A look back at how opioid addiction plagued the city 20 years ago

One look at the front page of Sunday’s Daily News — the arm, the needle, the headline, “Opioid Nation” — took me back to a summer afternoon 20 years ago. That was the day I met Gloria Colon.

Daily News reporter Linda Yglesias and I had gone to the Hunts Point section of the Bronx for a story about an outreach effort to supply clean needles and condoms to a notorious gathering place for heroin-addicted prostitutes. Gloria was one of them.

I can still see her as I saw her then — a frail, painfully thin woman stumbling down an industrial, pocked-marked sidewalk, barely alive. Her body — all five feet and 90 pounds of it — was an emaciated ruin, with fresh wounds overlapping old ones on scarred, scabbed flesh. She had no teeth, only ill-fitting, chipped-top dentures once given to her by a john who happened to be a dentist.

When I introduced myself, she answered in a shrill, rasping voice, but there was remarkable warmth and kindness in it too. I asked if we could hang out with her to document what her life was like, and she agreed.

A Desperate Life: One woman’s struggle with heroin addiction

She led us through a mangled chain-link fence to a “shooting gallery” that was littered with broken glass, dirty needles, garbage and human waste — a place just like the one I saw in the Daily News last Sunday.

She cooked her fix, tightened her purse strap around her arm and wiped away blood as she probed for a vein. Finally, she found one, and for a moment, as the heroin took hold, she steadied herself against a wall.

What followed, though, was not the slump into oblivion seen in other addicts. It was an explosion of rage — at her need to smoke crack just to jolt herself awake, at her need to prostitute herself to support her 10-bag a day habit. As Linda wrote in our story: “Every moment of her life is an act of desperation: Converging demons of drugs and johns and violence have turned her into predator and prey.” She wanted out.

Gloria’s story ran on the front page of Sunday, July 27, 1997. Headlined “A Desperate Life,” the eight-page chronicle of Gloria’s life on the streets hit New Yorkers hard. They could no longer look away. Gloria was not a nameless statistic— she was someone’s daughter, mother or sister.

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In the days that followed, the paper was showered with calls and letters from sympathetic readers filled with compassion. Drug treatment programs, religious organizations and private citizens extended offers of help. Phoenix House was one of seven area rehab centers that put its staff on standby in case Gloria made it off the streets. “A Desperate Life” became part of the lesson plan for incarcerated women at Rikers Island. Parents used it as a cautionary tale for their children.

It’s the only story I’ve done that I know saved lives. One of them was Gloria’s.

I will never forget her horror when she saw the story herself for the first time. It was her mirror. “This will either be my way out or my obit,” she said.

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After “A Desperate Life” was published, Gloria entered a detox program at Phoenix House, a long-term, live-in drug treatment program in Queens.

(Susan Watts/New York Daily News)

Gloria entered rehab shortly after publication. She spent months in Phoenix House, the 50-year-old drug-treatment facility, battling her demons and fighting through her addiction. When we visited her there, the managing director, Loretta Hinton, told us, “I haven’t seen that kind of abuse of anyone’s body in 20 years.”

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“A hundred times I’ve thought about leaving,” Gloria told us then. “But I take ‘A Desperate Life’ out of my drawer to make myself remember.”

She and her fellow addicts called their group “chrysalis,” a hopeful image of butterflies in gestation.

And on Sunday, Nov. 30, 1997, the Daily News was able to celebrate her successful metamorphosis in “A New Life,” another eight-page special report, this one a story of recovery.

Gloria was luckier than some others at Phoenix House: She had the love and support of a devoted family behind her. They cheered her on, and the city cheered her on.

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And, of course, I cheered her on too. By then we had developed a deep and lasting bond of friendship.

Her delightfully squeaky voice on the other end of the telephone always sounded like music to me during our many late-night phone calls, and the family barbeques she invited me to were filled with love, laughter and dancing.

On the 4th of July 2009, Gloria messaged me: “Girl how are you? We have to talk and by the way I am still clean and sober. [I]am living and working in the bx. You would never believe what I do 4 a living…substance abuse counselor! Please call me.”

Gloria died on January 9, 2015, five days after her 51st birthday. She was 33 when I met her. During those eighteen additional years that her body allowed her to live, she gave others the courage to save themselves from addiction, and she got the chance to raise her beautiful daughter, who had been taken from her as a one-year-old.

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Gloria emerged from her chrysalis as one of the strongest and most inspirational people I have ever known. She had her setbacks, as all of us do, but she never gave up. And nobody ever gave up on her.

“Now I’m really doing the most desperate thing,” she said once. “Living.”

I feel privileged to have known her. I will miss her dearly.

Susan Watts has been an award-winning photojournalist in New York City for more than 20 years. Since 1995, she’s been a staff photographer at the Daily News covering local, national and international news stories.

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