In this video, John proudly displays his “In Recovery for 12 years” sign at home with his wife. Below is John’s inspiring story.
I’ve spent my whole life in New York City. I was born in Harlem Hospital and grew up in Brooklyn—I call myself a “Brooklyn boy.” I was a pretty bright kid, going to Stuyvesant High School, which at that time was located in the East Village. There was a real heavy drug culture in that neighborhood in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and amongst all those bright and competitive kids is where a lot of us got introduced to drugs. It can become a detriment when you’re somebody who’s perceived as intelligent, because then people – including you – always assume you’ve got a handle on the situation. You assume you can stop using when you want to, but all that time you’re really lying to yourself. You don’t control drugs; they control you.
When I lost my job, I decided I was going to become a drug dealer to make money and support my habit. I already had one conviction for drug sales, and pretty soon I got busted again. I was in my 40s at this point, and I had lost my job and my family and my friends. I knew I was nearing rock bottom, so when I got busted I asked if I would be eligible for a treatment program. I felt like it was my last chance. I interviewed for Phoenix House while I was still in a holding cell in Brooklyn, and then I was sent off to Rikers Island, keeping my fingers crossed that I’d be able to leave and go to treatment. Luckily, because I didn’t have any violence on my record, I got into the program.
I arrived at Phoenix House Long Island City Center in May of 1997. Back then, long-term treatment was really long-term, so I did 27 months in treatment. It was one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had but definitely the most rewarding. It’s tough to live like that, spending two years in such a small community. The other residents and I, we hated each other at times, but eventually we all grew to love each other. The hardest part about treatment is arriving; you don’t know what to expect, and you have to tear down all the walls that you’ve built up around yourself. There’s no way around it—the only way you’re going to get better is by opening up.
The next hardest part is the end of treatment, when you have to take everything you learned about yourself and go back out into society. It’s hard. If you’ve been an addict for any amount of time, you’ve already done some underhanded things in order to get around. Plus there are those emotional walls that you’ve finally opened up over the years—it’s not like you get clean and suddenly everybody forgives you. It doesn’t work that way; it takes a long time for people to stop looking at you sideways and start letting you back into their lives. So after treatment your life has to take a 360-degree turn, and everything you do needs to be a compromise. There’s no short cut, there’s no easy way of doing things—all you can do is take baby steps.
When I left treatment, I began working at the Long Island City Center. Eventually I transferred to the Phoenix House Jack Aron Center to work for Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, and I’ve been here ever since. My life and my career have truly come full circle at Phoenix House. Today, I’m back with the mother of my children and my kids are back in my life; they’re all grown up, and my baby just graduated high school. I also have four grandkids—they are such joys. I don’t have any regrets as to how things turned out. I learned some valuable lessons about myself, about life, and about love, really. When you don’t love yourself, you lose your capacity to love other people. Often, we as addicts think we’re only hurting ourselves, and we use that as an excuse. But we don’t realize the impact that our use has on everybody in our world—friends, family, loved ones, community. It’s ripples in a pond. If more people stopped and thought about the real level of damage their drug use is causing, they might not let it get to that point.
I wouldn’t wish drug addiction on my worst enemy. It’s horrible, and it can truly happen to anyone. Addiction doesn’t discriminate; it crosses every possible racial and economic barrier. I know of people who were millionaires who ended up using on the streets. Addiction won’t let you stop until you’ve lost everything—and then, if you’re really lucky, you just might escape with your life. I am one of the lucky ones.