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Ex-Judge Gigi Sullivan Talks About Heroin Addiction
Former District Justice Made Headlines With Drug Indictment In Late '90s
PITTSBURGH -- Ten years ago, Gigi Sullivan's secret life as a heroin addict was blown wide open while she was a district justice in Springdale.
Now, Sullivan is back with a new life, sharing her story of tragedy and hope with WTAE Channel 4 Action News reporter Sheldon Ingram.
Sullivan said her problems started with painkillers in 1996 and grew into an addiction and a craving for heroin.
"There was a period of probably a year-and-a-half my life was taken over by an addiction," Sullivan said. "I was sick. Every day that I woke up if I didn't have pills or something to take, I couldn't function. I was usually cramping, vomiting."
The addiction followed Sullivan to her job, where she carried the public's trust and could send people to jail.
"There were days that I was under the influence on the bench. Absolutely," Sullivan said.
But no one knew Sullivan was high on the bench. In a strange way, she said, feeding the addiction allowed her to appear normal.
"Without the opiates was when you were sick. I would have to use the opiates to be normal," Sullivan said.
From the manuscript of a book she's writing, Sullivan read the following lines during her interview with Ingram:
* "I overdosed at least three times."
* "I've tried to kill myself."
* "I used rainwater from a puddle to inject heroin into my veins."
* "I had sex with a lot of ugly, dirty men and a few women."
* "You should either not like me, hate me, be afraid of me ..."
* "I think I'm completely out-of-my-mind crazy."
Sullivan said she spent more than $500 a day for her drug habit. When she didn't have money, she stole it -- even from the tips that her son made at summer restaurant jobs.
"Saving money for college -- I had taken money from that," Sullivan said.
Police discovered Sullivan when they were gathering evidence against her supplier, Don Geraci, a convicted drug dealer. She was indicted on 19 counts involving drug trafficking, operating a corrupt organization and conspiracy in 1999.
Perhaps her lowest point came that year, when the addiction dropped Sullivan into a violent and near-deadly overdose on crack cocaine mixed with vinegar.
"Smashed into the walls of my bedroom, my dresser. I just remember coming off the dresser, my arms and face smashing off the walls, and I remember getting up off of the floor, looking into the mirror," Sullivan said. "My face was bloody, my nose. I was sweaty. I went right back to the spoon (and injected again). That's obsession and compulsion of addiction, to use over and over, even when it's killing you."
That memory still haunts Sullivan, who broke into tears as she described it.
"It hurts every day. That's not anything I'm proud of," Sullivan said. "Like I said, I can't change what I've done in the past. I can only live and do things differently today."
After being sentenced to 23 months of drug treatment, Sullivan said she has been clean for six years and spends her life chasing the addiction demon out of other people's lives.
Previous Story: Sullivan Spared Prison Term (February 2001)
Sullivan works as a forensic interdiction specialist for NHS Human Services, runs Tresser & Associates behavioral health with her husband and trains Pittsburgh police officers in crisis intervention. She said she has treated more than 500 addicts.
"It's just giving people that little bit of hope and inspiration that they so desperately need, that people gave me," Sullivan said, adding that she has "never been happier" than she is these days.
"Without Gigi Sullivan, I believe I would not be here today," said Leon Grisham, a former client who had an alcohol and cocaine addiction. "I would not have the confidence, the self-esteem, the strength, the hope. Just knowing she's there, it's overwhelming."
Judge John Zottola, who presides over Allegheny County's mental health court, said Sullivan is making a difference.
"Changing their lives and making positive a difference in their lives. And as a result, a difference in everyone's life in society. Because when these people are not in jail and these people are doing well, we're all doing well," Zottola said.
As a volunteer with Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, Sullivan said she's witnessed a frightening trend among high school students.
"High school students are using opiates, which is heroin in the high school system in Allegheny County," said Sullivan.
Sullivan and her colleagues estimate that half of the junior and senior classes are using heroin in the high schools they serve.
"Most school districts are using the D.A.R.E. program, and it was good back then, but now it's outdated, played out," said Sullivan.
Sullivan hopes to steer teens away from the horrors she experienced while addicted to heroin and cocaine, making her a fulltime addict while trying to be a fulltime district justice.
"There were days when I was under the influence on the bench, absolutely," said Sullivan. "It hurts everyday. That's nothing I'm proud of. I can't change what I've done in the past. I can only try to do things differently today," said Sullivan.
While Sullivan is doing her part to help teens, she said parents and school districts need to get aggressive and smart.
"Parents don't know. Their parents aren't aware, they're clueless," said Sullivan. "We need to start doing some education with the kids, we need to do some education with the parents and make them aware of what's going on. That's how we stop it."
Sullivan said she's sharing her story because she wants to help others.
"Addiction, you can't stop. You don't just stop, you use against your will even when it's killing you, destroying your life," said Sullivan.
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