HACKENSACK, NJ – For Lucille Cigolini, fighting addiction isn’t a matter of willpower or love. If it were, her son Justin would still be alive. Addiction, rather, is a lifelong brain disease currently afflicting millions of Americans who all too often suffer with it in the shadows of their shame; a disease recovering addict Nicole W. likens to “a sick mind” with an obsession for drugs and alcohol so bad she couldn’t stop.
But, as the adage goes, where there’s life, there’s hope.
Every September for the past four years in the courtyard of One Bergen County Plaza in Hackensack, the community comes to “Light the Night for Recovery and Hope,” an event that honors the “gains” community members are making in their battles with addiction, and pays homage to those you lost theirs. Hosted by James Tedesco and the Board of Chosen Freeholders, resources are made abundant for community members with addiction issues from the Bergen New Bridge Medical Center to CarePlus New Jersey and High Focus Centers, both in Paramus. Ceremonial quilts emblazoned with love notes to loved ones lost assembled by residents of the Spring House Halfway House for Women and stitched by art therapist Toni Uzzalino are displayed on a clothesline.
“We do this just to get that kind of attention, to get people to understand that these are all human beings,” said Sue Marchese-Debiak, director of the Bergen County Division of Addiction Services, pointing to the quilts during the city’s Fourth Annual Light the Night ceremony on September 25. “They’re somebody’s child. And we remember them. We put out the message of hope.”
The quilts were enough to bring a tear to the eyes of anyone in attendance. Sayings like, “Life is worth living, so say no to drugs,” “Just Keep Pushing,” and “RIP Addiction” were some of many encouraging messages emblazoned on the fabrics. Light the Night carries a torch for the addict’s onerous journey to recovery by providing numerous resources for recovering addicts and encouraging those in the trenches of addiction to seek treatment.
Roughly 100 hundred people attended Wednesday night’s ceremony, which included recovering addicts, residents of the Spring House Halfway House, Bergen County Director of Division of Addiction Services Sue Marchese-Debiak, Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton, James Tedesco, and Assistant Prosecutor Elizabeth Reiben. Guests were seated beneath a tent with purple lights (the color of National Recovery Month) which radiated from inside it. Moving speeches were delivered from Cigolini, Nicole W., and Daniel R., a recovery specialist who discussed his "spiritual awakening" after a long battle with drug and alcohol addiction.
“The County of Bergen is committed to addressing this disease,” said Tedesco to the crowd. “Addressing substance abuse, addressing this epidemic, because that’s what we in government are supposed to do… We have wonderful partnerships at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, in our prosecutor and our sheriff. Understanding and knowing that while we need to fight it through the law enforcement side, another side to help those who have addiction to get the help they need. And break that vicious cycle.”
While a reported 13,000 New Jerseyans lost their lives to drug and alcohol addiction since 2012, and 74,000 around the country, these sobering statistics, Tedesco said, are a distraction to those individuals who are fighting addiction "every day of their lives.”
“We cannot lose sight of the individuals impacted by this epidemic. That’s why we’re here tonight,” said Tedesco. “To honor those who struggle with addiction and substance abuse. But we must start by admitting that addiction is a disease; it’s not a character flaw or weakness. For too long drug abuse and addiction have been stigmatized by our society, viewed as a moral failing rather than a serious, dangerous, and terrible illness. It makes people who are suffering feel ashamed and blamed for their own struggles with drug use. And that can prevent them from seeking the help they need. Admitting that you have an illness is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is the only way to get help and support the need to start to feel better."
Assistant Prosecutor Elizabeth Reiben mentioned the many resources Bergen County offers to combat the opioid epidemic on a local level. The Heroin Addiction Response Team, she said, affords individuals who are struggling with addiction the opportunity to speak with clinicians from the Lyndhurst, Mahwah, Paramus and Westwood Police Departments free of charge, who can then connect them with the proper treatment.
"We don’t want anyone who is struggling with addiction to be silent about it because we will not be silent about it,” said Tedesco.
Cigolini was anything but silent about her son Justin. It’s been a mere five months since her son died of a Fentanyl overdose, but she mustered up the courage to address the stigma of addiction in the name of her beloved son, however painful.
“There must not be stigma or judgment associated to the disease of addiction and mental health,” she told the audience with disgust. “For some, addiction creeps up on those who sadly turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to soothe themselves in order to mask underlying mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.”
Justin was someone whom she described a sensitive, kind, blue-eyed boy with a bubbly personality who loved La Crosse just as much as he was loved by his comrades in his native town of Ridgewood where he spent most of his life. After his dad left home when he was a junior in high school, his days of attending high school parties involving heavy drinking and smoking pot were more frequent.
“The drugs and alcohol itself are really not the addict’s initial problem, but it is the way the brain reacts to the drugs that is,” Lucille explained, adding that the user unwittingly becomes a prisoner to their addiction as they don’t become aware of their problem until they’re in the throes of it.
Though recruited to play La Crosse at Kean University in 2006, that dream was short-lived after a cocaine habit pushed him into his first stint in rehab in Minnesota. When he returned to the east coast after a month-long stay, he enrolled in Bergen Community College circa 2007. The following year, he experimented with OxyContin off of which he detoxed, then, months later, he overdosed on heroin. Both his parents accompanied him on a plane to Florida where we had spent time in a halfway house. Upon his return home, he enrolled in St. Peter’s College and saw a therapist on a regular basis. It wasn’t long before he began using again, and entered into intensive care after ingesting a large amount of Xanax. After re-entering rehab and being released after a month, he relocated to South Jersey where he stayed on and off at an Oxford House in Voorhees, a place where he found camaraderie and eventually made a life for himself.
Dating back to the years 2012-2014, Justin had been doing well, but news of his father’s death sent him back into a downward spiral, given the unresolved issues between father and son. After a brief stay at the Oxford House, it wasn’t long before he began using again. While he moved into a sober house in South Jersey where he found love, he eventually picked his drug habit back up. After a bad infection that nearly cost him his arm, he vowed to never inject himself with drugs again. While he insisted on staying in South Jersey, he eventually moved into an Oxford House in Cherry Hill and enjoyed 10 months of sobriety and passed tests needed to be a journeyman apprentice with the Carpenters Local 255.
At the end of 2017, he moved in with his girlfriend, who was also a recovering addict, and started using again. Justin spent the last 18 months of his life in and out of detox, Recovery Centers of America in Mays Landing for rehab, and eventually back into a sober house. After maintaining sobriety for three months, he made the decision to stay in South Jersey to live, to the displeasure of his mother who pleaded with him to stay in the sober house.
On April 15 at 2:15 a.m., his mom said that “the grips of addiction hijacked his brain” when he texted a dealer, and succumbed that morning to the disease after a 14-year battle after snorting what Lucille said “he thought was heroin” but was pure Fentanyl. He was 31.
“He didn’t want to die,” noted Lucille. “He needed to soothe the beast that night. The brain’s response to opioids overrides everything else. Addiction is not a choice; recovery is a long process and relapse is part of it. People struggling with addiction need to know they matter and that someone cares. You can recover. Where there is breath there is hope. Never give up.”
If anyone knows a thing or two about perseverance it’s Nicole W. The Spring House alum didn’t hold back when she took to the mic to tell the tearful crowd about the gruesome story of her lifelong trudge up the slippery slope of addiction. She took her first shot at age 13 while hanging out with who she deemed members of the “cool crowd” and then substituted that substance with getting high off marijuana and popping pills from Ecstasy to pure MDMA, Percocets and Xanax.
“Once I get something, I can’t stop doing it, and at the time I didn’t realize it,” she said.
Nicole's drug problem was compounded when her father, to whom she was very close, died after undergoing gastric bypass surgery after the doctors administered the wrong amount of blood thinner, which caused a lethal blood clot that traveled from his leg to his lung. Since her father was the family’s sole breadwinner, Nicole, her mother and her sister lost their home and relocated from Kearny to Little Ferry.
The following year when she turned 18, Nicole left home and “couch surfed” and would spend all her money on drugs. After making the decision to move to Brick to live with her grandmother and attend school full-time, the loneliness she said she felt living in a community that was not age-appropriate for her pushed her to come back up north more often and quit school. A friend introduced her to the man who would become the father of her two children, and a fellow user who would get her what the wanted.
“All I wanted to do was get high,” she said, adding that she once slept on a blowup mattress on the floor of his mother’s house.
Throughout her relationship, which was a whirlwind of abuse and heavy drug use (she graduated to Fentanyl) she carried two children, a boy and girl, one after the other, and sadly used while pregnant both times – an action she said she was not proud of. (Both her children were born healthy, though her daughter was born addicted to heroin.) While living in squalid conditions (one time having to wash her clothes in the bath of a “roach motel,”) and having the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, previously the Division of Youth and Family Services intervene, she checked into the American Addiction Centers on scholarship before she was sent to Spring House, an oasis where she lived to reclaim her life and recover from her addiction that had once left her with a shell of herself.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but the best thing I did for myself,” she said, adding that her prior self, filled with hatred and anger, wouldn’t give her a chance.
“They taught me how to be a person,” she said, adding that she acknowledged the fact that she was not “morally deficient” but very sick.
After stints in Alcoholics Anonymous and intensive outpatient programs, Nicole is now 21 months sober and has found peace and a higher purpose, as both a mother and student working toward her law degree. Despite her years of struggle, her bumpy life journey, she said, shaped her into the woman she is.
“I needed everything that got me on my path today,” she said.
Nicole's story is indeed a testament to the manifestation of miracles, even in the most trying of times. At the conclusion of the event, Carolina Rial, a finalist in the 2019 New Jersey Shout Down Drugs! Contest, performed an impassioned song she called “Breaking Boundaries” a number that resonated with the message of hope the Light the Night ceremony aims to create:
Face the world of your future and dreams
Chase your purpose, break those boundaries
There’s more to your story…
For information about the Bergen County Division of Addiction Services, call 201-634-2740.
For more on Recovery Centers of America, visit recoverycentersofamerica.com.