Every family has stories they tell over and over. A recurring story of my childhood was that my mom never planned on bringing me home from the hospital. I was the youngest of five kids, born out of wedlock to a different father than the rest, and my mother intended to give me up for adoption—but at the last minute, she changed her mind.
That didn’t mean she was able to take care of me. I lived with my godparents until I was five years old, when my mom took me back to be raised by her and my stepdad, who was the biological father to my four siblings. It was pretty tough—my mom worked and was gone most of the time. My older siblings disciplined me, made me do my homework, and supervised me. But they couldn’t be with me everywhere. On the long bus ride to high school, my friends sat in the back rolling joints. I didn’t join in at first, but then, instead of being the oddball, I wanted to see what it felt like. Turned out it felt good. Soon it became an everyday thing, smoking a joint to school and back. And that quickly turned into cocaine at clubs on the weekends.
After I graduated from high school, I found work at an airline as a flight attendant and reservation agent. Those were my “functional addict” years. I went to work every day, sniffed in the morning and then again at night, and thought it was okay because I was able to maintain a job. Never mind that I went to work high and put myself and everyone else’s life in danger—I thought I had it under control.
That all changed when a friend handed me something and said, “This is cocaine in its purest form.” He put a pipe in my mouth and gave me instructions. He called it “freebasing.” What it was, was crack with a fancy name.
After that, it was off to the races. I stopped showing up to work and instead made my living by shoplifting high-end merchandise from Saks and Macy’s and selling it. I became distant with my family and would be on the run for weeks at a time. I’d check in to see if my mom was okay, promise to come home, and then never show up. My mom would call people I’d been with and say, “If you see my son, tell him to come home.” I knew my life was a wreck, but I didn’t know what to do to stop it. It was an endless cycle: steal, sell the goods, call my drug dealer, fall asleep in the hallway of a building or on the A train, then start the madness all over again. My siblings and nieces would say, “When are you going to pull yourself together? Look what you’re doing to your mother.” I’d be remorseful for a minute, but hearing that made me feel bad, and feeling bad made me want to use.
It wasn’t until I was arrested on four counts of possession of a controlled substance that I entered treatment. The judge sent me to Phoenix House Detoxification Program in Long Island City and then to Phoenix House Career Academy in Brooklyn.
Treatment was painful but cleansing. In group therapy, I talked about issues I’d never really faced. Turns out I didn’t like hearing that my mom wanted to leave me at the hospital, and it hurt that I had a different father from my siblings. By this time, my only sister and oldest brother had died, and I had never dealt with that loss sober. And I had to confront the pain of what I’d put my mom through for 20 years.
But I had a great counselor who embraced me and helped me face reality. She had me take a good look at where I wanted to go with my life. One thing that really helped was when she had others in the group say what they saw in me; some of it was tough to hear, but it really opened my eyes and my mind and helped me decide who I wanted to be. I’ll always be grateful to Phoenix House for helping me face my problems, build my self-esteem, and learn to love myself.
I’m also grateful to Phoenix House for helping me not only to figure out what my goals were, but also to achieve them. I wanted to give people the same chance at recovery that I was given, so I decided to become a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Phoenix House provided me with the training, and today I’m the Deputy Director of the Phoenix House Short-Term Residential Program in the Bronx.
I know a lot of people who are struggling with addiction think they have it under control, that they don’t need help. I thought the same thing. That thinking cost me 20 years of living on the streets, away from my family. You know all that risk you took to get drugs? Take that same risk at something more positive—at a chance for a better, more productive life. Take a chance on treatment.
I’m so happy with where my life is today—I’m doing things I didn’t think were possible for me. I’m going on vacation to Panama next week with a partner who loves me for who I am. I still can’t believe that it’s me who gets to travel; me who has a nice car; me, getting a passport; me, with a wealth of good friends and a life that’s in a good place. When I was using, I wasn’t able to do or have any of those things.
But one of the most important things I have is my mom. I’m her only living child now—she’s had to bury all four of her other children. I was the one who made the most mistakes, but for some reason, God chose me to be here to take care of her. I’m so grateful to Phoenix House for giving me the chance to be here.