How I Became a Master Thespian Via a Sober Acting Program

By Suzy PetchEam as told to Kate Schmier 02/28/14
I moved to New York to study acting—that's when I started using drugs, eventually working my way up to heroin. But thanks to a sober acting program, I am finally thriving after 15 years of addiction.
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I was raised by my grandparents in Florida and moved to New York to study acting at Pace University. That’s when I started heavily smoking weed and drinking myself into oblivion. I was looking for acceptance and that’s what drugs gave me. 

Soon, I got into an abusive relationship with an addict and he introduced me to cocaine. I graduated with honors, but I continued to drink and sniff coke. Eventually, I was spending several hundred dollars a week on alcohol and drugs; I also developed a sleeping pill habit. I had a history of self-harm and suicide attempts—and I think subconsciously, I was still trying to kill myself. Every night, I’d drink and use so much that I’d throw up. In the morning, I’d curse God and say, “I can’t do this anymore.  Why am I still alive?” Somehow, I still always made it to work. I was a “functioning” addict.

At some point, I started selling coke. I had a dealer friend who got caught and left me his business to take care of. Being a dealer made me feel like, for the first time, I was somebody. I started going to fancy parties and lounges where everybody was calling my name. I got involved with one of my customers and we started doing drugs together. For me, drugs and men were the same thing—just another way to hurt myself. 

Eventually, I tried heroin. A lot of people say, “Someone must have turned you onto this,” but the truth is, I’ve always been an extremist. Nobody had to twist my arm. I had only been sniffing heroin up until that point.  One day I decided I wanted to see what it would feel like to shoot up.  And I did it, just like I saw it done in Pulp Fiction—and that was it.  I was home. After a very short while, I couldn’t function without it; I lost 40 pounds and started selling everything I could to pay for my habit. I had a beautiful apartment, but it basically became a crack house and shooting gallery. There was always blood and needles on the carpet. I can’t even remember showering for an entire year. One night, I was dope sick and robbed my family for drug money. That’s when I finally realized I was an addict. 

My mother got me into detox, but soon afterwards I started using again. That’s when she called the Phoenix House Career Academy in Brooklyn—I think she found it in the Yellow Pages. I entered Phoenix House in 2005 and stayed for 15 months, but I still didn’t get it. I wasn’t ready. I got involved with another client at Phoenix House. Three months after we completed the program, he relapsed—and then I relapsed, too.

For the next 10 years, I stayed in this relationship; for eight of those years, he was in prison. I waited around for him and just tried to get by. When you’re a heroin addict, it doesn’t matter if you’re making $20,000 or $50,000—it’s never enough. I would steal and manipulate. I pawned everything I had. I tried a methadone program, but they could never dose me high enough. It all came to a head on my 36th birthday: all my options had run out, my mother was about to kick me out…so I went to Phoenix House again and entered the Long Island City Center. 

After a few months, my boyfriend got out of prison and visited me in treatment. He said, “You’ve stayed by my side. You’ve done so much for me.” He promised things would be different and I believed him. That was my co-dependent behavior. Two weeks later, he relapsed.  It was the perfect excuse for me to use, and once again I relapsed. But this time, heroin didn’t fix anything—not even for a second.  I had lost my family, friends, and jobs, but it wasn’t until I lost that drug that I really hit bottom.

Finally, my counselor and I started working on all the feelings I had kept inside for so long. She has been wonderful; she really gets to the heart of the matter. Someone had asked me, “What are you going to do in your recovery?” and I didn’t know. Life had always been a punishment for me. I didn’t even want to leave the building because I thought, “There’s nothing for me out there.” But people started dragging me to AA meetings and I started going to church every week too. 

Then I saw a flyer about “The Gun Project,” and I learned there was an acting program for Phoenix House clients through the Stella Adler Studio. I joined and instantly felt a connection with the program. I started going every week. All those old feelings of being creative came back to me. When we performed at other Phoenix House programs, the reactions I got from people who had never seen theater before was incredible. That was the beginning of me starting to live again—to believe in something again. 

After about three months, I was offered an internship with the Stella Adler Outreach Program. As an intern, I help lead Stella Adler’s acting classes in the community. I’ve discovered true joy in working with young people—especially those who are disadvantaged. The opportunity to affect some change in their lives is such a blessing.  I’ve also been afforded the opportunity to work with kids trying to get their GED.  These guys come from a rough background and many of them have been incarcerated. I can relate to them. I know about that life. And I’ve started to share with them my story and let them see how things can change. Originally, the internship was supposed to be just a couple hours a week, but I’ve taken on more and more. There’s talk of it becoming a permanent job. 

It took 15 years of hardcore addiction for me to be able to walk into the Stella Adler Studio and now, here I am! I’m living life beyond my wildest dreams. I’m looking forward to completing treatment and getting my own apartment. None of this would have been possible without Phoenix House. The staff saw something in me I couldn’t see in myself and for that, I am forever grateful. They taught me that it’s OK to ask for help and to trust another human being. I’ve also learned that I do have worth—beyond what I see in the eyes of others. 

I entered treatment spiritually bankrupt. Now I have faith and hope—something I never thought I could achieve. I am still a work in progress but for the first time, I truly feel like I have tools to take with me every day into the real world. Today, I’m not simply surviving anymore—I’m thriving.

Kate Schmier is a writer and Director of Public Information at Phoenix House. Suzy PetchEam holds a BFA in Acting from Pace University and now works in the Outreach Department at the Stella Adler Studio.

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