The graduation ceremony Sunday for 28 recovering drug abusers had all the trappings of a college commencement, with honorees in cap and gown, diplomas bestowed, crying parents and tassels moved in unison.
The graduates, their parents and children, friends and hundreds of other participants in the residential program gathered to celebrate renewed family connections, jobs and self-confidence that came with restored lives.
“I have a good job,” Joseph Canella, a graduate from Hickory, said in an interview. “I have integrity. I have peace of mind.”
Mirroring the nation, TROSA, or Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, in the past few years has had more recovering opioid addicts entering its program than 20 years ago, when the program had more recovering crack cocaine and cocaine addicts in residence, said Jeff Stern, director of business operations.
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Heroin addiction has become a national health and political issue. Republican presidential primary candidates discussed the issue in their campaigns.
In North Carolina, the Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use is recommending part of a $20 million budget allocation be used to strengthen local opioid response strategies.
A new national law supports expanded diversion programs that would direct low-level drug violators to treatment.
Some of Sunday’s graduates were former heroin addicts now determined to stay clean.
Every life follows its own trajectory, but Canella took a familiar path to heroin addiction through prescription drug abuse.
Canella, 34, started using painkillers when he was 20 and shattered his right heel. Canella said he was a hard partier then and his “body fell in love with the pain medication.”
That led to methadone and heroin use, and repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop using. Two years ago, facing a prison sentence on drug charges, he decided a recovery program was the better option. He called TROSA and was admitted.
It’s the best decision I made in my adult life.
Joseph Canella, on entering the TROSA recovery program
“It’s the best decision I made in my adult life,” he said.
TROSA is highly structured. Residents gradually earn more freedom and job responsibilities. Canella started his time in TROSA living in a dorm with 45 people and, over time, was assigned fewer and fewer roommates until he got his own room. He wasn’t able to hold money for 18 months.
The program’s focus is changing behavior, Canella said.
“Everything you go through here, you go through it clean,” he said. “You live your life.”
While he’s been in the program, he’s rebuilt his relationships with his family.
“It’s pretty much as good as it gets,” he said.
Canella has worked at the TROSA thrift store, one of the businesses the program runs that is staffed by residents.
He has a new job with a heating and air conditioning company.
As part of the ceremony, graduates thanked their family members in short speeches.
“I’ve come a long way,” Canella said, “but I’m just getting started.”