By Jeff Snoonian
07:18AM / Saturday, November 16, 2019
Ed Sutton spent years struggling with addiction but now is a counselor at the Brien Center, helping others dealing with substance abuse. Seen here with his wife, Karen, he spoke at the Brien Center's annual fundraising dinner.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When Ed Sutton celebrated his 17th birthday in lockup, he knew something had to change. Like many addicts it took him several more years and realizations, and another stint behind bars to finally make that change permanent.
At Thursday night's annual Brien Center/UNICO dinner at Berkshire Hills Country Club, he got to tell his story.
"I've used and abused substances for as long as I can remember. I went to my first detox when I was 16 years old. I turned 17 years old in a locked unit for people with mental health and substance abuse issues," he said. "It seemed everyone around me knew I had a problem except for me."
Sutton led an itinerant childhood under the thumb of his alcoholic, abusive biological father. After shuttling between Massachusetts and the state of Florida, he was barely able to make it to the 11th grade before quitting in the first week. If he blames his circumstances for his substance abuse, he didn't let on when addressing the crowd.
"My mother decided to get out of that [abusive] relationship and move back to Mass with someone who would later become my stepfather, my dad. My mom and dad worked their butts off to provide a good home for me and my sisters. Which they did," he said. "I was just in and out of trouble my whole life. I didn't realize it was mostly due to substance abuse."
It was a nearly three-year stretch in jail, more than 20 years after his first lock up, that finally broke him.
"November 1st, 2006, I decided that something had to change. That life can get better. At that time I was incarcerated at the Berkshire County House of Corrections. I decided then to stay clean and sober," Sutton said. "In 2008, I was paroled to the Keenan House and I had almost two years clean."
The Keenan House is an addiction treatment house in Pittsfield run by the Brien Center. It was there that Sutton learned to deal with his addiction and its underlying causes through outpatient therapy and a 12-step program. What Sutton didn't know was that he was also training for his future career.
"After graduating Keenan House ... I bumped into one of the staff members in November 2009 and I told him I wanted to get off Social Security. I wanted to get back to work. He suggested that I apply at Keenan House. I asked him if he was crazy," Sutton joked. "He said, 'what's the worst that can happen? They can say no.' I applied and I was hired."
Sutton recognizes how his life has come full circle and he is now giving back to those who gave to him.
"I've been at the Brien Center since November 9th, 2009. One of the most fulfilling opportunities I've had while working there is going back to the House of Corrections and facilitating one of the heroin relapse prevention programs. Not only am I now able to give back to the community, I'm able to give back to the individuals who supported me at the start of my recovery," he said. "I can actually say I've been clean for over 13 years and I've been at the Brien Center for over 10 years."
Sutton, who through all his struggles is still married to his wife of 29 years, Karen, saved the best for last.
"As I said earlier, I only went to high school until the 11th grade but I'm happy to say I'm now in a master's program. I will graduate in May of 2020 with my master's degree in clinical mental health counseling."
Sutton is only one of thousands of lives touched by the Brien Center every year. The agency provide services to more than 11,000 people a month throughout the county.
President and Chief Executive Officer M. Christine Macbeth has been with the Brien Center for almost as long as Sutton and put its mission in very simple terms.
"We think Berkshire County is a better place for everybody if people are emotionally healthy. We help people who are really struggling with mental illness and/or addiction. Our job is to work with them and help them get to a better place," she said.
Both Macbeth and Sutton have a staunch ally in their fight against addiction in the Achievement Award recipient of the evening Robin McGraw.
The New Jersey native and longtime Berkshire County resident is a fixture at fundraising events and on boards throughout the county. He and his wife, Elizabeth, better known as "Buzz," have been honored by countless organizations for their philanthropic works. His family's Donald C. McGraw Foundation gave $50,000 dollars to the Brien Center last year for program expansion. They also run The Black Rock Foundation, which supports education and health-care programs in the Berkshires.
McGraw gave a personal account of how he and his family were affected by addiction.
"I come from a family with addiction issues. My own son Seamus, now 33, had everything going for him when he graduated from high school. He was the all school president, received the top athlete award, and won the headmaster's prize. He was poised for greatness in college," he told the quiet crowd. "A sports injury sidelined him and he became dependent on prescription opioids. Like most parents I was oblivious at the beginning. He would tell us what he thought we wanted to hear. We didn't realize how bad it was until he admitted he had a problem and checked himself in to an inpatient facility."
McGraw and his wife thought Seamus had beaten it after seeing him go through recovery. That was not the case. As with many substance abusers he suffered a relapse.
"He was in recovery when he returned to his home in L.A. But he stopped going to meetings, stopped going to treatment and once again he was in the throes of opioid and alcohol addiction."
McGraw knows how lucky his family was that their son's story didn't end up like so many others.
"It's a story we've all heard over and over and, sadly, many times with dire consequences. Overdose and death. It's the worst nightmare any parent, grandparent, spouse, sister, or brother can live through," he said. "I'm happy to say that Seamus has been substance free for six years and eight months. But everyday is a challenge. With treatment for PTSD, depression, and anxiety he has been able to rebuild his life. He has a full time job and is active in his recovery community. His goal is to become a counselor and one day work at a place like the Brien Center."
One of McGraw's many passions is as a member of the Berkshire County Sheriff Department's Opiate Task Force where he focuses on integrating inmates with addiction issues back into society. He has a long range plan to help with this of course.
"The Brien Center strives to ensure that each person suffering from this disease is given his or her best chance to recover and live their best life. It's a never ending effort and a daunting task," he said. "My desire is to help the Brien Center grow their ability to serve. For some time my dream has been to build three new, fifty bed halfway house/treatment centers in Berkshire County. This can be and will be a game changer."
McGraw received a long ovation at the end of his speech and there was no shortage of politicians, community leaders, and business people ready with praise for the work he does.
"What can you say? He's one of the most generous people ever," said newly re-elected Pittsfield City Councilor and one-time Brien Center employee Peter White.
"The emotion and the love they have for the people that they serve, it makes you want to get involved or reach into your pocket," said Brien Center Board Chair Linda Febles about McGraw and his wife. "Even if it's a small amount you have to give it's important for the people who need it. They make you feel that you did it with them."
"Robin takes the hard jobs. He not only supports with a check. He personally rolls up his sleeves and invests his time in helping our community solve its most difficult challenges," was how Macbeth described him.
The UNICO crew in the kitchen at Berkshire Hills.
Thursday's dinner is the center's largest fundraising vehicle of the year. Macbeth said the center had always been lagging in its fundraising efforts and the idea for the dinner was floated by one of their board members about 10 years ago as a way to raise money.
"We had somebody on our board of directors, actually more than somebody, retired Judge Rudy Sacco ... he was part of UNICO. He suggested 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if UNICO could do one of their dinners for you and you could develop it into a fundraiser?'" she recalled.
UNICO, the country's largest Italian-American service organization, did indeed put the first dinner together, even footing the bill for all the food. President of the Pittsfield chapter Larry Salvatore explained why they continue to support organizations like the Brien Center.
"We do it because we believe in the community and this is our way to help. Especially with the things the Brien Center is trying to do. We do about 7-10 events a year, primarily focusing on cooking and serving the meal. If it's a brand new group we sometimes will even pay for the food the first year. This dinner started out as a simple spaghetti supper and it has grown into something a lot more elegant," he said. "We'll start out today with 5-7 people and we'll grow to 20-25 during the rush. We've done meals where we've fed 300 people."
McGraw ended his speech and the night by urging the community to do more.
"Each of us can make a difference. We need to continue to build a sense of common purpose, togetherness, and community. Always act as if what you do makes a difference ... because it does. Together we are stronger."
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental illness or substance abuse, visit briencenter.org or call 413-499-0412.