Health & Wellness

Tackling Addiction: 2nd Annual Anti-Drug and Alcohol Conference Held in South Plainfield

Alcohol and drug abuse, including New Jersey’s on-going opioid epidemic, the signs to look for, and resources available were discussed in length at a community forum in South Plainfield on Dec. 5. Credits: Victoria Caruso

SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – The 2nd Annual Anti-Drug and Alcohol Conference, sponsored by the South Plainfield Mayor’s Wellness Committee and held at the senior center, took place Dec. 5. Residents had the opportunity to ask questions as well as listen to testimonies from a panel of special guest speakers, including medical and legal professionals and those with first hand experience dealing with addiction.

 “Hopefully, we have experts here tonight that can provide a lot of information you can take back home…” said Mayor Matt Anesh in his opening remarks. “The most important thing is to talk to your friends, family, relatives and just bring this important topic to an even greater light.”

Guest speakers at Tuesday’s forum included South Plainfield residents Superior Court Judge Robert Jones, who is currently in charge of Middlesex County’s Drug Court; Christopher Kuberiet, assistant prosecutor for Middlesex County; and Lloyd McNelly, a detective with the South Plainfield Police Department.

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On the medical side, Victoria Trause, an addiction supervisor, and Dena Agolio, an addiction specialist, from JFK’s Center for Behavioral Health, along with Steven Drzewoszewski, director of substance abuse counseling at the Carrier Clinic, discussed the warning signs of addiction and the different resources available.

Additionally, South Plainfield resident Sandy Doyon shared details about her son Tommy who, in October 2015 lost his battle with addiction, and Emil Savia, whose sobriety date is December 2015, and Nicholas Smith, who has been clean since January 2014, discussed their addictions and how Drug Court helped them turn their life around.

In 2016, 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States with two out of every three of those deaths the result of an opioid overdose and, 2017’s numbers could top 100,000.

 “If you break it down by day, 91 people will die today from an overdose, however, despite those numbers, addiction rates are at an all time high,” said Jones, noting that 4 out of every 5 heroin user started with prescription painkillers.

“It could be a high school cheerleader who got hurt during practice and stated taking oxycodone prescribed by a doctor; it could be a construction worker who became addicted to pain killers because of a injury at work and then, when the prescription ran out, realized it was much cheaper to turn to heroin …It could be lawyers, doctors, and teachers,” Jones said, adding, “Today’s addict is very different…Today’s opioid epidemic really knows no boundaries…”

“The stereotypes of 20 years ago of syringes, and back alleys, and needles [don’t apply],” added Kuberiet.

Doyon agrees. “The type of people who are on drugs has certainly changed. Everybody always thinks an addict is someone in alley…they’re not…” she said. “I am here to tell you, you can be the most popular, the most loved, the most entitled person in the world, it doesn't matter when that drug gets you.”

Since 2002, Drug Court has served as a probationary program for individuals with substance abuse problems charged with non-violent crimes. To be eligible, one must undergo both a statutory legal review and a clinical assessment and, once in the program, must comply with all treatment directives imposed by the court, including but not limited to active participation in the drug court program for a minimum of 18 months; supervised probation from 18 months to 5 years; intensive supervision by a special probation officer; mandatory and random drug testing; and regular attendance at a 12-step program.

“It was put into place because we were finding that putting people in prison really wasn't the answer; addictions weren’t ending…” said Jones, noting that in most cases, someone who served time in prison due to drugs has a 53-percent of getting re-arrested in three years while that number decreases to 19-percent for a Drug Court graduate in New Jersey and 12-percent for someone who completed the Middlesex program.

Savia first began smoking pot to battle anxiety as a teenager while also serving as his high school’s D.A.R.E. representative and, despite graduating college with honors and going on to get a good job “took weed everywhere’ he went. “I knew how to manipulate the system,” Savia said, telling attends that his first dose of opioids came in the form of a Percocet prescribed to handle pain associated with dental work.

“From there, my life went out of control. I would doctor shop and go for all different exams to get prescription pills and when it got too expensive I turned to heroin,” said Savia, admitting that losing his house and car, being cut off from family, spending two and a half years in and out of jail, and seeing close friends overdose and die didn't stop him from continuing to use. Then, in December 2015 he was arrested following an overdose attempt and given the option to attend the Drug Court program.

He has been clean every since, has a job running a company, and volunteers his time to help and sponsor others battling addiction. “All of this was possible because of Drug Court,” Savia said, adding “Helping someone else is what keeps me sober.”

Smith, who has been clean for almost four years, said it took a long time for him to realize that his battle with addiction stemmed from the death of his father. At the age of 11, Smith arrived home from a school event to find his dad, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, dead from an overdose.

“That is when my world turned upside down,” said Smith, admitting that following his dad’s death, everyone else seemed to move on while he felt ‘forgotten’ and became ‘lost’ in his own world.’

“Little by little the disease creeps in on you. I started drinking and I started feeling better. I started smoking weed and feeling better. Then, I broke my wrist, and at the age of 17, I found out I could use X-rays to get prescription drugs and did that for six years. I took pills after pills after pills,” he said.

When the prescriptions ran out, Smith also turned to heroin, and over the course of the years that followed was arrested 17 times, sent to county jail on multiple occasions, did four rehab stints, and underwent detox three times. Acceptance into the Drug Court program said Smith, changed his life.

“I needed to learn how to walk again and little by little, through the different phases of Drug Court, it got easier and easier for me to get my life back,” said Smith. “I actually care about my life today and want to be here…”

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