‘I made a call and my life changed’
Recovering heroin addict now helps others get treatment
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.”
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.