Overdose and Addiction, And Those Left Behind

September 10, 2017
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Highlands community members participate in a candlelight vigil on Aug. 31, in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day. Photos by John Burton

By John Burton |

HIGHLANDS — For Caitlin O’Neil, Aug. 31 seemed like an appropriate time to share the story of her late boyfriend – and to spread the word about the dangers of addiction and overdoses.

“I wanted to bring this to Highlands,” O’Neil said last Thursday, “because there’s a lot going on here.”

O’Neil and others gathered at the Robert D. Wilson Community Center, 22 Snug Harbor, last Thursday for a program and candlelight vigil recognizing the loss many families and communities have faced due to the terrible heroin and opioid epidemic that is plaguing Monmouth County and the rest of the nation.

Daniel Silvestri, O’Neil’s 30-year-old boyfriend and the father of their 10-month-old daughter, Selina, and soon-to-be-born son (expected in the next week), died in May from a heroin/fentanyl overdose. O’Neil wanted to help raise public awareness, especially given that last Thursday was International Overdose Awareness Day.

O’Neil helped organize the program that featured personal reflections of addressing addiction, as well as observations from professionals working in the field. “I know this is something that he would have wanted for others,” O’Neil said of Silvestri.

Silvestri, who grew up in Leonardo, loved his daughter and was joyously awaiting the birth of his son, O’Neil said. But he continued to fall prey to the draw of heroin and the influence of those in that orbit. “He really wanted to get clean. He hated that he kept going back to using,” she said. Silvestri had been in and out of rehab a number of times, O’Neil said, remembering a letter he wrote to her on one of those occasions. He didn’t want to live the life of an addict, O’Neil said. “He didn’t want to do this to his kids,” she said.

Heather DiBlasi, coordinator of the Highlands/Atlantic Highlands Municipal Alliance for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, offers information for a Aug. 31 gathering at the Highlands Community Center discussing the opioid crisis impacting communities throughout the county and state.

O’Neil hinted that this is a prevalent issue for the waterfront community. Heather DiBlassi, who is coordinator for the Highlands/Atlantic Highlands Municipal Alliance for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, said drug use, especially heroin and other opioid abuse, isn’t necessarily any more widespread there than in other communities—all of which are having to address its impact. The size of the small, tightknit community, about a mile square, means everyone knows each other, which can make things seem more widespread than is the case, DiBlassi said.

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Which is not to downplay the impact drugs are having here and everywhere, she added. Heroin has become so accessible, so potent and so cheap it is overwhelming communities, she explained. “You can buy heroin for three to five dollars,” she observed. “You can’t buy a hot meal for that.”

“Now the focus is, we acknowledge we have a heroin epidemic,” she added.

“Really, what this is about is prevention and knowledge,” explained Karen Van Natten, who chairs the Highlands/Atlantic Highlands alliance.

This event had a three-pronged benefit, Van Natten explained, to find out what’s going on in the community; to remember the many who have been lost; and to dispense information about programs available to help addicts.

Another important component is to bring the matter into the light of day and do away with shame, said Renee Muscenti, a Leonardo resident and coordinator for Fed Up! Coalition, a national public awareness collection of organizations combating the opioid crisis. “The children, the loved ones who are suffering don’t be embarrassed by them,” Muscenti said.

Chrissy, 22 and a Middletown resident, who didn’t give her last name, told the audience of about 30 members, “The truth is I’m always going to be a heroin addict.” The difference now, though, she continued, is “I’m a heroin addict in recovery.”

She’s been sober for 1 ½ years. She began using drugs as a 16-year-old and “fell in love” with heroin, beginning her decline into the dark and terrible world of addiction.

“I’ve done things I’m not proud of,” she said, including stealing from family members, wrecking her car, and spending about a month homeless. “I’ve seen a lot of things someone my age shouldn’t see,” said Chrissy.

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Her mother became frustrated and distraught, as all the measures her family attempted failed to reach Chrissy, she acknowledged. So much so, that Chrissy was thrown out of her family home. She wound up sleeping under a house, sometimes passing out with a syringe in her arm, she remembered. She was eventually arrested by Middletown Police, living in an area transient motel, and realized, “I don’t want to do this anymore but I didn’t know what to do.”

Chrissy found a program and fellowship that reached her, helping her on the 12-step road to recovery. Now, “I love my life,” she said, noting she is healthy, has a job where she’s in line for promotion, and is in a positive relationship.

Chrissy’s brother is addressing addiction issues but she believes there is always hope. “I’m very happy to be standing here, trying to spread the word,” she said.

Small kindness stones, offering messages of encouragement, were
available at last week’s
program in Highlands in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day.

Members of the gathering were asked to take what have become known as kindness rocks—fist-size stones, in this case painted purple (the color designating overdose prevention awareness), etched with short positive messages; they were asked to place the rocks around the community. And then the group lit candles and walked the length of beach area in the rear of the community center, in a display of unity.

“It would be great if we could do something like this every month,” Van Natten suggested, to get the word out about addiction.

The Highlands/Atlantic Highlands will be conducting a program on Oct. 11 on how to use Narcan/Naloxone, an effective opioid overdose treatment. The program will take place at 6 p.m. at the Atlantic Highlands First Aid and Safety Squad building, 10 East Highland Ave.

In recognition of the day, Gov. Chris Christie signed an official proclamation, designating the day as Overdose Awareness Day in the state. Christie has made addiction and recovery issues a centerpiece for his administration’s efforts especially in the last couple of years. After signing the proclamation, Christie said, “Today, communities around the world remember individuals who were lost to drug overdoses and those who’ve been saved from the depths of an overdose and given a second chance at life.”

This article was first published in the Sept. 7-14, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.

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