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Norwich event planner more determined after son's fatal overdose

A Norwich woman whose son inspired her to start an event planning organization said his Jan. 11 overdose death only has made her more tenacious.

Ceci Iliff’s late son, Benjamin, was well into his struggle with heroin when she founded The Charity Challenge five years ago. She couldn’t stand feeling helpless, she said, and wouldn’t let the enormity of the problem daunt her.

Almost 200 people died by overdose each day in the United States in 2017, the latest year for which national data are available.

“That’s tantamount to taking a huge passenger jet, packing it full, crashing it and killing everyone on board — every single day,” Iliff said.

Her organization, which hosts multiple events each year, raises money for places including TriCircle Inc., a Wallingford-based group whose goal is to create an individualized, 15-month addiction treatment program.

While it raised about $3,000 in its first year, last year The Charity Challenge raised almost $30,000.

“As far as addiction, I used to think it was a choice,” said Iliff, 57. “But that was before I learned more about the disease. These substances … hijack the brain, and it takes a long time to undo that damage.”

“So short-term programs are not the answer,” she said. “As long as we offer them, we will have system of relapse and recidivism.”

Iliff said Benjamin, 28, spent much of his adult life in and out of treatment, though he seemed to have turned a corner of late — largely because of his 11-month-old son, Kaleb.

Iliff was shocked when she went to the camper where he was living in Gales Ferry and found him unresponsive Jan. 11.

“It was graphic and horrifying, and it was clear it had been a while,” she said. “Although my sister began chest compressions at the instruction of 911 and I administered (the overdose-reversal drug) Narcan … both of us knew it wasn’t going to end with Ben jumping up and talking to us.

“I’m trying so hard to take that image and distance myself from it, but it’s haunting."

Benjamin the daredevil

Iliff said Benjamin was a daredevil from a young age. At 18 months, much to his parents’ chagrin, he climbed a ladder to the roof where his father, Robert, was cleaning the gutters. At 6, Benjamin, unafraid and undeterred by discipline, earned the nickname “Danger Boy.” By his teenage years he was building ramps and performing Evel Knievel-style stunts.

“The babysitters we could get were brave and few,” Iliff said, chuckling.

But Benjamin, whose adventures sometimes got him into trouble at school, also had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and struggled with anxiety and depression. Iliff said he never was properly diagnosed despite visits with multiple therapists.

“To find (a therapist) with a good connection is difficult enough,” said Iliff, who said figuring out medications is even more challenging. “It’s frustrating when all you want is for your child to have a normal life.”

Iliff believes Benjamin was self-medicating when he began using marijuana at 13. By high school, he was using cocaine and opioid painkillers.

His transition to heroin and fentanyl was swift.

Fatal gaps 

Iliff said Benjamin’s short life taught her of “fatal gaps in the system of recovery.”

A person has to test positive for drugs to get into detoxification, but negative to get into rehabilitation. Often detox centers are full, yet many rehabs only take those coming directly from detox.

Insurance, if a person has it, only covers a 90-day program after a person has failed a 30-day program three times.

“If you’re alive at the end of that, then you’re eligible,” Iliff said.

Iliff said she believes in love rather than tough love, though she had to keep Benjamin out of her house some days. It killed her to do so.

“When I hear people talk about how their child betrayed them, and they’re tired of being disappointed, and they stole things … I just wonder how important those things are in the grand scheme of things,” she said.

“It’s not about how disappointed you are every time they relapse,” she said. “It’s about finding help for them and standing by them and believing that the child you raised is in there somewhere, wanting badly to come back.”

Benjamin, whose son and son's mother, Kaleigh Mitchell, visit Iliff often, was saying the right things in his final weeks.

“I know it'll take time, but every day I am putting in the work and working my way back into everyone's good graces and earning trust again,” he wrote in a Jan. 1 Facebook post. “Today I am so grateful for my family and sobriety.”

In the photo Iliff chose to accompany his obituary, Benjamin is beaming. He was at a camp for children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases in Ashford, Iliff said. He volunteered there a few years back.

A print of the photo sat on Iliff’s living room floor Thursday, placed neatly between several pieces of Benjamin’s artwork.

Iliff said Benjamin was goofy in his day-to-day life but serious in his creation. A couple of the works she arranged under a window overlooking the Thames River were unsmiling self-portraits. Another piece, drawn on a tall, skinny piece of paper, featured half a face with a long, vivid tear falling from its eye.

Iliff on Thursday picked it up and placed it on top of her fireplace, next to the box containing her son’s ashes.

“In so many ways he’s closer to me now than when he was here because the obstacles and fears and anxiety that we had built into our relationship are gone, and he’s free of anxiety and pain,” she said. “I feel him near me every day.”

Editor's Note: This version corrects details about the nature of Ceci Iliff's organization.


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