“Park up,” a man yelled from the corner of Fourth Street and Indiana Avenue, a notorious drug-dealing swath of Philadelphia that looks more like a war zone than a neighborhood.
Drug dealers work their corners nestled between empty lots littered with tires and other debris and centuries-old row homes boarded up with sheets of plywood sprayed with graffiti. One man, arms outstretched, attempted to lure in a driver.
"Park up," he called out again, cajoling his next buyer.
Kyle Curtis, a passenger in a car inching by, knows this eerily familiar place, once a regular heroin stop for him in the heart of the ominous "Badlands." But the 24-year-old now has no reservations about simply passing through.
His strength to resist the drug that once lured him from the safety of the suburbs to dark, dangerous pockets of Philadelphia comes from "a higher power" and a place within him that has embraced a clean, sober life and now seeks to help others do the same.
Weeks earlier, Kyle Curtis took his place behind a podium, a bit uncomfortable in the limelight, but steadfast in his resolve to share his message:
"You could do this; you could beat this," he told the group before him.
The Newtown resident stood before a crowd of people in recovery, offering a nod and a half smile as they applauded and congratulated him on three years of sobriety.
He then chronicled his climb from the depths of addiction, a place that continues to haunt him and remind of where he never wants to return.
A THIEF APPEARS
Drugs, he said, stole his youth, landed him in jail twice before he was 20 and isolated him from a loving family whom he stole from. Still, as he reflects on his journey to sobriety, he offers hope and strength to those who share a similar bond, a similar struggle.
At 15, Curtis was a star athlete, a baseball player who never had trouble in school or finding friends. But he wanted to fit in with an older crowd, so he started drinking, then smoking, then popping painkillers.
"It started out as a harmless joint, a harmless beer and then I progressed very rapidly," he said.
Curtis began setting boundaries for his use, but would easily cross them.
He said he'd never use on the days he had baseball games. He did.
He promised he would never use in his home. "Then I'd find myself hanging out of the bedroom or living room window smoking pot," he said.
Sports became secondary, he said. Then came the trips to rehabilitation centers.
"It was one rehab after the other, but the problem I came to find out was that my thinking never changed: I came to see that drugs and alcohol were a solution to me getting through everyday life."
Curtis now tries to erase the misconceptions tied to marijuana.
"People don't think you can become addicted from weed, but I stole to buy pot. I lied. If I couldn't smoke weed before I went to school, I didn't go. It was my first real addiction."
At 16, he tried OxyContin, a prescription painkiller that was easily available in his high school. He never expected that after two weeks of using it that he would develop a strong physical dependency.
He tried to stop on his own, but couldn't cope with the physical withdrawal symptoms.
"It felt like the most severe case of the flu — vomiting, insomnia, no appetite, diarrhea," he said.
"When I was going through withdrawal, I would curl in the fetal position and try to get comfortable, but it was impossible."
Then he found another drug that offered a stronger high at less than one-third the cost: heroin.
"One pill of Oxycontin was $40 or $50 and one bag of heroin was $10. Two or three bags of heroin were equal to one pill. So I went with what was cheaper."
Plus, he said, he could snort heroin. "I snorted on and off for four to five years. The fact that I could sniff it made it easier. I saw what needles did to my friends. Being able to snort it made it easier for me to justify."
ALWAYS AT HAND
He kept the heroin on him, even in school, tucked in a pouch tied to the bottom of his jeans. "I'd just carry it around school, go to the bathroom in between classes and use."
He stashed drugs in the woods outside his school and used them when he could get to them. "Being in school never stopped me from using."
At home, Curtis would hide drugs in the ceiling tiles in his room. At one point, he cut a piece of dry wall out of his closet to store his drugs. Sometimes, he would get sloppy, leaving drugs, pipes or paraphernalia in his sock drawer or on his dresser.
"When my parents first caught me, they came down on me hard; they kept putting me in outpatient therapy groups," he said. "They would be mad at me for a couple of days or weeks, then I'd fool them into thinking I was trying to do better.
"They were totally powerless; they wanted to help me, but I didn't want help."
Then, he turned to crime.
At 17, he believed his actions were harmless.
"We were going from neighborhood to neighborhood, taking beer out of people's garages," he said. "I thought it was harmless trouble we were getting in."
Curtis said he never had trouble with the law; he never had to stand before a judge. So he didn't expect much of a punishment when he got caught. Curtis was sent to a juvenile detention center for 11 months, missing his senior year of high school.
He was able to take classes at the detention center and earn his diploma, but it wasn't the same. "I missed prom, senior week, everything I had looked forward to," he said.
To make money at the detention center, he swept halls, "doing whatever needed to be done around the school," earning about $1 a day. Then he got into a culinary arts program, which allowed him to go off campus and cook at a senior citizens center. He then made $3 a day.
"I knew then I'd have a couple hundred dollars waiting for me when I got out," he said. "You would have thought I would have gotten my act together. But I took that $200 or $300 and got drunk and high the day I got out. No matter how much you learn, this is what alcohol and drugs do."
At the time, he promised to stay away from the hard drugs.
"My mind told me I would leave the hard drugs alone and smoke weed," he said. "But it always leads back to the hard drugs."
College, he thought, would be different. He was accepted at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He would be away from his typical routine, away from his social circle, away from his source of drugs.
"I didn't even make it a full semester," he said. "All I was worried about was drinking and using. I was arrested and thrown in jail three different times for public drunkenness, underage drinking and theft."
After a night of drinking alcohol and taking Xanax, he blacked out on the side of a road. He woke up in a jail cell.
"Yet as soon as I'd get out, I'd get loaded," he said. "Those things kept happening."
Curtis was kicked out of college after he was caught stealing Xbox games from students' dorm rooms.
His next move was to Reading, where he met someone who sold drugs. To support his habit, Curtis began selling, too. When he turned to opiates again, he began using the drugs he was supposed to be selling.
"I burned my drug dealers and my friends," he said. "After I burned every bridge, I wasn't able to get any money together."
To eat, he would steal Tasty-Kakes from a corner store. To feed his dog, he'd borrow food from a neighbor or scrape up a couple of dollars for a loaf of bread.
"Sometimes, all I would eat was a few scoops of peanut butter; all the money was going to opiates and heroin. I even tried to sell my dog to get money to buy drugs. I did stuff like that all the time. I'd go to any length to not be sick and not (in) withdrawal."
Back then, his habit cost him $150 a day.
From Reading, he would make trips with his girlfriend to the Kensington area of Philadelphia, where drugs were cheaper. He recalls one day when he tried to trick a dealer, wrapping a rubber band around a stack of $1 bills.
"Dealers would hang out on the corners and sell it in the open air. I'd drive up and ask for $120 worth of heroin and hand them the stack. They would hand me the drugs. Then I would speed away."
One day, he got caught.
"They (dealers) hopped in their car and started chasing us until we were at a dead end," he said.
"My first reaction was to get out and run, leaving my ex-girlfriend in the car, not thinking about her. They finally got me, roughed me up and they were holding her in the house (until he came back with the money). Thank God, no one got killed."
When he was out of money and out of drugs, he returned to his family's Malvern home, where he continued to steal. This time, he stole jewelry from his parents and electronic games from his younger brother.
p"My family told me I had a couple of weeks to find another place to live," he said.
Soon after, a day came when he could no longer run and no longer use. Curtis was stocking shelves at a local market, stealing baby formula and selling the stolen goods at area corner stores in Philadelphia.
"I got caught walking out of (the market) with a big bag of stolen stuff," he said. "I tried to run, but employees tackled me and held me in the office until the police came."
That was April 12, 2010.
REACHING THE END
He remembers that date because no one came to bail him out. He was on his own for the first time in his life. It was the last day he used drugs.
"I had to go through a rough detoxification in jail," he said. "It was pivotal because I wouldn't have stopped on my own. There were signs I should have stopped, but I wouldn't. Some higher power saw I could not stop on my own. Being sent to jail, I had to stop. I didn't have a choice. No one was there for me to help me through it. I did too much harm to the people I loved."
He called his parents. Curtis was told, "You're on your own."
"Emotionally, I had never been in that deep — with no one to call."
After about six weeks in county jail, Curtis went to Today Inc. in Middletown, a rehabilitation center where he expected to be grouped with an older crowd. During support group meetings held after rehab, he met people his own age who were two or three years sober, he said.
"They told me stories about themselves that only other addicts could tell me. I connected with them. I knew they were like me."
But there was one difference, he said.
"They were living a normal happy life, and I wasn't. But if you are in enough pain, you'll do something to change. I was in enough pain to try to take suggestions from people who were like me but were sober and happy."
With the support of those peers, Curtis said he found faith and confidence that he could achieve sobriety, too.
"Whatever they did worked, and I didn't have any other options," he said.
When he finished the program at Today, he said he was blessed with support from people who hardly knew him, but believed in him. After some time in a halfway house, he found an apartment with another friend he met in rehabilitation, and the friend's mother signed the lease for them.
Every Christmas and Thanksgiving, he was invited by friends for dinner. One man helped repay Curtis' school debt. Another man chipped in $200 to help Curtis buy a car.
"People have lifted me along the way," he said.
Repairing relationships at home hasn't been as easy, he said.
"Part of the process is to make amends. Slowly, but surely, things are coming back to normal. I'm welcome at home, but I've been away for lengthy times before and fell back into it. So it has taken my family a while to see I'm different. I try to show them by my actions."
After Curtis shared his story as a recent support group meeting, a few people from the audience approached him,exchanging handshakes and compassionate smiles. The bond between strangers can be strong because of the history they shared, he said.
It's that camaraderie that keeps Curtis strong for himself and for those in the community who need him.
"We all know how it was like and how we were living," he said. "People care about each other, and we want to see each other succeed."
During the drive back to the former drug corners in Philadelphia, Curtis pointed out the places he would buy and the businesses that he would sneak into to shoot up, and he reflected on a life that seemed distant and even unreal.
"I can't believe the lengths I would go through," Curtis said, his eyes glancing wearily out the window.