'Recovery changed my life'

Annual community dinner spotlights addiction, prevention, treatment, understanding

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Pamela Capaci, CEO of Prevention Links, started the evening, talking statistics:
22 million Americans have addiction
More than 90 percent of people with addiction started as teenagers
8.3 million children live in a home with a parent with addiction
1 in 10 people with substance use disorder receives treatment
Alcohol is often the first drug children use
63 painkiller prescriptions are written for every 100 New Jersey residents
80 percent of heroin users start with prescription drugs
New Jersey is 4th in the nation for heroin treatment admissions (2012)
47 percent of all treatment in 2015 was for heroin or other opioids


Joel Pomales shared a lifetime of experiences last Saturday at the West Milford Recreation Center when he spoke at the Community Against Substance Abuse (CASA) dinner. Parents who fought and divorced when he was young, growing up without a father, enjoying being the "bad" kid, smoking pot, quickly moving on to hard drugs, dropping out of high school, becoming addicted, homeless. And it all happened to him before he was 17.

Pomales has been in recovery for more than five years now, which brought applause from the group of about 60 people at the community dinner. But his story also left the crowd silent as he spoke of the kid who grew up in middle class East Brunswick with a "decent family" and ended up an uneducated teenager on the streets, losing 10 years of his life to addiction.

Addiction was considered more of a moral failing than an illness, he said.

"Addiction is a public health issue, not a legal issue," he said.

Pomales recounted the first time he smoke marijuana.

"I didn't know I had an illness, that it would affect me like it did, and not my brother," he said.

All he could think about, all he wanted to do after that first time when he was a young teenager was to smoke pot. "It took over my life."

Things progressed. By 15, "things got bad" and he went to his first treatment program. When he turned 16, he dropped out of high school. His mom gave him an ultimatum: stop living this way or leave.

He left.

Hopelessly addicted, homeless, a drop out. He hated his life.

He's been arrested 11 times, all drug offenses.

"I didn't get the treatment I needed," he said. "They just sent me to the county jail."

One of his last arrests, he had to go to treatment; court ordered.

"I got a nudge from the judge," he said.

Since then, he has made a different life for himself, with lots of help. With basically an eighth grade education, he had nothing to put on his resume. With his record, he couldn't even get a job collecting carts at a supermarket. Through people he knew at his recovery house, he was able to get a job. He started to rebuild his relationships with his mother and brothers. He started paying his fines and bills, which made him feel better about himself.

Now, five and a half years later, Pomales works with young people in recovery, caught up on his education and is pursuing a doctorate in industrial organizational psychology. And he likes himself again.

"My mom cries tears of joy today," he said. "She used to cry at the county jail. Recovery changed my life."

"Same chorus, different verse."That was what Denise Mariano said as she followed Pomales speaking. Mariano is a mom whose son was certainly one to be proud of: high school honor student, athlete, wonderful person. But he started drinking and using drugs and struggled with substance abuse. Her story was from the parents' perspective.

When her son was struggling, she would go to support groups and the advice they gave was to let him hit rock bottom. She felt there had to be more.

"We wouldn't disengage with him," she said. "We would do everything we could to engage him." That included when he was in treatment out in California.

She started a parent coaching program, Partnership for Drug Free Kids, teaching the tools and strategies to communicate and give parents an option.

"It sows the seeds of hope for sure," Mariano said, noting she doesn't really like to talk but "I know it's my responsibility."

Her son is three years in recovery.

Community respondsWhen the floor was opened to questions from the public, people asked what they can do to prevent and recognize a substance use problem.

Mariano said she thinks young people have so many stresses on them. Let them know they can come and talk to you as a parent, maybe take away some of the stresses. Talk about health and wellness. Her son didn't talk about things, she said, because he thought they would pass.

Pete McGuinness, a West Milford councilman and parent, commended the local police for the job they are doing in helping those with addiction, and said that parents have to do their jobs at home.

"What's wrong with the old-school way," McGuinness said, when you "grab your kid by the throat" and lock him in a room until he knows not to do drugs.

His comment got a response from one woman present who said that would be child abuse.

Pamela Capaci, CEO of Prevention Links and one of the speakers (see box), agreed that parents must be the disciplinarians, minus anything physical.

"Don't be their friend," she said. "Be an active parent."

Andie Pegel, a resident and CASA Committee member, asked about the difficulties of finding employment after someone has substance issues or a record.

"I got my first job through my recovery house," said Pomales. He said as people start to accept addiction as an illness and treat it as a disability, perceptions, he hopes, will change.

Another resident asked what can the schools do better to educate kids about addiction.

Capaci said it's a combination of things, including providing prevention services.

Mariano added, "It does take a village."

'If it helps just one family'Rebecca Stumpf is the new coordinator for West Milford's CASA Committee. She was happy with the event.

"I was very pleased by the overall level of interest and involvement from community leaders and organizations, and hope to see even more parents and students attend our future events."

Tim Roetman, the township's director of Community Services and Recreation, agreed.

"I thought the speakers provided a lot of valuable information. If the information helps at least one family in town, the dinner will be considered a success."

West Milford Channel 77 recorded the event. Check on the township's website, westmilford.org, to see when it will air or go to the West Milford television Youtube channel.

For more photos and to share your thoughts about the dinner, go to westmilfordmessenger.com.

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West Milford, NJ