WINDSOR TERRACE — Michael Guardino experimented with drugs like cocaine and Ecstasy when he was an impressionable teenager trying to fit in with the “cool kids.” It was just a little bit here and there, but it started him on a painful path.
“It wasn’t something that I was really using heavily until I was about 22 or 23. I started taking prescription painkillers,” he recalled. “I was taking it for, I guess, two years until I realized that I’m depending on it.”
At the age of 29, he tried heroin for the first time. “Everything was the pills and that went away. Heroin got into my life,” Guardino said.
Over the past four years, Guardino has been through drug rehab twice. “I was crying because I knew I didn’t want to use drugs. But I had no control,” he said.
He has been drug-free for five months after receiving help at Christopher’s Reason, a substance abuse rehabilitation and recovery center on Staten Island.
Along with counseling and treatment, Guardino has someone else in his corner — God.
“I was born Catholic. We used to go to church when I was a kid. Not all the time, but I was raised Catholic,” he said. “As far as treatment goes, I believe in God, the higher power, and that everything happens for a reason. There’s sort of a guiding hand. I do pray. That’s the only thing that’s strong enough because it’s a miracle to get a day clean. And it’s a miracle I have five months.”
Recovering drug and alcohol users who lean on their faith are on to something, said Father Cedric Pisegna, a Passionist priest whose television program, “Live with Passion,” airs on NET-TV. He is the author of several books, including “There is a Solution,” which offers advice on battling addictions.
“Addictions, while they are a disease, are a malady of a spiritual nature,” Father Pisegna said. “People basically are trying to fill their home or their heart with something other than God,” he said.
The road back should be paved with faith, he added.
“First of all, they have to believe that there is a God, a God who cares for them. And that God will work in their life. And one of the key principles that they need to do is to pray,” the priest said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increase in drug and alcohol abuse. In June 2020, 13 percent of Americans reported that they had either started using substances or increased their usage.
There has also been an increase in drug overdoses across the country, the CDC said. More than 81,000 people died of overdoses in the 12-month period ending in May 2020 — the largest number of overdose deaths ever in a 12-month period. The numbers were on the rise even before COVID-19, but the evidence suggests that the pandemic caused an acceleration, according to the CDC.
The spike in substance abuse can be traced to pandemic-induced conditions such as economic distress, anxiety, and loneliness, experts said. Isolation and social distancing have exacerbated the situation.
Father Pisegna said he’s not surprised to hear about the increased use of alcohol and drugs.
“I call it an epidemic in the midst of the pandemic. Addictions are a disease of isolation. And because of a pandemic, many people are at home, and they’re bored, some have lost their jobs. They’re struggling for meaning in life,” he said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been speaking out on the issue of substance abuse for decades, urging parishes to play a role in helping people with addiction issues. In a pastoral letter issued back in 1990, the bishops stated, “As dioceses, we must bring to bear the wealth of our diverse gifts and resources to confront chemical dependency.”
Treatment experts said their clients can benefit from having a deep faith. “I say whatever works for you,” said Donna DePola, president of Rehab and Recovery Management LLC.
“Things are different than they were 30 years ago. This is all individualized care now. What works for you works for you. And if that’s the religion of Catholicism, then I support that in every way. As long as you stay clean, feel good about yourself, and can work through your problems and issues of relapse, that’s fine,” she said.
DePola, who has been in the field for more than 30 years, said she gets “between 10 and 12 calls a day” from people seeking help for themselves or help for a loved one.
DePola worries, however, that people battling addictions will rely solely on religion and avoid seeking professional help.
“People say, ‘Well, I got religion and I don’t need treatment.’ But God shows you the road you have to take. And the path is treatment,” she said.