Catholic Diocese of Cleveland

1404 East 9th Street | Cleveland, Ohio 44114

Saving Sara

Matt Talbot for Women helped her achieve sobriety

Sara Szelagowski grew up in a devout Catholic family in suburban Garfield Heights — a solid, middle-class community. After graduating from Trinity High School, she attended the University of Akron, earning a bachelor’s degree in family and child development.

While attending college, the first time she lived away from home, Sara began using and abusing alcohol at parties. Over time, her substance abuse progressed to the use of opiates.

“There was more stress living on my own and having more responsibilities and I was trying to escape. I started drinking just like everyone else, or so I thought” she said. Within a year or two, Sara said she was introduced to opiates. “I used the drugs recreationally every couple of months to relax and unwind.”

During her senior year of college, she moved back home with her parents, who had moved to Parma. She was working a third-shift job while taking her last few classes. She also was dating someone who was using drug. After graduation, when they became roommates, she learned that he used drugs daily. He entered a treatment program and was doing well for a while, she said.

However, she was still drinking and occasionally using opiates. Both were working. “Things were going pretty well and we were married in August 2013,” she said. But he relapsed, began using drugs again and her drug use also began to increase.

Early in 2014, Sara fell at work and broke her elbow. She had to wait a week for surgery, so the doctor prescribed painkillers. “We (she and her husband) ate the pills to get high,” she said, taking the entire supply in just a few days. She tried to get more, but was presented with heroin as an option, so she began injecting the drug. After surgery, she was on painkillers and insisted she would stop using heroin. “I did stop twice, but I went back to using because my husband was still using and it was always around. The high from heroin was just so much better,” she said.

Her husband began an outpatient program, but quickly stopped attending, and then lost his job, which caused a major financial strain. His car was repossessed and they couldn’t to pay the rent on their apartment. He enrolled in a residential treatment program in Michigan. After he left for treatment, his parents clued Sara’s parents into what was going on – something the Szelagowskis already suspected – so they had an intervention at their home.

“They took charge and stayed with me here while I detoxed,” Sara said. “It was a really bad four days.”

She enrolled in an outpatient treatment program and worked on weekends, which allowed her to attend the outpatient groups and 12-step meetings during the week.

“I knew how to beat the system,” Sara said, explaining that she would attend a group meeting on Thursday night, use drugs on Friday and work to clean out her system over the weekend so she could pass the required three weekly drug tests. But soon she started failing the tests, was using drugs daily, quit the treatment program and moved in with a man who also was a daily drug user.

“That summer, I basically camped out in our apartment with the curtains closed,” she said. “I was using heroin and smoking crack daily.” Using cash advances, she and her male roommate bought a car. By late July, she had exhausted all financial resources and didn’t know what else to do but call her parents for help.

“The phone rang at 12:30 a.m. one night and I thought it might be the police saying she was dead,” Gary said.

“I knew something had to change,” Sara said, “but I didn’t want to face reality. I knew I couldn’t get clean without help.” Even though she surrendered her car keys and cell phone to her parents when they allowed her to move back into their home, she still found ways to get and use drugs.

By early October 2015, Sara was desperate. She had no drugs and she couldn’t find the car keys her parents had hidden. She had a needle and some cotton from a previous drug session and desperately was trying to get a few drops out of the cotton when her mother discovered her.

“She wasn’t my daughter at that point,” Joann said, explaining how much Sara was changed by her addiction. “I called the police. The addiction was in control. She wasn’t making her own choices.”

Sara said she was exhausted and “wanted to quit using drugs, but I couldn’t.” She waited for the police to arrive, was arrested and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. After a hearing in Parma Municipal Court, she was sentenced to 90 days in jail, during which time she detoxed again.

During her time in jail, while waiting for a bed at Matt Talbot, Sara received a copy of the October 2015 Northeast Ohio Catholic magazine – the inaugural issue. The cover story was about a woman who overcame her substance abuse issues through the Matt Talbot for Women program.

Along the way, her parents attended support group meetings and garnered support from family and friends. While Sara was in jail, one of those friends told them of a prayer service at St. Basil Parish in Brecksville and they decided to attend. Father Walt Jenne, St. Basil pastor, said the prayer group was organized by the parents of a young man who died from a drug overdose. He said the parish was struggling with the loss of several parishioners’ family members from drug and/or alcohol abuse in a six-month period.

“We were talking to someone about Sara’s situation and Maureen Dee (executive director of treatment, prevention and recovery services, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Cleveland) overheard us,” Gary said. “That was a Thursday night. By Tuesday, Sara had a bed at Matt Talbot.”

From early November 2015 until mid-January 2016, Sara was an inpatient at Matt Talbot for Women in Cleveland. She admitted she wasn’t thrilled about the strict schedule mandated for those in the program. They attended group and one-on-one counseling sessions six days a week. “It was pretty intense,” she said. The only time they left the building was to attend 12-step meetings. They were always supervised.

She was permitted one hour-long family visit and one 10-minute phone call per week. The women also were assigned chores.

“I hated being away and disconnected from the outside world,” Sara said, but she admitted it gave her time to examine her life and the choices she had made. “Where I was at age 27 wasn’t exactly what I had planned for my life.” She said she used the tools and resources she learned at Matt Talbot, including art therapy, to help with her recovery. “I also relied on a higher power for help,” she said. Sara fell away from the Catholic Church during college, but said she connected with a Christian church during her recovery.

While she was in treatment, her parents continued seeking help for themselves and attending meetings, including Al-Anon and Families Anonymous. They also took advantage of the employee assistance programs offered by their employers.

“They (counselors in treatment centers) talk about the difference between enabling and helping,” Gary said. “They also taught us that we didn’t cause it and we can’t fix.”

“All recoveries are different,” the Szelagowskis said. They also learned of friends who were impacted by family members’ substance abuse issues. Gary had discovered earlier-on that a co-worker’s son died of an overdose and she provided early directional support for him.

“Our faith helps us cope, too,” Joann said.

Sara was discharged from the Matt Talbot residential program in mid-January 2016 and immediately began outpatient treatment. She attended three meetings weekly, one of which was a family meeting.

After her discharge, Sara’s divorce was finalized, she found part-time employment, got a sponsor and was working a 12-step program. Then in December 2016, she learned she was pregnant. The father is also in recovery.

Her parents admitted they were less than enthused about the pregnancy, fearing it would stress her and cause a relapse. “But it proved to be a motivator,” Joann said. “She’s a tremendous mom.”

“We’re both continuing to focus on our sobriety,” Sara said of herself and her son’s father. She lives with her parents, works full time and cares for her son, who was born last summer.

The Szelagowskis said they had to work through the process of rebuilding trust with Sara. They recently celebrated the two-year anniversary of her discharge from Matt Talbot with a big family dinner. “Sara’s big milestone is her sobriety date, Oct. 7, 2015. That date is bittersweet for us because it is also the day we had our daughter arrested. It is more joyful for us to celebrate the day she returned home.” Gary said.

It’s been 2½ years since she completed Matt Talbot. Although it wasn’t easy, Sara said she’s pleased with progress she’s made and she continues working on her recovery. She employs coping tactics learned at Matt Talbot and in subsequent support group sessions to help deal with stress. Before treatment, substance abuse was her way of coping with stress.

“I’ve had no relapses since Matt Talbot,” Sara said, adding she feels her recovery “is very solid.” Several friends, including two of her Matt Talbot roommates, have died from overdoses. “If it wasn’t for Matt Talbot, I’d probably be dead, too,” she said.

“Thank you, Matt Talbot for doing for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves; for believing in the solution until we could believe in it ourselves,” Sara said.

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