Camilo José Vergara

How Drugs Hurt or Helped Me

A Survey

December 13, 2023

Personal stories on use and abuse

Personal stories on use and abuse

From Cocaine to Heroin to Robbery to Prison

By Daniel Genis

New York is so diverse that one’s downfall can feel like evidence in an ethnographic study. Back in the ’90s, the heroin to feed my addiction was supplied by Puerto Rican dealers on the Lower East Side. I copped weed from Jamaicans and coke up in Harlem. Tough gay Chelsea boys sold me GHB, a mad Russian provided MDMA and ketamine, and college hippies had acid. The city’s population is 8.5 million, 40% of whom were born in countries other than the U.S. Some come for the golden pavement of legend and end up in the drug economy; as a result, New York hosts countless varieties of experience for the addict. 

The story I tell best is my own.

My sentence to 12 years in prison in 2003 was the end result of a series of bad decisions that dated back some five years, to when I was 19. For many with substance abuse problems, being introduced to mind-altering substances at a much younger age than that is often the result of a multigenerational cycle of addiction and crime. Three separate times in prison I saw sons meet their fathers for the first time. While I had a certain genetic predisposition to dependence, my 12 years were solely my responsibility. 

I’m the only son of a successful Russian writer father and my executive mother. I went from Stuyvesant High School to NYU, settling on a planned career in publishing. I also fell in love with the night-city that New Yorkers either grow to fear or embrace. My relationship with this place included snorting cocaine up my nose, and just about the time I graduated college and began to work at an agency, I took on a full-fledged intravenous heroin habit. I was 22.

If fentanyl had been around then, I wouldn’t be here now. It took two years for heroin to destroy my life. My habit reached a bundle a day, 10 “dime” bags a day, shot up my arm just to feel human. I burned through my resources and was a poor addict. Withdrawal haunted me and the hospital detoxes didn’t help. I had no one to ask for help. Also, it was a hundred dollars a day. It took a year for the literary agency I worked for to fire me, and then I worked in Barnes and Noble, and then I just stole and applied for credit cards. Finally, everything ran out in the summer of 2003 and I was very dope sick. Turning my back on my principles, I tried to rob people at night. In the newspapers, I was dubbed “The Apologetic Bandit,” because while I did brandish a pocketknife I once used for camping, I also profusely apologized.

For the five counts of robbery I pled guilty to, all committed over one week in 2003, I wound up with 12 flat, or 10 years, three months and 21 days. In court, the judge made clear he was giving me the maximum because someone like me should have known better.

I should have. Almost everyone does; everyone knows what’s right and wrong in simple terms. Drug addiction, however, is a force that will cause you to reconsider. Substance abuse can bring anyone down from any perch to their bare knees. 

Daniel Genis is a writer. His memoir, “Sentence,” was published in 2022.


Selling and Using Cocaine, Finding a Way Back

By Inglefield Dane Reid

Growing up in a stable, two-parent home laid the foundation for my early years. My parents, steadfast in their commitment to a healthy lifestyle, abstained from drinking and smoking. My mother’s role working for the New York City government and my father’s dedication as a high school teacher instilled in me the values of hard work and education.

Entering college with a focus on public administration, I embarked on a journey that initially mirrored the stability of my upbringing. After completing my education, I found success in the retail sector, managing high-end department stores. Life seemed to be unfolding according to the script written by the values instilled in me by my parents.

However, at the age of 29, an unexpected twist unraveled the narrative. I made a regrettable choice, venturing into the dangerous world of drug distribution — specifically, selling cocaine. This ill-fated decision took an even darker turn when, at the age of 34, I succumbed to the very substances I had once thought to be beyond my reach. Due to my substance use, I violated my marriage vows. I began spending time in strip clubs and not coming home at night, which led to my divorce. As my substance abuse increased, the consequences of my choices caught up with me, leading to an arrest and subsequent time behind bars. It was during this period of confinement that a glimmer of hope emerged in the form of an opportunity to enter a drug rehabilitation program at Phoenix House.

The road to recovery proved arduous, demanding not only physical resilience but also a profound commitment to personal transformation. Twelve years later, the path I embarked has not only led to my recovery but has propelled me into a position I once thought unattainable; I became a full-time counselor and now serve as the director of Phoenix House Sanctuary Shelter. 

My story is a testament to the transformative power of rehabilitation programs and the unwavering commitment of those who believe in the potential for change.

While the shadows of my past linger, they serve as a constant reminder of the fragility of life and the resilience of the human spirit. Today, I stand not only as a survivor but as someone who aspires to become a beacon of hope and an example for those still grappling with the chains of addiction.

Inglefield Dane Reid is the director of Phoenix House Sanctuary Shelter.


Smoking Pot, Almost Having a Child Taken

By Chanetto Rivers

I had a peaceful pregnancy. I was meditating and connecting with my spirituality and ancestors. In my last trimester, I smoked weed occasionally. When I went into labor, I told my doctors I smoked. Weed was legal at the time. They didn’t ask or tell me they were doing a drug test. 

My baby was born quickly, and he was full-term. They found weed in our systems, and they separated us. They never told me the marijuana exposure harmed him, and they never treated him for it. The next day, an Administration for Children’s Services worker went and checked my apartment, and she saw that I had everything I needed for the baby at home. The hospital released me but didn’t release my baby. 

First, they said they needed to keep him for a couple of days because he’d swallowed fluids and meconium during the birth, but then when he was ready to go home, they refused to release him to me because ACS had told them to keep him there. I had to travel to the hospital every day to see him, even though I was exhausted postpartum, and in physical pain from just having given birth. When I would arrive at the hospital to visit my baby, they didn’t know where he was, they were always switching around his location, and when they finally found him, there were multiple nurses watching me, treating me like a prisoner. It made me very uncomfortable. And it was humiliating to have to explain to my neighbors and friends that I was coming home without my baby. 

After a few days, when I had to go to court, a judge ordered them to give me back my baby. When I went to pick him up after court, the hospital workers still didn’t want to release him to me.

ACS made me participate in a drug program. I passed every drug test. Even though weed was already legal, they were still testing me. I followed every rule they wanted me to, but they still kept coming to my house to check up on me and my baby. It was embarrassing and traumatizing, disturbed my baby’s sleep, and interfered with my home business styling people’s hair. 

Finally, after more than three months, they dropped the case. 

How many people of color do they do this to? I have spoken to a lot of people who have kids and went through the same thing I did. We are walking on eggshells. We are enslaved in our own country, the way they show up in the middle of the night to take our kids away with two caseworkers and threaten to call the police.

Chanetto Rivers lives in the Bronx.


Surrounded by Illegal Marijuana Shops

By Itzel Robles Sandoval

Growing up and going to elementary, middle and high school in East Harlem, I always cherished the strong sense of community in my neighborhood. But I’ve recently observed a shift in the dynamics. This shift became apparent when I undertook the task of writing an article about another community — the South Bronx, in an afterschool project with classmates at The Bronx Documentary Center

We focused on the emergence of South Bronx smoke shops and found dozens in the immediate vicinity of elementary, middle and high schools. In the course of our investigation, we discovered that a significant portion of middle and high school students were doing drugs early in the morning. On occasion, this resulted in them ending up in the emergency room because of nausea or stomach problems. 

I also began witnessing and becoming aware of this issue at my own high school. Two individuals were caught smoking marijuana in the bathrooms, resulting in suspensions and heightened security measures, including periodic checks of the bathrooms. Yet before and after this incident, my school gave inadequate attention to this issue, infrequently addressing the hazards associated with marijuana consumption and its impact on the developing brains of my classmates.

Over my teenage years, as marijuana has become more and more accepted and eventually fully legal for adult use, smoking weed or vaping had become a normalized topic — casually discussed with seemingly little concern. 

I’ll be honest. Witnessing the abundance of smoke shop promotions has sparked my curiosity, prompting me to think about whether I too might try cannabis. However, I swiftly dismissed that thought. I don’t need to join the legions of young users, certainly not yet.

Itzel Robles Sandoval, 18, is a journalism student at Fordham University.


Smoke Gets in Your Mind

By Harry Siegel

Don’t kid yourself: There’s a reason cigarettes have been celebrated in high and low art and across popular culture, a reason that My Lady Nicotine has been popularly embraced everywhere it’s been introduced. 

It’s taken nothing less than the applied power of the state to begin to change that dynamic in much of the First World (to use a term that’s now about as in vogue here as smoking). It’s a triumph of coercion and social control over human nature and chemical addiction that’s measurably increased people’s lifespans. 

Cigarettes haven’t been extinguished among addicts, though, and the efforts to stub them out won’t survive a war.

I’ve quit smoking before and need to quit again, and for keeps. It’s hard not least because, as Richard Klein put in the title of the wonderful book he wrote while successfully quitting, Cigarettes Are Sublime in the Kantian sense of being a negative pleasure. They’re a pleasure that, as he puts it, “inflames what it presumes to extinguish” as each smoke “allows one to open a parenthesis in the time of ordinary experience, a space and a time of heightened attention that gives rise to a feeling of transcendence.” 

That’s the hoity-toity, in between gasping for air or contemplating what follows this self-inflicted infirmity. 

The nitty-gritty is that offering cigarettes remains a great way to connect with people and open up sources. It’s literally reaching out to offer a token of value to and kinship with anyone else who feels that itch. 

And now that smokes are taxed to hell, offering one is also a neat little bribe or subtle way of creating a small debt some people feel obliged to repay. You don’t need to smoke yourself, but it helps!

I can’t tell you the number of friends I met, back when I was younger and more inclined to making new friends, because we smoked. The number of columns I got out of smoke breaks with colleagues that (those parentheses of time again) provided not merely a reason but a compulsion to leave the stifling and unnatural environment of an elevator-floor Manhattan office, an environment nearly as unhealthy as a smoke-filled bar and less conducive to exceptional moments of connection between people. 

Cigarettes remain an incredibly potent little in-person token of exchange and common experience in an increasingly online and denuded world, where it's more and more difficult to answer the question of why people still need to be in cities and their cafes and bars that were once practically defined by smoking.

Not only do they help people find company but, as my brother who has stayed quit told me when I asked him what he’d found good about smoking: “Cigarettes kept me company when I was lonely. They were something to do that made me feel less alone.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet and public figure whose candle burned at both ends, also had a cigarette in her repertoire, with the first name of this sonnet also being its title:

Only until this cigarette is ended, A little moment at the end of all … I will permit my memory to recall The vision of you, by all my dreams attended. And then adieu, — farewell! — the dream is done.

Harry Siegel is a Vital City contributing writer.


What Alcohol Does for Me

By Robert Simonson

Eight years ago, I was invited to speak in front of a group of students at Notre Dame. The talk was held at the Jordan Hall of Science and the affair was the inaugural dinner of a fraternal organization called Men of Virtue. I was preceded at the podium by professors of economics and law and other disciplines, each imparting words of wisdom on how to go about life in an upstanding manner.

I felt distinctly out of my league. I am undeniably accomplished in my field, but that field — writing about cocktails and bars — is not exactly what you’d call doctorate material.

Yet alcohol was something that every young face in that crowd dealt with on a daily basis. And it was more an immediate concern at that particular moment in their life than, say, handling money wisely and developing a personal philosophy. Still, my talk was an anomaly. No one, in my experience, talks openly about drinking in college. Alcohol has long been accepted as an unavoidable aspect of college life, a coming-of-age gauntlet you couldn’t avoid. But the subject is largely addressed after the fact, following some regrettable episode, not beforehand in the form of advice and frank talk. So the Notre Dame gig seemed like a worthy opportunity.

I told the group about the deathless dual nature of alcohol and its consumption in our country. “It’s wonderful; it’s awful,” I said. “It’s a delight; it’s a plague on society. It opens people up; it breaks them down. It brings friends together; it rips families apart. We are Puritans and we are hedonists both and it seems we ever will be.”

I still feel that way and I’ve long ago made my peace with it. There is no reconciling booze’s two natures. Thus, it is best to face the matter of drinking culture head-on and master it, each to one’s own needs.

As for me, it takes the form of an ethos I call “The Virtue of Selfish Drinking.” By that, I mean long-term selfishness. Winston Churchill famously said, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” For me, it is the same. Drink has unknit my inhibitions, given me Dutch courage at critical times, added a halo to already glowing occasions. I don’t want to lose that silver lining. It is my intention to carefully monitor my drinking so that I get to enjoy spirits and cocktails for the entirety of my life. I’ve always regarded the evening cocktail as an end-of-day reward for the adult behavior that preceded it. In that way, it is a fitting habit for men and women of virtue.

Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits, bars, and bartenders for the New York Times and is the creator and author of the Substack newsletter The Mix With Robert Simonson.


Drowning in Drink, Clawing Out

By John Teufel

​​I drank my way through Brooklyn Law School. At the time, I was living in Midwood, in a small rent-stabilized one-bedroom with my then-boyfriend. The apartment had little natural lighting but a lot of places to hide liquor. Nights ended whenever I blacked out, usually at around 10. Not 10 p.m.; I mean 10 drinks. So every morning when my alarm went off, I had a choice to make: Did I skip the day’s classes to dedicate myself fully to getting ripped, show up at Crim Law shaking and sweating, or the middle ground of packing a vodka-spiked Diet Coke bottle to keep me well until quitting time?

Options One or Three meant that, if I had foolishly chugged the last of my booze the night before, I would need liquor early. Really early, like 7 a.m., or risk the first withdrawal pangs. 

Most liquor stores don’t open until 10 a.m. But this is New York, where nearly anything can be had at nearly any time if you’re willing to put some effort in. So one particularly desperate early morning, as I walked the streets of central Brooklyn looking nothing less than cracked out of my skull, one of those booze warehouses you sometimes see in the boroughs arose before me like a desert mirage, ready to do commerce while the coffee was still fresh at the deli next door. Like many alcoholics, I had a tendency to shop around for my fix, not wanting any one clerk to know my true daily intake. But for all a.m. needs, this would be my place. Thank God for New York City.

You have to understand that if I went without — if I did face the day clean and sober — I wasn’t up against a mere hangover, even a wicked one. My body would give way. I had rewired myself to depend on cheap scotch, mostly. When I ran out of fuel, things would start to break down. So on the crowded morning Q train from Avenue M to DeKalb, I would start sweating. Not normal sweating — sheets of water cascading from my forehead. I would wipe it away with a napkin and wind up with napkin pieces stuck to my face, visual shorthand for “guy with some issues.” My hands shook, and my legs weakened. The classic rush for a subway seat became an existential struggle, with even the most pregnant of women relegated to resource competitors.

At some point, I started to make halting attempts at getting clean. If few cities drink like New York, few cities also get sober like New York. There are, quite literally, thousands of AA meetings across the boroughs, and for every identity imaginable. (Sadly, the pandemic paused many of them, which have never unpaused since.) I spent time in centuries-old churches I never would have seen otherwise, okay, yes, usually the basements, but even those are pretty. I cried in front of lawyers and stockbrokers on the Upper East Side and laughed with construction workers and nurses in Prospect Heights.

It didn’t stick, not until a few trips to New York’s worst detox wards and one Florida rehab stay. One night, my first week back in town, I walked past the crowded bars of Williamsburg and thought about how I could, if I wanted to, drop in and have a few. I was one person out of 8 million plus. I was a tiny cog in a big city. I had to keep walking.

John Teufel is an attorney and a columnist for The Indypendent.


Locked Up in More Ways Than One

By Noel Vest

“You’re gonna have to overdose to get treatment in here.”

Though I had remained clean for two years in the county jail while awaiting trial, I was informed that overdose was the only option I had to obtain the lifesaving treatment I needed when I arrived at High Desert State Prison. Such is life when you are trying to obtain substance use disorder treatment while incarcerated.

In the confines of my cell, I grappled with the shadows of my past. Incarcerated for nonviolent drug-related offenses, including drug possession, fraud and identity theft, I found myself yearning for a chance at redemption. The clinking of cell doors echoed through the hallways, a constant reminder of the isolation that enveloped me. Despite recognizing the dire need for drug treatment, I discovered an unfortunate reality: I was caught in a system that struggled to provide adequate drug rehabilitation services.

As days turned into months and months into years, my desperation grew. The prison’s limited resources and overcrowded facilities made accessing drug treatment programs a distant dream. In a cruel twist of fate, the very institution meant to facilitate rehabilitation became a barrier to the transformative journey I so desperately sought.

From a purely financial standpoint, the policy made sense; prisons can only afford to provide services to those most in need. That amounts to people who are lucky enough to have been offered a plea deal that includes treatment or those who overdose while in custody.

Locked behind bars, my yearning for change persisted. I pondered the missed opportunities and the lack of support systems within the criminal justice system. The absence of comprehensive drug treatment programs left me grappling with the harsh reality that, despite my earnest desire to recover, the necessary services remained out of reach. Eventually, the prison brought in recovery-focused self-help meetings (i.e., AA, NA, Al-Anon) to provide some assistance, but it was nowhere near enough.

I was lucky. I persevered and stumbled into long-term recovery through the back door. It’s clear we need more opportunities within the prison system to enter recovery through the front door.

Noel Vest is an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.