In the back room of East Boston’s Meridian House, a long rectangular table is covered with blank paper. A group of about 20 people chat idly, sitting on all sides. Some have dyed hair and tattoos. Some speak in thick Boston accents. Some curse. Soon, they are quieted by a woman with bright pink hair and a nose ring. Her name is Olivia, and she is about to conduct a weekly art therapy session for the residents of the house.
Although all the people gathered at this late morning meeting look different, they share one common trait. Each of these amateur artists is a recovering addict, living in Meridian House to stay sober.
“Art therapy is about the process!” Olivia says, loudly but gently. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like or how good it is.”
“We need more direction!” a man with words inked on his neck says from one side of the room.
“So we’re just supposed to draw our emotions?” a woman asks skeptically.
Olivia explains the directions again. The patients are to express themselves nonverbally, using only oil pastels and their imagination. The only other rule? No talking.
“Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!” Olivia says.
Eventually, the room quiets down. A Bluetooth speaker begins to play relaxing, instrumental music.
Between tracks, the only sound is the dry rubbing of pastels on paper. One woman says something under her breath. Another person giggles, and just as conversation threatens to break the artistic trance, the music picks up again. They resume their drawing. This pattern continues for the next 25 minutes.
One woman is finished after only 15 minutes. She puts her pastels down and sits quietly, admiring her work. She has drawn a large image of a mermaid with her back to the viewer. Sitting upright on a rock among lapping waves, the creature faces a sunset as the silhouettes of birds flap overhead. It is drawn confidently and quickly, by a relatively talented hand.
The artist is Gina Cinquegrano, a resident of Meridian for the past eight months. She hasn’t said a word since the music began playing, following instructions and focusing intently on her work. She has been here a while.
After all the residents have finished their drawings, they begin to share with the group what they created and what it means to them. Cinquegrano doesn’t get the chance to share. She is called away from the activity to escort another resident to the hospital. This is occasionally one of her responsibilities as an upper-level housemate.
Meridian is only the most recent place Cinquegrano has lived. Since growing up in Hingham, she has bounced around the South Shore and Boston, living with family, an occasional boyfriend and eventually on the streets. She battled addiction to a variety of drugs, mostly opiates and heroin. Now she is a respected figure in Meridian, a house known for strict rules and producing results.
In less than a month, she will celebrate her first year completely sober. It is an accomplishment that would affirm the work she has done at Meridian, although—even with 11 sober months behind her—getting there is not a given. Usually when an individual reaches an important milestone like this, he or she attends either an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting to share their story out loud in front of others. This is something Cinquegrano has never done. A nervousness fills her whenever she anticipates this accomplishment.
It is partially because she doesn’t like public speaking, but also because of what happened the last time she was off hard drugs for an extended period of time.
By age 14, Cinquegrano was drinking and smoking marijuana occasionally with friends. These habits progressed as the years went on. She began drinking more, but eventually realized she didn’t enjoy the feeling, and she often blacked out after having a drink. When she put down alcohol, Cinquegrano started smoking Marijuana more.
Soon, she turned to more dangerous intoxicants. Cinquegrano was enabled by money provided by her family as well as a boyfriend who moonlighted as a drug dealer. She fell into a daily rhythm: opiates early in the day to get her through work, and heroin later on for relaxation. This pattern continued until 2009, when Cinquegrano quit the hard drugs after her mother cut off funding and forced Cinquegrano into a rehab center.
She was able to stay away from heroin and other serious drugs over the next three years. But a mix of prescribed antidepressants and a newfound reliance on inhaling aerosol dust cleaners prevented her from feeling truly clean.
On Sept. 30, 2012, a date which Cinquegrano can recall immediately, everything changed.
She was living with her father in Weymouth at the time, usually only leaving the apartment to receive medication or run small errands.
On that September night, Cinquegrano told her father and friends she was doing just that: running a small errand. Under the guise of buying cat food, she drove her dark green 1997 Acura to a nearby Walmart around 9:30 at night. Cinquegrano had finally gotten the car out of the shop a day before, since she was able to come up with the money to pay for repairs after six months. She was thrilled to have it back.
Instead of cat food, she walked out of the store with dust cleaners. Cinquegrano got high alone in the parking lot and started driving home. Soon, she felt a bump and thought the car might have hit something. As she drove onto a bridge, she pulled over to the side of the road to check. She saw nothing. Cinquegrano got back into her car and moved the shifter into drive.
What happened next was a blur, and the details are still murky to Cinquegrano today. The car immediately took off, speeding down the empty road. She was paralyzed with fear, unable to break or turn. The vehicle soon crashed directly into a telephone pole. All four wheels left the ground as the car was thrust parallel with the pole before somersaulting backwards three times. If it had flipped forwards, the car would have fallen off the bridge and onto a highway. Cinquegrano believes she would certainly be dead.
As the car spun through the night air she looked through her broken sunroof. The clear image of the moon alternated with the road’s yellow lines. Cinquegrano’s hands were thrown upwards from the steering wheel and out the gaping roof. Her left hand remained there as the car crashed back down to earth upside down.
Throughout the entire accident, Cinquegrano never lost consciousness. A dull pain ached from her hand, and she looked down to see thee fingers dangling from the rest of her hand. When she talks about the incident today, she instinctively covers her hand with a shirtsleeve. Only half of her index and middle finger remain, and her ring finger still cannot fully bend.
A maimed hand, shattered kneecap, and the glass embedded in her face did not prevent Cinquegrano from having the presence of mind to kick the empty aerosol bottle from the car. Soon, Cinquegrano could hear sirens blazing. A bystander who had dialed 911 prayed aloud.
During her first night in the hospital, Cinquegrano’s mind alternated between worry over how the accident would affect her appearance and gratitude that she was alive. The hand surgeon didn’t arrive until morning.
The pain medication prescribed to her in the following months was necessary. But it reawakened her addiction. Years of self-control and dedication were erased in a single, terrible night.
Cinquegrano plummeted to the lowest depths of addiction in the years following her accident. She was fired from multiple jobs, dropped out of beauty school, and lost touch with her family and friends. Eventually, she lost her house too. Cinquegrano knew she was on a path to an early grave; the only question was how soon it would happen. She decided to fix her life, and the first step was getting a spot in a program that didn’t tolerate failure. On March 9, Cinquegrano secured one of Meridian’s coveted rooms.
Meridian House is a large, old, ornate building situated on a main road in East Boston, down the street from Maverick Square. A part of the North Suffolk Mental Health Association, its strict guidelines and mandatory activities offer a therapeutic and educational solution to addiction. Residents progress through four levels before they can graduate, and normally stay between nine and 12 months.
Only two other residents have been at Meridian longer than Cinquegrano. At age 37, she is a respected presence in a house filled mostly with people in their 20s. Staff and residents alike refer to her as a big sister. She plays an integral role in house meetings, keeping other residents in line while also providing comfort and encouragement.
The house has kept her on track and completely sober. Although her time in Meridian is nearing its end, she has one more hurdle to overcome.
On an unseasonably warm Friday night in early December, the gymnasium at the East Boston Social Center slowly fills. Folding tables and collapsible chairs are set up evenly throughout the space. They are gradually occupied by attendees of this week’s Narcotic’s Anonymous meeting.
There’s about 50 people in the room, generally falling between the ages of 30 and 40 years old. They come filing in slowly, chatting with each other while they find a place to sit with friends. Most are dressed in warm, comfortable clothing, clutching Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in their hands.
A good portion of the crowd is made up of Meridian residents. They must each attend five outside meetings a week, and this gathering is a favorite for its close proximity to the house and early start time.
Cinquegrano does not sit at a table, but rather along one of the walls, far back from the head of the meeting. She is surrounded by Keri McKenzie, her roommate and best friend, as well as some other women from Meridian.
They seem at ease in this large, dreary room. The rubber floor and walls are a drab blue and white. A few basketball hoops hang from the ceiling. Dark water stains blotch the white canopy between rafters and fluorescent lights.
An older man with sandy hair and a mustache stands at the front of the assembly. He speaks for a few minutes, but not quite loud enough to reach the far side where Cinquegrano is. The low, distant rumbling of his voice ends abruptly, ceding the floor to those still in their seats. Now each person has a chance to speak.
“Hi, I’m Mark and I’m an addict,” a man close to the front of the room begins.
“Hi, Mark,” the rest of the room responds together. The buzz from before the meeting has died down. The crowd sounds bored.
The woman next to Mark introduces herself, and the process is repeated until every person in attendance has spoken.
As the meeting progresses, some people take turns reading short essays. Select phrases such as “Alcohol is a drug. Period,” are repeated by the room after they are read.
Cinquegrano reaches into her purse and pulls out several small, yellow candies. She offers a butterscotch to McKenzie and some others. They smile and accept while Cinquegrano crosses her legs and leans forward. She is trying intently to hear despite the gymnasium’s terrible acoustics.
A man stands up and faces the room after the essays are finished. He speaks in a loud voice, clear enough to be heard with relative ease in the back. He begins by acknowledging those that have been sober for one month. A few people make their way up to the man. Their hands exchange a small token, a hug is given, and they hastily walk back to their seats.
Cinquegrano’s hands are fidgeting in her lap as she moves to the edge of her seat. Even though she has chosen not to speak at the meeting, she is still nervous.
Eventually, the man calls out his final request. Cinquegrano rises quickly and begins to stride toward the front. She is the only one. The crowd erupts in applause and cheers around her. They are reenergized.
After giving an especially long hug to the man, Cinquegrano turns around and heads back to her seat. As she walks, she adjusts the bottom of her sweatshirt and gives a small, self-conscious smile. She is proud but reticent, uneasy at being the center of attention.
Soon she is back in her seat and the meeting has moved on. Cinquegrano sniffles a bit. It could just be from a cold, but her eyes tell the true story. They have reddened ever so slightly. She blinks back a tear. In her hands she holds a small plastic keychain. Etched into it, gold on white, are six words.
“Clean and serene for one year.”