“I was always terrified of the world. I didn’t get it. It seemed like everybody else got it but me,” Phil A. relates, sitting on his bed in room one-thirty at Beit T’Shuvah. Born in Queens, NY, to an Orthodox Jewish family, Phil suffered from physical and emotional problems as a young child. Because of those issues and his disconnect from his Orthodox upbringing, he grew into a socially awkward and quiet teen. And by the age of sixteen, as he explains, “I told my parents I didn’t want to be an Orthodox Jew anymore.” Then at age eighteen, he moved to Israel to attend college for eighteen months. “It was the best time of my life,” he says. But it was also where his alcohol and drug use found its genesis. He began drinking alcohol, smoking weed, and experimenting with psychedelics. “The first time I got drunk, I became this whole new person. It was so freeing,” he explains.
Upon his return to Queens, he enrolled in Queens College with an eye towards a degree in Sociology. He also began smoking weed every day and drinking on the weekends. And because of his newly discovered vices, Phil started to have problems with school and work. “I got fired from Starbucks for smashing my forehead into the register screen. All because I wanted to attend a party,” he recounts. Following that incident, he attended another party, where he was introduced to heroin for the first time. Within a month of that introduction, he overdosed for the first time and fell into a coma for a week.
When he awoke, his horrified family immediately sent him to rehab in Connecticut, the same one Billy Joel and Jon Hamm went to for their rehab stints coincidentally. He was twenty-three at this point, and, following a brief visit to a sober living facility in Florida, Phil returned to New York, where he promptly resumed drinking alcohol and smoking weed. And, not too long after his return, Phil ratcheted up his narcotic repertoire to include Oxycontin, Fentanyl, Dilaudid, and a few other powerful opiates. For the next eight years, Phil managed to stay off heroin but continued to abuse opiates. Sadly, however, as Phil recalls, “I went back to heroin and, when the snorting of it stopped having the desired effect, I resorted to using needles.”
Around the time of this heroin reconnection, Phil had begun working at a GameStop retail store for a paltry eight dollars an hour. This amount was nowhere near what he needed to support his habit, so he resorted to stealing games at the store he worked at and reselling them to other GameStop locations. Eventually, he got busted but, by a stroke of pure luck and a good lawyer, he was only given a violation and a mere two days of public service. Despite all of this, he still did not feel like his addiction was a big deal. So he proceeded to move on to another job selling cell phones and tablets on eBay and Amazon. But, as he describes, “I still needed to support my habit. So I stole the cell phones and tablets and sold them on my own eBay and Amazon accounts.” He did this scam for an amazingly long period of time and, ironically, was fired, not for his theft but for shooting up heroin in the bathroom.
Now age thirty-three, Phil was unemployed and being supported by his family. And from his studio apartment in Astoria, he continued to shoot up heroin. But the facade he had lived under for so many years began to crumble. “I was miserable. And I thought I had to either kill myself or get help.” Thankfully, Phil’s sister had gotten sober many years earlier with the assistance of A.A. One evening, he decided to attend a meeting with her. “This is when my sobriety journey truly began,” he says. Also, around this same time, Phil relates, “I was diagnosed as bipolar and knew I needed more than just meetings and step work; I needed therapy.” He was able to stay clean from heroin and other hard drug use for eighteen months, but his misery had not abated. Unable to find relief, he unfortunately relapsed on heroin and overdosed again. “I blew out my kidneys and had to be on dialysis for a month,” he painfully explains.
Now thirty-six, exhausted, miserable, and just going through the motions of the program, Phil received an unexpected windfall. His grandmother had sadly passed away, but she left him thirty thousand dollars. “I said ‘F’ it. I’m going to California and get away from my family and all this misery,” he remembers. He managed to stay clean for his first seven months in the City of Angels. But then he relapsed, went to rehab, then sober living, then relapsed again, over a girl, and ended up at Clare (rehab facility in Santa Monica), where he learned about Beit T’Shuvah.
He contacted BTS, was awarded a scholarship, and entered those doors at 8831 Venice Boulevard in February of 2018. Within seven months, he secured a PF (Program Facilitator) internship, and by his one-year anniversary, he was given a full-time staff position at Beit T’Shuvah. Things began to settle down in his life, and for a period, he was a model citizen and leader at BTS. However, after twenty-one months of sobriety, he relapsed on Fentanyl. He was sent to an outside rehab facility for a month and then welcomed back to BTS. Two months later, he was made a PF Supervisor. And he was able to maintain his sobriety for another year. However, sobriety is not a linear or even process. Sometimes it’s four steps forward and two steps back. And at the end of that year of sobriety, Phil relapsed, once again, and had to return to Beit T’Shuvah as a resident this time.
From an outsider’s perspective, this may seem like a negative outcome in Phil’s recovery journey. But one of the many things that make BTS unique and special is the fact that we don’t give up on our “family members.” Being staffed almost exclusively by former residents, Beit T’Shuvah cares more about the healing process than the “success rate.” Of course, relapses are going to happen. But it’s how we get back up from our falls that measures the true character and resilience of our residents and staff. Since his latest residency turn, “I’ve been working through a lot of issues including childhood traumas and those triggers that can cause me to spiral,” Phil explains, leaning forward on his bed. “I have good days and bad days. But my treatment team has helped me face the dark times, and as they say around here, ‘I’m still holding on,’” he relates with that wry child-like grin.
Now, along with being a member of the “Freedom Song” cast, Phil has begun singing on a regular basis at Shabbat services again as well. He’s also started the process of getting a job, as well as working on his stand-up comedy routine. “My aspirations are simple. I want to do something that makes me happy and fulfilled. And someday soon, I hope to be on a stage somewhere making people laugh and fulfilling my dream of becoming a successful stand-up comedian,” Phil shares. A good story is only as good as the journey the main character takes the audience on as they try to confront and overcome the challenging trials and obstacles that life has thrown their way. Phil is one of those one-of-a-kind characters with a most colorful and compelling journey. Thanks for taking us all on your quest for recovery and healing, Phil. And that’s no joke.