Vera is an 18-year-old resident at the Phoenix House Academy of Lake View Terrace. Her original song, “Take it to the Days,” was a recent winner of the MusiCares/Grammy Foundation’s national teen songwriting contest, held to raise awareness about substance abuse problems. Here, Vera tells us how Phoenix House helped her get her life back on track—to “take it to the days when I didn’t have to depend.”
PH: Congratulations on your tremendous accomplishment. Can you tell us about yourself and your experience with addiction?
V: I was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii and I have a very long history of addiction in my family. My mom got sober when I was six, so I was exposed to meetings and recovery at a very young age. By the time I was 14 years old, I was getting into a lot of trouble with drugs. In Hawaii there’s a lot of weed everywhere, a lot of drinking and hallucinogens. I crashed my mom’s car while I was high, and that was when my mom decided to move us to LA. That’s where I got into meth—I was basically using anything I could get my hands on, anything that would make me feel different.
PH: How did you make your way Phoenix House?
V: I started to see my life crumbling around me, I was using every day, I had run away and was living on my own. So I called my mom. I said, “I can’t do this by myself, I need your help,” and together we started looking for treatment. We tried outpatient first, because I was thinking, “Oh, it’s not that bad, I can just fix it quick.” But I was high at my first interview, so they told me I needed an inpatient program. A friend recommended Phoenix House, and I made it—I kind of crawled through the doors.
PH: Were you always a musician?
V: Yeah. My dad’s a musician, and in Hawaii they teach you how to play the ukulele from a very young age. It’s, like, mandatory. You play in choir with all the other kids, so I always played, and when I was 14, I wrote my first song. It was, ironically, about partying.
PH: How did you become involved with the Phoenix Rising program and the MusiCares / Grammy Foundation contest?
V: When I first got to Phoenix House, I was having a really hard time. I told myself I couldn’t stay, that it wasn’t for me, and I didn’t think I could do it. I kind of felt like a zombie, because I was still coming down off of a lot of drugs. The Music Director John Morabito invited me to join a few other residents in the music studio to work on some songs. As soon as I stepped into the studio, I thought, “What is this?? This isn’t rehab!” I asked to play one of the guitars, and that’s when I recorded my first song. I had no idea that recovery could link to music, and immediately felt like I had a huge reason to stay here and work on myself. I was really inspired by the other residents’ music, and it was so moving that these kids my age were speaking their own truths.
PH: Your winning song, “Take it to the Days,” is a really beautiful and peaceful composition. What inspired you to write it?
V: Just being here and thinking about my life and remembering how simple it used to be for me when I was much younger, before my addiction. The hardest thing to do is to get out of destructive habits and strive for a simpler, better life—and that’s what I want to do.
PH: What is the most important lesson you have learned at Phoenix House?
V: The value of life and the value of time. They teach us structure here, and that’s something I never had in my life. Phoenix House has shown me that I can choose how to spend my time and how to better myself. I can actually read a book now and just sit with myself, without texting like crazy or wanting to go and do something else. It’s really amazing that I can do that now. I can just be.
PH: What are your plans for the future?
V: I want to go to college; I’m in the process of enrolling right now. I’m also going into a sober living program, and I know that I want to do something with music in the future. I can also see myself doing drug and alcohol counseling. It has kind of hit me all of a sudden—suddenly, my future is here. It’s amazing, and I never thought that I would be in this position with all of these opportunities around me.
PH: Do you have any advice for teens who may be struggling with substance abuse?
V: Don’t give up on yourself! Remember that we’re all here to help each other, and you’re not alone. Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody deserves a second chance.