By Sara Paul
“Cause we’re either trying to solve it or we’re part of the problem, So let us draw from this dark pit of emotion, To maximize the meaning for the ones we miss every moment, And until the day justice for every victim has spoken, May we fight and come together til this stigma is broken.” – Sam Careccia “SC Static”
Sam is a talented local rap artist. The 26-year-old rhyming writer was one of several speakers who presented at the first annual “Break the Stigma” Walk on Sun., Jul. 29. The morning began with a proud parade of almost 300 men, women, children, and even supportive canines who marched through the Village of Warwick, down Railroad Ave. and Main St., chanting “Break the Stigma!”
They showcased homemade signs that displayed photos of lost loved ones and powerful message such as “Being in Recovery is Great” and “Treatment on Demand.”
Organized by Ryan Caldwell and sponsored by the Warwick Valley Prevention Coalition, the event was held to raise awareness about the substance abuse and overdose epidemic and to let individuals affected know that there is non-judgmental support and treatment available.
“People choose to suffer in silence because of the stigma that surrounds the word ‘addiction,’ and I hope this day shows people that’s its okay to reach out for help,” said Ryan Caldwell, who urges that, “People need to recover out loud!”
After a raucous rally, the crowd gathered at the Railroad Green, where a sunny skied schedule was kicked off by Caldwell, himself an individual in long-term recovery. He noted that at just 28 years of age, he has attended over 20 funerals for friends and loved ones affected by substance abuse.
With the help of social media and lots of input from family, friends, and even strangers, Caldwell was able to identify some powerful presenters – like Mike Balles, a young man who has been in long-term recovery for 15 years. Mike explained that substance abuse is, in fact, a disorder, and while the first time one samples a substance can be considered a choice, all subsequent uses are no longer a choice, but rather a necessity.
“There became a point in time where it didn’t become a choice any longer. It became something I needed to do to survive… I went a long time before I recognized I needed help. I was listening to other people tell me ‘what’s wrong with you… why don’t you just stop’?” said Mike, who, after dropping out of high school, was soon charged with a felony conviction for selling drugs.
Today, Mike has a Licensed Master’s of Social Work degree (LMSW), a career as a senior director at a local treatment facility, and full custody of his daughter.
“When you give people a chance, we move on. When we get that help, we move on. There is no shame in being who you are, and there is no shame in addressing what you are addressing,” said Balles.
Mary Jane Ballinger, who lost her son, PJ Vonuchtrup, to a drug overdose, read some of the dictionary excerpts for the word “addiction,” before offering her own definition:
“My definition of addiction is that I stand before you today as a grieving mother for my forever 28-year-old son, who accidentally overdosed a little over 11 months in sobriety on Aug. 2, 2017. I stand before you with the unspoken words of my son and with my hopes that not another mother or parent should join this unfortunate path I’m forced to travel or live the life my son had lived. I too experienced shame, embarrassment and humiliation…I felt helpless, desperate…so, I did constant research and would speak to whoever would listen…,” she said, coining that priorities need to be set as “educate, advocate, and participate.”
In the midst of this substance abuse and overdosing epidemic, Ballinger urged loudly that, “…there is no room for shame, no room for stigma, and no room for judgment.” She has even found her own acronym explanation for HOPE: “Help One Person Everyday.”
In long-term recovery for 23 years and now a well-known counselor and advocate with three offices, Ed Fernandez, MSW and LCADC, who owns Breath of Life Counseling Services, LLC, in central New Jersey, discussed all the things that are kept secret. From compulsive sneaker shopping to sneaky Oreo cookie binges, Fernandez shouts, “We have come here to talk about the secrets and how and why I continue to hurt myself!”
The 56 year-old father lost his 21-year-old son to a heroin overdose. It was the first time his son had ever taken heroin.
“I miss him every day, and sometimes it’s hard for me to do the next thing, whatever that next thing is,” cried Fernandez, who has a two month old daughter at home and an 18-year-old daughter starting college in the fall.
“Life is a dream… and to think I went from smoking crack cocaine to entering a 12 step program,” he said with a smile.
Finally, Mike Messina, a Florida, NY resident, spoke about his own struggles with the “stigma.”
“There is a stigma in the community, and also a stigma inside myself that is 10 times worse, but today we can help bring this into the light. I want to help myself heal and help to heal the community,” he proclaimed.
Donning a bright green “Break the Stigma Walk 2018” T-shirt, Village of Warwick Mayor Michael Newhard said, “This is not about hiding; this is about revealing. This is about truth and honesty, and thank you Ryan for helping us go there.”
Audience member, Rosendale Town Councilman, NYS Senate candidate, and mother of three teens, Jen Metzger said, “It’s great that so many young people turned out for this because it’s affecting their generation. This day is about listening to these stories, and I’m really happy to be listening.”
Co-organizer Annie Colonna, Director of Prevention Services at the Warwick Valley Community Center and Coalition Coordinator said, “It was a phenomenal event and just the beginning of more to come. I am encouraged by all of the support from the community, and I’m proud and grateful to the members of the Coalition sub-committee ‘Break the Stigma.’”
Colonna added that everyone is welcome to attend the monthly Coalition meetings at the Warwick Community Center, located at 11 Hamilton Ave. in Warwick. The meetings are held at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of the month.
The ceremony’s apropos finale saw dozens of audience members, some who traveled from as far as Michigan and Florida State, wait in line to state their names and number of days or months in recovery, out loud and without shame. From 14 days to almost 40 years, individuals in short and long term recovery were tearful, joyful, old, young, tall, short, male, and female.
A festival of family fun, music, and a corn hole tournament followed at the Warwick Community Center.
After a long, hot, and emotional day, this reporter surreptitiously overheard a humble Mayor privately thanking some of the gentlemen speakers. He acknowledged their efforts perfectly and simply: “Today, you’ve helped somebody.”