The Sunday Conversation
9:10 am
Sun February 9, 2014

Addict Lives With 'Monster' That's Waiting To Pounce

Originally published on Sun February 9, 2014 9:45 am

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

This Sunday Conversation with Ruben Castaneda was inspired by WAMU's five-part series, "Crack: The Drug that Consumed the Nation's Capital."

When Ruben Castaneda first moved to Washington, he lived his life along two separate tracks.

He was a crime reporter for one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country. But Castaneda was also a crack addict, buying drugs in the same lawless neighborhoods where he was working his stories for The Washington Post.

A year before he moved to take the reporting job, he smoked crack for the first time, in LA. He was 27.

"I knew from reading a number of articles, magazine articles, newspaper articles, how destructive crack was, and how allegedly addictive it was," he says. "But in that moment, I didn't think that I could ever become an addict."

But he did become addicted. "It was like nothing I'd ever felt before," he says. "It was this intense, almost instant euphoria."

Castaneda wanted the move to Washington to be a fresh start — despite the fact that he knew he would be covering D.C.'s drug scene. In the 1980s and '90s, crack cocaine ravaged the nation's capitol, helping to earn D.C. the moniker "the murder capital of the United States." He would be surrounded by drug users and dealers on a daily basis.

"One of the hallmarks of addiction is this tremendous sense of denial," Castaneda explains. "I told myself that so long as I was doing my job, I would be OK. And ironically, I was doing my job. Here I was using crack, while I was chronicling the effects of it."

His colleagues noticed after a time that he wasn't himself, and sent him to a counselor. When he still behaved erratically, they sent him to a rehab center.

He relapsed only once, 77 days after being released, when an old contact offered him a hit. He knew he was in trouble, because he only wanted more.

"This is something that a lot of people don't understand, why someone like Phillip Seymour Hoffman could resume using drugs after not using for such a long time," he says. "The addiction never dies ... I haven't used in almost 22 years, but the addiction is actually getting stronger every day. I think of it as a monster that's waiting to pounce."

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Transcript

RUBEN CASTANEDA: I had aspired to stop using crack when I came to Washington. I thought it would not be a very good idea to use crack while working for The Washington Post and covering the crime beat in the most murderous city, where the president had just declared a war on drugs. But I couldn't stop.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That is the voice of Ruben Castaneda. When he first moved to Washington, D.C., he lived life along two, separate tracks. He was a crime reporter for the one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country. At the same time, Castaneda was a crack addict. He found himself buying drugs in the same lawless neighborhoods where he was working stories. A year before he moved to D.C., he took that very first hit.

Ruben Castaneda is our Sunday Conversation.

CASTANEDA: It seemed like time stood still. I knew from reading a number of articles - magazine articles, newspaper articles - how destructive crack was, and how allegedly addictive it was. But in that moment, I didn't think that I could ever become an addict. I didn't think that there would be horrific consequences for me. I was 27 - old enough to know better, but young enough to feel I was bulletproof. And it was like nothing I'd ever felt before. It was this intense, almost instant euphoria.

MARTIN: So fast-forward a year. In 1989, you take a job with The Washington Post - a good job; and you saw this as a fresh start. But at the same time, it was a job you knew - where you knew you were going to be surrounded by people in this world, by drug dealers.

CASTANEDA: One of the hallmarks of addiction is this tremendous sense of denial. So I had a deep sense of denial, and I told myself that so long as I was doing my job, I would eventually be OK. And I was doing my job well. Ironically, the job was covering crime during the middle of the crack era, which unleashed a tremendous wave of violence in the city. As you may recall, D.C. was known as the murder capital. And here I was, using crack while chronicling the effects of it.

My life was very compartmentalized. I was able to set aside what I was doing on my off days and nights, and focus on my job when I was working my night shift.

MARTIN: At the same time, you're covering the escalating violence in the city. There were about 500 murders a year in Washington, D.C., during the prime years of this epidemic. Did that make you afraid that you were going to become one of those statistics, down the road?

CASTANEDA: I was afraid a couple of nights before Thanksgiving 1991. I went to an apartment building to try to find a contact; a young lady named Carrie, who I sometimes picked up to make buys for me. She wasn't there. But a young man who was much larger than me opened the door, and he invited me in. I started to step in, and he quickly grabbed me and slammed me against a wall. He called out for his friend to bring him "the thing." And it turned out that "the thing" was a gun.

I thought it was over, at that point. And I closed my eyes and just looked down at the ground, and just waited for the darkness to come. Then he said: I need the answers. And it occurred to me that maybe he thought I was with the police or an FBI agent. Fortunately, I had my crack pipe inside the pocket of my shirt. He took it out and he looked, and he saw that it had been used. And once he realized that I was there to buy crack, he let me go - once he relieved me of my money.

MARTIN: How did the drug laws back then - the enforcement of those laws or lack thereof - how did that affect your habit, do you think?

CASTANEDA: It didn't. I didn't weigh what would happen to me if I got caught. It's not part of the...

MARTIN: It wasn't a part of the calculation.

CASTANEDA: It's not part of the calculation for most addicts. Now, I did try to avoid being caught, and the D.C. police never caught me. But I did not ever think of what the consequences would be if I was caught holding crack cocaine.

MARTIN: So what changed? What changed things for you?

CASTANEDA: A few days before Christmas 1991, there had been a couple of people - or maybe only person in the newsroom who had noticed that I wasn't myself when I showed up for work one day. So I acknowledged that I was drinking too much and that I was using cocaine. I didn't provide any details - they didn't ask for any. And they had me start seeing this counselor.

But I didn't stop. I showed up for work in late December, in obviously bad condition. So the next night when I came to work and - the paper had made arrangements for me to go to a suburban hospital's rehab unit.

MARTIN: Have you ever come close to relapsing?

CASTANEDA: I actually did relapse once, 77 days after I was released from the hospital. This would have been March of 1992. I ran into one of my old contacts, a young woman who made buys for me...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

CASTANEDA: ...she offered me a hit. And we went back to my apartment, and I took a hit. It was perhaps the scariest moment of my life. I immediately knew that I was in trouble because I just wanted more. And this is, I think, something that a lot of people don't understand about, you know, why someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman could resume using drugs after not using for such a long time.

The addiction never dies. I'm not recovered or cured. I'm still an addict. I haven't used in almost 22 years, but the addiction is actually getting stronger every day. I think of it as a monster that's waiting to pounce. When I relapsed, this monster was already - had gained an incredible amount of strength because I just wanted more right away.

MARTIN: What's life like for you now?

CASTANEDA: Life's pretty good. I have the same issues and challenges that anybody does. I try to stay active. I play a lot of pickup basketball. I don't think about using or drinking anymore. I think there's a difference of opinion as to whether people can truly change. One has to evolve and change in order to keep going, and to not go back to those substances.

And I have a long way to go, but I feel I have. I'm not the same person I was 22 years ago. So drinking or drugs are not part of my life. They're just not.

MARTIN: Ruben Castaneda is a former reporter for The Washington Post. He joined us here in our D.C. studios. Thanks so much for coming in and sharing your story, Ruben.

CASTANEDA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.