‘I made a call and my life changed’

Re­cov­er­ing heroin ad­dict now helps oth­ers get treat­ment

Daily Southtown - - FRONT PAGE - Donna Vick­roy

Nick Cialdella doesn’t mince words, doesn’t sug­ar­coat the past, doesn’t re­write the nar­ra­tive. Seated at a con­fer­ence ta­ble just days into the new year, he talks can­didly about his plunge into heroin ad­dic­tion and the long jour­ney out — to a place where he says he now can help oth­ers.

Peo­ple in the throes of de­pen­dency, he said, “Don’t know where to go. Don’t know what to do.”

The Mo­kena res­i­dent, who grew up in Tin­ley Park, knows how they feel be­cause he lived that des­per­a­tion.

“Un­til the night I made a choice: Ei­ther kill my­self or get clean,” he said.

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion es­ti­mates there were more than 72,000 drug over­dose deaths in 2017, with 30,000 of them due to fen­tanyl, a syn­thetic opi­oid that is 50 to 100 times more po­tent than mor­phine.

“The num­ber of over­dose deaths mul­ti­plies ex­po­nen­tially when you add al­co­hol, (ben­zo­di­azepines), sui­cide, drunk driv­ing — el­e­ments that are re­lated to opi­ates,” Cialdella said.

He was lucky. Each time he over­dosed, some­one was there to “Nar­can me back to life.”

Though at one time, for a long time, his sole pur­pose was to get a fix, he said his mis­sion these days is get­ting ad­dicts into re­cov­ery.

As a drug treat­ment co­or­di­na­tor for Never Alone Re­cov­ery, a re­hab place­ment ser­vice in Grif­fith, Ind., he helps other ad­dicts start the re­cov­ery process.

“Ad­dicts don’t re­al­ize that at some point you can get to a place where you don’t ob­sess about drugs ev­ery day,” he said. “Most ad­dicts don’t give them­selves that chance.”

But, hav­ing been there, sur­vived that, he said, “I will.”

The fall

Nick Cialdella said he was 12 and in the sixth grade the first time he got loaded.

He and some friends drank Jager­meis­ter and smoked weed be­hind a shed.

What he con­sid­ered then to be a “very com­mon thing to do” soon set him on a path of self-de­struc­tion, a road rid­dled with pre­scrip­tion meds, heroin, lies, theft, car ac­ci­dents, felonies and sui­ci­dal ten­den­cies.

By the time he was 16 and a stu­dent at An­drew High School, his life was out of con­trol. He had no goals, no col­lege plans, no dreams of be­com­ing any­thing other than high, he said.

Now 26, he spent a decade smok­ing, pop­ping pills, shoot­ing up, over­dos­ing, detox­ing and do­ing jail time.

From 2011 to 2015, he was booked into Cook County Jail six times, ac­cord­ing to Sophia An­sari, in the Cook County sher­iff ’s of­fice.

He was “the kid you don’t want your kids to hang out with,” said his father, War­ren Cialdella, who at one point asked the psy­chol­o­gist he was see­ing to “pre­pare me for my son’s death be­cause it’s com­ing.”

War­ren Ci­adella said his son’s ad­dic­tion prompted his younger sis­ter to won­der in an eighth-grade let­ter to her­self, sealed when she was in sixth grade, if “my brother will be alive” when she opened it.

No one had less hope for Nick Cialdella than him­self.

“The thing peo­ple don’t un­der­stand if they’re not an ad­dict is the fear and level of in­se­cu­rity and level of self-ha­tred and self-doubt that comes with be­ing an ad­dict,” he said. “I felt that stuff way be­fore I ever got high.”

He be­lieves lack of self-es­teem exasperated a ge­netic dis­po­si­tion for ad­dic­tion and laid the ground­work for his habit.

“When I think way back to when I was a kid, I thought like an ad­dict. I was

de­fi­ant. If you told me no, I was just go­ing to do it any­way,” he said.

As his ad­dic­tion be­came more pow­er­ful, he was un­able to step out of him­self and an­a­lyze the sit­u­a­tion with­out “im­me­di­ately want­ing to kill my­self,” Nick Cialdella said. “In­stead I’d get high and slowly kill my­self.”

But ev­ery­thing changed on June 15, 2015. He woke up and de­cided he had a choice. A con­flu­ence of events, both de­spair­ing and hope­ful, led him to “sur­ren­der” to the ad­dic­tion, which he says fi­nally stopped the mad­ness and put him on the road to re­cov­ery.

He had a tod­dler son who had yet to for­mu­late any opin­ions about him. At the same time, he’d be­come es­tranged from his own dad and si­b­lings, a sit­u­a­tion that hurt him deeply.

“I gave up my life and ac­cepted that Nick didn’t know how to run his life. Nick only knew how to get high, how to over­dose, how to get him­self in jail.

“I was pow­er­less. I made a call,” he said. “And my life changed.”

Meet­ing spe­cific needs

Never Alone Re­cov­ery Nick Cialdella said, “is like match.com for ad­dicts.”

Whether the in­di­vid­ual needs a place that spe­cial­izes in a 12-step, mu­sicbased, males-only or other kind of treat­ment, he said, the re­source ser­vice nav­i­gates the red tape.

“Ninety-eight per­cent of our work is find­ing peo­ple a bed with no state money,” he said.

Austin Wynn, who founded Never Alone Re­cov­ery, said the ser­vice is free to ad­dicts. Based in Grif­fith, Ind., it works with about 52 fa­cil­i­ties across that coun­try, re­ceiv­ing monthly re­tain­ers from many of them in ex­change for match­ing peo­ple’s needs with spe­cific pro­grams.

Many of the places are out of state, he said. Of­ten, he said, ad­dicts have a bet­ter chance of re­cov­er­ing if they re­hab far from friends who might give them a rea­son to leave treat­ment.

Treat­ing ad­dic­tion as specif­i­cally and in­di­vid­u­ally as you can, Wynn said, is the most ef­fec­tive way to re­cover. Wynn said he’s also work­ing on set­ting up a non­profit to raise funds so unin­sured ad­dicts can get into treat­ment more eas­ily and more quickly.

Among the ad­dicts Nick Cialdella said he has placed in re­cov­ery are sev­eral from the South Side of Chicago or south suburbs who’ve been stymied by treat­ment cen­ter or in­sur­ance lim­i­ta­tions in Illi­nois.

A dad’s jour­ney

“If you don’t have an ad­dict in your fam­ily or know some­one who does, then I don’t know you be­cause that’s al­most an im­pos­si­bil­ity,” said War­ren Cialdella, who heads the south sub­ur­ban group for Fam­i­lies Anony­mous, which meets in Pa­los Heights.

“Whether it’s al­co­hol, mar­i­juana, pills — you know some­one who is us­ing,” he said.

“It’s an ugly, ugly dis­ease,” he said. “In my group alone we’ve buried six teens al­ready.”

There were times he was ex­pect­ing to bury his son.

“It was tough,” he said. “It was emo­tion­ally hard, phys­i­cally hard, mon­e­tar­ily drain­ing. We fi­nally re­al­ized en­abling him wasn’t help­ing him.”

Nine years ago, War­ren Cialdella joined Fam­i­lies Anony­mous. “I went into my first meet­ing think­ing this was a choice, not an ad­dic­tion. I was an a--. I was wrong,” he said.

The telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions worker and long­time coach for Tin­ley Park’s Bob­cats base­ball and soft­ball said, “We tried ev­ery­thing. We fi­nally stopped chas­ing him around and stopped pay­ing the court costs. We stopped en­abling him.

“He wasn’t al­lowed to par­tic­i­pate in my fam­ily func­tions be­cause it was such a train wreck,” he re­called. “I took a hard stand. That was tough on him. We had been re­ally close.”

When War­ren Cialdella said his youngest son could live in his house if he stopped us­ing drugs, the teen moved in with his mom.

War­ren Cialdella said he once asked a judge at the Markham court­house to more than dou­ble his son’s com­mu­nity ser­vice sen­tence, and she did.

He said his son called one night af­ter be­ing re­leased from hold­ing and said, “I don’t have a coat. It’s 1 in the morn­ing. What should I do?”

“Go to a shel­ter,” the father of five said re­count­ing what he told his son.

“Then I said, ‘I’ll come get you and I’ll let you sleep in my car in the garage, but you’re not com­ing in the house.’ So I gave him a blan­ket and locked the door be­hind me. In the morn­ing he had to go find a shel­ter.”

War­ren Cialdella said he was al­low­ing his son to “feel the con­se­quences” of his ac­tions.

“We stopped try­ing to fix it be­cause we were hurt­ing him by do­ing that,” he said.

To­day, he said, his son is self-re­liant.

“He gives back. He makes amends when­ever he can,” War­ren Cialdella said. “He’s turned into an adult I’m proud of.

“There are a lot of kids that never come out the other side and we ei­ther bury them or for­get about them,” he said.

He sug­gests peo­ple strug­gling with a loved one’s ad­dic­tion seek out in­di­vid­ual and fam­ily ther­apy as well as sup­port groups.

“You’ll find out you’re not alone. There are so many peo­ple go­ing through the same despair and emo­tions, the same bar­gain­ing with God, all the things you’ve been go­ing through,” he said.

Though the groups prom­ise anonymity, War­ren Cialdella said, “I am prob­a­bly the least anony­mous per­son about all of this. I want peo­ple to know. I want them to get the help they need.”

The road out

Kyle Poz­niak, of Chicago’s Garfield Ridge neigh­bor­hood, is among the many ad­dicts Nick Cialdella said he has helped get into re­cov­ery.

“I was look­ing to get into treat­ment and a lot of nearby places weren’t ac­cept­ing me,” said Poz­niak, 22.

“I had been sober for awhile and had re­lapsed. I had only been drink­ing about two weeks. Most places wouldn’t ac­cept me be­cause I hadn’t been drink­ing long enough — at least a month — which was ridicu­lous be­cause I was try­ing to stop it be­fore it got worse,” he said. “I got in con­tact with Nick and he linked me up with a place in Cal­i­for­nia and then got me trans­porta­tion.”

Poz­niak said he re­cently reached the 95-day sober mark. He now has a job and his sights set on get­ting a car and his own apart­ment.

“It sounds like nor­mal mile­stones, but for a re­cov­er­ing ad­dict, they’re huge,” he said.

In ad­di­tion to find­ing him a re­cov­ery pro­gram that fit his needs, he said Nick Cialdella gave him en­cour­age­ment and hope.

“That has made a big dif­fer­ence for me,” he said. “He called me on my 90-day an­niver­sary. It feels good. Re­ally cool. We’ve never ac­tu­ally met but he still fol­lows up and cares about me. He knows my name.”

Nick Cialdella has a the­ory on why hu­mans be­come ad­dicted.

“The main thing that mo­ti­vated me to keep get­ting high and de­stroy my life was fear. Of the un­known, of the past, of the fu­ture, of who I was.

“I think we have this void that can only be filled by love or a higher power or what­ever you want to call that but we keep try­ing to fill it with stuff,” he said.

For the past three years, Nick Cialdella has been able to par­ent his son Maisen, who re­cently turned 6.

He also has given pre­sen­ta­tions at his father’s sup­port group meet­ings, at the Frank­fort Pub­lic Li­brary and for the Crest­wood Po­lice Depart­ment’s First Time Of­fender Pro­gram.

“It’s more ef­fec­tive to have some­one who’s lived a gut­ter life­style tell you what’s go­ing to hap­pen,” he said.

“Kids don’t think about ‘one day,’ they don’t think that far ahead,” he said. “What you need to tell them is ‘You don’t want to smoke or do drugs be­cause in a few years, you won’t be able to stop. Even if you want to.’

“It’s much more pre­ven­ta­tive to tell kids, ‘If you be­come an ad­dict, most of your friends are gonna die or go to prison. You might die or go to prison,’ ” he said. “No, you prob­a­bly won’t live un­der a bridge if you’re from the suburbs — you’ll live in your par­ents’ base­ment and put them through hell.

“Hor­ri­ble things will hap­pen,” he said. “I know be­cause they hap­pened to me.”


Once on the brink of sui­cide, re­cov­er­ing heroin ad­dict Nick Cialdella now helps oth­ers get into re­cov­ery.


Ni­cholas Cialdella was booked into Cook County Jail six times from 2011 to 2015. To­day, he helps other ad­dicts get into re­cov­ery.

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