By Jack Firneno
Kelly O’Brien used to describe herself as a Garbage Pail Kid: “Anything you had, I’d take it.”
It’d been like that since she was in sixth grade, trying to do what the older kids did, like drinking and smoking pot. By seventh grade, she was also snorting Xanax and trying acid. A volunteer firefighter in her early 20s, she quit that by the time she was 24 in order to “make money, get high and party.”
At 28, she was living “like a hobbit” in a dark apartment with no electricity and no food in the fridge. She had her pills to wake up and pills to get to sleep. The day was dotted with pot, cocaine, meth and alcohol.
“I did everything and I did it all every day,” she admitted. “I lived with my blinds shut, shutting everyone out, staying in sick.”
It was like that up until around two years ago.
Last week, O’Brien attended the 48th Annual Gala for the Livengrin Foundation. It was her second year attending this event for the Bucks County-based addiction treatment center, and this year’s focus was close to her heart: the group’s new First Responder’s Addiction Treatment program.
“It’s special to me that they’re raising money for people like firefighters and police officers, people out there saving us and helping us that actually have this illness but it’s hard to admit.”
O’Brien was one of them years ago. But things are different now, thanks in large part to her own experiences with Livengrin and the Leigh Leckerman Scholarship Fund that’s associated with it.
For nearly a half-century, Livengrin has been provided addiction treatment, including in-patient services like rehab, to those in need in Bucks and Montgomery counties and Philadelphia.
The Scholarship Fund was established by Steve and Denise Leckerman. O’Brien was one of its first recipients, and this year the Leckermans have been generating more awareness of it.
The Scholarship provides funds for inpatient rehabilitation at Livengrin for people who need the service but absolutely cannot afford it. It’s named after Steve’s daughter and Denise’s stepdaughter, who was killed by a driver under the influence of alcohol while she herself was in a similar state.
“There’s a lot of addiction in that family, and my husband and I have been involved in the recovery for over thirty years,” said Denise. “We thought, ‘What can we do to make something good out of this?’ ”
The answer was the Fund: “The way insurance companies have changed, and the way county funds get exhausted so quickly, when you’re at the end of the road, there’s often nothing left,” said Denise.
That’s where O’Brien was before going to Livengrin. She’d shut out most of her friends by that time, and half her family wasn’t speaking to her. O’Brien had met Steve Leckerman after he helped her sisters with their own addiction problems. He’d offered help through Livengrin to her, too, but that’s not what she wanted at the time.
“Honestly, I wanted to die,” she said.
But it took what O’Brien called her “spiritual awakening” to change her mind.
“One night, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I remember praying and writing my ‘last letter’ to my friend’s mother.”
It was her moment of clarity, and soon after she was admitted to Livengrin, where she stayed for 28 days. Up until then, she thought she’d just be the person who did drugs all her life. The foundation and the fund changed that.
“When someone offered me that little bit of hope, I realized this was my chance. I listened to what they told me and I sucked it up as much as I could,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien is quick to stress that neither rehabilitation nor staying sober afterward is easy. “Things still happen, life still continues. You lose friends, you lose parents. You just have to remember everything you learned. You have to reach out and do something about it.”
Today, she’s working steadily as a waitress, and last week she was signing applications for loans and mortgages. Her mother passed away earlier this year; It was the most “crippling, devastating thing” that’s ever happened to her, she said, and staying sober after it was the biggest challenge of her life.
But, making it through those struggles is always worth it: “I stay in the moment. I’m hopeful. I’m grateful,” she said. “Tonight, I’m doing my nine-year tradition of taking my nieces and nephews trick-or-treating. But this year, I’ll remember it because I am sober.”
For information, visit www.livengrin.org.