I grew up in the Bronx, in the Pelham Bay area, but I would go down to the South Bronx to do drugs. I spent most of my teenage years down there. My father died when I was young, and at that time, drugs – aside from heroin – weren’t considered to be very bad. It wasn’t like it is now.
So I fell in with a bad group of people, and eventually started using heroin at about 15 years old. I did that for five years, plus any other drug I could get my hands on. I was spending a lot of money every day on drugs, stealing my mother’s jewelry and stuff. I did everything a drug addict does to get money. It was a wild time, but I got very lucky—today, everybody I grew up with is either dead or in jail.
The worst was when my mother walked in on me in the bathroom with a needle in my arm. I yelled at her and told her she had no business coming in; I made it seem like her fault, which was horrible. Another time I overdosed in the bathroom and she came in—there was blood all over the place. I hated having her see that. But back then, parents mostly ignored these problems. Growing up in the 50s and 60s there were a lot of things you just didn’t talk about.
When I was 20, I got arrested for a burglary and was on Riker’s Island for three and a half months. My mom wouldn’t bail me out even though it was just $50; she thought she was teaching me a lesson. I got put on probation and the judge didn’t believe I was clean, so I got myself into treatment at Phoenix House. I did my induction at the Phoenix House 185th Street Short-Term Residential Program but spent most of my time at the 116th street location in Harlem. At that time Phoenix House had a lot of musicians in treatment, including a guy who played with Coltrane.
It was 1968. Those were the days—a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. Each day we were allowed 15 cents for the subway and 10 cents for a container of milk, and that was it. We had some very good groups, and everybody was assigned different jobs. We learned about healthy relationships. We sold raffle tickets and we all wore these shirts saying “Go Drug-free.” I still have mine after 45 years.
I was in the program until 1970, and worked for Phoenix House for two years before I decided to come to California. That was back when New York City was going broke. I’ve been in California ever since; I work in retail. I’m good at sales, good with words and with management. I have a wife, a daughter who’s 35, and a son who’s 29. I’m very honest with my kids, and I’ve told them all about my life. They’ve never touched drugs. My daughter is my stepdaughter, so she was already two when I met her mom, but I was able to be there for the birth of my son and was just…amazed. That was the best moment of my life.
If it wasn’t for Phoenix House, I wouldn’t be here right now, and I’m so grateful for that. Not that my life has been easy—it hasn’t been. But I’ve learned how to deal with things in a healthy way. Occasionally I will smell something or see someone on the street, and it’ll remind me of that other life I lived, back when I was doing drugs. But I can’t picture myself in that life any more.
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