MORRISTOWN On Sunday night, more than 400 young people of Assumption Parish here and their parents caught a terrifying glimpse into the dark hell of addiction that grips so many people throughout the U.S. But they also glimpsed a bright ray of hope for themselves or people they love through the potentially life-saving information that they learned about drug-abuse prevention and recovery.
On a freezing Feb. 12 evening, faithful packed the warmth of Assumption Church for “Knowing the Signs: Addiction and Recovery — Finding the Way,” a special program that began with Mass, which features speakers, who not only imparted to the faithful the horrors of addiction but also the hope in recovery. Emphasizing that message were Father Charles Waller, pastoral care director at Straight & Narrow, the Catholic Charities substance-abuse treatment facility located in Paterson, who gave the homily, and Adam, a Straight & Narrow client, who gave a witness talk. Meanwhile, the facility’s Gospel Choir rocked the church with resounding hymns of praise, during the liturgy.
The sobering talk about drug and alcohol abuse continued after the Mass, during a presentation in the church that featured talks by recovery professionals and witness talks by other addicts, telling their harrowing stories. They delivered a powerful message: do not start down the dark road of addiction, but if you do, there is help available for you. Speakers also shared tips about prevention with the young people at Assumption — sixth- to eight-graders and Confirmation students — and their parents in the pews. Their stirring talks took place as New Jersey and the rest of the nation tries to come to grips with a widespread epidemic of addiction to prescription painkillers, called opioids.
“Drugs take your soul, your morals and your self-respect. I devalued my life [when addicted]. Today, I value my life. What I did to my family — it’s hard to forgive myself,” said Valerie, whose last name withheld, who drank and took heroin. It was part of a spiraling addiction that led to committing crimes and spending some time in jail, before entering treatment at Straight & Narrow 13 months ago. “If you are playing with drugs or are suffering from this disease, you are walking into a world that you don’t want to know. The journey is hard and long and not everyone makes it,” she told the young people at the after-Mass presentation.
The congregation first heard the story of Adam, his last name also withheld, another Straight & Narrow client, at the end of the Mass, that was celebrated by Father Waller; Msgr. John Hart, Assumption’s pastor; and Father Przemyslaw Nowak, the parish’s parochial vicar. The speaker announced that he has been sober for six months — but only after many years of drug abuse that also led to criminal activity and incarceration. A child of addicts, he drank, smoked marijuana and later took opioids, which led to heroin use, which is cheaper. After his latest scrape with the law, the judge offered him N.J. Drug Court, which urges defendants to seek treatment over “doing time.”
“It [Drug Court] gives me the tools to live a clean and sober life — a better life. Now, I feel better than I ever in my life,” Adam told the congregation.
During his homily, Father Waller noted that recovering addicts often deal with feelings of anger and bitterness about their past lives but ultimately chose forgiveness — of themselves and others. He said that Straight & Narrow — the largest facility of its kind in the state — provides treatment for about 120 men and 100 women and offers services, including parenting-skills classes, apartments for clients and former clients with HIV/AIDS and the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center, he said.
During the Presentation of the Gifts at Mass, students from Assumption’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program presented backpacks that they assembled. They packed the backpacks with socks, shirts and assorted toiletries for Straight & Narrow clients and wrote prayers and sentiments of good wishes on the outside of them.
After the Mass, Msgr. Hart introduced the program of speakers, emphasizing the purpose of the program: “We are here to try to understand addiction that has become an epidemic in our country.” He had visited Valerie in jail and gave her absolution for her sins.
Bill Lillis, parent educator coordinator for the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, gave the following addiction prevention tips to parents: ask doctors for an alternative if they prescribe an opioid, keep an eye on their liquor and medicine cabinets, dispose of unused medications and schedule regular mealtimes as a family. He told the young people that avoiding drugs and alcohol can save not only their own lives, but also the lives of their friends and loved ones.
Ellen Purtell, clinical director at Daytop, Mendham, which treats adolescents and adults, suggested that children do their part in prevention by helping make fellow students feel less isolated by inviting them to sit with them at their lunch tables and avoid cyber-bullying, bullying using social media.
“This [in the recovery field] is God’s work, but the other side [of evil] is pulling a tough team,” Purtell said. “Be kind to each other. Love is a powerful force. You can be a positive force for prevention,” she said.
Father Nowak closed the program by telling the young people and parents, “Assumption will do anything to save a child. Come to see us. The Church is here.”
After the program, Gale Grennan, an Assumption catechist, declared, “I loved it,” and expressed her pride in her parish for “inviting people from Straight & Narrow to come and speak.”
“I felt great joy for their [the speakers’] recovery. I’m glad that they shared their stories to help prevent it [addiction] from happening to other people,” said Grennan, who attended with her three children: Hugh, 17; Dermot, 15; and Maeve, 12. “One speaker suggested that parents have regular dinner with their kids, which we do. I feel good about that,” she said.
Dermot Grennan, a sophomore at Morristown High School, noted that his parents “have always done a good job talking to us about drugs — don’t do them, because they’re bad.”
“The talks [as part of the program] were eye-opening. It was interesting that one speaker’s parents had addictions and others saw it [taking drugs and drinking] as a rite of passage,” Grennan said. “It shows you that no one is safe, but that help is available,” he said.