Most of the negative things that took place in my life happened because I was on drugs. Growing up in New York City, I started sniffing glue when I was nine years old, and pretty soon I was drinking and smoking grass. I was very shy as a kid, and I didn’t like how I felt most of the time, so I just jumped from one drug to the next. I quit high school when I was 15 and went overseas as a merchant seaman, and although I had already used heroin, when I came back I started taking it through my veins for the first time. I kept shooting up for the next 15 years.
My drug habits made it difficult for me to keep a job. Before I found Phoenix House, I had tried another treatment program, but that didn’t last long. Basically, I walked out and never walked back in—I went straight to a liquor store. Later on I found out I wasn’t the only one of the residents who left that place and got high; even one of the staff members eventually came around the block trying to sell methadone. It was just a really bad environment.
By the time I was 30 years old, I had been using drugs for 20 years. I was so tired of it, tired of drugs, tired of stealing to pay for them. I was sitting on the street and I saw these cops arresting a young kid—he had a brown paper bag with syringes inside. I went over and said, “Officer, are you arresting him because of that bag?” He said he was, and I said, “Well that bag is mine, not his.” So the cops arrested me and let the kid go.
While I was locked up, I mentioned to somebody that I needed help. I wanted to kick my habit. They sent a counselor from Phoenix House who went before the judge with me; I was sent into treatment. I started at the Phoenix House facility in Manhattan, and eventually moved with some other residents to Long Island City. I completed my 24-month court-ordered stay and I could have left at that point, but I stayed an extra four months because I was really serious about getting my life back on track.
My experience in Phoenix House was great; I loved going to the groups, meeting people, sharing my writing and working on developing a positive outlook. When I left treatment I earned my locksmith’s license, got a job, and eventually went to college and obtained my Associate’s Degree. By 1990 I had really put my life back together, and that’s when I found out I was HIV-positive. It was tough to hear, and it took me about two weeks to calm down after I got the news. But then I thought, “Wait a minute. I felt OK before I found out about this, and I’m still going to be OK.”
I always thank Phoenix House for teaching me how to think positively, because a lot of people can become overrun by their own minds and their negative thoughts. They think they’re going to die, or that they don’t have any hope, and then those negative thoughts become a reality. I don’t listen to negativity anymore, although I did for many years; I used to think, “once an addict, always an addict,” but now I know that’s not true.
When Phoenix House helped me gain control of my life, I realized that every individual has the power to make his or her own decisions—to decide what is right. Sure, there are always going to be some bad situations happening, but I don’t let them get to me or bring me down. There was a time when things used to affect me to such extent that I would just run off and get high; now I can deal with any situation calmly and responsibly. This will be my 30th year in recovery, and I’m looking forward to it because I like my life now. I like to carve, to write, to express myself. I like to live.