Tag Archives: alcoholism

Jack Norman’s Very Positive Direction

Jack Norman’s parents divorced when he was young. His dad had a drinking problem. When he lost his job, Jack’s mother picked up a second job, to support Jack and his younger brother.

One day when Jack was 13, he stayed home from his school sick. His dad came to take care of him. When Jack woke from a nap and asked for a sandwich, his father stood up — and passed out. He’d been drinking all morning.

Jack cut off all contact with him. Two months later, his father died.

Soon, Jack’s mom — 1985 Staples High School graduate Jen Rago — returned to her hometown from Atlanta. She’d be closer to her family, and her sons could attend better schools.

Jack thrived as a Coleytown Middle School 8th grader. The next year, at Staples High, he discovered Players and the Teen Awareness Group. He stage managed 18 shows, as well as music department and other performances. He served as TAG’s treasurer; this year as a senior, he’s president.

Last summer, he worked at A Child’s Place. He also babysits through CrossFit Westport’s daycare program.

Jack Norman, working behind the scenes as stage manager. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Jack is a role model for many students. Through TAG, he talks to freshman health classes about the challenges of growing up, and the toll addiction takes on individuals and their families. He is open about his life, and the devastating effects of his father’s alcoholism.

Now, Jack is reaching an even broader audience. “Jack’s Story” has been posted on Positive Directions’ website. And he’s featured in the organization’s new PSA.

When the non-profit mental health and addictive behaviors education/ prevention program asked for volunteers to share their stories, Jack never hesitated.

His TAG presentations — which began when he was a sophomore — have convinced him of the importance of letting students know they’re not alone.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have resources, and a support system,” the articulate, insightful and very energetic teenager says.

“My mom has been there for me. Mr. Frimmer at Coleytown, and the theater family at Staples, they’ve been great too.”

So Jack talks — at Staples, and now online. He describes growing up with an alcoholic father. His painful decision to cut off contact. Writing something that was read at the funeral.

When he first moved to Westport, Jack says, new friends asked about his parents. Jack tried to protect them from hearing the truth.

However, he soon realized, “death is a reality. If you can’t talk about it, it consumes you.” TAG gave him the opportunity to break down the stigma surrounding addiction, and to encourage, empower and inspire many others.

Jack Norman

The day after one of Jack’s talks, a freshman approached him during a Players rehearsal. Tearfully, she said she was sorry for his loss.

“I’m okay,” Jack replied. “But how are you?”

“It’s just good to know other people understand,” she said simply. They hugged.

“Knowing someone felt less alone, that’s very satisfying,” Jack says. Even if they don’t tell him everything, he’s helped them take one step on a long journey.

The Positive Directions PSA does the same thing. “The whole idea is to get the message out there,” Jack explains. That message is: It can happen to anyone.

This fall, Jack heads to college. He hopes to study stage management.

And he knows he will continue to speak up.

Allison’s Story

Allison Kernan’s mother and stepfather were “incredible.” They raised her well.

She had a tougher time with her biological father. Still, life growing up in Fairfield was good.

A dozen years ago, Allison began experimenting with alcohol and marijuana. Her brother — 3 years older —  was getting into it, and she hung out with his older crowd.

Plenty of kids her own age tried those substances too. She found them.

She was still in middle school.

“I knew it was wrong. But instantly, I felt good,” Allison says. Her self-esteem issues receded.

Crack cocaine

Crack cocaine

Her brother got into crack cocaine. When she was in 8th grade, he was sent to rehab. That day, Allison vowed never to smoke weed again.

In a family education program, she learned about addiction. She realized that by not telling her parents what her brother was doing, she’d enabled his usage.

As a freshman at Fairfield Warde High School in 2006, her brother’s former substance abuse counselor urged Allison to join a support group for children and siblings of alcoholics and drug addicts. She realized she was not alone.

She became an advocate, talking to middle schoolers about the many ways her family had been affected by addiction.

“I didn’t know that in 2 short years I’d be in my brother’s shoes,” she says. “But 10 times worse.”

Self-esteem issues led Allison into an abusive relationship. At 16, she hung out with a party crowd. Drugs made her feel better than a previous method: self-harm. She pushed her brother, and his struggles, out of her thoughts.

marijuanaShe was drinking shots and smoking weed. Her boyfriend used prescription pills: Xanax, Percocet, Oxycontin.  He said it was just like marijuana, without the smell. When he popped pills, he did not hit her.

Soon, he coerced Allison into trying pills too.

“I’d paid attention in health class, but just to pass the tests,” she says. “I never thought I’d be addicted.”

But she “fell in love” with the feelings pills produced. She was calm and relaxed; all her problems were numbed.

Drugs turned on a switch in her brain. She spiraled out of control. She was using pills on weekends, and after school. Still, her grades remained fine.

“I thought pills were like pot — I could do it every day,” she recalls. “I was a teenager. I didn’t go out and research the effects!”

She found opioids everywhere: on the street, in medicine cabinets, at her high school.

She graduated with her class, and entered Sacred Heart University. She got a job and lived on campus.

opioidsAt first, Allison says, she could not imagine anyone doing pills there. But she soon realized a lot of students did. She became a “low-key” dealer — which meant her drugs were free.

One morning she ran out of pills. She had cold sweats and diarrhea. She vomited and shook. She thought she had the flu.

She found a pill. Five minutes later, her symptoms disappeared. A friend told Allison: “You’re addicted.”

She tried to stop, cold turkey. She failed. During 2nd semester Allison missed lots of classes. She left Sacred Heart.

“That was a sign I had a problem,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘I’m a college dropout.”

Allison Kernan, after dropping out of college.

Allison Kernan, after dropping out of college.

She started dating her dealer, and moved into his Black Rock house. She did cocaine and PCP — anything she could get her hands on. Every day.

People told Allison it was only a matter of time until she used heroin. She thought that would never happen.

At 19, she tried heroin for the first time. Instantly, she was hooked.

“It was cheaper, stronger and more effective than pills,” she says. It was also more accessible.

Allison went from sniffing to shooting. Her life spiraled even more downhill.

Within a year, she’d sold all her belongings. Without furniture, lights or heat, she fell into a deep depression.

Allison was homeless, on the streets of Bridgeport. She broke into cars and hotel rooms, and stole candy bars to eat.

She was 21, 5-1, 75 pounds, with dark circles under her eyes and track marks all over her arms.

Allison Kernan, a year later.

Allison Kernan, a year later.

Allison was arrested, carrying 15 bags of heroin. The charge was a felony — “intent to sell” — but she got a slap on the wrist: 15 drug education classes, and community service. She had a year to complete her sentence.

She was arrested again, selling to an undercover officer. On April 1, 2014 — just after her 22nd birthday — Allison was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Behind bars, she had “a huge spiritual awakening.” Released after 9 months, she got a job, got her life together.

She also got cocky. “I got this!” she thought. “I’m good. I don’t need anyone — not even God!”

She went with an old friend, to an old bar. She had one drink.

Two hours later, she did heroin again.

This time, she did not become homeless. She lived in her mother’s house, and kept her job. But she was a full-blown addict.

Then Allison got pregnant. She was excited, but realized she was not ready to have a baby. Against her best judgment, she had an abortion.

“I’d rather be homeless than go through that pain again,” she says.

After months of using heroin — around Thanksgiving 2015 — Allison told her mother she was addicted. She asked for help.

On December 2, Allison checked into a detox clinic. She’s been sober ever since.

Ally Kernan today.

Ally Kernan today.

Today, she has 2 jobs. She’s a program coordinator at Shana’s House in Westport — an 8-bed home that’s the only women’s sober living halfway facility in Fairfield County. A certified recovery coach, she also works as a communication specialist at the Southwest Regional Mental Health Board in Norwalk.

“I’m good at my jobs,” she says. “When a girl says ‘You have no idea what I’m talking about,’ I roll up my sleeve.”

Allison Kernan wants her story — and her name — to be known.

People say they’re surprised that she is so open about her life.

She has a strong response: “Someone has to be.”

She pauses.

“I was right next door. I sold to kids in Westport.

“Now I’m here. I can’t be anonymous anymore. People need to know that all that is real.

“But they also need to know: There is hope.”

(To read Ally’s blog about her life, and living in recovery, click here. Hat tip: Giovanna Pisani)