My addiction started with heroin, back when I was in high school. I never was into alcohol other than a few beers here and there, but when heroin became popular I got involved. I started inhaling it and I did that for three or four years. I still went to church every Sunday, I worked, and I went to school and functioned. I wasn’t a hard-liner. I was working with the Transit Authority my junior year of high school—don’t ask me how I got that job!
When I started selling heroin my school found out and told my family, who were kind of in denial. They didn’t know much about drugs or addiction. They were very religious, very structured. I’m the oldest child in my family and the worst part was feeling like I’d let them all down. But when I got arrested for possession, my family had to come to grips with the fact that I had a problem. And me, I really wanted to get some help but I didn’t know how and I was scared to death. I was just a youngster.
The judge saw that it was my first arrest and that I had a good family support network, so instead of locking me up he decided I should go to a treatment program. The first one I went to was a joke, so I left and went to Phoenix House New York, which at the time had a location at Coney Island. I started there around the end of 1969 and I stayed until 1972.
I had to kick heroin cold turkey—back then there was methadone for detoxification, but in my case I just used sheer willpower. At Phoenix House I trusted the people around me because they were going through the same thing. Even during the first few days in induction there were people looking out for me, putting a blanket on me, helping me wean off the stuff. Slowly but surely the chemicals left me, and I started seeing a bit clearer. Soon I thought, “Whoa, it’s not so bad not being high.”
Phoenix House was when things started happening for me. I saw some old people there who’d been on the streets for years and years, and I thought I would never end up like that because I was still young. But they told me, “You punk, you better listen up and stay clean or you’ll end up worse!” They took a liking to me and I took a liking to them and I trusted them. I thought, if these old guys can fix their lives, why shouldn’t I?
Treatment than was much different than it is now, but one thing that’s the same is how close-knit we were. We were a family. We got in touch with our true feelings and talked about what was hurting us instead of keeping it bottled up inside. At Phoenix House I built something solid and real within myself, along with my peers. I found out that nobody was different from anybody else. We were all in it together, no matter where we came from, what religion, what lifestyle—we were all equals. I remember on Jewish holidays I’d go to one guy’s house along with some other clients, and it was my first time having a Jewish holiday meal. I remember it like it was yesterday!
As the program went along I earned privileges to seek employment and go to school, and I became responsible for other residents as a role model. We had speaking engagements at local high schools, where we’d get up onstage and talk. It wasn’t easy; we were nervous but we were honest, so people warmed up to us. The next step was reentering society, and that was when I started working for Phoenix House. I started as a warehouse stipend and from there I went on to be a purchasing aide, buyer and eventually, warehouse operations manager. I’ve been employed at Phoenix House for 37 years. I’ve seen a lot of history here, and I’m still in touch with some folks from back in the day. How many years do I have sober? A whole bunch! 1969 until 2013, that’s 44 years.
Phoenix House has been a big chunk of my life, and I’m glad that I had a chance to experience this process. I could be dead, like a lot of my peers from the streets back in the day, but instead I surrendered and gave myself a chance and here I am. A lot of my success has to do with my family, too; they supported me, kicked me out of the house when I needed it, and let me back in again. They practically ran their own treatment orientation! I could have gotten really lost, but instead I had this opportunity to find out who I really am. I’m still learning that, day in and day out. It never stops.
The best part, throughout all these years, is watching the men and women and boys and girls who go through the treatment process and then come back to me and say thank you. Folks who knew me from the warehouse or from the program, they tell me constantly, “Thank you, Bill. Thank you very much.” And I’m like, “Why, what did I do?” And they say, “Thank you for being you, and for being honest.” That’s what I experience today.
Every day I come in and see the clients, and that’s my motivation. The stuff you say to people out of care and concern, it really sticks with them. Clients who are here going through treatment, I let them know that they’re no different than I was all those years ago. People are the same; nobody likes rejection, nobody likes to be told no. You have to start over somewhere in order to learn what you missed during your addiction. And I got to start over at Phoenix House. I am thankful morning, noon, and night that I was able to rise from the ashes of my defeat.
If you or a loved one needs help for a substance abuse issue, Phoenix House is here for you. Email us or call today at 1 888 671 9392.