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Hot Issues in Health Preview: Vic Vela on Listening to Stories of Substance Use and Recovery

Back to Podcasts November 21, 2018

Hot Issues in Health Preview: Vic Vela on Listening to Stories of Substance Use and Recovery

As the Colorado Health Institute gets ready for the 2018 Hot Issues in Health conference, we wanted to share a preview of a conversation we had with one of our keynote speakers: Vic Vela, a Colorado journalist.

Vic talks about his experiences with addiction and recovery with his former colleague, CHI's director of communications, Joe Hanel. It's a personal look at a major public health issue.

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This transcript is edited from an automated transcription of the recording. It may contain typos. Please reach out to for clarifications. 

Jackie Zubrzycki: Hi and welcome to The Check Up, the Colorado Health institute's podcast about health in Colorado and the policies that affect it. I'm your host Jackie Zubrzycki. It's November now and at CHI we're getting ready for Hot Issues in Health. That's our annual conference, where we get Colorado's health policy Community together to digest the previous year and get ready for the year ahead.

Substance use addiction and Recovery have been some of the state's biggest concerns in the last few years more than a thousand people in Colorado died of a drug overdose in 2017. A package of bills to address the opioid epidemic was probably the biggest health related accomplishment in Colorado's legislature last year and we'll probably see a lot more on this issue in 2019.

But all of those bills all of that policy and all those conversations are really about how we in the Health Care System. We can make policy we who care about people in our communities can help those who are struggling. So for this year's hot issues. We invited Vic Vela to tell his story of addiction and recovery. Vic is a journalist who's currently with Colorado Public Radio.

He spent years using cocaine and eventually crack cocaine regularly. He's been in recovery now for four years. On today's episode of the check up, you'll get a preview of that story and why he thinks policymakers and other people in the health World should hear it. He talked with Johanna lchi as director of communications.

Joe Hanel: Well, hi everybody. Thanks for joining us. I'm Joe Hanel, the communications director at the Colorado Health Institute, and I'm talking todaywith my old friend and colleague Vic Vela, who you'll probably recognize if you listen at all to public radio in the in the Denver area.

Vic Vela:  Hey Joe, it's good to be with you again.

Joe: Yeah likewise. So well Vic. I got to know you when we were both newspaper. At the state capitol. What five six years ago now and I think we work to sessions together and you know, the Press Corps is pretty tight, and we would all chase the same stories and hang out together after work usually and but the especially the second year we would notice, Vic would have filed a few hours before everybody else get the story right you get it it was good stuff, but then you disappear and we all thought, Vic must have some secret life going on. And we didn't know how right we were

Vic: Right. I was secretly married is what put what another reporter friend used to say, Vic has a wife or a husband somewhere and he's not telling anyone in Omaha or something. Yeah, it was that's what addicts do. And what Joe's getting at is is I was really disguising myself and really putting up appearances keeping up with appearances while I'm maintaining a daily drug habit. And in my case, it was cocaine, first powder cocaine and then as things really got worse than I started smoking crack and you know, that wasn't just a daily beast, it was an hourly beast that I had to feed.

So when you're stuck at the Capitol as a reporter sometimes these Marathon legislative hearings would go on all day and - Joe's covered a lot of those. So did I. But as a drug addict- you know, it's hard for normal people to motor through that stuff right with a normal engine.

Joe: Oh, it's brutal, you know.

Vic: Yeah, you know you covered in 2013 when Democrats took over the state house, there were long hearings over guns and election reform and all this other stuff. So it's hard enough for like a well-balanced reporter normal reporter to handle that stuff. But when you're a reporter with a drug habit, like I was yeah, I would disappear and I would go - if I didn't go home altogether and just stay home I would just go sneak into my car or go out into an alley and get high

Joe: And then come back and go to a press conference with the speaker of the house.

Vic: Yes. No one knew no one knew I think everyone dismissed it as you know, that's just Vic. That's just what he does. But and then I would come in and tell a few jokes, you know anything to take any sort of attention away from what was really happening.

Joe: Yeah, and you I mean, you're a tremendously successful your I mean, is it you in your life in recovery now you probably. We know a lot of people have some of the same story where they is. Everybody's high functioning as you when you look at when you think about somebody who's addicted a drug addict you with your suit and your public job, interacting with the all these Power Players. That's not what I picture.

Vic: I mean, I think as we say in recovery or as we say in addiction, it's a term that gets thrown around a lot is someone is a functioning addict right? You hear that term a lot. Even if you're not familiar with addiction. I probably was a poster boy for the functioning addict. But as I learn in my recovery, a functioning addict is really just a dysfunctional addict in training.  And so what was happening there is I think I was holding myself together, putting on that tie and going and talking to the governor. That was the evidence that I would point to. That my life was okay. I just wrote this great story. I just made deadline. I just won an award from the Colorado Press Association. I actually interviewed Senator so-and-so but in reality, it's like that that meme or that GIF that you see on Twitter with that cartoon dog sitting there with a cup of coffee while there's Flames but around them and everything is fine, right?

Everything was not fine in reality. My whole world was just crashing down around me. I was going bankrupt. In fact, I officially went bankrupt and then I didn't have any money to -  it was a daily and a weekly chore to figure out how to pay for my habit because cocaine is expensive.

Joe: So, how did it change?

Vic: And that's a question I get asked a lot is you know - another question I get asked is what your rock bottom. And fortunately for me my rock-bottom did not culminate in a prison sentence or death or hurting someone else physically. You know, there are some alcaoholics who don't change until they kill someone and you're in a drunk driving crash. There's some heroin injectors who don't change until their girlfriend dies in a parking lot right for me. I never experienced those things for me. It was just a moment where I was just tired of being tired. I was tired all the time because it was exhausting think of all the things that I had to do every time I woke up every morning. I had to be presentable at the. I'm a journalist covering important legislative matters. I had to have that mask of of you know, sanity. I guess keeping up with appearances and I had to find out how to get money for my next fix and I often had to correct what I did the day before so I made a mess out of that situation.

So every day was damage control. Everyday was damage control, fixing what you did the day before so when so much of my energy was spent on that. I hadn't there was there was no capacity for anything else.

Joe: So. We kind of we drifted apart after we both left the capitol. So I'm not real familiar with this part of your life. How did you what changed? How did you start to recover? Who helped you out? And what helped you out? Yeah.

Vic: So when when you left the capital I was still there for another year and by that time I had been smoking crack daily. I got to the point where I couldn't physically snort cocaine anymore because I wrecked my nose and so I had to do drugs a different way.  And so I would I would smoke it and and when I started doing that smoking crack is a heavy-duty thing to do, you know, there are no 420 festivals for crack smokers, right? It is - it is not something you're supposed to do. But I would do it and I am in my moods increasingly got irritable. I was living with great paranoia every single day.

I was I was when I - early in the morning after being up for three straight days on no sleep and doing drugs all the time. I'm pacing in my room right by myself muttering to myself closing all the blinds to make sure no one saw me that's crazy, but it's because of drugs so. There were parts that were moments over my life where I did have some moments of clarity where I wanted to get better.

I underwent through a 28-day rehab facility years ago, but I wasn't ready. I got high the day I got out and then years later. I attempted to get sober and when I say attempted put an asterisk by that it was just a quick in-and-out at some meetings. But through those previous failed attempts. I had met people who were sober and one of the people I had met was a gentleman who was who turned out to be my first sponsor. That didn't last long because I quickly realized sobriety was not for me at that time, but I still had his phone.

And so one night late at night, I've been up for three straight days. No sleep. I was out of money. I had burned so many bridges and I'm sitting there on my floor. How can I get better? And I realized I had his phone number and I called him. This was in the middle of the night. We haven't spoken in a long time and he answered the phone.

He remembered you and he remembered me and he said, "Hey Vic, how's it going?" That was the first words out of his mouth and I started crying and then I said take me to a meeting tomorrow. And that was the day I got sober.

Joe: Wow. And no looking back since.

Vic: No looking back and you know any attics any addict in recovery would lie if they say, oh, I haven't thought about drug since, you know know we think about drugs. Sometimes more seriously than others, but it's always there in my mind, drugs are always there. It's just a matter of curbing the attraction, right?

Joe: Yeah. So you're now you're well known successful radio journalists here. It's kind of a risk is still these days to come out and talk about these like really transgressive things you did like smoking crack outside the capitol. What made you decide to do this?

Vic: Well, because people need to hear from people like me I think stigma is is a killer the more we stigma stigmatize people in addiction the less inclined they are to get help. When we when someone's when we see that drunk stumble over a bar stool, we dismiss him as oh, he's a drunk and he's a loser or that person who can't cannot go a day without jamming a needle into their veins, oh that person is a loser. The more we stigmatize and the less success stories. There are people are going to think they're there it's hopeless. And if that's the case, then it truly is if people don't talk about their success stories. I think I had an obligation in my recovery to own it for a few different reasons. One to help others in hopes that maybe my message resonates with someone who's suffering but then also to hold myself accountable.

You know the more I talked about how my past you know, and I'm open to people like you and and the world really hopefully the less inclined I am to repeat it, right?

Joe: Sure. Yeah. Yeah, so well, you're going to be at our hot issues and health conference December 6, that's pretty much the definition of the straight World there that these are high functioning policy people and their everybody's highly educated, motivated to do the right thing for for people all across, Colorado.What are you going to tell them? What are they need to hear? And what are what are people in my world in this policy world missing and getting wrong or just not understanding very well.

Vic: I think with the best of intentions the people in the in the health world , they look at numbers and they look at data and the data shows that drugs are getting worse that the opioid there's the opioid crisis, there's meth, there's cocaine but like there are statistics after statistics statistics that show things are getting worse. And I think the folks in that room and yourself- everyone's doing a great job of reporting that stuff because that stuff needs to be reported. So thank you guys for being a part of this.

We need you. I think what gets lost though, is that human connection. If while we have because we have gotten to a time where just almost everyone knows someone who has struggled with addiction or or being an alcohol in but not everyone has and even the people who know someone they may not know what it's like to be that person.

Joe: Yeah. I mean look at me. I knew you yeah and didn't know you at all.

Vic: Yeah, right. Yeah, and I think for when someone stands up there and says, I cashed out all of my 401K retirement just so I can get high. Most people would look at me like I'm an alien like who does that and I when I get up there and say that it's well, it's because I'm a drug addict and that's what we do and I think there needs to be more stories like that to say. This is the this is we are all poster children of addiction and and look at us, you know, and that I think I hope if I could get something across like that. I think that would be important.

Joe: Well, thanks for doing it. Thanks for thanks for talking today and coming in next month, and it's really looking forward to it and congratulations on four years here?

Vic: It'll be four years God willing for years in January.

Joe: Yeah, well, thanks buddy. Yeah.

Vic: Thank you Joe I appreciate it. 

Jackie:  Vic Vela will be at Hot Issues in Health this year to talk more about his story and substance use in Colorado. The conference will also have so much more about important Health policy topics in our state, about climate change and health, about big changes to Medicaid, about what to expect in 2019 and more. We hope to see you there.

You can find more about the conference at That's And you can find more episodes of this podcast at ColoradoHealth Be sure to find us on Twitter and Instagram @CoHealthInst. We're also on Facebook. Thanks for listening. I'm Jackie Zubrzycki at CHI

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