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.
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.
She 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.
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.”
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 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.
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.”
“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)