When Janet Calcagno discovered her son Michael – then 13 – was smoking marijuana and drinking, the comfortable Saugus family took every step possible to put a stop to it and send him a zero tolerance message.
However, those efforts and the structured home they had always provided him were no match for the power of drug addiction.
“Before we knew it, he was using heroin and overdosing and overdosing in our home,” said Janet last Thursday at the area’s second Opiate Summit, a conglomeration of residents, organizations and city governments from Revere, Chelsea, Winthrop and Saugus. “Many times, I found Michael on the floor. It’s still hard to talk about bringing your son back from death. He was a heroin addict and that was it. I was a stay-at-home mom and was there and, being his mom, I tried desperately to fix him. Michael’s disease became my disease and I was just as sick as my child.”
Janet also shared about getting help at Revere’s North Suffolk Mental Health Center Connections program, and also about Michael finding a residential treatment program at Meridian House in Eastie.
“I could not fix him,” she said. “He had to fix himself and he did that. I also got the support and help I needed as his mother. This stuff is not a dirty secret. It affects more people than you know. It could be the person next to you at the supermarket. We have to get educated about this.”
Calcagno and her son were part of the speaking program at last Thursday’s Opiate Summit at the Kowloon in Saugus. Besides the speaking, clinicians presented information, there was an information fair that included organizations like the Chelsea Drug Court, there were trainings on how to save an overdose victim, and there was a Youth Summit for those in recovery. It was the second half of an effort that began in January and will hopefully continue this year via another state grant aimed at reducing drug overdoses and deaths.
Michael Calcagno – in a very emotional discussion of his recovery, which he is still in the midst of – said most people would not think of him as the face of addiction, but more and more kids from the area are heading down that path.
“I came from a beautiful home, had a wonderful family and never experienced death or trauma,” he said. “I had everything I wanted. Personally, I think I was predisposed to addiction…I can’t thank my mom enough for putting up with me. She did the best thing possible by stepping away from me. I had to fight the disease myself. My own insecurity let the disease tell me all the lies I needed because it told me in my own voice…Sometimes the best choice you can make is to walk away from a loved one.”
House Speaker Bob DeLeo also spoke from the heart on the issue, saying there have been young people on his own street in Winthrop that have died as a result of opiate abuse.
“I have more people call me to get kids into treatment centers than I have kids calling me to write recommendation letters for them,” he said. “It’s not a political issue or a family issue – it’s all of our issue. I’ve had two kids on my own street that passed away as a result of substance abuse…People are crying out for help. We have to help them and talk to them.”
Kim Hanton, director of addiction services at Revere’s North Suffolk clinic, said that addiction is a bit like the idea behind ‘The Wizard of Oz.’
“They pulled the curtain away and all the sudden he’s not so powerful and mighty anymore,” she told the crowd. “He’s still there and always will be there. As they learn from it and deal with it, the disease becomes smaller and smaller…As we continue to fear the disease, the disease continues to grow. As we work to understand the disease, it gets smaller and smaller.”
A question and answer period for parents, young people, clinicians and elected officials featured a lively discussion about insurance.
Most complained that traditional insurance companies have walked away from addiction services, noting that state-run health plans often offer better coverage than private insurance. Most of the discussion, in fact, centered on holes in the insurance system as it pertains to addiction services and counseling.
Michael Calcagno said he has gone from being a mean addict to someone people like being around. He said he has done it with the numerous resources that are available, but that many don’t know about.
“I was one of the nastiest people you would meet,” he said with a laugh. “I am not a nice person on drugs. I was not the happy drunk of the life of the party. Now, people want to be around me. They want to hear my story and want me to tell my story. That makes me feel important.”
Janet Calcagno and her son, Michael, are experiencing much happier times these days, but not so long ago they were fighting the disease of opiate addiction day in and day out. Both spoke at the second Opiate Summit in the Kowloon last Thursday as part of an ongoing cooperative effort between Revere, Chelsea, Winthrop and Saugus.
Inside cuts –
Several cities and towns were represented at the second Opiate Summit last week in the Kowloon, including Revere Fire Capt. Jay Picariello, Katie Sugarman of RevereCARES, Erica Clarke of Mass General, Cate Blackford of the City of Revere, and Chelsea Health Agent Luis Prado.
Saugus State Rep. Donald Wong welcomed everyone to his restaurant, but more importantly pledged his support to the cause.
House Speaker Bob DeLeo said he has more calls to get kids into drug treatment centers than to get kids letters of recommendation.
A group of Winthrop residents from CASA that attended the summit, including Judie Van Kooiman, Brenda Curry and Mary Ann Lounsbury.