of two hours, he had mourned the tragic end of a life, and marked the joyful start of a journey.
Soon, he would have help in his quest — and the boy once wedded to a needle would find real love.
He told her the first night.
“I’m an addict.”
Pacheco and Francesca Lynch had met several hours earlier at a 2006 Valentine’s Day party in Somerville, but had slipped away to find quiet.
The pairing proved perfect, and they talked through the night. Later, Pacheco had a confession.
“I’m a heroin addict,” he said. “I always will be. But I’m clean now. I’m doing good.”
The words carried little weight with Lynch, smitten by the athletic, personable boy with the rosy cheeks and blonde-flecked crew cut. Romance blossomed.
Six months later, he moved into her Lowell apartment.
Pacheco stayed sober, and now worked construction for a private contractor.
Unlike Pacheco’s previous girlfriend, Lynch didn’t use drugs, didn’t understand them, never had reason to.
“I honesty thought that once you weren’t physically addicted and getting sick that it was gone,” said Lynch.
She also didn’t realize what happened at the eight-month mark of Pacheco’s sobriety — when dormant demons stirred, overwhelmed him, forced a relapse.
Pacheco might have known why he had begun growing edgy that summer, couldn’t sleep, became agitated without reason. He was approaching eight months clean.
But he didn’t tell her.
In July, Lynch left, as she did every summer, for her month-long visit to Great Britain to see her mother, who had moved there years earlier.
She kissed a clean Pacheco goodbye at Logan Airport, but four weeks later didn’t recognize the person picking her up.
He denied it for weeks.
Even as his eyes reddened, frame thinned and fallow face swallowed up his once ever-present smile, Pacheco couldn’t admit to Lynch he had relapsed.
Soon, she found evidence — bottle caps in his shoes. They had been blackened over a flame, and carried a crusty residue — telltale signs Pacheco had used them to cook heroin into a liquid.
Lynch now realized why Pacheco, while sober, had talked so much about his dreaded disease when they met. Once under the drug’s control, he couldn’t.
“He didn’t want it to reach me, so he tried to keep it from me,” she said. “I just really think he never wanted to hurt me.”
Pacheco feared losing Lynch, so he asked someone to intervene — a priest he had befriended while being treated. Father Rodney Copp had counseled Pacheco and other addicts at Waltham’s Hurley House, understood his suffering, knew he longed for the security of sobriety.
Father Copp knew of Lynch — Pacheco had talked nonstop about her. She, however, had never heard about Father Copp, until he called her one night in August 2006.
Stephen’s sickness had returned, he told her. He had been using heroin for several weeks, but couldn’t bring himself to admit it. He would have to go back into long-term treatment.
When Pacheco came home two hours after the call, Lynch ran and hugged him.
But even his fear of ruining this new life couldn’t loosen the drug’s hold. Several days before being re-admitted for treatment, he told Lynch he needed to visit his mother in Brockton. He left clean, sober and in the car they shared that was registered to Lynch.
Pacheco returned the next day in a friend’s car. He had an ashen face, rumpled clothing and just one shoe.
Something foreign hung on his right wrist — a hospital bracelet.
Jennifer Gillis had recognized the signs. Pacheco had started mumbling, then stammered, dropped his cell phone, started gurgling.
He was overdosing.
She had seen it before.
Instead of visiting his mother, Pacheco had met his former girlfriend in Lawrence — and together they resumed former habits. They had pulled over and injected heroin, but Pacheco couldn’t handle the dose, and crumbled in the car.
Gillis called for help.
“When he got to the hospital, his heart had stopped,” she said. “They had to shock him back to life.”
He returned home wearing his hospital bracelet, but not knowing what had happened to his left shoe.
But he knew what had to happen next.
“I can’t keep doing this,” he told Lynch. “I can’t keep doing this to you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
He called the CAB facility in Tewksbury, and was re-admitted the next day.
When he emerged almost a year later, in June 2007, Lynch was waiting for him.
Pacheco, overjoyed by her fidelity, didn’t want to squander his second chance. In two weeks, they found a new apartment in Billerica.
A month later, Lynch would fly to England for her summer visit with her mother, but this time, Pacheco would join her.
The trip reinvigorated him.
He loved London, embraced his newfound sobriety, and on the return flight, in the skies over the Atlantic, reached a new — natural — high.
“Here I am sitting on a plane flying back from England,” Pacheco wrote in his journal. “Wow. I can’t believe it. It wasn’t too long ago that I was writing in this book, wanting to die. It’s crazy how things can change.”
Each month, Pacheco reached another milestone.
In September, his family gathered in Brockton to celebrate one of them — a year of sobriety. They had dinner, cake and light conversation that didn’t include talk of treatment, heroin or overdoses.
Later that night, Pacheco’s uncle, Jack Milton, brought him and his mother to the front porch as the family mingled inside. There, he retrieved two hand-written pages from his wallet — they had been folded to the size of a stamp, and tucked away more than a year earlier.
“Read it, Stephen,” his uncle said, handing it to him.
Unsure what he held, Pacheco paused, but relented to his uncle’s prodding. Then he read, his voice ever-fading, the letter he had written to his Uncle Jack while in treatment in 2006. Even Pacheco had a hard time deciphering the words, which he had scrawled while in the depths of a heroin withdrawal.
“My body is in so much pain,” he read. “I want to leave so bad, but I’m not because it’s really life or death for me. I want it so bad. I can feel it. ... Jack, what happened to the young boy I was? I miss being able to feel love, happiness. All I know is pain.”
When he finished, he stared at the pages.
“Doesn’t it feel good to not feel that way anymore?” his uncle asked.
Pacheco tried to smile.
Then he dropped his head and cried for several minutes.
For two years, Pacheco’s life become one of sobriety and celebration, especially on July 2, 2008, when his friend Matt Ganem, who had fought addiction alongside him, emerged from the delivery room at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.
He had news — his newborn wasn’t a girl, after all, even though an ultrasound technician had said it would be.
“Everyone is sitting there looking at me,” said Ganem. “And everyone had pink.”
Pacheco ran to the elevator and returned 15 minutes later, panting. He wore a smile — and a stuffed monkey with a Red Sox shirt around his shoulders. A gift for Ganem’s son, Christian.
A prideful Pacheco held the newborn — the first to do so.
Just two weeks later, he would have more reason to celebrate, as he gained entrance into the sheet metal workers union — a position that had eluded him for more than a year.
With regular work, he bought his first car, and soon more furniture for the apartment. He could also, finally, start saving for Francesca’s engagement ring, and for their future — the two had talked about a brick home in Winchester, kids, a dog.
The union work meant he would be unable to accompany Francesca on her annual July trip to England — but neither she nor his friends worried, even though he had relapsed two years earlier with her overseas.
“There wasn’t going to be an opportunity for a weak moment,” Lynch said. “He was going to stay with friends.”
Pacheco called and visited friends and family almost daily, but he often stayed home. Alone.
‘Let’s go camping, Fluffy.”
When Jared Wright called Pacheco, it wasn’t a request. The group planned a trip north — and Pacheco had to come.
Pacheco had lived with Wright and his parents in their Somerville home for long stretches over the years, and they had become like brothers, along with Ganem.
They often shared problems, especially ones involving girlfriends. Pacheco would listen sometimes for an hour, but in the end proffer the same, simple advice.
“Toughen up, Fluffy,” he would say.
Wright, Pacheco and several others left Friday for the woods of the Campton, N.H., campground Wright had visited as a child. Pacheco had wanted to go since seeing Wright’s family photos of the area, which included a 30-foot bridge he finally had the chance to dive from.
After one night, Pacheco returned home — but few suspected anything.
“When he got home, he was like the little kid in the candy store,” said his mother. “He couldn’t get over how beautiful New Hampshire was, and told me, ‘Mom, you gotta go bridge jumping. You gotta go, and I got a real bridge we can jump off.’”
In the next few days, he shared the conquest with several of his closest friends, starting with a call to Ganem on Tuesday.
“He sounded fine,” said Ganem.
A day later, he sent a message to Gillis, his former girlfriend, on her “My Space” Web site. “Hope you’re doing good,” he wrote.
That night, he stopped at Wright’s Somerville home, but couldn’t rouse his sleeping friend, who had worked all day. He also called his cousin, Brockton’s Scott Fitzgerald, a recovering addict.
“Nothing unusual,” Fitzgerald said. “He called me every week. I had just gotten home from a program, and it was our typical conversation.”
Pacheco made one last stop Thursday — at the St. Charles rectory in Waltham. He wanted to see Father Copp.
The two talked for an hour at the rectory kitchen table, sipping coffee. Before he left, Pacheco told the priest, “Things are great.”
He also told Father Copp that he would be attending a wake later that night for the ex-husband of his father’s girlfriend. Even though he and his father had their differences, Pacheco said he wanted to be there for him.
But three hours later, Pacheco, his anger audible, called his father from the Southeast Expressway — he had a flat tire and no spare.
He wouldn’t make the wake in time.
Roger Pacheco arrived at his son’s Billerica apartment early Saturday night, where he met local police. Stephen’s mother had called them.
Stephen hadn’t been heard from since Thursday, hadn’t responded to two-dozen messages — and hated being alone.
Still, no one talked of a relapse — Stephen had been too strong. Too happy. Too focused on the future.
The door of the third-floor apartment was cracked, so his father entered first, calling his son.
Signs of life abounded. A lunch had been packed. Lights were on. The television. And the air conditioner — set so high it had chilled the room.
But atop the kitchen table sat the mark of death — baggies speckled with a brown granular substance.
Water ran in the bathroom.
On the floor near the sink, Stephen Pacheco lay dead.
His father fell to his knees, but knew from the first touch.
His son was gone.
Matt Ganem puffed into his hands — he had forgotten his gloves, and the 20-degree November weather numbed his fingers.
He wouldn’t complain, especially as he read the words on Pacheco’s grave stone — “Toughen up Fluffy.”
It had been three months since his death, and the black, heart-shaped stone — adorned with Pacheco’s photo and favorite saying — had finally arrived. So had three dozen of his friends and family, who came to honor the son, comfort the mother, and ask the same question.
Many attending were recovering heroin addicts.
Pacheco had been cremated, and most of his ashes interred here, at Pine Hill Cemetery in West Bridgewater. Some are also in a vial on his mother’s necklace.
The rest had been part of a late-summer ceremony in New Hampshire, when his mother joined six of his friends and jumped from the bridge Stephen had conquered.
As they did, his mother threw some of his ashes — Stephen would leap with them.
On this day, even in frigid weather, there would be more warm memories. Milton had brought blue balloons, a helium tank, pens and paper, asking everyone to write her son a message before sending it skyward inside a balloon.
As the group encircled her son’s plot, preparing to send the notes aloft, Milton remembered some advice her son had given her.
“He called me once and told me, ‘Mom, you should do what I do when I feel bad about something. I pray. ...’
“So that’s what I do now,” she said. “I pray like he told me to. I pray that some day I’ll hug him again. That’s what I could use more than anything, especially today — a hug from my son.”
By Steve Damish
GateHouse News Service
Posted Oct 08, 2009 @ 12:47 PM