New Outpatient Facility Opens
Cleve Bryan, @CleveBryan
GLOUCESTER Twp., N.J. (CBS) — New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says he is dedicating his remaining time in office to tackling the crisis of drug addiction.
During yesterday’s State of the State address, he shared his personal experience with a South Jersey man who is on the road to recovery.
Haddonfield native A.J. Solomon is a young entrepreneur, about to launch his first company. He is son to New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Lee Solomon and BPU Commissioner Dianne Solomon and on Tuesday, he got a shout out during Christie’s address.
“I first met A.J. when he was 11 years old,” Christie recalled. “I attended his Bar Mitzvah.”
Right out of college, Solomon got a job on Christie’s event preparation team. He appeared to have a charmed life, but Solomon had a secret. He was a full-blown heroin addict. “Most of the time, I was in full on withdraw. It was hard to get to Camden to get what I need for the day and then get to Trenton,” Solomon recalled.
He said his addiction started at age 19 when his dad got into a bike accident. “They prescribed him a ton of Oxycontin and he didn’t like the way it made him feel, but I really liked the way it made me feel. So, I did all of it and that was it. Game over.”
During college, his addiction festered privately, but afterwards living at home, his parents figured out what was going on. His options were live on the street, which he did, or go to rehab, which he also did a few times.
Finally exhausted and planning to commit suicide, he says he fell on his knees leaving an airport and cried out to God.
“People say you have to surrender to something. I just surrendered to the fact that I was what I was, and that was enough of a starting point,” he said.
Solomon completed rehab and began working in the recovery field. Now, after several years gaining experience, he plans to open an outpatient facility in Gloucester Township called the Victory Bay Recovery Center.
Solomon apologized to the governor and let him share his life story as Christie announced a series of measures to improve recovery resources during his last year in office. “I love you A.J., and I am thrilled about how you have chosen to spend the rest of your life; your long and productive life,” Christie said.
“I was just trying not to cry,” Solomon said. “Like, not that many people knew my story, so it was different for sure, but it was really humbling and gratifying.”
Solomon says that the Victory Bay Recovery Center will help about 40 to 50 people at a time and he hopes to have it open next month, which also marks for him, 3 years sober.
Not An Uncommon Story- Governor Christie State of the State
Phaedra Trethan, @CP_Phaedra
CHERRY HILL - A.J. Solomon, while proud of his journey to sobriety and his plans for opening an addiction treatment facility, still feels “almost guilty” about being mentioned in Gov. Chris Christie’s final State of the State address last week.
“I mean, this is what you’re supposed to do: You’re supposed to get sober, stop being a liar and a cheater and a thief,” the 26-year-old said.
Christie, in a speech that centered on the opiate epidemic sweeping New Jersey and the nation, introduced Solomon to the public in a different manner:
“Who is A.J.?” Christie asked. “He is A.J. Solomon, the son of (Board of Public Utilities) Commissioner Dianne Solomon and Supreme Court Associate Justice (and former Camden County Prosecutor) Lee Solomon.”
His parents, Christie said, are “two extraordinary citizens” and “two extraordinary parents,” but still, their son’s story of addiction “is not an uncommon story; it just has an uncommon ending.”
That ending, Solomon said, could have been very different than the chapter he’s now entering, one in which he helps fellow addicts get sober and rebuild their lives. It’s a story, he said, that had nothing to do with his privileged childhood in Haddonfield, nor his high-profile parents or his job in the governor’s office.
“I have lots of friends who were privileged like me who are dead,” he said candidly at his office in Cherry Hill. “I have friends who had nothing who are dead, too.”
In his Jan. 10 speech, Christie noted that overdose deaths in New Jersey skyrocketed 22 percent between 2014 and 2015, with a 30 percent increase in heroin deaths. In 2015, the governor said, almost 1,600 people died from drug overdoses, far eclipsing the number of traffic fatalities and homicides in the state.
Sitting in a conference room on a recent afternoon, Solomon seems both embarrassed by the sudden attention he’s receiving and grateful for the platform it’s given him.
South Jersey advocates give mixed reaction to Christie speech “All this press I’m getting …” he began.
His path to addiction began not with his own prescription painkillers, but with his father’s: The elder Solomon was in a bicycling accident and was given OxyContin for the pain.
“He didn’t like the way they made him feel, so he didn’t really take them,” A.J. Solomon recalled. Then 19, he had already experimented with alcohol and Percocet, so stealing his father’s Oxys felt natural. “I could crush it and snort it, and when I did, I decided this was how I wanted the rest of my life to be.”
It was a “quick progression,” he said, from pills to heroin. By the age of 22 he was using “constantly,” to the point where he’d sometimes experience withdrawal symptoms while working in the governor’s office.
“My life was …,” he trailed off for a moment. “I was contemplating suicide.”
Still, outwardly all seemed well. He maintained his old friendships, kept his job (even though he was stopping to buy drugs each morning on his way to Trenton) and while his family believed he had some mental issues, they didn’t seem to know the reason.
A family friend’s chance encounter with him as he bought drugs in North Camden brought his drug problem to his parents’ attention. They immediately arranged to send him to a rehab facility in Florida.
It was there, however, while living in an unsupervised sober living house, that his drug use took an even darker turn: A girlfriend introduced him to intravenous drug use.
“Every time I did it, I would ask myself: Am I going to die?” he recalled. “I hated what I was. I thought my life was over, that I didn’t matter, that there was no getting better.” He was living in his car and in despair, but a concerned phone call from his mother sent him to another rehab, this time in Arizona.
“I showed up high as hell,” he remembered, physically miserable and psychologically spent. He prepared to commit suicide, but when he tried to plot an escape, he discovered his parents had canceled his credit cards — now he was financially spent, too.
Victory Bay Ribbon Cutting
Phaedra Trethan, @CP_Phaedra
GLOUCESTER TWP. - When Gov. Chris Christie asked what he could say about Haddonfield native A.J. Solomon’s addiction and journey toward recovery in his State of the State address in January, Solomon gave his former boss carte blanche.
“I’m an open book,” Solomon told Christie’s speechwriters.
“I just didn’t realize they were going to read the whole book,” Solomon joked as he introduced Christie Thursday at the ribbon-cutting for Victory Bay Recovery Center, an outpatient treatment center for those who, like Solomon, struggle with opiate and alcohol addiction.
“He has now learned a very valuable lesson,” Christie responded. “In dealing with me, if you say I can say whatever I want, I will say whatever I want. ... But I think it’s an important story to tell.”
Christie’s seventh and final State of the State address Jan. 10 was largely focused on the issue of heroin, opiate and opioid addiction. He noted the state had a rate of heroin-related deaths more than double the national rate in 2016, and nearly 1,600 drug-related deaths. He outlined proposals for funding, treatment and regulations to combat what he called “a crisis which is more urgent to New Jersey’s families than any other issue we could confront.”
Solomon’s story was a central theme of the speech, and Christie noted that Thursday.
“The reason why I asked A.J. to speak about him in the State of the State, is that (addiction) can happen to anyone,” said Christie, a longtime friend of Solomon’s parents: Lee Solomon, a state Supreme Court justice and former Camden County prosecutor, and Dianne Solomon, a commissioner on the state Board of Public Utilities.
Christie called Victory Bay “a gift to the people of New Jersey,” and “a place where miracles on Earth can happen.”
The elder Solomon, who has largely declined to speak out on the issue of addiction because of his position on the state’s highest court, grew emotional as he told the gathering of media, friends and officials, including Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, Gloucester Township Mayor Dave Mayer, Assembly members Gabriela Mosquera and Paul Moriarty, and others about his son.
“There is a hopelessness and a pain that you cannot describe, to watch your child go what he was going through, and not be able to help them,” he said. “... But the reason you get up every day and the reason you get up every day believing that you’re doing good is that you have a legacy, you have your children. It’s the reason why we live.”
He continued: “When you think you’ve lost them ... sometimes you’ve lost them forever. It is something that almost ... you can’t survive. But to be able to have my son back ... for his mother and me, is life itself.”
The journey through addiction, relapse and ultimately recovery takes a toll on families, Lee Solomon said, offering prayers for other families affected by the illness.
“I’ve never been more proud of anything or anyone in my life than I am of A.J., right now,” his father said.
Victory Bay will offer intensive outpatient care and services, family support services, sober living placement assistance and intervention planning, modeled on what Solomon said were the methods he found most effective.
His sponsor and Victory Bay co-founder, Brent Reese, said Solomon was following an imperative shared by many who are in recovery: to help others trapped in addiction.
“When someone gets the fire of recovery in them, there’s no better feeling for me,” said Reese, in his 27th year of recovery. “There’s a process of identification. My family didn’t help me (get sober), my friends didn’t help me. It was the stranger who helped me, and to maintain my recovery, I have to do the same for others.”
Solomon said he was “very grateful and humbled” to have so many people at the opening, admitting, “A lot of people here don’t know the pain and harm that I’ve caused” while struggling with heroin addiction.
Recovering addicts “have to help others,” he said, to stave off their own feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that lead to substance abuse.
“I choose to live in the solution,” he said. “There is a solution to this.”
White House Opioid Addiction Roundtable
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is vowing to step up efforts to combat the nation’s opioid addiction crisis, and he’s tapped New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to lead the fight.
Trump convened an emotional roundtable Wednesday with Christie, members of his Cabinet, law enforcement chiefs, recovering addicts and advocates. It was the first public event tied to the launch of a new addiction commission that Christie, a longtime Trump friend and formal rival, will chair.
Trump listened intently as Vanessa Vitolo and AJ Solomon, two recovering addicts from New Jersey, described their harrowing battles with substance abuse. Both became hooked on prescription pain killers, and quickly transitioned to heroin.
Trump also heard from a mother whose son died from an overdose after a long battle with addition. Her son, Trump told the mother, hadn’t died in vain.
“We want to help those who have become so badly addicted. Drug abuse has become a crippling problem throughout the United States,” said Trump, citing statistics that show drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the country. “This is a total epidemic and I think it’s probably, almost un-talked about compared to the severity that we’re witnessing.”
Christie has made the issue of addiction a centerpiece of his administration and spoke extensively about it during his own presidential bid. He has dedicated his final year in office to addressing the drug crisis. Last month, he signed legislation that limits first-time opioid prescriptions to five days’ worth of drugs and requires state-regulated health insurers to cover at least six months of substance abuse treatment.
“This issue causes enormous pain and destruction to everyday families in every state in this country,” said Christie, who has been working behind the scenes with White House officials since shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
Trump promised during his campaign to stop drugs from “pouring” into the country, and said the new group would work with local officials, law enforcement, medical professionals and addicts to improve treatment options, prevent people from getting hooked in the first place and stop the flow of drugs across the border.
“Drug cartels have spread their deadly industry across our nation, and the availability of cheap narcotics — ...some of it comes in cheaper than candy — has devastated our communities,” he said.
But critics say that Trump’s actions as president so far undermine his rhetoric. The failed GOP “Obamacare” replacement bill that Trump pushed to pass sought to end the Medicaid expansion, which provides substance abuse and mental health treatment. It also would have stripped requirements that insurance plans provide the services as “essential” benefits.
“There is a massive gulf between President Trump’s promises to tackle this crisis and the policies this administration has proposed during his first two months in office,” said New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, who also called on the commission to reevaluate other budget cuts the administration has proposed.
Christie’s history with drug policy dates to his first elected position in county government more than 20 years ago. The issue became personal more than a decade later, when one of Christie’s best friends from law school developed an addiction to prescription drugs and died of an overdose in a New Jersey motel.