“Something went awry very, very fast,” said Ann Marie D’Aliso, speaking to an audience of about 100 in the Saugerties High School auditorium on the evening of September 9. She was recounting the story of her son, Patrick D’Aliso, who committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 16.
D’Aliso was one of four speakers at the assembly organized by the conflict resolution program Breaking the Cycle. While most BTC assemblies focus on ways to counteract violence in schools, the recent assembly in Saugerties was geared toward people in recovery. It did not target a particular age group and indeed attracted a mostly over-30 crowd. As described by BTC director Ian Winter, the evening was specifically for people doing “violence to themselves.”
The folks in the crowd at the high school were no strangers to the issue. “The community that was there were the people that know about the problem already because they’re struggling with it themselves,” said speaker Randi Kelder. Although the assembly was open to the public, many in attendance were participants in twelve-step programs, one intended audience. “They thought it was pretty powerful,” said Kelder. She said that many people thanked her for speaking out about the problem of substance abuse.
The four speakers shared their stories, addressing the importance of forgiveness in the process of recovery from addiction and loss. Each speaker had a different relationship to those issues: D’Aliso had lost a son, John Seldomridge has been in recovery from substance abuse for nearly 30 years, Randi Kelder lost a brother to drug addiction, and Charles Williams suffered from the repercussions of being raised by an alcoholic parent.
Doing away with stereotypes
Not all their stories involved addiction (D’Aliso’s son suffered from depression, but not substance abuse). The speakers all felt they had an obligation to share their experiences. They hope to spread the message of forgiveness, but also want to encourage awareness. D’Aliso said she hopes that talking about depression and recognizing it as an illness will help remove the stigma that impedes treatment. Similarly, Kelder stressed the importance of doing away with the “junkie” stereotype of someone suffering from an addiction.
“I hated him,” said Kelder about her brother. “I didn’t want the stigma.” There were times when her brother’s addiction frustrated and embarrassed her so much that she wanted nothing to do with him. In the stories related by Seldomridge and Kelder, addiction became an issue in college. Kelder’s brother Ryan had been to parties in high school, but it was not until college that he began to experiment with pills like Xanax and oxycodone.
Seldomridge described himself as “a pretty straight kid all through high school.” After suffering an injury in college that caused him to quit wrestling, he started filling his free time with drugs, including LSD. His sudden abundance of free time contributed to Seldomridge’s drug use. Sports injuries can also lead to addiction through the prescription of painkillers.
Kelder didn’t think medical professionals properly inform their patients about the risks of those extremely habit-forming medications. She, her father Vince Kelder and Saugerties police chief Joseph Sinagra have cited the over-prescription of painkillers as an issue, saying that patients sometimes receive prescriptions of 30 pills when they only need a week’s worth.
According to Sinagra, who attended the BTC assembly, the problem lies in the potency of drugs available more than in the number of people using them. “We don’t have an epidemic in Saugerties,” he declared. “Right now, heroin and opiates are the drugs of choice, and they’re stronger [than they used to be]. I don’t see a drastic increase in the number of users.”
Thanks to a grant-funded project undertaken by the Ulster Prevention Council, Sinagra said, every Ulster County police department is now equipped with a med return box. In February Sinagra reports that the Saugerties police had destroyed nearly 500 pounds of unused medication from the previous year.
Vince Kelder thinks that measures like med returns are not enough. In the absence of prescription painkillers, users will turn to drugs like heroin. “I don’t know why we’re not doing more to take it off the street,” said Kelder. “They don’t even know what they’re shooting.” He mentioned the recent rash of overdoses in Ohio, where people had used heroin laced with the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil. The heroin responsible for his own son’s death in 2015 contained fentanyl.
Helping people seek help
Vince Kelder and Sinagra are in agreement that the penalties for dealing drugs need to be stronger. “There needs to be a deterrent not to sell,” said Sinagra.
But they also agree that people who are users should be encouraged to seek help without facing harsh penalties. The Route 212 Coalition has worked with Ulster County police departments, including the Saugerties department, to implement the Police-Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI). According to Randi Kelder, the program allows those who are struggling with drug abuse to go to the police department “without getting in trouble” and be directed to a recovery program.
Though Woodstock’s is the only police department currently running the PAARI program, the attitude embodied in it has been adopted in Saugerties. Sinagra has stated publicly his intention to follow its precepts.
Speaking at the BTC assembly, state senator George Amedore said that only “a multi-pronged solution” was the answer to drug problems is, in fact, While he agreed that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” he, like Kelder and Sinagra, believes in stricter penalties for drug traffickers. He too addressed the importance of “removing the stigma” associated with drug abuse and getting involved with “connections and partnerships,” like the one he has with BTC.
The Kelder family believes it is of particular importance that families affected by addiction speak up and be open about the issue. Their immediate family has faced addiction more than once: Vince Kelder has been in recovery for 20 years, a fact he’s very open about. “I’m proud of being in recovery,” he says.
By talking about his family’s experiences, he will help “start a conversation” about addiction. When Ryan died, the Kelders were public about the cause of his death. “By hiding it, we’re not helping anybody,” said Kelder. He recalled attending a forum after his son’s death in which medical professionals spoke about the local death toll of heroin. Vince believes that statistics are skewed by reporting overdose fatalities as things like “heart failure.”
Randi Kelder said that her family’s story showed what can happen if someone does not overcome addiction and “what can happen when you get your life together.” For many people, even those willing to get help, finding treatment can be difficult. Kelder said that there was a brief “window of opportunity,” such as after an overdose, when a user is open to seeking help. In the time it takes to get a user into an inpatient program, that window often closes.
Getting stakeholders involved
Randi Kelder said that health insurance presented obstacles when her family was trying to get Ryan into a program, saying the company was essentially telling him “your problem’s not big enough.” Vince Kelder clarified that statement, adding that many health insurance companies required users to fail an outpatient program before they would cover an inpatient one. Since that practice was ruled illegal, Kelder said, the length of stays have decreased, with patients now usually spending only a week or less in inpatient treatment.
Sinagra listed medical professionals, social workers and insurance companies as some of the key players in solving this issue. “All stakeholders have to get involved,” he said. “It’s amazing that the emphasis we will place on professional sports, political campaigns and personal interests, but people won’t fund treatment programs .… It takes an entire village working together to keep a community safe and drug-free.”
Randi Kelder has found several organizations to be helpful in her family’s battles with addiction and loss. She mentioned that the Ulster Coalition Against Narcotics (UCAN) wanted to introduce a family navigator who will assist families in finding treatment programs for users.
For many people, Randi Kelder said, twelve-step programs are useful not just for those in recovery from addiction but also for those coping with a loved one’s addiction. For her, coping with grief has been a matter of “keeping busy” and speaking at BTC assemblies. “That’s been my healing process,” she said. The message of forgiveness and the opportunity to share Ryan’s story have been important to her in dealing with this loss.
Founded following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, the organization offers free assemblies intended to help prevent and recover from violence. According to its website, BTC speakers “tell personal stories of life experiences that demonstrate how, through choosing to forgive, conflicts can be resolved.” BTC was created and led by members of the Bruderhof Christian community. The speakers themselves are often not that community’s members, and the website describes the program’s message as “non-religious.”
Vince Kelder saw the Saugerties meeting as a vital step in people working together. He said he was very grateful to the Saugerties school district and superintendent Seth Turner for providing BTC with the space.