I joined the military when I was 17—so young that my mom had to sign for me. When I was honorably discharged six years later, it was the wild ‘80s, and all my friends were selling drugs. They had money, they were having fun, and I thought, “I want to be a part of that.” So I started selling cocaine with them—and got hooked by testing my own product. It wasn’t long before a friend introduced me to heroin, and I got hooked on that, too.
I was living with my mom, who saw my appearance change. I was scruffy and had lost a lot of weight. She had an inkling something was going on but wasn’t sure what. When you’re an addict, you turn into someone else. It’s like a demon. You either stop completely, or you die from it. And death didn’t scare us. When we heard rumors that other addicts were dying from a particular brand, we’d just rush to that location to try their product. That’s the life of an addict—trying to find where the best stuff is.
But I was what people call a functioning addict. Four years after I got into the selling business I got out of it and found work as a handyman in a condominium complex. I even decided to go back to school and earned an associate’s degree in building maintenance, which led to a job as a building superintendent. Things seemed good, but that’s when my addiction got more intense. I was making more money, so I started using more. Living alone, having money, and being an addict equals trouble. When the owners became suspicious, I just abandoned my position and hit the streets of my old neighborhood. My brothers tried to help me, but I didn’t listen. I started selling cocaine again, but this time I was ripping off customers, which led to gunfights. People I knew got killed.
That’s when I knew I had to stop dealing, but I kept using, even when I got really sick. I caught endocarditis, an infection in the heart, which is caused by IV drug use. The pain was so bad that I went back home and ended up in the hospital for three months. I didn’t tell the doctors about my drug use, which made it difficult for them to determine where the infection was coming from.
I put my family through so much stress during that time, but I still didn’t stop. The first thing I did after I got out of the hospital was use again—and for the first time, I OD’d. I felt the cold from my toes to my face and passed out. I was lucky that I woke up.
But it wasn’t until four years later that I really woke up. A police officer arrested me for trespassing and possession after I’d gone to a random building to get high. For some reason, that was the wake-up call I needed. I detoxed at Rikers and then at a seven-day detox program at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. But I knew that wasn’t enough. When the seven days were up, I asked the social worker, “Where can I stay? I have no place to go but the streets.” She recommended me to Phoenix House. I’ll always be grateful that she did, because Phoenix House saved my life.
I stayed first at the Phoenix House Long Island City Center and then transferred to a 12-month residential adult program at Phoenix House Delaware County Center. It took me three days to unpack my bags. I wasn’t used to staying in places and wasn’t sure treatment would work. But I finally unpacked and committed to my recovery.
For treatment to work you have to want it—maybe not from the very beginning, but eventually. I wanted it. I wanted to get clean and change my life. But after 23 years of using, I didn’t know how. Thankfully, I had great counselors who helped me see that I really could build the life I wanted. They had me keep journals, where I wrote down my feelings about addiction. That really opened my eyes—to what my past was all about, and to what I wanted to do with my future: I wanted to be a drug counselor and help other people struggling with addiction.
After I got my credentials and completed treatment, Phoenix House Academy in Westchester hired me as a junior counselor. I’m now Deputy Director there, in charge of three departments and 28 staff members. I’ve been in the position for three years and live on campus. It’s like being on call 24 hours a day, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Working with adolescents is my passion. I try teaching them what I learned and help them avoid the pitfalls I went through. The feeling I get when parents say, “Thank you,” or when I see a client graduating from high school—it’s all worth it.
But that’s not the only way Phoenix House helped me. When I was using, I thought I would never get married or have a family. Treatment allowed me to see another side of myself, and as things started going well in my new life, I thought, “Maybe I could do this.” I never would have believed it was possible, but I got married and now have a wonderful wife and a son who mean everything to me.
The message I hope I can teach him—and that I try to get across to all the kids I work with—is that all that glitters isn’t gold. When you first get a taste of drugs, you see the glitter. But that shine is nothing but a fake bling. It’s a cubic zirconia that looks like a diamond. I’m so grateful I got to Phoenix House on time and learned what a real shine looks like—and now I get to teach others the same thing.