When you come to a fork in the road, take it! – Yogi Berra

But what to do when life feels more like a dead end or, worse, a brick wall? Stephen Della Valle knows plenty about brick walls; he saw enough of them walking the streets of Newark. Della Valle, a Jefferson resident for more than 30 years, was raised in a working class household not very different from other neighboring Newark families. Young Steve didn’t find much of interest in school. In fact, the classroom often seemed more chaotic than the streets. Strong cough syrup provided his first escape from reality, a way to deal with life; then it became cough medicine and pills. Eventually, school was not worth the trouble, and he and his buddies became wise guys on the streets.

But this story is not about Della Valle and his childhood friends. It is about choices, about options. The COVID pandemic has impacted all of our lives in ways unimaginable a year ago. It has brought some of us closer … and also caused untold suffering and sadness. For many, it has opened doors … or closed the chapter on lives cut short. We all have our stories. But one tale not being told enough, according to Della Valle, is how this year has affected addiction and its treatment.

Della Valle, who found a solution to his own struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, currently manages admissions support at Turning Point, a New Jersey-based center for treatment of both chemical addiction and co-occurring mental illnesses. He is on the frontlines in the struggle for recovery, and since COVID, the battle lines have been redrawn.

For addicted people, isolation is often a refuge; it is also a nightmare. Left alone, their delusions become realities, their fears become insurmountable. They believe themselves incurable or even unworthy of help. COVID, as we have all seen, has forced many of us into social isolation. It has affected us, our families, neighbors, and children. We can reflect on the disruption to our normal social life and the toll it has taken. We know the effort required to adjust course. For many addicts struggling for survival, the past year has often proven too much to bear.

Della Valle notes the increase in addiction-related deaths, but even scarier is another phenomenon. Many people without a history of chemical abuse are suddenly finding their lives unmanageable. Lacking the accountability of the workplace, casual indulgences have become habits, and habits have become compulsions. The “glass of wine with dinner” professional finds herself in an inexplicable mire of confusion and shame. The out-of-work contractor or mechanic realizes he hasn’t moved from the couch in days as empty bottles pile up.

Darker still are those who would seek help, but can no longer find it. Programs have been shut down. Shelters are shuttered. Church doors are locked. Twelve-step meetings have gone online. Even the courts have stopped processing cases. Though not the most favorable option, even “Drug Court” is now handcuffed by COVID restrictions. (Drug Court is a strict program designed to help those with drug and alcohol convictions to redeem themselves and create a better life, if they are willing and pose little risk to society.) Della Valle admits that time in prison helped to show him the path to a new and better life. “They aren’t even putting people in jail anymore,” he says. For many in the depths of addiction, anything – including jail – would be a reprieve from their daily nightmare.

So, where can someone turn? Della Valle, unsurprisingly, recommends Turning Point (turningpointnj.org). The phones are answered from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.seven days a week: 973-380-0905. Della Valle insisted that this article also provide his own number (973-897-6096) and email address (sdellavalle@turningpointnj.org); he answers his phone 24 hours a day, including weekends and holidays.

Facilities like Turning Point, says Della Valle, provide an array of resources. They currently house residents aged 18-75, both men and women, and treat the spectrum of chemical addictions and their concomitant mental illnesses. With 32 years of sobriety, Della Valle calls his own story nothing less than a miracle. In his book Rising Above the Influence, he details the many twists in his journey. Turning Point and facilities like it provided an opportunity for the light to come on. For anyone struggling in the dark despair of addiction and isolation, a little light is welcome indeed.

Della Valle believes the worst damage of COVID will become evident long after we have recovered from the pandemic. He likens it to picking through the aftermath of a hurricane, when the true devastation is clear and rebuilding can begin. His advice in the meantime is to be ready to act. If someone you love seems to be struggling with addiction, and a moment of clarity and willingness presents itself, act then and there. Make the phone call. Pack a bag. Get help in that moment, because the next moment may be a long way off; for many desperate and unfortunate people, the next moment comes too late.

But Della Valle speaks inveterately of hope. He sees the pain, the destruction, and the death every day. It is his life’s work. But he sees the recovery, too … the families restored … the new lives earned through courage and progress won back one day at a time. Asked for a quote to wrap up the article, he suddenly turns thoughtful, almost shy. “I don’t want to say anything cliché. Just to everyone out there: Know there is a way.”

For more information: www.turningpointnj.org

Contributing writer Jim Dougherty may be contacted at jim.dougherty@thejeffersonchronicle.com.

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