Despite his ‘battle within that will never end,’ recovering addict Ken DeCesare is reaching out as he pulls himself up. Ken DeCesare knows precisely when his troubles began. He was 16, and a bottle of tequila with school friends uncorked steep personal descent. DeCesare was raised in Deltona, Florida, by strict adoptive parents. He was born in 1988 with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and went through withdrawal the first few weeks of his life. His adoptive parents wanted to protect him. Now a teenager, he wanted to explore.
Following his introduction to alcohol, hard liquor and beer led to cocaine along with years of alcohol and drug abuse. He became a high-school dropout and was kicked out of his home. Then barely 21, things got even worse. During Thanksgiving 2010, his parents found him passed out at their doorstep in a drug-induced stupor. They couldn’t recognize him, figuratively and literally.
“They did not know who it was,” DeCesare says, noting hair down his back and an unshaven face.
Yet, DeCesare wasn’t at rock bottom. That finally arrived a few years later — after he was able to white-knuckle his way off the drugs and alcohol with his parents’ help and after thinking he had conquered his demons. Able to live on his own, he moved to the beach. Then came motel life in Daytona Beach, an introduction to prescription pills and the return of cocaine use. He pawned a coin collection received from his grandfather for pennies on the dollar “just to buy for maybe that week.” He also stole from his family to buy his drugs.
There was a marriage, too, in 2013 — but he was already married. DeCesare can’t fully recount the details, saying, “The truth is, I can’t tell you much because I don’t know. What I do know is that I met a woman in Kissimmee and walked from the park to the courthouse while high and married her.” There was a wife in Daytona Beach and one in Kissimmee, plus several criminal charges. That was rock bottom. Months passed. Finally, intervention ensued. DeCesare does remember one thing — a conversation with a helpful friend that went something like this:
“You’re a drug addict.”
“No, I’m not a drug addict.”
“Yes, you are. And who are these two women that are your wives?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His friend went to the internet. Reality hit home. In 2014, with a variety of legal problems still pending and after asking for help, DeCesare entered Florida’s Orange County Adult Drug Court Program. At the outset, he no longer used drugs but continued to drink. His turnaround began, however, with participation in group therapy and the presence of a counselor who “changed my life.”
“I think he thought he didn’t need help at first,” says that counselor, Kelly Piazza, then of Aspire Health Partners, which worked with the Orange County Adult Drug Court Program. “He was thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m a little messed up; I got myself into a little trouble.’ It happens to a lot of my clients — ‘I’m fine. I’m good. I don’t need to be here.’”
There for about eight months of DeCesare’s treatment, Piazza witnessed steady transformation. “His attitude was much different [toward the end]. He was opening up more,” she says. “He had never been through formal treatment before, so he didn’t know where to begin. … It was a bit of an eye-opener for him. He realized that a lot of people were in much worse situations than him. He stopped feeling sorry for himself.”
Today, that self-pity has turned into public service. DeCesare fully acknowledges a misstep is only one drink away. He calls it a “battle within that will never end.” At the same time, he is forging ahead — and with a helpful hand reaching out. “[Now] it’s about what I can do for myself and what I can do for others,” he says. “It clicked. And there are so many other people just like me.”
Now, some of those people are part of his new story.
In November 2016, DeCesare founded Invest in Recovery. The not-for-profit company helps employers find people, like him, who are motivated to change their lives for the better. With an office in southwest Orlando and a presence throughout the region, DeCesare focuses on developing relationships with business owners and prospective employers. His message is one of second chances.
“We are appealing to people’s humanity, basically,” he explains. “‘This person has made some mistakes, but he or she has also taken accountability and responsibility.’ These people are trying to get their life back together and have a better chapter than their previous chapter.”
Also, he works with treatment centers and counselors to build referrals for people like him who seek to hit restart. “When someone is coming out of rehab, they [centers and counselors] can refer that person over to us, because a lot of times that person is looking for a job,” he says. The next step is taking his message nationwide, partnering with national not-for-profit organizations to advocate financial incentives for employers willing to hire people in recovery. Currently, recovering addicts don’t benefit from federal incentives for employers, such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.
“It isn’t easy convincing employers to hire people in recovery just because it’s a good deed. They’d be more receptive if there was an incentive, so let’s give them one,” says DeCesare. There is hope. DeCesare serves as proof. Recovery? Maybe it will last. Redemption? Maybe that will happen, too. Reward? DeCesare says it’s here and now, and driving him into the future. “I call myself passionate — not only for what I’ve been through myself but to help others,” DeCesare concludes. “I want to make an impact.“