WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Fighting addiction — whether it be drugs, alcohol or pills — comes up often during Pastor Vince O’Boyle’s Sunday services at Church on the Square in downtown Wilkes-Barre.

In fact, some of the congregation includes those who have addiction-related problems. O’Boyle can speak as an authority on this topic because he has been there himself. He’s a former alcoholic and drug user, but has now been sober for 18 years.

O’Boyle grew up in Pittston. His father passed away when he was just 6 and he started drinking at age 12.

“It was a combination of things,” he said, explaining why he turned to alcohol and then later drugs. “It was depression. It was not being able to deal with the loss of a dad.” O’Boyle said loneliness, financial issues at home, and a mother who also began to drink all played a role in his troubled childhood.

In addition to alcohol, O’Boyle turned to LSD, marijuana, and cocaine in the ’60s and ’70s in his quest to deal with the pressures of life.

O’Boyle says he “came to the Lord” in 1974, but still didn’t commit himself fully. However, he was sober for eight years at one point, and his life had stabilized. That changed shortly after O’Boyle had heart surgery in 1999 and also multiple back surgeries.

He became addicted to painkillers such as Vicodin, Percocet, and Oxycontin and then eventually turned to heroin for two years.

“I would struggle with guilt. I would struggle with shame. I would struggle with all those things you go through when you’re out there,” O’Boyle recalled.

He went through three rehabilitation programs, started attending church on a regular basis, and his faith became stronger. Friends and family encouraged him to preach, but O’Boyle had some reservations as he didn’t “agree with a lot of the traditional church ways.” He eventually realized this was part of God’s plan for him. O’Boyle has been a pastor at Church on the Square since 2011.

“I knew God was calling me — clearly, he was calling me,” he said. “He sets you free from the chains of addiction — from the chains of alcohol. He breaks those bonds.”

‘Chip off old block’

Addiction has taken a toll on the lives of several of O’Boyle’s family members as well. His son had a problem with alcohol and drugs, which led to him being homeless for a time. O’Boyle would not allow him to live in his home while the son was using.

“Vince Jr. was a chip off the old block,” he said. After his son’s first wife, who was also an addict, died from an overdose, O’Boyle took him to a rehab center. His son has now been sober for the past few years and is doing much better.

O’Boyle also had a nephew who died from an overdose last February. Prior to the incident, he lived with O’Boyle, who tried to help him with his heroin addiction. He eventually did get sober for three years and things seemed to be going well until one fateful night when someone offered him fentanyl at a party. Tempted, he tried it and was later found dead in the bathroom by his fiancee.

“One shot took him out. It was tragic — 33 years old,” O’Boyle said. “My sister is devastated.” O’Boyle’s relatives are not anomalies. According to the county coroner’s office, 155 people died in 2017 in Luzerne County from accidental drug overdoses.

‘Bridge of communication’

O’Boyle gives moral support to people with substance abuse issues and those who are recovering by talking to them one-on-one, encouraging them to go to rehab, sharing his past experiences, and praying with them.

“Trust is one of the biggest issues to get through,” he said. “People won’t talk to you if they don’t trust you. That’s the bridge of communication.”

Jerry Costello, a member of Church on the Square who met O’Boyle three years ago, is also a former alcoholic and drug user. He’s been clean since 2007.

“I take it one day at a time,” he said. Listening to O’Boyle preach and talking to him about his past strengthened Costello’s faith “100 percent” and also help him stay away from alcohol and drugs.

“I love his sermons,” Costello said.”If I have a problem, I’ll just go to the pastor and he just tells me ‘get on your knees and pray.'”

O’Boyle is now working closely with about 10 individuals and says the biggest problem in this area seems to be heroin abuse.

“That’s what’s happening,” he said. “A lot of them are going from the pills to heroin.”

The Luzerne County Drug Task Force seized 2 pounds of heroin and fentanyl in 2017, according to a recent report from District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis. Fentanyl is often mixed with the drug to make it dangerously potent.

“The community’s got to get involved. Parents got to get involved,” he said of how to change the drug culture. “It’s not just going to be organizations that fix addicts — just ain’t going to happen.”


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Information from: Times Leader, http://www.timesleader.com