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Addiction and recovery: A human face on the substance use crisis in Worcester

December 2023

Read the original article on the Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Karen DiSaronno lives in a sober house. She was injured in a car accident during the pandemic and could not find a doctor to treat her pain. She turned to the streets for pills. When the pills weren’t enough, she turned to heroin and fentanyl that ultimately landed her in jail.

WORCESTER – It’s well documented that Worcester faces a homelessness and substance use crisis. 

The city has a shortage of roughly 200 beds that could help those suffering with these scourges, according to some advocates. Worcester just opened a 60-bed emergency winter shelter at the former Registry of Motor Vehicles headquarters on Main Street for single homeless adults to help alleviate the shortage. But it’s only open through April, and the need for beds will more than likely extend beyond April. 

Meanwhile, from 2021 to 2022, Worcester had a roughly 35% increase in drug overdose deaths, including city and non-city residents, according to Dr. Matilde Castiel, the city commissioner of health and human services. It's a different story compared to 2022 through the first nine months of this year. Over that period, Castiel said overdose deaths in Worcester for city and non-city residents dropped nearly 20%.

There are a lot of numbers here that highlight deep social problems. But numbers can cloud one’s understanding of the crisis, because numbers are impersonal. There’s no face attached to these figures. 

That’s where Karen DiSaronno comes in. She puts a human face on this crisis as she shared her long struggle with drug addiction. In a lengthy interview that included moments of tears shed by DiSaronno, she believes she’s finally on solid footing with a bright future ahead.

Cooking is her passion

The 48-year-old DiSaronno loves to cook Middle Eastern dishes, especially grape leaves. But she needs a new stove to get it done. 

“I’m pretty persistent,” she said for getting that stove. Dressed in black and comfortably seated in her living room near a decorated Christmas tree, DiSaronno hopes the stove comes soon because her housemates want to gobble up her homemade dishes.\

Cooking is routine in many homes this time of year during Hanukkah and Christmas, but the place DiSaronno lives is not your traditional home. It’s a sober house, where DiSaronno and other women recover from some of life's demons.  

Car accident started downward spiral

In 2016 DiSaronno, a Lawrence native, was driving in Haverhill and suddenly the car malfunctioned, flipping over several times. An ambulance raced her to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, and then she was airlifted to Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

DiSaronno was in a coma for four days, and doctors wanted to perform reconstructive surgery on her face. She declined, because she felt the medical team was rushing her care and she didn't have full faith in them. 

After nine days at Beth Israel, DiSaronno was sent home to live with her boyfriend, along with a month’s supply of pain medication. Access to refills was a problem, so DiSaronno said she bought street drugs through her boyfriend’s contacts. It started with Percocet and moved on to heroin. 

“I felt there was no way out of my addiction.” 

Karen DiSaronno wipes tears from her eyes as she remembers her struggles with substance abuse.

Probation, then jail

Crying as she recounted the embarrassment of hiding her addiction from her three children, DiSaronno said she considered suicide: “I felt there was no way to get free of the addiction.” 

The downward spiral continued. DiSaronno got into an argument at home, police arrived, and they found drugs in the apartment. She received probation, spent three weeks in detox, but couldn’t kick her addiction.  

A toxicology screen revealed drugs in her system, and she was sent to jail at the South Bay House of Correction, where she spent nearly three months: “All I wanted to do was get high when I got out.” 

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