For the third consecutive year hundreds gathered at the corner of South Avenue and Elm Street on Thursday evening to attend New Canaan’s third annual Addiction Awareness Vigil, hosted by the New Canaan Parent Support Group and the New Canaan Community Foundation.
Community members of New Canaan and neighboring towns, state and local officials, professionals in recovery treatment, clergy and those in recovery and with loved ones who have encountered the pain, heartache, hardships and struggles addiction brings formed the night’s crowd.
Paul Reinhardt, who three years ago founded the New Canaan Parent Support Group, inspired by his son Evan’s passing in July 2015 from a drug overdose, has firsthand seen the significance of what offering one’s help to another can mean. In the time since the support group’s inception, over 100 parents have attended at least one meeting, with many of those continuing to come back because it was “the only place for them to go,” Reinhardt said.
And such support is what lies at the heart of the community pledge that was added to this year’s installment of the vigil’s ceremony.
It reads as follows:
“I pledge that I will reach out to someone who is struggling. I will let the person know I’m thinking about them. I will tell the person I’m available to talk. I will take the initiative and not wait for the person to come to me. I will listen to their story. If I do speak, I will have words of support and hope for the future.”
It’s a pledge that Reinhardt hopes all those in attendance will take to heart because “just talking with someone can be the beginning of them getting help with their addiction.”
In the event’s three years, its signature moments have come during the time when speakers have shared both their heartfelt and heart-wrenching stories with how they first became an addict and how they have traveled their journey of recovery.
Jess, a 22-year-old woman, was one of those speakers Thursday night. Despite her young age, Jess has been on her recovery journey for more than six years now.
On her first day of high school, Jess got on the bus scared and nervous about what this next chapter of her life would entail. On the back of the bus were some upperclassmen who didn’t breathe fear but rather possessed a sense of confidence in themselves which Jess was enamored by. And the fact that those upperclassmen took an interest in her felt all the more good.
That first weekend, with her parents out of town, Jess threw a party intended for only a few of her friends. However, word spread and before she knew it, liquor, cigarettes and weed were widespread in her home—and that night Jess got drunk and high for the first time.
“I had always been an anxious kid,” Jess said as she addressed the crowd. “And I felt like I would walk around my house on eggshells because there were times I would get reprimanded for being too loud or energetic which stunted me finding a sense of identity. I also didn’t really have many friends. But when I got drunk, I felt like I could finally be my outgoing self. It felt that we were in a secret club, superior than the other kids who didn’t drink or do drugs.”
A year later, while visiting her older sister at college, she discovered the power of prescription drugs and started swapping pills with her friends. As her dependence on the pills grew, Jess no longer felt that alcohol was enough. So with such a mindset, in her junior year of high school, on another visit to her sister at college, she overdosed on drugs and alcohol.
“My sister freaked out. And her friends, doing the only thing they felt they could do, advised her to not take me to the hospital in order to avoid them getting in trouble themselves. So I, instead, was put in a bathroom with my fingers shoved down my throat, left over the toilet bowl for hours. My sister sat with me that entire night, terrified.”
The weeks and months that followed included more bumps in Jess’ road of recovery. But, eventually, Jess would get sober in what she deems a “God moment”.
“I woke up and was suddenly struck with the fear that if I used again I would die. I was so fearful that I was able to string together weeks of sobriety. But then two of my classmates committed suicide. I went to the school social worker then and confessed to them that I was again afraid that I would use. So I checked back into Silver Hill and kept trying to get the help I needed to stay sober. After six months dry, my older brother went to rehab for a heroin addiction. That shook me to my core. That is when I started going to 12-step meetings. It’s the reason I got sober and the support system I had at the time is the reason I was able to stay sober…I’m so grateful to be here and even more grateful to be alive. Thank you for my life.”
The event again featured a “Hope & Remembrance” banner that gave attendees the opportunity to share both photos of, and messages to, those who were in their hearts. And another banner which detailed community resources, connections and providers with information about addiction and paths to recovery was also on display for attendees to learn more about the dreadful disease.
The event’s emcee for the third straight year was John Hamilton, a man with more than 30 years of experience in the field of addiction and mental health issues.
“We changed the vigil’s name this year from overdose awareness to addiction awareness,” Hamilton said as he addressed the crowd. “And we did that because we recognize that more people die of alcoholism than from drug addiction. Sadly we’re still losing 192 people a day to drug-related deaths in this country. But if you factor in alcohol-related deaths that number goes up to 415 deaths a day. And if you add tobacco-related deaths, it goes up 1,300. But we’re here tonight because it’s the community who plays the role of healer in the recovery process.”
The evening once again concluded with a candlelight vigil, led by clergy and local faith leaders as those in attendance prayed in unison for those they have lost and those in recovery.