From Addiction and Prison to Recovery and Love

By Seth Ferranti 06/21/16

Susan Stellin and Graham MacIndoe discuss their memoir on addiction and clean time from both the addict's point of view and his partner's.

From Addiction and Prison to Recovery and Love
A modern day love story with all the twists and turns of prison and recovery.

Working as a reporter in New York City, Susan Stellin started dating Scottish photographer Graham MacIndoe before discovering the heroin habit that ultimately drove them apart. And surprisingly enough, it was Graham’s criminal conviction that brought them back together years later.

“Chancers” is a British term for someone who takes risks, and that aptly characterized Graham, who was living and working in America when he slipped into a brutal heroin addiction that almost cost him everything. He documented his downward spiral in a series of photographs first published by New York magazine, with an interview describing what compelled him to shoot those self-portraits.

In Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love—One Couple’s Memoir, out this month, Graham and Susan tell the story of their relationship with all the twists and turns that can be expected in our addiction-riddled and incarceration-crazy society. Where Graham went from living in a brownstone in Brooklyn to residing in a dorm at Rikers, and then spending five months in immigration detention—fighting a deportation order back to Scotland—that’s when he reconnected with Susan and ended up in a prison rehab program that changed his life.

The book moves between their two points of view, showing the nightmare of addiction and incarceration from both sides. The Fix sat down with Graham and Susan to find out how their relationship overcame Graham’s addiction, what Rikers Island was like, and the intangibles of getting clean in prison before returning to the world.

Looking back, is there anything you think might’ve helped you deal with your addiction before it got to the point where you ended up in jail?

Graham MacIndoe- I went to rehab for 28 days, but it takes a week or two just to detox and realize where you are, and then I was only left with a couple of weeks to grasp a life-changing program, and that just wasn’t enough time. Maybe if I had transitioned to some kind of outpatient program or sober living house, that would’ve made a difference, or if I had found a therapist who specialized in addiction. But my insurance at the time didn’t cover these things. So for me, and a lot of people, money can be a huge barrier to getting treatment, and also there just aren’t enough facilities available for addicts who need help. 

Another factor is that I was really ashamed to talk about what was going on, so I think that if there wasn’t that stigma surrounding addiction I might’ve reached out to friends and family before it was too late. A lot of people told me later on that they knew I had a problem but didn’t know how to approach me or what they could do. I think that’s one of the most important things that has to change—addiction has to be something we can all talk about more openly.

Do you buy into the notion of "once an addict always an addict"? And how does this relate to your relationship with Graham?

Susan Stellin- The way I think of it is, Graham was addicted to heroin and crack for many years, but I don’t consider him an addict now. I just don’t believe it’s helpful to apply that kind of permanent label to anyone because I think it can discourage people from getting clean. But I think it’s fair to say that Graham has a personality type that makes him more susceptible to behaviors associated with addiction, so it’s something he has to be aware of in various aspects of his life. 

Once he got back into running, he learned the hard way that he couldn’t do the same speed or distance he did back in his 20s, so now I’ll see him at the gym doing stretches in this very diligent, methodical way whereas I’ll touch my toes a few times then head for the showers. He’d be the first to admit he’s “all in” when he does something—which can be a positive thing if you channel it in a healthy direction. I think the key for Graham is making sure he continues to do that, and sharing his story is part of that process. 

Rikers Island has been in the news a lot lately, often because of violence. What was your experience there like? How did that compare to your time in immigration detention?

Graham- Initially when I was sentenced to six months at Rikers, I was pretty scared. I’d been in and out of there a couple of times, but only for a few days waiting for bail or the charges to get dropped, so the thought of spending even a few months there was really overwhelming. The first month or so was particularly tough, as I was detoxing and the withdrawal just seemed to last forever. But the crazy thing for me was realizing about halfway through my bid that I’d gotten somewhat comfortable because I’d made some friends and settled into a routine, working in the kitchen and going to the yard and reading. 

I definitely saw a lot of violence, but I managed to avoid getting into any trouble. When I got picked up by immigration agents at the end of my sentence and transferred to immigration custody, that was much more traumatizing because I didn’t know where I was going or what was going to happen to me. It took a long time to see a judge, and at first it was almost impossible to communicate with anyone on the outside. So for me, that was probably the hardest part of my whole time locked up.

What was it like being an observer of the criminal justice system from the outside looking in?

Susan- Well, sometimes I didn’t feel like I was on the outside because I often felt like I was treated like I’d done something wrong, just because I was associated with someone who’d been arrested and went to jail and then prison. There were times when I was treated better than the people around me—at court or various interactions with the police—and seeing that racial disparity was depressing. But there were also times when guards or cops acted with such disdain for all the family members who were just trying to navigate the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system, I would sit there thinking, “Our taxes pay your salary.” 

So I learned a lot about the injustice of the system while I was trying to help Graham. He got some lucky breaks, but I don’t think anyone can go through an experience like that—on the inside or the outside—without coming out the other side with a very different understanding of what it means to be incarcerated. Graham only did nine months, but it took a long time for him to wash away the effects of being imprisoned.   

You managed to get into a rehab program in prison while you were in immigration custody. How did that happen? And what was that program like?

Graham- I was asking around about AA since I’d heard they had meetings in the prison, and one of the COs told me about the program. It was mostly for county prisoners, but I decided to apply and wrote a letter saying why I thought I needed this program and how much I wanted to be on it, and they let me in even though I was an immigrant detainee. 

It was a four-month cognitive behavioral program, with two full-time counselors, that revolved around a lot of group meetings, reading and writing assignments, and rational thinking workshops. Many of the groups were peer-led. It was tough in the beginning because there were a lot of rules, but once I got the hang of it I really embraced it. I think because I’d already been clean for five months, it was much clearer in my head what I could get from a program and how it could help me. 

Also, the fact that it was four months long was really important because it takes a lot of work to start resetting a broken mindset. I learned so much—not only about myself but also about how to communicate with other people and see things from their point of view. It changed my whole way of thinking and made me realize how I could live without drugs.

Do you think your anger and hope and disappointment helped Graham get clean? Why or why not?

Susan- I don’t think my anger and disappointment helped Graham get clean; that’s one of the things we tried to show in our book. Graham knew he was hurting me and his son and his family, and he felt very guilty about that, but that wasn’t enough to keep him from relapsing even when he did manage to quit. Since he’d already been to rehab and tried AA, and his family had done an intervention, and those things hadn’t worked, I think he didn’t know what might help him. And the truth is, neither did we. 

But once he did get into a good rehab program in prison and really committed to it, then I do think everyone’s hopes and expectations helped. There were a lot of factors that came together at that point, but knowing he had the support of all these people who loved him definitely made him more determined to succeed. 

What was it like when you got released from prison and went back to the same neighborhood where you’d been using? How did you manage to stay clean?

Graham- When I first got out I went to AA a lot—partly because I didn’t have a lot to do, and also not to feel so alone as I tried to come to terms with the damage of the last decade and figure out how I was going to rebuild my life. I was back in the neighborhood I’d always lived in so it was inevitable that I was going to bump into my old friends, but I actually never felt tempted to use—not even when a dealer came up to me in the street one day and squeezed some dope into my hand, telling me where to find him if I needed more. I think when I threw away those baggies in the nearest trash can, that was really the moment when I knew I was done with that life. I’d been through so much at that point and worked so hard to get clean, I just couldn’t imagine what would make me go down that path again. All of these people had helped me and accepted me back into their lives—Susan, my son, my family, and my friends—and I wasn’t going to let them down.

Did you have any reservations about letting Graham move in with you after he was released from prison? 

Susan- When our lawyer first suggested that as an option, I definitely lost some sleep wondering if it was a good idea. Aside from the fact that we’d broken up years earlier and hadn’t even seen each other in a year and a half, there was a stigma surrounding Graham’s addiction and criminal record that I had to get over first. Back in 2010, people weren’t talking about the heroin epidemic or mass incarceration the way it’s in the news now, so I think I bought into the same sense of shame Graham was carrying around—that this was something we had to hide from anyone who didn’t already know. But the fact that Graham had done this really intense rehab program in prison—and I could see how much he had changed—made it a lot easier to give him a chance. By the time he got released, we had shared so much through phone calls and letters, I felt pretty confident that it was worth seeing where this led.

Graham MacIndoe, a photographer and adjunct professor at Parsons The New School, and Susan Stellin, a freelance reporter in New York, are the authors of the memoir Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.