Editor’s Note: This story contains potentially disturbing accounts.
DUNDALK — Substance use disorder can have a drastic impact on those who struggle with it. It can also have a drastic impact on friends on family members of those who use.
On Nov. 19 at the Dundalk Community Theater, students and faculty with CCBC Dundalk and The Dundalk Eagle will host a public forum.
The topic: How substance use disorder impacts families.
Students helping facilitate the forum belong to Professor Michael Walsh’s communications class at CCBC Dundalk. This small group learned that many of them have one thing in common — they are all close to someone who struggles with addiction.
The open forum will be held at the Dundalk Community Theater, located at 7200 Sollers Point Rd. It will run from 6:30-8 p.m.
“Four of my students gave presentations on what it is like to grow up in a household where one or more of their family members faced addiction,” Walsh said.
“The addictions ranged from heroin, cocaine, alcohol and opioids. I was particularly moved by their honesty, emotion and maturity. I went home that night and could not get their speeches out of my head. During my 13 years teaching in the Dundalk community, I’ve heard many students discuss how drug addiction has impacted their families, and I wanted to do something about it.”
Walsh contacted The Eagle after having the idea for a community forum.
“My students loved the idea,” he said. “We are now working together to create an evening that we hope will give the Dundalk community the opportunity to learn about addiction, share their personal stories and support one another.”
Walsh said his students came up with the theme for this forum – You Are Not Alone – and that is how they want people to feel at this event.
The hope is that this evening will make people feel heard and will also make a statement that more must be done to support families who are negatively impacted by addiction, Walsh said.
Statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) show that about one in 10 children live in households with at least one parent who suffer from alcohol use disorder. Further, about one in 35 children live in households with at least one parent who suffers from an illicit drug use disorder.
Alcoholism impacts local kids
One person in Dundalk who lives with a parent who suffers from alcohol use disorder is student Jocelyn Garcia.
“I grew up watching my dad always drink, and [seeing] how it affected my mom in the long run,” Garcia said.
“My mom was physically abused by my dad when he was drunk, and it impacted me and my sister the most because we were the oldest of the three. My brother hasn’t really shown how he’s been impacted by growing up and watching that.”
Garcia said that she has shown some of the same characteristics as her father. One of those characteristics is not knowing her own temper, she said.
“I do lose my temper every once in a while,” Garcia said. “I guess you could say I have the tendency of getting loud and not being patient. I guess you could say I got that from my dad.”
Garcia told The Eagle that growing up wasn’t easy because she watched things she “didn’t want to watch.” She found herself trying to leave the situation when it happened.
“Things haven’t really changed, they have remained the same way,” she said.
“My dad has tried to stop drinking alcohol, but it hasn’t really been much of a long-term thing. He says he will stop, and then you see him again with alcohol, and you know he’s back on that.”
Garcia said it is not only she and her siblings who are impacted by her father’s drinking. She has a niece and a nephew, both at a young age, who are now being impacted by it. They spend time around their grandparents (Garcia’s parents) and have seen the effects of his drinking, she said.
“Living with an alcoholic hasn’t been easy because you have to know not to bother them when they are drunk,” she said. “If you do, then you get into an altercation with them that isn’t good for either of you.”
Garcia said that she has never been to professional therapy. Being in her communications class, however, has felt therapeutic for her.
It’s this kind of community the students and The Eagle are hoping to foster on Nov. 19.
“I really don’t talk about the situation or explain how I grew up,” Garcia said.
“I really don’t talk about it deeply. Learning how other people have been through similar things, just with different addictions, has been something impactful in my life because you get to learn about the things they go through. Once you learn about the things they go through, you get to see similarities.”
House drug raids and Dundalk prostitution
Angelo Colaianni is another student in Professor Walsh’s communications class. He has lived in Dundalk for all 18 years of his life, he said, and he has grown up not far from the substance use epidemic – 500 feet, to be exact.
“The same crack house has been raided seven times,” he said.
“We’ve had three to four raids on my street for cocaine, crack, meth and heroin. I have three dealers who live on my street that I know of.”
Colaianni lives “down the street” from Dundalk Avenue, and said heroin, crack and prostitution all go hand-in-hand.
He said his street is around a half-mile from Holabird Avenue. The intersection of Dundalk and Holabird Avenues is a “hot spot” for drug activity and prostitution. Passing through the intersection, one can see any number of people asking for money ahead of their next fix.
“That whole section of Dundalk Avenue between that corner and the Citgo by Boston Street is filled with any kind of addiction you can think of,” Colaianni said. “Of course, prostitution goes with that on Dundalk Avenue.”
A harrowing scene
Colaianni has his own story of how he has been impacted by substance use disorder. His neighbor died of a drug overdose. This neighbor would walk his dog three to four times per day, but did not leave his house during the week between Christmas and New Years while grieving the loss of a family member, Colaianni said.
A few days after New Years, Colaianni said his neighbor still hadn’t left the home. He knocked on the door and got no answer. A neighbor who lives across the street is a police officer, and told Colaianni to let him know what he found once granted entry, he said.
That spiked his curiosity.
“When I knocked on the door again, I just heard whimpering from his dog,” Colaianni said. “I went around back and knocked on his back door. I saw a blue screen. He had an older TV, so it went to a blue screen when he watched DVDs or whatever. I thought maybe he was in bed, sick.”
Colaianni said he opened the neighbor’s window and called his name, but didn’t get a response. He unlocked the back door and walked inside. What he found left an impact that he still feels today, he said.
“I was young, so I didn’t think that I would find a dead body,” Colaianni said.
“I opened the back door and I took about two steps in to where I could see into the living room on the floor. That’s when I could see his left leg. I sped up my walk and then I could see his right leg. I walked into the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, and that’s when I saw his body.”
The neighbor’s cause of death was ruled a drug-induced heart attack, Colaianni said. He said he saw cocaine and a crack pipe on the table in the living room.
“It was a really bad scene,” Colaianni said. “For me, after that, that whole night I didn’t sleep. The next day, I had school. That was our first day back.”
Colaianni said he continued to have nightmares for months after finding his neighbor’s body inside the home. Sleep was nonexistent for the first month after that incident, he said.
“It just seemed like the mornings were hard and the nights were harder,” he said. “It was hard to get up and feel motivated to do anything. The nights were so much harder because I knew, if I closed my eyes, what I would see. That was for months, almost a year.”
Colaianni said he sat in meetings with a therapist, but didn’t find the sessions helpful. The therapist he met with would mainly ask him if he was suicidal, he said, but didn’t do much beyond that.
“She had me explain the scene about 20 times to her, and then asked me if I was suicidal almost every time I went there,” he said. “It was no help at all. It’s rough because people see that stuff every day, especially in the city. Around O’Donnell Heights, shootings happen there all the time. I’ll pass there, and there will be a dead body laying on a sidewalk where the cops are covering it up. I’ve seen that twice.”
Colaianni said that while he has seen the effects of substance use disorder in his hometown of Dundalk, he doesn’t think that the area is unique. It’s tough for any community that struggles with it, he said.
Dishonesty within families
Another CCBC-Dundalk student, Kalei Files, said she has been impacted by her mother’s substance use disorder.
“Me and my mom were close, and then one day she came back from hanging out at her friend’s house,” said Files. “She fell and started having a seizure. She had foam coming out of her mouth, so we called 9-1-1 and they took her to the hospital.”
Files said she did not realize the emergency was drug-related at the time. She was a young teenager at the time, she said. Her mother had seizures “here and there” afterwards, but they weren’t as bad as the first seizure.
“She would just pass out and shake a little bit, so I just thought there was something wrong with her,” Files said.
Files said that her mother has lied to her her whole life. The lies started about minor things, like what she had for lunch or where she was on any given day. After the seizures started, the lying got worse, she said.
“She would steal my grandmother’s pills,” Files said. “I would see her take my grandmother’s pills and she would tell me not to say anything. She blamed it on my grandfather once. That caused a problem, and I couldn’t tell the truth because she was my mom and she told me not to.”
Files said that during her sophomore year of high school, she began to grow closer with her father. She moved in with him that following summer.
“I called him up one night and said, ‘Dad, I need to get out of here. I can’t handle this anymore,’” Files said. “I was getting scared that I would end up like her and start using drugs and not go anywhere in life.”
Files said her mother acted like “two different people” that night. At first, she was fine with her daughter leaving. Later, she became irate and told her she couldn’t leave. After she left, her mother and grandparents didn’t speak to her for about a month, she said.
“My mom felt like I betrayed her because I left her, because she didn’t realize that I needed to live with my dad,” Files said. “I needed to get my head straight and get good grades in school, so that I could have a future and a career. She just cared about what she wanted, and what she wanted was for me to be with her.”
Some time later, her mother overdosed. Files found out through a friend who was volunteering at a fire station in Edgemere. That friend responded to a call and later told Files that the person who overdosed looked like her mother.
Files said she confirmed it was her mother by requesting the police report. The report said her mother had overdosed on “heroin or opiates.” The report showed that her little brother was with her mother when the overdose happened, Files said.
“At the time, he was about six or seven, and he actually got taken away from her for about a year or a year-and-a-half,” Files said. “After I read that police report, I realized that the first time she had the seizure was her overdosing. She was at the same house she was hanging out at when she had her first (overdose). We put the pieces together.”
Files said that she confronted her mother after obtaining proof that her mother overdosed and had a substance use problem, but her mother insisted it was just a seizure. Her mother recently moved to Florida, she said, and the two currently don’t have a relationship.
This public forum will be held at the Dundalk Community Theater at CCBC Dundalk, located at 7200 Sollers Point Rd., on Nov. 19 and will begin at 6:30 p.m. Those who attend are invited to share their own stories about the impact of substance use disorder.