Jessica Leiti nestled into a chair on a small dock at her home in South Florida. She sipped iced coffee and looked out on the water. “After you have gone through some things, it’s nice to just sit,” she says.
Morning sun reflected off the canal that hems this seven-acre patch she shares with her boyfriend. He had left for work in Naples, a bastion of wealthy retirees on the Gulf of Mexico.
Leiti inhaled from the electronic cigarette her boyfriend purchased for her to help her quit smoking — one of her remaining vices. It is a mild one considering her past battles with heroin and crack. Leiti is on the cusp of 30. As a little girl, she considered becoming a police officer. Her story now is not what she expected it to be.
“I know that this isn’t what 30 is supposed to be like,” says Leiti, who recently lost two jobs. “At 30, you’re usually successful. Or you have kid. Or at least a husband. Or at least a career. Or at least a driver’s license.”
She claims none of those things.
“The best way to deal with it is just to continue focusing on things keeping me away from things that could be destructive. You know, I’m proud of that at least?”
Those closest to her — her boyfriend, her mother — admire how much she has overcome to approach 30, sober and alive.
Leiti drew her long straight hair off her neck. Her hair is naturally red, like her mother’s. “It’s brutal outside.”
She was talking about the 80-degree heat, but that statement could also apply to how the world has felt for Leiti for much of her life.
Before she was born, her parents randomly drew “Jessica” from a handful of names. It fit, especially considering the connection her mother felt to Jessica McClure, widely known as Baby Jessica, who fell down a well when she was 18 months old in 1987.
“I cried and prayed so hard for that baby, and when she was rescued, I cried even harder,” said Karen Leiti, 63. “That’s when I knew I had enough love in me to be someone’s mom.”
Karen recalls what the doctor said when Jessica, her only child, was born: “I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, but it’s a redhead.”
Her hair color would later fuel grade school bullies, who seized on Jessica’s mistakes.
“If you watch tapes from dancing when you’re a kid, tap dance and stuff, you’ll see the rest of the people going one way, and I’m like the only one going the opposite way," she says. “I always got made fun of in school because of that kind of stuff and because of being one of the only redheads.”
Jessica’s father died of lung cancer when she was 13, and her mother struggled to control her. “She had just lost her dad, and the last thing I wanted to do was holler at her,” says Karen. “I made some mistakes. I didn’t realize she was on drugs until when she got to be pretty bad.”
Jessica graduated from opiates and cocaine to intravenous drugs. At 19, she shot up morphine. “Wow, this is what I was missing my whole life,” she says she recalled thinking at the time.
Around then, she contracted hepatitis C from sharing needles. At 20, she was arrested after a sheriff’s deputy stopped her for riding a bike without lights and found eight syringes in her purse.
“I also observed several marks on her arm (very usual for drug users),” the officer wrote in the booking sheet. She told him she was depressed.
Over the years, she says, she overdosed several times.
Getting arrested forced her into treatment, which eventually took. She’s been sober for about two years now. “I wish I could say it was longer,” she says.
Her boyfriend is a straight edge to her jagged past.
“There won’t be any of that stuff around me,” says Douglas Rankin, 62, an estate lawyer and a prominent local Republican Party leader.
She prefers older men for their stability, she says. Her former fiance was in his 70s.
Leiti moved into Rankin’s home a month after they started dating. They met on Tinder, she says. “He makes me feel like I’m part of my family, which I feel like I’ve lost, and I love that feeling.”
Rankin says he was drawn to Leiti’s kindness and hopes that in her 30s, she will pursue her GED and more education. “She was doing real well until all guidance just dropped away. ... She’s overcome quite a bit.”
Karen Leiti, too, says she wishes for her daughter to be happy. Mother and daughter have lived together in Naples on and off throughout Jessica’s adult life.
“I’ve always been proud of her. Even in the drug-addiction days, even the policemen would say, ‘Your daughter’s so sweet,’” Karen says. “Now I can’t be more proud.”
On this morning, the younger Leiti’s biggest concern was finding work. She had posted a longer version of this ad on Craigslist:
29 yrs old/in good physical shape and love to do hardcore cleaning homes, offices, etc Have 4 years serving experience. (Ihop). I am told that I am a good worker, very much in tune to others and their needs.
… I can do gas station work as well. God bless and hope to hear back from someone fairly soon … ASAP would be great!
And please, no perverts.
Leiti recently lost her job as a 7-Eleven clerk, a position she held for about a year. She soon found work at an Italian cafe but was fired a few days later after nodding off while slicing cheese or bread, she says. “One of the bad, sad effects of the medicine I’m prescribed is falling asleep. ... It doesn’t look good to customers.”
Leiti takes Klonopin for anxiety and is forgoing treatment for hepatitis C, which can cause fatigue. Her boyfriend is helping her navigate a treatment path, she says. It could be the methadone, too. She makes daily trips to a clinic. She lost her license, so her boyfriend or her mother drives her; sometimes she takes an Uber. In 2016, she was charged with reckless driving and still has fines and fees to pay.
The clinic is tucked in the back corner of a strip mall. Leiti entered through glass doors, covered with paper for privacy. On a wall is a quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher, “Sometimes you have to fight a battle more than once to win it.”
She paid $17. A woman behind a glass barrier passed her a cup and Leiti drank. She felt a boost, not a high, but less heat, more relief. In recent months, Leiti has reduced her methadone dosage. She imagines a day when she will be free of this routine.
Turning 30 is not such a big deal, she says after leaving the clinic. She knows people her mom’s age who haven’t figured it all out. Maybe 40 will be her 30. “I’m still trying to find myself, I guess,” she says. “I’m made to do something more.”
Update: By the summer, Jessica Leiti faced an additional hardship: Her mother died July 3. “It’s like somebody just removed something from my body,” Leiti says. Her mother’s roommate was arrested and faces a murder charge, according to reports. Leiti says she is shocked and angry but committed to her sobriety.