Tag Archives: drug addiction

Westport’s Quiet Role: Addiction Recovery Hub

It was a simple dental procedure..

Back in 2005, Al Samaras was a healthcare sales executive. He owned a large home in Madison, where he and his wife were raising 2 kids.

He loved the opiates that lessened the post-operative pain. Within 8 months, Samaras lost his career. His wife. And his kids.

It took a while to recover. But while still living in a sober house in North Haven, he was asked to manage it.

“I was in my late 30s. I had life skills to fall back on,” Samaras says.

Al Samaras

Yet the model he used for recovery almost never worked for 18-22-year-olds. Most of them start abusing substances — drugs or alcohol — around age 13. Their emotional development stalls.

The financial model most recovery centers use does not support the level of staffing and services — with constant support and oversight — young men need to succeed.

So Samaras helped develop a 2-pronged system aimed at young male addicts.

Very quietly, both are succeeding.

And both are right here in Westport.

With a felony cocaine conviction, Samaras could not go back to his old life. Gradually — as he remarried his wife, put his family back together and built a new house — he developed an extended care sober-living model.

He knew Westport has a strong recovery community. Though he understood possible resistance to establishing a sober house here — not in my backyard! — he searched for property.

The 2nd homeowner he contacted — “We want to rent your house, and put young addicts there” — was willing to talk. “That’s all I ask,” Samaras says.

The 1st “Westport House” opened in 2014, on Fragrant Pines Court (opposite Coffee An’). A 2nd house followed on the same street. A 3rd is around the corner, on Cross Highway.

One of the Westport Houses, not far from downtown.

The homes are large, with plenty of privacy. Several residents live in each, 1 to 2 per room, plus support staff. There are 35 beds in all.

They are life-changing places.

“These are not just ‘sober houses,'” Samaras explains. “They are programs for young men in their teens and 20s who lack life and coping skills. They come in overwhelmed and anxious. They can’t navigate the world without drugs in their system.”

Westport House’s 2-phase system helps reintegrate them into society.

Phase I lasts about 90 days (with various goal-oriented levels for residents to attain). The homes are staffed 24/7, with 3 case management managers, and program aides. There are 17 employees in all.

Though half of the young men come from the tri-state area, nearly every state has been represented.

The interior of the Cross Highway house.

Residents take classes at Fairfield and Sacred Heart Universities, and Norwalk Community College.

They also work. Jim Gabal places each young man at a site. Some volunteer at the Gillespie Center. Others are at non-profits; Christ and Holy Trinity Church; businesses like Sperry Top-Sider and Vineyard Vines, and in law firms.

Given the chance, they can handle it. Some residents attend schools like Cornell and Vanderbilt. One recent “grad” is headed to Yale.

In Phase II, the staff is on site from 9 a.m. to midnight.

“We’re super-fortunate that Westport has been so great to us,” Samaras says. “From the zoning department to neighbors, we’ve been welcomed warmly.”

The program is very conscious that they’re in a residential neighborhood. Cars are not parked on the street. “Hanging out” is prohibited.

“We want to be enmeshed in the community,” Samaras says. “We like manning booths at civic events, and participating in life here however we can.”

Westport House is not cheap. Costs starts at $12,000 a month in Phase I. Insurance may cover some or all of the expense.

The 2nd component of Samaras’ work is Clearpoint Recovery Center. Dual-licensed to treat substance abuse and psychiatric disorders, and located nearby on Kings Highway North — in the former Internal Medicine Associates suite — this is where Westport House residents meet 3-4 hours a day, 3-4 days a week for intensive outpatient groups.

“In recovery, environments matter,” Samaras says. “That’s why we chose large, professionally decorated homes. It’s the same with Clearpoint.”

Treatment centers are typically sterile, he notes. Clearpoint features reclaimed barn lumber, and comfortable furniture.

A Clearpoint meeting room.

Clearpoint’s 20 employees include experienced therapists, and — in administrative roles — several program graduates. “They come in here, and can’t look anyone in the eye. Now they work here,” Samaras says proudly.

But Clearpoint has another component. While it’s used mornings for Westport House residents, the rest of the time it offers services for the rest of Fairfield County.

For example, there are female-only groups. “Women in recovery have different issues than men — there’s often trauma and psychological disorders,” Samaras explains.

One women’s group meets 3 times a week, for 3 hours per session.

There are professionals groups, for those struggling with alcohol. (In most AA groups, Samaras notes, alcoholics of all ages and backgrounds mix together. Westport House residents may also be involved in AA.)

There are also young adult groups, and one centered on medication management.

A small Clearpoint meeting.

“I love Westport for many reasons — including its recovery community,” Samaras says.

“There are a lot of people here recovering from drugs and alcohol. They are amazing human beings. And they’ve been very supportive of us.”

Before today, you may not have heard of Westport House, or Clearpoint.

That’s okay. For hundreds of people who need them, they’re there for them.

And how wonderful it is that “there” means “right here.”

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)

Remembering John Valiante (With A Very Powerful Video)

The obituary is straightforward, sad and spare.

John Valiante died January 17 in Greenbrae, California. The lifelong Westporter was a singer, songwriter, passionate musician, fisherman, carpenter and a licensed mechanic — “a jack of all trades.”

He was just 28 years old.

“He had a heart of gold and would give you the shirt off his back,” the obituary continues. “He made a special connection to everyone he touched, especially in his bond with animals.”

John Valiante

John Valiante

He is survived by his parents Bart and Anne Valiante; his brothers Buddy and Donny; his sister Jennifer, and his paternal grandparents, Bart and Dorothy Valiante.

The family will receive friends today (Wednesday, January 25, 4 to 8 p.m., Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Road East). Click here to leave a condolence message.

John’s obituary included a link to a YouTube video. It should be seen by everyone.

In it, John’s former girlfriend Ada Pasternak speaks with raw emotion, 45 minutes after hearing of his death. She mourns his “sweet, gentle, beautiful soul” — and in anguish describes the role drug addiction played in his life.

Drugs had a powerful effect on others she loved too.

“There is an overwhelming drug epidemic happening in the world right now, and I’d like to do something about it,” Ada writes on YouTube.

“I would greatly appreciate your help in sharing this message and raising awareness together to create a change.”

(Click here if your browser does not take you directly to YouTube.)

Red Izzo: Drugs, Depression Rampant In Town

From his perch at Crossroads Ace Hardware, A.J. “Red” Izzo sees and hears a lot.

But in his 78 years in Westport, the former 2nd selectman candidate and Republican Town Committee member says, he’s never seen anything comparable to this. Izzo calls it a “life-and-death situation.”

He’s talking about “a major drug epidemic” — in the town, county and state — and an equally alarming rise in depression. Too few people are talking about these issues, he says.

A.J. "Red" Izzo, at his familiar spot in Crossroads Ace Hardware.

A.J. “Red” Izzo, at his familiar spot in Crossroads Ace Hardware.

Izzo hears of the vast amount of prescriptions doctors are writing. Of young people stealing pills from parents. Of the easy availability of drugs of all kinds, and the lack of services for anyone wishing to get off the roller-coaster of addiction.

“When I was growing up, Westport had 5,000 people and 2 facilities — the Westport Sanitarium (on what is now Winslow Park) and Hall-Brooke,” Izzo says.

“Now we’ve got 26,000 people, and nothing.”

Izzo says that too many Westporters are not talking about the twin scourges of drugs and depression.

“This is killing people,” he notes. “I don’t know the answer. But we have to understand the severity of it. It’s not a black/white, right/wrong issue. We have to start talking about causes and effects and solutions.”

Izzo shakes his head.

“I’m concerned about the young people. People of every age have to understand this is here, and it’s real. If we don’t face up to it, bad things happen.”

Jim Hood: Facing Addiction Head On

In 2012, Jim Hood suffered a parent’s worst nightmare: His son Austin died of an accidental drug overdose. He was 20 years old, and had been a student at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Here in Westport, Jim and his wife Julia — Austin’s stepmother — felt unbearable pain. Austin had been a wonderful young man, and a brilliant musician. He had a loving heart, a keen wit and a hopeful spirit.

His parents also felt helpless. During Austin’s struggles with addiction, Julia says, “There is so much I wish I had understood differently.” As they tried to help their son with his addiction issues, they felt as if they’d been dropped into a foreign city. They had no maps, and did not speak the language.

“We didn’t know who to turn to for help, or if we could talk publicly about the issue,” Julia says.

“We didn’t know if we could trust the people we chose to help him, and we didn’t know if we could trust our own decisions along the way.”

Jim Hood, and Austin.

Jim Hood, and Austin.

They did not fully understand that addiction is a disease– not a choice or a personality trait. They did not realize that an addict’s brain is “hijacked, and chemically altered.”

Nor did the Hoods know that drug addiction affects 1 in every 3 families in the United States. At least 22 million people are addicted to drugs — including alcohol, for it too is a drug — while 23 million more are in long-term recovery.

Jim could have retreated into his grief. But that’s not who he is. And it’s not how he wanted to memorialize his son.

So, for the past year and a half, he and group of very dedicated men and women have worked to form a new national organization. Called Facing Addiction, it will be launched October 4, with an enormous rally in Washington, D.C.

The date could be a turning point in a fight that has taken far too many lives, most of them far too young.

Facing Addiction logo

“After Austin died, I realized how horrific this disease is. It’s hell on earth,” Jim says. “I also realized there was no well-funded national organization tackling it.”

Even the best-known groups — Partnership for Drug-Free Kids  and Faces and Voices of Recovery work with budgets of less than $10 million.

Cancer organizations, by contrast, raise $1.7 billion annually (“as they should,” Jim says). Heart groups operate with $800 million.

Addiction organizations are run by “good, skillful people,” Jim says. “But they’re woefully underfunded. They compete against each other at times. And there is no overarching strategy.”

Jim brings a very successful business background — in advertising, Wall Street and consulting — to Facing Addiction.

Austin Hood

Austin Hood

He calls the fight against addiction “a cottage industry. There are thousands of small players competing for money. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you know to call Sloan-Kettering. When you have heart disease, you turn to the American Heart Association. With addiction, you don’t know what to do.”

That’s understandable, he says. Addiction is a disease shrouded in shame, stigma and denial.

“When you see an obituary for someone in their late teens or early 20s, if it doesn’t expressly say ‘cancer’ or another disease, you can assume the reason was addiction or suicide,” Jim says.

“And if the obituary asks for donations to ‘a charity of your choice’ — even if people know the cause was addiction — no one knows who to write a check to.”

Jim adds, “Addiction is not about ‘bad people.’ It’s about bad things happening to good people — decent, loving, smart people from good families.”

Austin Hood (left) and his siblings, at their Compo Beach home.

Austin Hood (left) and his siblings, at their Compo Beach home.

Jim has used his talents to bring many separate groups together, all under the Facing Addiction umbrella. They’re collaborating, he says, because they realize “we’re losing the battle.” Opiod use has spiked; heroin seems to be everywhere, and drug use starts earlier than ever. 90% or more of all addicts first use drugs in adolescence.

Facing Addiction’s focus is on “big-impact ideas to help more people, more quickly,” Jim says. “We’re developing a full strategic plan.”

It’s a daunting task. But, Jim asks, “what’s the alternative? The problem gets worse every year.”

Facing Addiction’s first public event is an October 4 rally on Washington’s National Mall.

Jim Hood - logoThe site — where Martin Luther King proclaimed “I have a dream,” millions protested the Vietnam War and many more wept at the AIDS Quilt — has “enormous symbolism,” Jim says.

“It focuses the country’s attention. It’s a place to open hearts, so we can open minds.”

Performers include Joe Walsh, Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, Johnny Rzeznik and The Fray. All have been affected by addiction.

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have recorded videos. Drug czar Michael Botticelli and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy will speak.

The next day, thousands of citizens will meet with senators and congressmen. They’ll tell their stories, and urge federal funding for the fight against addiction.

Austin Hood can no longer fight his own demons. So his father is doing it for him.

And for millions of others — plus the untold millions more who love them.

If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here.

(To donate to Facing Addiction — and help millions of people, while saving hundreds of thousands of lives — click here, or text “facing” to 41444.)