Before there was “Just Say No,” there was “Just Say Yes.” I’m 54 years old, and I’m from the “Just Say Yes” generation. It was part of the whole lifestyle of growing up in Queens, going to concerts, and listening to music. My drug habit got really big between heroin, crack, and any other substance that you could possibly ingest. I didn’t discriminate against anything. It could be nighttime cold medicine, it could be heroin, it could be anything. Most addicts are very creative, and I could come up with money for drugs out of nowhere. My budget for food for the day was a 25 cent ice cream sandwich and little fruit juices for 25 cents.
In the summer of 1992, I went to detox in Manhattan and then went to a drug rehab in upstate New York. I might have been there for maybe a day or maybe even just hours before I left. I got on a Trailways bus and took it to Port Authority, and you can only imagine what I did while I was in the Port Authority area. I guess I wasn’t ready at that point.
I went through the summer getting high. But after the last blowout party of the summer, I was finally ready. I entered Phoenix House—the Jack Aron Center on 74th Street in New York—on September 21, 1992.
During my first night at Phoenix House, I climbed out of a window on the second floor and scaled down the wall. I stepped in some kitchen grease on the way down, hit my forehead on a wall and slept for a little while on the sidewalk that night. I went back to Phoenix House at 9:00 in the morning because I had nowhere else to go. The staff read me the Riot Act, but they also told me Phoenix House is not a prison. I didn’t have to escape through the window; I actually could have walked out the door.
The staff had me busy all the time, and they put me in a room right next to the supervisor on the floor to try to keep an extra eye on me. I finally met some people who weren’t using drugs, and something started to make some sense as the weeks went on.
One night we left the facility and went to a Narcotics Anonymous Halloween party in Greenwich Village. I didn’t escape. I didn’t get on a train. I danced and talked to people and just had a great time without getting high. I never thought that I could go to a party without using, and that’s when it hit me: You know what, maybe I can do this. It was that party, more than probably anything, that gave me the confidence to say I just might be able to get clean.
One thing led to the next. I got more confident, met more people. When I went to my first meeting outside Phoenix House, there were so many people I knew. It was like I came downstairs and people were saying, “Thank God you’re here because we didn’t want to see you dead somewhere.”
I kept going to meetings and went to outpatient services at Phoenix House for 18 months. There was this one guy at the meetings who I just couldn’t stand. Every week I’d have to hear him stand up and say the same thing: “I just don’t pick up.” I thought that was the stupidest reason. But different things keep different people clean, and that guy’s words became meaningful to me. I took the motto of this guy I couldn’t stand: “I’m just not going to pick up.” Simple as that.
I remember I used to obsess over what kind of beer or drugs I would have. If I was going to a reggae concert it had to be Jamaican beer; if I went to a dance concert, it was dope because Charlie Parker did dope. It’s so much easier now that I don’t have to think about that stuff. I don’t have to think about what my alibi is going to be if I’m driving and get pulled over and I’m high. My life is simpler because as soon as someone says “Do you want to buy a beer?” I say “No, thanks.” I don’t have to think about how many bags of dope I can have and still function.
Before, I was headed for death or jail, but lucky for me I got access to Phoenix House and the good people there. Today, I’m Gary and I don’t pick up. I just don’t.
Gary, Class of 1994
New York Region