Fear and self loathing: Former star athlete warns students of addiction

Ken Bartolo

Ken Bartolo

Ken Bartolo was once a star football and lacrosse athlete destined for the pros. Instead, he told an audience in the evening, October 25, and one of students earlier in the day at the Onteora Middle/High School auditorium, he suffered through 27 years of addiction.

His story, titled There And Back, was part of an informational fair on substance abuse, with approximately 13 local community organizations also taking part.

Even though the evening event was sparsely attended Bartolo said, “To be honest with you, this is a pretty good turn out. Most people wait, because they say, ‘it’s not gonna be my kid,’ and then they get involved after the addiction.” He warned, “Be preemptive…don’t ever say, ‘it won’t be my kid,’ because you can put 500 kids in a room and I would’ve been the last one you picked.”


Bartolo’s introduction to drugs began in High School and he explained that the root of his addiction came though his own self-loathing. “I think what a lot of kids struggle with now a days, is how they feel about themselves. I relate my own experience to that because by eighth-grade I established the fact that I didn’t matter and that I wasn’t enough, I just wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t as good as the other kids and I didn’t feel like I mattered anymore.” he said. “It’s very important that we spend time with our kids and find out how they feel about themselves. We push them in school, we push them in athletics, and socially we just let them go.”

Bartolo’s addiction holds a 27 year history including three-years in a New York State Prison. During high school two incidents happened — he was kicked off the football team after being caught smoking marijuana, and was given painkillers due to a back injury when playing lacrosse. Painkillers, legally prescribed whenever an injury occurred, became his gateway. “I certainly didn’t know that the little yellow pill would lead me into being addicted to heroin while in a New York State prison — how do you know that at 15 years old?”

Marijuana, prescription painkillers, were followed by alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. He was given a prescription Xanax at one point and nearly died when a cold turkey withdrawal kicked in while he was sitting in jail.

Bartolo cautioned that a legal pill ended up having worse withdrawal affects than heroin and crack-cocaine. He spent many nights in jail withdrawing from something, but that particular drug landed him in a hospital after a grand-mal seizure. He also spent $11,000 and a full week in a crack house. He was arrested several times, attempted suicide, nearly died of overdoses, liver/kidney failure; he detoxed/relapsed many times over, and lost everything that was good in his life including college, his family, a good home, and his sports career. He lost sports scholarships to Division 1 schools, flunked out of junior college, Nazareth College and St. John Fisher college. Coaches would help him get clean and into college due to his talent as an athlete, only to see him relapse over and over. Bartolo’s prison sentence began as a DUI and was extended due to getting caught with heroin right before he was about to be released.

Following prison his addiction continued. He was homeless and finally realized he hit rock bottom. That’s when he finally asked for help. “I realized my whole life, my enemy was me,” he said. “Drugs and alcohol were the symptoms of me hating myself and trying to destroy everything that I am and I didn’t even know I was doing it.” He said courage is having fear, but doing what needs to be done. “Fear kills our kids dreams. They tell themselves ‘I’m not good enough, not smart enough, what if I fail?’ Who cares if you fail?”

Bartolo has been sober for five years and although his is a tragic tale of a life plagued by addiction, he also offers hope for addicts and family members dealing with an addict. He said his addiction affected 15 of his family members in one-way or another, including his son. He regrets not being sober before his grandfather’s passing, a man who helped raise him. He said everyday it’s a thought that tears him apart.


Local programs

Ulster and surrounding counties are not shy of preemptive, prevention, or intervention programs. This includes rehab facility Arms Acres (845-704-4222); resource group Rt. 212 Coalition (rt212coalition.org); crisis hotline, resource facility and a little TLC — Family of Woodstock (845-679-2485); Alateen (alanon.alateen.org) at Overlook United Methodist Church in Woodstock for any young person, and in Onteora Middle/High School for students only.

The Woodstock Police Department offers the PAARI (Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative) program (woodstockoutreachinitiative@gmail.com). If an addict phones or comes into the Woodstock Station seeking help, a police officer will assist to a treatment facility and contact a volunteer (13 in all) called an angel who will help tie up loose ends and help with moral support.

National Alliance of Mental Illness or NAMI (namimidhudson.org) offers support for people and families with mental health issues through free educational classes, support groups and resources.

Many of these programs and more, have plenty of volunteers with experiences to addiction and are on hand ready to help.