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For the people he helps get off drugs, there's a level of comfort in the fact Nick Cialdella looks like he's done them.

The tattoos. The long hair. The skater-like cadence.

His appearance screams: He's one of them.

Because he once was.

"Heroin was my first wife," he recalled recently. "I didn't know how to live without a needle in my arm."

Before the age of 22, he said, he had spent the totality of a year in Cook County Jail, where he had to join a gang. His mom had an insurance policy on him so she could afford his burial.

Now 26, he can look at his past with a degree of removal, like it's a person he's watching in a movie.

Having been clean more than three years, he says, he is turning his negative experience into a positive one for others. The Mokena resident is the outreach coordinator for Never Alone Recovery, a treatment-referral agency in Griffith.

"I knew he was chatty — a lot of this job is human-to-human interaction," said Austin Wynn, the 28-year-old founder of Never Alone Recovery, wearing rubber bracelets that said "Break the Stigma" and "Silence Kills." "He's met and then exceeded my expectations, which is cool."

In Wynn's own recovery, he said, "I never listened to a single therapist or counselor, until I met an addict."

Instead of using, Cialdella now spends his days fielding calls from people trying to stop, as well as their family members ("a lot of mothers," he said.) He sometimes drives homeless people to treatment; he said he's found crack pipes and syringes in the back of his Honda Civic.

"I know what it's like to not have a ride," he said.

He and his colleagues at Never Alone Recovery say they know how to find assistance for people with addiction — because they've been there themselves. For Cialdella, it was nine times in inpatient, 12 in outpatient.

"Getting people into treatment is more important than ever nowadays," said Kaye Miceli, the 31-year-old operations manager of Never Alone Recovery. "They're not making it to live five to 10 years."

Street drugs like heroin, cocaine and even counterfeit prescription pills are deadlier than ever, as they're often laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid as much as 100 times stronger than morphine. Opioids reportedly kill 130 Americans a day.

"I raise my kid and help addicts," Cialdella said. He has custody of his 5-year-old son, Maisen, who is in kindergarten.

Cialdella said his son was too young to remember the drug years, that he only knows "super Dad."

Addicted from an early age

Cialdella said he was raised around addiction, had it in his genes. He started smoking pot as a teenager, got drunk on Jagermeister. He went into treatment for the first time at 16, when he was hooked on benzodiazepines. Still, he kept using.

His dad, who was divorced from Nick's mom, refused to enable Nick, making him leave the house at 17. Around that time, Nick tried heroin, which, he said, "just brought me to my knees."

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He crashed cars, was robbed on the West Side of Chicago, became a convicted felon, overdosed multiple times.

"I would have rather died than keep using," he said, "but I didn't know how to stay clean."

One day in 2015, though, he remembers being in bed, with only enough energy to shoot up. That was as close to an epiphany as he was getting.

He went back to treatment, with a different mindset.

"I was no longer in denial about where my life was at — I got out of being a victim," he said. He relapsed, but eventually sobered up.

He worked in the trucking business for a while, until Wynn, who he knew from the recovery community, convinced him to come work for the Northwest Indiana startup. It took three or four tries, but Cialdella eventually joined the team.

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Another person from recovery, Scott Howard, invited Cialdella and his son to move in. They're now roommates in Mokena.

"He's matured, where he's not just hanging out at the meetings," Howard, a 59-year-old widower, said of Cialdella. "He's working. He's getting involved. He's reaching out to the new people. He's making sure there's someone to talk to coming into the rooms."

'A message of hope'

Cialdella repaired his relationship with his father. Nick is now allowed over at his dad's house whenever he wants; he even has the passcode to the front door.

Warren Cialdella said his son "went from the kid you don't let your kids hang with, to the kid I say everyone should hang out with."

Warren, a 61-year-old telecommunications planner from Tinley Park, said the experience made them both better people. He said he once saw addiction as a choice, but now acknowledges it's a disease. He counsels other parents whose children are struggling with drug use.

He's proud of Nick for giving back.

"He can bring a message of hope," Warren Cialdella said. "You look at him now, he has the biggest smile. You look into his eyes, and there's somebody home."

The other day in Wynn's vape-filled basement, where Never Alone Recovery operates, Nick Cialdella reminisced about the bad old days, and how he got to better ones.

He said he had to learn to face sexual trauma from his childhood, to live life with "integrity and character," to accept his "oddball" self.

"We're no better or worse than the people we help," Wynn said. "We're the same. We're just farther along in this."

Behind him and Wynn, someone had written "I AM NEVER ALONE" on a dry-erase board.

"If you would have told me five years ago I would be here, I wouldn't have believed you," Cialdella said, donning a Grateful Dead hat and an armband bearing the name of the LTM Foundation, an addiction prevention group.

"It's a blessing I've been given. I might as well utilize it to the maximum potential, for sure."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.