Addiction recovery stories highlight program for teens and parents

It can be tough being a teenager and equally tough to raise one. From substance abuse worries to chronic miscommunication, there is no shortage of obstacles that can arise during adolescence.

Because of that, Liberation Programs is here to help both parents and teens navigate this challenging time. The local nonprofit organization is one of the leading substance abuse treatment and prevention agencies in Fairfield County. It offers a variety of services focused on substance abuse education and prevention for individuals of all ages.

As of November of last year, the agency’s Youth Options program was relocated to the YMCA of Greenwich. Together, the two agencies are collaborating on promoting health and wellness among adolescents with a six-part series of seminars designed to strengthen relationships and facilitate communication between parents and teens.

The first of the series was held Jan. 23 at the YMCA. Led by Liberation Programs prevention specialist Barry Halpin and Youth Options counselor Cerissa Orbegoso MSW, the lecture focused on ways for parents to better communicate with their children, handle conversations about substance abuse and learn to actively listen. The night featured an array of interactive role-play skits, a Q&A session and a variety of speeches and testimonials from Liberation Programs staff and clients.

Mr. Halpin has been working with the organization for more than two decades and conducts outreach presentations at local schools and community groups throughout Fairfield County. He also brings students on tours to Liberation Programs’ residential facilities, including the Liberation House, a four- to six-month rehabilitation residential program for 65 men that is dedicated to helping them learn sober coping skills.

At this event, Mr. Halpin underscored the importance of the trips to the Liberation House and of having speakers students can relate to.

“One of my favorite things is running trips to the Liberation House,” Mr. Halpin said. “The reason I like doing this is that I think the best way for young people to learn about substance abuse addiction is to hear from people who have been there.”

The Jan. 23 talk was no exception, and the audience heard two men currently living at the Liberation House candidly discuss their personal stories and troubles with substance abuse addiction.

George Ramirez, 22, was the among the speakers. A recovering addict, he grew up in Greenwich, attending Hamilton Avenue School, Western Middle School and then Greenwich High School. He talked candidly about his life, the choices he had made and his free fall into drug addiction. He said he had a normal childhood and recalled playing sports and going on trips to Rye Playland with his father. For Mr. Ramirez, nothing was bizarre or atypical about his childhood until eighth grade, when he first encountered drugs at the hands of older high school kids at Armstrong Court.

His story repeatedly stressed the influence of constant exposure and of his peers in fueling his drug addiction. Drugs were easily accessible, and many around him were indulging. At parties and gatherings, there was a steady stream of potent drugs, and any excuse was an excuse to party. He failed to notice the steady escalation of his addiction from marijuana into harder recreational drugs and prescription pills.

“I didn’t think smoking was that big of a deal. It started escalating and I didn’t notice. I was just going with it, all my friends were doing it, I didn’t even care,” said Mr. Ramirez. “Whatever they were doing, I thought, Let me join.”

Despite the years of ill-concealed and heavy drug abuse, he said, he felt a sense of immunity. Even in the face of repeated arrests, he knew he could rely on his family to bail him out. Because of this, he said, there was no need to take accountability and fully accept the consequences, up until two years ago, when things finally turned real.

“Every time I was arrested, my dad would bail me out,” Mr. Ramirez said. “Always, faithfully. I was catching cases all the way up until I was 20 — that’s when I caught my first bid. I did 20 months in jail at Osborne. I went in on Feb. 10, 2012. The last day I stopped using was the day I went to jail.”

Jail was a turning point for Mr. Ramirez. He said it forced him to “grow up, to realize that he didn’t want to do that anymore.” He admits that had he not served time, he’d likely still be doing drugs, end up another statistic and potentially even fall victim to an overdose.

Mr. Ramirez said he wishes he could go back and undo it all, that he had been more honest and open and that he could have talked to somebody. When he speaks to kids at local schools about his experiences, he returns to these recurring regrets.

“I always tell them I wish I could go back and never do any of that,” Mr. Ramirez said. “I wish that maybe my life would be different. Maybe I wouldn’t never caught a bid, maybe my friend would’ve never overdosed and died. It’s real. Make no mistake about it, it’s not a joke. At the end of the day, all 65 of us [at Liberation House] are there because of one thing, drugs. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Today, facing his previous choices and past unfiltered, he’s filled with regret. He thinks about his family and his friends, dwelling on what he would’ve, could’ve, should’ve done differently. When asked what he wished his parents had said to him, he stressed the importance of honesty and open communication.

“For me, it’s to be honest. For parents, the best thing to do is to tell them to be honest with you. Just try to be on their level. If you’re at that point, don’t get mad at them or yell at them or shut them out, but really talk to them,” said Mr. Ramirez. “That’s how my father was with me, and I took that for granted. You should be able to talk to your kids about everything, to ask them. Or they should be able to ask you. That’s a good feeling, that your son or daughter can talk to you about anything.”

It wasn’t just Mr. Ramirez who shared his life. Michael Rechtman, 23, of Weston, echoed a similar story of a normal childhood, early drug use and fast progression into drugs. He recounted a harrowing tale of dealing and doing heavy drugs, dabbling in larceny and other criminal activities, which all snowballed into heroin use, homelessness and countless rehab centers. He spoke about dreams derailed and of constant speculation about where he might have been had he not smoked that first joint.

“I always wanted to be a firefighter when I was kid. Even until I was 13 or 14, that’s what I would tell my parents I wanted to be when I grew up,” said Mr. Rechtman. “I could’ve done that if I had stayed on the right path, had done the right things. I didn’t aspire to be a drug addict or anything, it kind of just happened.”

He shared that if there were one thing he wished his parents had given him, it would be persistence in trying to start a conversation with him about where he was and how he was feeling.

“They never really tried to figure out how I was feeling. There was a lot I wanted to tell them, but it was hard for me to go up to them and tell them,” said Mr. Rechtman. “I just didn’t have the heart to tell them and I didn’t want to do that, because I wanted to continue living the way that I was living.”

Counselor Cerissa Orbegoso delved deeper in discussing the importance of effective communication with children and of addressing problems with alcohol or drug abuse often and early. Parents all too often fall victim to the phrase “When I was your age,” which Ms. Orbegoso condemned as a classic example of parents failing to listen fully.

“I wonder if that’s the parent trying to be comfortable with the situation of their kid actually approaching them or if it’s them trying to relate to their child or what. But that’s ineffective communication,” said Ms. Orbegoso. “If your child walks up to you and is trying to tell you something, you need to listen. You need to give them your attention and let them speak. These kids feel like they have no one to speak to and they’re turning to hard drugs or other kids that they think understand them to cope.”

She discussed active listening, which is listening not just with ears but also with eyes. She highlighted the importance of conducting difficult conversations with children in a calm, safe, and empathetic manner, which would work toward building trust and healthy communication between parent and child. Above all, she emphasized the importance of helping kids feel safe, so that when they do choose to confide, they can feel confident that they’ll be heard instead of yelled at.

She encouraged parents to find a way for their kids to express themselves, in whatever medium they feel comfortable with, citing examples of her clients using blogs, role-play and even art to communicate with their parents.

“Take the opportunity to speak to your kids, because I’m telling you, what they’re saying is real and it’s frightening. They have no problem using drugs or drinking and driving, but they feel like if they tell somebody, their world will come crashing down,” Ms. Orbegoso said. “They’re fearful. You have to remove the fear. Your children shouldn’t fear you to the point where they feel like they can’t even speak to you.”

Parents in the audience got a chance to test-drive their communication skills with a series of role play skits conducted by Mr. Halpin, with the help of local high school students Clare Livingston, Antonella Saldarriaga and Henry Recinos. These “slice of life scenes” spanned common problems, such as teen drinking and troubling Facebook pages.

The audience was asked how they might deal with these situations and what they as parents might have said or done differently. The teen actors also volunteered their thoughts on how they might have responded as both their characters and as themselves. The dominant theme among their answers was one of clear and calm communication on both ends, of listening instead of overreacting, and balancing expectations.

“Before you let whatever standards you may hold for them play a huge part in how you interact with them, you want to make sure that you’re able to keep somewhat of an open mind,” said Ms. Livingston, 18, a senior at St. Luke’s School. It’s really important that while you may have expectations for your kid, the way you choose to have that kind of conversation shouldn’t be different from how you have any other conversation.”

The evening ended on an uplifting note, with the audience sharing what they loved most about being parents. One audience member revealed that it was the unconditional love she received from her child. Another cited watching the lifelong bonds develop between her kids, and another lightheartedly shared that the best present of all was watching his two children parent and deal with their young children.

Though the responses were definitely diverse, one thing was resoundingly clear — despite all the many challenges of parenting, there was no hesitation or shortage of reasons of why parents do it.

Seminars are free of charge and RSVPs required at [email protected] For more information on upcoming seminars, visit


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