LOWER EAST SIDE — When Nilsa Sicardo asked her teenage son to buy her marijuana, she realized it was time she sought help.
After 35 years of a daily drug habit that was often combined with alcohol, Sicardo stopped using two-and-a-half years ago. Helping her each step of the way was Project Contact, an outpatient addiction program at the Educational Alliance.
For Sicardo and many others in the program, the group is relied on even more at this time of year. The holiday season is wrought with situations that might trigger a relapse, such as volatile family gatherings, alcohol at parties or even the loneliness that many experience this time of year.
“We plan at least a month in advance of Thanksgiving,” said Catherine Maranto, 51, the program director of Project Contact. “It is very important for every client to have a sobriety plan.”
Project Contact is one of 42 programs run by the alliance, a non-profit that has over 20 locations in the East Village and the Lower East Side. The organization’s temporary headquarters at 232 East Broadway.
The program takes clients through three phases on their road to rehabilitation including early recovery, which is generally the first 90 days after someone has kicked a habit. The other two phases consist of relapse prevention and aftercare to ensure clients stay off their vice, whether it be alcohol or another substance.
In October, as stores readied for Thanksgiving and shelves were stocked with Christmas decorations, the alliance was busy preparing clients for the weeks ahead.
“We prepare them for being at family gatherings where there is bound to be alcohol,” said Maranto, of the program that is available for English, Russian and Spanish speakers. “We take them through role plays and how they are going to cope.”
The majority of clients at the alliance come from low-income backgrounds in the surrounding neighborhood, mingling with the occasional white collar addict. The program is not free, though Medicaid and most health insurance programs are accepted. Clients who do not have insurance are asked to pay a fee based on a sliding scale.
Identifying what could trigger a relapse and creating a plan for when that happens is crucial, according to Maranto. She also suggested limiting time with family because of the “intense emotional high” that might come with the interaction, especially if the situation is dysfunctional.
Although Project Contact is not a 12-step program like Alcohol Anonymous, linking in with one of those program can help.
“They run a marathon of sober parties during the holiday season,” said Maranto. A list of sober people to call when temptation knocks is also useful, as is recognizing that family and friends may not understand what it means to be in “recovery.”
For Eric Copeland, a recovering alcoholic who is also 15 years clean of a crack cocaine addiction, his holiday planning with the Educational Alliance came in useful a few weeks ago for his 45th birthday.
“It was the first birthday in a long time I was sober,” said Copeland, who is a father of three and works as a moving contractor. “It was raining and I was feeling kind of down.”
Throughout that time he regularly talked with his counselor at the alliance, attended as many AA meetings as he could and even took urine tests just for an encouraging and clean result.
“It reassures me that I am doing it,” said Copeland of his method of staying sober.
After 25 years of a $100 a day alcohol habit this Christmas is already different.
“Now that I am sober, I am able to go shopping and it has been years since I brought my kids Christmas gifts,” said Copeland.
As for Sicardo, she will be avoiding many social situations for the holidays and has a plan to avoid possible confrontations with her mother.
She tries to remind herself what she can buy when she's not spending $60-a-week on her addiction.
“Now I can buy a pair of boots a month and pay my electricity bill on time,” she said.