Arlington opioid graphic by Brynn O'ConnorPART TWO OF A FOUR-PART SERIES
 YourArlington has spent the past 10 months speaking with police officials, health department employees and residents about drug abuse.
This four-part series explores how the town seeks to combat the opioid crisis through the help of federal government funding, town programs and policies -- and the aid of a community that cares. 

 “I'm just so happy to be alive. I’m so happy to be clean in the Town of Arlington, as the town’s recovery coach to help people."
-- Tommy Caccavaro, below

Arlington Police Department photoAt one point in his life, a longtime Arlington resident typically consumed roughly $1,000 worth of cocaine in the span of one week. 

And his OxyContin expenses alone could reach up to $2,500 during the same short timeframe — he recalls taking about 10 pills a day. 

Occasionally throughout the week, he would inject heroin. And then finally, on Sundays, he’d take a break from drug consumption, strictly to sleep . . . but, before that, he always would make sure that he had drugs to wake up to each Monday morning. 

“There wasn’t a day that I missed without trying to get high . . . not a day I missed without hurting a family member. There wasn’t a day I really wanted to survive. It was a life of drinking and drugging.” 

For 26 years, this was the life of fourth-generation Arlingtonian Tommy Caccavaro. His first memory of drug consumption dates to when he was just 8 years old. Throughout his lifetime, Caccavaro says he has been through 41 halfway houses, done 36 detoxes and spent a total of some 7 1/2 years behind bars. But at 34 years old, on Halloween night of 2014, Caccavaro took illegal drugs for the last time. That next day, he said, he turned himself into Cambridge Drug Court, telling the judge that if he were not admitted, he would kill himself.

On Halloween 2023, Caccavaro celebrated almost a decade of sobriety — and also his first two years working as the Town of Arlington’s recovery coach. 

Our recovery coach is probably the greatest example of somebody who terrorized this town due to his addiction -- and was able to completely turn his life around,” said Officer T. J. Kelly of the Arlington Police Department. 

“I’d sniff the 90 pills in, I don't know, three or four days . . . my whole script would be gone." 

Sometimes, members of the police-led Arlington Outreach Initiative find that they aren’t able to really connect with somebody in town they want to help. Department members are well aware of how it might look to that person or to their neighbors when a uniformed officer shows up at the doorstep. So that’s when they call Caccavaro. 

“It’s much easier for me to walk into a situation. I’m fully tattooed up. I got the look of an addict. I got my Air Jordans on, regular jeans and a hoodie. Automatically once they see me, they start to feel much more comfortable.” 

Mental health clinician Christina Valeri of the APD calls on Caccavaro when the department learns of someone who might benefit from hearing Tommy's story. He will get on the phone or knock on the door to offer guidance, should the person want to get clean. But he never forces anything. He’ll introduce himself and describe his position, leave them with his business card—but, usually, by the time he turns around to leave, he’s asked to stay. 

“I remember being an addict. I didn’t want people nagging me when I wasn’t ready. When they’re ready, they’ll pick up the phone,” Caccavaro said.

Since stepping into this role with the initiative, he has so far helped more than 30 people achieve sobriety, many who now legitimately can claim at least one year clean. 

The recovery coach said he thinks about his old life every day. He’s still able to recall what his first jail cell looked like. And he’ll never forget the look in his father’s eyes when he would bail his son out of jail.

For most of his life, Caccavaro said he didn’t love himself and had no desire to survive. 

“Today I love myself. I have so much respect for myself -- and sobriety has given me that,” he said. “I'm just so happy to be alive. I’m so happy to be clean in the town of Arlington, as the town’s recovery coach to help people.”

BORN AND RAISED IN TOWN

Caccavaro’s roots are in the Town of Arlington. He was born here in 1980. He said it's hard for him to recall much about the first eight years of his life, however. 

Caccavaro (right) celebrating three years of his sobriety with his father (left) and sister. / Courtesy Tommy Caccavaro“In the last nine years of my sobriety, I put things together everyday. It pops up, I’m like ‘oh, OK, that’s what happened,' ’' he said about reflecting on his earliest memories.

His impressionable years, Caccavaro said, were spent in an environment where heavy drug use was present. He said he rarely went to school, didn't know how to read or write, didn’t even know what a park was. At the age of 8, he does remember trying to snort cocaine from a glass mirror, just because he thought that it was something he was supposed to do.

“I don’t think I did it correctly . . . I tried to do it [but] it was all over my face.”

If you ask him, his childhood really started when he began to live with his father, Thomas Caccavaro Sr., at the age of 9. Here, in his father’s house on Ridge Street (just a few blocks from the police station), Caccavaro was enrolled in school, got involved in age-appropriate activities and got his childhood back.

Some local residents might recognize his last name from the local construction company, T. S. Caccavaro —founded by his father when Tommy was about 12. Hard work was a virtue instilled in the younger Caccavaro since he was a boy. He was behind the wheel of a plow truck at just 11 years old, he said. He has been working almost every day of his life, and this ethic still applies in his most recent position with the town.

Even during his days using, despite being high or sick from detoxing, he still worked.

“I kind of winded up going to bed every night wishing I just died sleeping so I wouldn’t have to [experience] the pain I was going through." 

“Coming from an Italian family . . . they’re getting you out of bed to work if you’re not getting up,” he said.

Caccavaro recalls ages 9 to 14 as a beautiful time. He spent most of his days outdoors at a park playing wiffle ball or bike riding with friends all the way to Woburn. He was an active child who loved sports, especially hockey — he played for Arlington High School’s varsity team all four years. 

Beyond just being active, he described his younger self as quite hyper. At age 11, he was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed 20 milligrams of Ritalin, to be taken three times a day. He’d receive 90 pills each month.

But by his freshman year of high school, he had discovered that he could get high from it.

“It had the same effect as cocaine,” He said. “I’d sniff the 90 pills in, I don't know, three or four days  . . . [and by then] my whole script would be gone. I did that for about a whole year until I found out I could just buy a bag of coke.” Caccavaro Construction company truck.

There are concerns that children who take ADHD medication are at a higher risk to develop substance abuse problems later in life. The Child Mind Institute claims that this risk is not a product of the medication but rather of the ADHD itself, claiming kids with ADHD may seek substances that make them feel calm and that their brains are more sensitive to drugs

High school was when Caccavaro started snorting cocaine daily in addition to drinking alcohol. Throughout those four years, he said he did try to stop, attempting around seven detoxes. People frequently told him that he would need to leave town to finally get clean, and so, once he graduated, that’s what he did.

A few friends he had played hockey with encouraged him to join them in Florida to “dry up.” Down there, he took up junior hockey and remained clean for roughly a month, he said. But after those few weeks, however, Caccavaro says he caved into his cravings.                                                                     

For six months, he was heavily using in Florida. One day, he said, he woke up to find himself in a Tampa Bay state prison; he was 19 years old and had no clue what had happened to get him there. He soon learned that he had been charged with breaking and entering into a neighboring woman’s apartment trying to get himself home late at night while under the influence. 

“My apartment was No. 2. I was so messed up that I went into apartment 1 . . . I just opened the door and passed out on the couch. When the family woke up that morning, I was on their couch. I got a five- to seven-year sentence for that.”

Caccavaro said that thanks to still being a teenager and a note from the neighbor confirming that he hadn’t harmed anyone or stolen anything, his sentence was reduced. His father traveled from Arlington to Florida to bail him out at $50,000, Caccavaro said, and then took him home.

“My family always loved me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my family,” he said. “Every time I relapsed and got in trouble, my dad was there to pick me up and say ‘come on -- let’s try this again.’ ” A young Caccavaro (center) pictured with his uncle and cousins.

Caccavaro is still grateful in a way he cannot completely put into words for the people who cared about him during this difficult period in his life. He didn’t have too many friends left by then, saying he had lost the ones he grew up with over the course of his addiction, so the only people he had hung around with were also using.

“I was tired. I was run down. I had nothing left.

“Back then, they weren’t good people, but they were the same people as me. They were struggling with drugs and alcohol; they fit my role. That’s who I felt comfortable around.”  

 
NIGHTS SPENT AT THE ARLINGTON POLICE STATION

Caccavaro said he remembers the next chapter of his life, from age 19 throughout his 20s and into his early 30s, as his deepest and darkest years when the addiction took over his entire life. He said hated the person he found himself turning into because of the drugs, but there wasn’t anything he felt he could do to stop. His addiction was a demanding hunger that needed to be fed at any cost. 

Living back home with his father, Caccavaro worked at the construction company to earn money to buy drugs, he said. If he wasn’t sleeping at home, he’d spend the nights at his father’s company's garage in Cambridge. Tommy Caccavaro, 19 years old.

“I kind of winded up going to bed every night wishing I just died sleeping so I wouldn’t have to [experience] the pain I was going through.” 

Between the heroin, pills and cocaine, he had some high spending habits.

“I could have [had] millions of dollars by now if I didn’t spend all that money [on drugs].” 

Caccavaro reached a point at which he simply did not care how he was getting the drugs, just so long as he could afford to stay high and avoid withdrawal sickness. That’s when, he says, he started breaking into and stealing from homes around Arlington. He was no stranger to the officers at the police department; he spent many nights at the station.

“I’ve lived in Arlington my whole life. I’ve been dealing with Tommy since he was a child,” Capt. Richard Flynn recalled in a Zoom interview with a laugh.  Flynn can still think back to chasing Caccavaro around the town. He, like many in Arlington, knew Tommy’s father. 

Tommy smirked when thinking back to the days he was always on Flynn’s radar.

“Capt. Flynn, it was a love-hate situation between me and him,” he said. “I thought he didn’t like me, but, as time went on, I saw things clearer. He had respect for me [because] he knew who I could be.”Caccavaro saved mugshots of his arrests and says he was either drunk or high in each photo.

Caccavaro said Flynn always recognized his vehicle and used to pull him over on the road to give him a scolding. Some nights, Flynn might find Caccavaro sleeping outside somewhere and drive him back to his house on Ridge Street. Caccavaro was always grateful for this. 

“I have so much respect for him and the police station,” he said.

Despite having familial and even legal support in Arlington, the drugs still made Tommy feel alone. The chemicals in the opioids he was consuming drove him into a dangerous depression. Caccavaro reports more than a decade of his life as a cycle of being high, committing crimes and getting arrested.

“I don’t want to say that I wanted to commit suicide, but I definitely didn’t want to stay alive. I didn’t have any future. I didn't have any goals. I wasn’t interested in marrying anybody . . . interested in anything.” 

That was, until, Tommy walked back into Cambridge Drug Court in autumn 2014 and began a new and brighter chapter in his life.

THE ROAD TO RECOVERY

For years, Caccavaro said he would simply “hit-and-run” his way through correctional facilities and treatment centers, meaning that he would check himself in, detox for the minimum required amount of days – which at the time was roughly a week – before he’d return to the streets to get high again. 

Flash forward to that Halloween night in 2014 at 34 years old, a pivotal moment in Caccavaro’s life. It was the last night he ever got high. Tommy does not recall much from that night, he said, but he does remember feeling as though he had reached a crossroad of life or death.Kerry Ann and Tommy Caccavaro. 

“I was not even sleeping at that time. [I was] feeling very delusional, and either I was going to end my life or try and get treatment,” he said. “I was tired. I was run down. I had nothing left.”

“We’ve been through a lot of battles together, but it works. She’s priceless in my life. Without us being together, I don't know if I’d be alive and sober today." 

Massachusetts has 31 drug courts, its Cambridge court serving Arlington, Belmont and Cambridge. According to the Massgov website, drug courts provide intensive, supervised probation and mandatory treatment with random drug testing monitored by a probation officer. Usually, defendants entering drug court have committed a probation violation. 

The current drug court model in Massachusetts has a target population of “high-risk, high-need” offenders -- typically an individual who is "addicted to illicit drugs or alcohol and is at substantial risk for reoffending or failing to complete a less intensive disposition,” the state’s drug court manual says.

Through drug court, Caccavaro was placed in a program working at the Central Square Salvation Army rehabilitation center. 

“Something happened to me when I was at the Salvation Army. I started to learn who I was, who I wanted to be,” Caccavaro said.

He believes that it was the long-term commitment that was the key to his sobriety. Instead of the option to leave and get looped back into his cyclical patterns, the rules of drug court required Caccavaro to be enrolled for nine months. That meant nine months devoted to not just staying away from drugs, but also to learning: learning about himself, the community that raised him, those he may have hurt and those who stuck by his side. Caccavaro says that was the ticket to getting clean — self-discovery. 

“I soon found out it was all about me,” he said. “I needed to figure out why I was doing this, who I was, what my problems were . . . talk about my problems as a kid growing up and getting the monkey off my back to get clean.” Working for the Salvation Army, in 2014, at the beginning of his first year of sobriety. 

Throughout his time at drug court, Caccavaro spoke with therapists, he spoke with priests, he spoke with other addicts. As he opened up about the problems in his life, he said his eyes were opened to a community who listened to him, supported him and even related to him. His feelings of isolation, which once could be numbed only by drugs, were introduced to a new medicine.

And out of all of the recovery efforts the drug court supplied, Caccavaro believes that one of the most effective methods for him was attending vigil services —devoted to family and friends who had lost loved ones to the same problem he was suffering with.

“I got to see and meet other people that had the same problems as me, mothers and fathers that had sons like me that had passed away. I got to see what I put myself and my family through.”

Those months in drug court allowed Caccavaro to connect with people who would continue to provide the tools for sobriety; the staff, himself (a person he was just beginning to finally understand) and most importantly, his future wife, Kerry Ann.

At the time, Caccavaro was based in Cambridge, and Kerry Ann lived in Lynn. He said he realized he was falling in love when he started taking the train and bus from Cambridge to Lynn every night.

“Now, I needed to be back [home] by 10 o’clock . . . if you know about the [commute] to go from Cambridge to Lynn  . . . that’s about four hours. So by the time I got there, I was able to eat with her, then I had to get back on the train. We’d spend 45 mins every night together. That’s how I knew I loved this girl.” 

“It’s what I love to do. I love to help people, to see what they’re going through and [tell] them my experiences, my strength, my hope. I love to guide people . . . but I let them do most of the work." 

Caccavaro said Kerry Ann was his strength to push past his cravings and maintain sobriety, wanting to survive to be able to have a future with her.

On May 15, 2016, the two got married in the same courtroom that had brought Caccavaro on the path to meet his new bride, joined by family, friends and everybody else who had supported Caccavaro through the program.

Tattooed on Caccavaro’s wrist to this day is the date, in Roman numerals: ‘V. XV. MMXVI.’

Of his wife, he says, “We’ve been through a lot of battles together, but it works. She’s priceless in my life. Without us being together, I don't know if I’d be alive and sober today.” 

Although the program was just nine months long, Caccavaro said he chose to stay in drug court for double that time -- a total of 18 months -- to maintain his sobriety. 

BECOMING THE TOWN'S RECOVERY COACH

After leaving drug court, Caccavaro worked full time again with his father’s construction company, and began part-time work at a treatment center in Wakefield. In this position, he was a tech for the company’s sober-living houses, where he said his duties included watching over clients residing in the homes and helping them achieve sobriety. This was the first time Caccavaro had stepped into a role like this after his recovery.

“It’s what helped keep me clean—helping others. Being involved with the program, dealing with people that were the same as me, it [worked] for the best.” Tommy and Kerry Ann Caccavaro. 

Two years ago, Caccavaro was living with his wife and celebrating seven years clean. On a Sunday, his cell phone rang: It was Arlington Police Chief Julie Flaherty. Caccavaro had grown up with Flaherty’s brother, so he says that she had seen firsthand the kind of person he used to be but also knew the kind of man he had become. And that was someone, she believed, who could make a real difference in town.

Flaherty explained the need for a recovery coach within the Arlington Outreach Initiative -- and that the department had just one person in mind to fill the role.

“Here I am, yeah, I’ve got seven years clean, but [I felt] not too many people around here have respect for the things I was doing because of my past,” Caccavaro said. 

 
“His perspective has proven valuable to many that are looking to navigate such a complicated and sometimes overwhelming journey.” -- Police Chief Julie Flaherty
Speaking in Waltham at an "Overcoming Addiction" event in 2022.

He couldn’t see himself walking into a station he once spent nights sleeping in, working beside officers whose car he once sat in the back seat of. So when Flaherty offered him the position, he declined.

“She said, ‘Well, that’s too bad. You start tomorrow.’ I hung the phone up, and that was it. I respected her so much -- that’s why I came in the next day.”

Caccavaro remembers how scared he was on his first day, but also the surprise he felt when he walked down the police station hallways to wide smiles and high-fives. He said those in the station welcomed him and his new position with open arms.

“It’s what I love to do. I love to help people, to see what they’re going through and [tell] them my experiences, my strength, my hope. I love to guide people . . . but I let them do most of the work,” he said.

Caccavaro said he always has his cell phone nearby in case he gets a text or a call, whether it be from a resident he’s actively working with, somebody new who wants to give recovery a shot, or Valeri with an Arlingtonian on the APD’s radar.

In a recent email to YourArlington, Flaherty wrote that Caccavaro’s job is extremely important to both the outreach initiative and the people who need his support.

“His perspective has proven valuable to many that are looking to navigate such a complicated and sometimes overwhelming journey,” Flaherty wrote.  

The power of connection and hope that comes through a shared experience is why Caccavaro has been able to help so many people in town. He will guide them through the whole process, from being a listening ear, finding someone a suitable halfway or sober house to even applying with them for scholarships that help financially support those looking to recover. 

Just from October 2023 through June 2024, Caccavaro says he has coached more than 20 individuals in their path to sobriety.

 “It’s not a job, I'll tell you that, it’s not about the paycheck,” Caccavaro said. “If the Town of Arlington told me tomorrow, ‘We can’t pay you any more,’ I would definitely still do it. It’s about saving someone’s life.” 

Caccavaro says that in the past nine years of his life he’s been given responsibilities he never thought he would have. He’s been forgiven by people he thought had once hated him. And he’s found love he never thought he could feel. Arlington residents know his friendly and familiar smile, his family recognizes his resilience and loyalty, and the town’s health department and police station see him as a lifesaver. 

Although he has made such transformative decisions in his life and despite not having touched a drug or an alcoholic beverage in practically a decade, Caccavaro reminds those he works with that recovery is a constant battle -- that sobriety is a choice made every single day. 

But he says it’s a choice he’ll continue making no matter the struggle, as it’s what saved his life, and will enable him to continue to save more.

“I’m never going to figure it all out. I’m 43 . . . I learn every day. I’m never going to be cured. I’m always going to have a problem . . . [but just] as long as I keep it upfront and I don't forget about it, I'll be OK today.”  


Part 1: June 23, 2024: Drug crisis hits home: How town's outreach began to address fatalities

This article, Part 2 of a four-part series by Brynn O'Connor, assistant to the editor, was published Sunday, June 30, 2024. In Part 3, YourArlington plans to present an in-depth interview with a local woman who managed to survive the unthinkable—losing two children in less than four months to drug overdoses—but chose to turn her pain into productivity by openly sharing her story in hopes that it will help others.