Standing tall at 6'6", a heavily tattooed Earle Van stands on a street corner of one of Philadelphia's most notorious drug neighborhoods in Kensington wearing a half of a pizza box with words etched in black marker:
"Free cigarettes. Ask how???"
He bought seven or eight packs of Newport 100s and stuffed his pockets on a freezing cold day in the dead of winter and began walking along Kensington Avenue.
"Cigarettes are like gold down there. So people started seeing the sign, and they're stopping me. Before I know it, there's literally 50 people standing around me on literally one of the worst streets in the entire country...they would say: 'What do I need to do for a cigarette?' I said just let me talk about addiction for five minutes, and I'll give you a cigarette every five minutes. So they sat there until I ran out of cigarettes."
That's how this now 28-year-old Newark advocate's life-changing work began. But how Van got there begins with the story of abuse as a child at the hands of his step-father.
"When they met, he was in recovery...[he] had a relapse on meth, and he would go on week-long binges, and just kind of come home, destroy the house, throw me around, throw my mom around, and I'm 6'6", but at eight, I'm tiny, and he was a big guy so I couldn't really do anything, and I think it put like a lot of frustration--I think I was really angry at the world."
They divorced when he was 11. But at age 12, Van would smoke weed for the first time.
"I was the youngest kid in the neighborhood, so they were already 16, they had driver's licenses, cars, girlfriends, they're in high school, they're selling weed. I want to fit in with them so I'm kind of like infatuated by everything they do."
A few weeks after that, Van was stealing money out of his mom's purse for drugs.
"That right there is probably one of the most telltale signs that I can look back and see that I was going to become a drug addict--or I already was one--because 12 year olds normally don't steal money out of their mom's purse that was given to them at a baby shower for your first brother."
He didn't smoke every day--at least not yet.
"Within one year, by the time I was about half-way through being 13, my life, just in that one year changed dramatically. I stopped, I was playing basketball because I'd always been tall; I loved sports, I loved all these different things...and I just kind of didn't care about them anymore at all; I didn't play basketball anymore; I didn't want to hang out with people who didn't smoke weed. I drifted away, and I started to get in trouble, I started to get in trouble, and I was acting out."
He moved in with his grandmother, who had his mom when he was 14. She, too, was addicted to drugs and would introduce him to hard drugs for he first time.
"When I was drunk and angry, nobody could calm me down; I was very aggressive. My grandmother after trying to calm me down, punching holes in the wall...she goes into the bathroom, opens underneath the sink...and she's got a plate of coke sitting in the bathroom, and she calls me in, chops me out a little line...she knows when you're drunk and you do cocaine, it counteracts the alcohol and you're not drunk any more. At that time I had only ever smoked weed and drank, so now I'm introduced to an actual hard drug, and that was a game-changer because weed and alcohol isn't something like at that point that I needed...I just kind of liked doing it. Once I started doing cocaine, I started to get this feeling as if though I needed the cocaine, couldn't function without it."
"So me and her did it every weekend together."
And addiction had tightened its grip on Van. At 15, Van had been arrested on several charges from underage drinking to offensive touching and terroristic threatening. To clear his juvenile record, he got one last chance and was sent to a military-style Christian based boot camp for troubled teens in Kidder, Missouri. He was at Thayer Learning Center, or TLC boot camp, for eight months.
"It sucked because there was no contact; I wasn't allowed to call my mom..they tortured us every single day. We had to eat worms for breakfast; we got our heads shaved every Sunday; we got slammed and choked, leg-locks, arm-locks, two-minute showers and using the bathroom--no toilet paper. Literally, one time I urinated myself cause they wouldn't let us use the bathroom, and my punishment was I had to wear them same clothes for three days--no shower, no nothing."
The camp has been the subject of several child abuse claims and was investigated by the FBI. It's no longer in operation.
But those investigations came far too late for Van. When he came home, while he was clean, he was far worse, mentally, and more aggressive than he'd ever been. He started drinking again and took Xanax to control the panic attacks.
"When you take too many of them, you become a mixture of like the incredible Hulk and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You don't know what you're doing, you don't remember anything you did. I was very aggressive; I've crashed eight cars; I've been in, probably, 25 car accidents," said Van. " Looking back on it, I don't even know how I lived through any of it. I don't know how I'm alive now."
He hit countless telephone poles, mailboxes, parked cars, and even a house once. His life spiraled downward further.
"I couldn't see any other path besides getting sober or dying, and I was starting to become OK with either one."
His grandmother went into a coma on his 17th birthday. She had cancer and died later. He would go on to drop out of Glasgow High School during his senior year.
"Literally, the moment that the doctor told us that she was dead, I got in my truck...drove to the liquor store, then to my uncle's house, and then I drank and got high every single day until I got sober. I made a decision right there that I didn't want to feel any pain...I didn't want no emotion, no pain...I didn't want any of it; I just wanted to be numb and high, and so I attempted to live like that for as long as I could [from] about [age] 17 to 25."
He's been in and out of detoxification centers 20 times; state insurance only let him stay for up to two weeks at a time. After each release, Van was told to go to a homeless shelter as the vicious cycle took over his entire being.
"I was like caught in this cycle, where I knew there was more to life. I knew I deserved to be happy; I knew that all the things that happened to me weren't my fault...but when you feel a certain way and think a different way...so if I felt upset, I felt sad, I acted off of that, and then the more drugs I did the more drinking I did, the more pain I was in, the more damage I had caused, which in turn, caused me to get more high--because I was always trying to counteract the pain."
"I would literally cry on my way to buy drugs. There would be times I would cry...begging myself “just stop, don't do this, you're going to die. You just robbed a drug dealer, they're looking for you, you're on the run for probation, you're broke, your car is about to blow up--there's no brakes, your tires are bald--nobody trusts you, nobody likes you.’ And here I am still going to buy drugs...I'm thinking to myself: ‘I don't want to do this. Why can't I stop doing this? What do I do?’
The mental psyche Van describes is why scientists and experts call addiction a disease and not a choice.
Van got into a fight at a house party off Kirkwood Highway and said he was stabbed 15 times at the age of 19. He nearly lost his left arm. In the hospital, he was given morphine. The experience hijacked his entire body.
"Once I experienced that high, that was a whole other thing again, so now it's like every time I try a new drug, and it's better, my life gets more out of control, I get more out of control, and I become more dependent on each drug, and it gets worse."
Upon release from the hospital, he turned to heroin to fill the morphine void and feed the addiction.
"I was going to do some heroin to try to bring me back down so I could go to sleep, and I got it, and I remember I looked at it, and you know how they stamp heroin? I had never seen that stamp before...I just remember I looked at it, and it kind of scared me because that was right when you started hearing about fentanyl. That was like the very beginning of it...it was just beginning to hear about it on the news, where we have another fentanyl overdose...so I was kind of nervous about it. But I looked at the stamp, and I'm like you know what, there's 13 bags in a bundle, I'll do three to see what it's like...I would sometimes do more than a bundle....maybe 16 or 17 bags in one injection."
"When you start doing [drugs] so young, and then I had done all those painkillers...my tolerance was like way up here. If I had ever gotten seriously injured, they would never be able to treat the pain; they would have had to give me enough painkillers to knock me out to stop the pain. I couldn't function with out it. I couldn't eat; I couldn't sleep; I couldn't use the bathroom. I couldn't do anything without heroin."
Disregarding his intuition, Van went in the bathroom, locked the door, and injected three bags of heroin into his bloodstream. That feeling of euphoria ended in a split-second with a loud thud.
"I was sitting on the toilet, and I fell over, and I smacked my head against the sink," he recalled.
His mother heard the thud--it was every parent's worst nightmare realized. Van had overdosed. At 6'6", his body was acting as a doorstop in this tiny bathroom. His significantly smaller mom and sister were finally able to bust the door down. Van was laying in a pool of his own vomit. His mother and sister desperately tried to revive him.
We so seldom talk about the effects addiction can have on family members. The amount of stress he's caused his mother is irreversible, he said with regret. She often has nightmares.
Van woke up 30 hours late in the hospital, suffering from pneumonia--symptoms he said hospital staff chalked up to being a "heroin addict." But a nurse, whose husband is a recovering from heroin use, knew something was wrong.
"She took me to get CAT scans, found big spots of vomit on my lungs, immediately ran me to hook me up to antibiotics before the pneumonia got bad, or too much worse, and I got out of there...I was doing decent; I wasn't getting high."
Until two weeks later, his uncle--who did drugs with his nephew and even taught him how to sell it--died of a heroin overdose. Once again, Van couldn't cope so he, went on a bender, to deal with the pain.
It was that moment when he knew something needed to change. Van went to a rehab in Florida.
"I don't remember getting on an airplane, I don't remember the flight, I don't remember getting there," he said. "I don't know how I did it. [The] two things I remembe—I remember waking up on the plane, I had no shirt on, and I took my socks and shoes off."
He was in that rehab center for three months, going through withdrawal of drugs, heroin, cocaine, Xanax, alcohol. He was malnourished, dehydrated, depressed, anxious, and even bipolar.
"It was all right there, and it was very real. For the first time, I felt all of it, and instead of running away to get away from it, I said I'm just going to try to get out. I realized there was no other way out except directly through it."
When he came out on the other side, that's when Van's story started to become full circle. He saw glimmers of hope, got a job, a sponsor, and attended daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Directly from Philadelphia International Airport, he went to an aTtacK addiction meeting--an organization--he said saved his life and stopped him from relapsing.
In an effort to find his calling, Van began speaking to those in the early stages of recovery at detoxification centers. Finding it therapeutic, he made his way to Kensington Avenue, wearing that pizza box and offering up free cigarettes to talk about overcoming addiction to anyone who would listen. Many times, they were people who needed help, the outreach the most, and maybe, weren't, and still aren't ready to admit it yet.
"So I went to where there's addicts at...I try to get the ones that are under the bridge or on the street, or the ones who just got out of jail, and they're on a binge, and they've got their PO looking for 'em, and they don't know what to do."
He started traveling to help anyone who needed it. He once traveled hundreds of miles from Delaware to pick up a man in South Carolina, who had no where to go after exiting rehab.
"I never had social media because I was too high for that era...I gave away half of what I owned...nice clothes...and I had nothing left to give...so I made a Facebook page."
From there, his outreach efforts exploded, even globally. He started a non-profit, Hope on Deck, just over a year ago, which helps those in the very early stages of the recovery journey. It also help families heal from the scars addiction can leave behind.
Van also has larger dreams to help remove the stigma that comes with addiction and reform Delaware's under-resourced recovery system.
"A huge thing is the prison system--we have no jail, just prison—and there's not very many programs. This has happened to me so many times, and I've experienced it with helping so many people, I think there's not enough funding; I've put people into detox, and they call me and said: 'I'm about to leave,' and I said: 'Where are you going next?‘ And they said, 'I don't know.' And I say--'Where is your counselor sending you?' [They answered]: 'I haven't met 'em yet.'
"How can you expect anybody to get sober? If you send a cancer patient to the doctor, and they gave 'em antibiotics, the cancer patient would leave the hospital, and the cancer would just grow. Same thing with an addict. You can put an addict in rehab all you want, if you don't give them any treatment, they're just going to leave with the addiction, and it never stops."
"I've probably cost the state of Delaware $1 million."
Another thing that reminds Van of his tortured past: his heavily tattooed body.
"When I got sober, one day I got out of the shower, I was looking past the mirror...I don't even remember getting them...I knew I had them, but when there's some form of clarity here for the first time, it's like the first time we're looking at 'em...the ones that say 'rock star' and 'sex drugs and rock and roll', 'anarchy', them ones, that was like a different time. Crazy stuff, skulls...they're a reminder, but it's not a bad reminder, it's kind of almost like if you looked at a book and said there's a couple bad chapters in there. It's just kind of like context of where them bad chapters were."
But Van intends to use the reminders in the mirror, memories of real-life nightmares, to stay sober and to help others. He's getting a new van and will hit the road at the end of May to travel around the country doing motivational speaking, outreach, and interventions. He'll also distribute clothes, hygiene, and food to those experiencing homelessness.
"There's no reason I should be alive...I did mass amounts of drugs...I've seen people die from half the amount that I was doing. I truly believe I was born to a family of addicts, and went through the childhood I did, and then went through the life I did to come out and try to help other people with it because our system here in Delaware--there is no system--it's broken. It can take up to three months to get insurance turned on, you go to rehab and detox, you get discharged 48 hours later with no where to go."
"I just fight as hard as I can against all of that... anything I can do to help an addict because I just remember that pain vividly. I don't think I'll ever forget it; I don't know if I ever want to forget it because it's kind of like a constant reminder to me if I pick up drugs, I would lose everything. Looking back on the whole thing, it's a crazy ride, very intense, a lot of pain, a lot of heartache, a lot of damage was done, but today, it's a good feeling to use all of that darkness for light, it's an amazing feeling to know that it wasn't in vain."