Cocaine Addicts Have a Friend at the End of the Line: Counselor Mike Newman

updated 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"800-COCAINE. Hello."
A Texas housewife calls and confesses that she has had cheap copies made of much of the jewelry her husband has given her over the years. She then sold the real jewels to finance her exorbitant cocaine habit. Distraught by her own behavior, she asks for advice. A counselor suggests treatment, but she begs off—afraid her husband will find out.

"800-COCAINE. Hello."
A woman calls and says that she injected cocaine often during her pregnancy. She is worried because her newborn child seems to be behaving oddly. A counselor tells her to contact the Perinatal Clinic at Northwestern University to seek more information.

"800-COCAINE. Hello."
A Wisconsin couple calls to say that their son, married and with a young child, is spending all his money on drugs. When the parents are asked if they are paying his rent, they say yes—and the voice at the other end of the phone tells them to stop. "What you are doing is what we call 'enabling' him," explains counselor Mike Newman, 27. "By giving him money you're allowing him to use his own money for drugs. An addict has to reach some sort of bottom before he'll ask for help."

Newman knows what he's talking about: He's one of 25 full-and part-time counselors, all recovering coke addicts, at 800-COCAINE, the country's most prominent hotline for drug users. Begun just over a year ago by Dr. Mark Gold, 35, director of research at Fair Oaks Hospital in Summit, N.J., 800-COCAINE so far has logged some 500,000 calls. "When we first began," says Gold, "I would have said there were maybe 100,000 cocaine abusers nationwide. Now I would have to say the number is four to five million." Fair Oaks Hospital gained national attention a few years ago when John and Mackenzie Phillips checked in for treatment of cocaine addiction, and again last winter when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reportedly became a patient after his arrest for heroin possession in South Dakota. Workers at the hotline, which is supported by the hospital and private contributions, neither solicit patients for Fair Oaks nor provide medical advice. Their principal goals are to gain the trust of drug users and refer them to treatment programs in their area. All work is done anonymously, and any information the center sends is mailed in a plain envelope addressed "Occupant."

The heart of the hotline is a cluttered, windowless hospital annex, where Newman and his colleagues, working in rotation, man the phones 24 hours a day. On one recent afternoon a random sampling of calls included a New Jersey woman whose son claimed he had used cocaine only once ("What really worries me is that he didn't pay his rent," she says); a New York couple who believe their daughter is hooked on coke ("You pay her tuition, you give her housing—she has no reason to quit drugs," they are told); and a California user who is scared because she is losing weight rapidly (Newman flips through his Rolodex and gives her the number of a treatment center in her area).

Among scores of other callers is a young man who has a hole in his septum and believes that impurities in his coke supply are responsible ("When something goes wrong, everyone blames the coke," says Newman) and a woman who wants to help a friend who doesn't seem to want aid ("Anyone who means anything to her should voice their concern," he tells her).

"A big part of the problem is that the user doesn't see it as a problem," says Newman. "Part of the illness is denial. When I hook up with a user, the first thing I do is check out the person's motivation. I ask if they ever tried to stop on their own. If so, do they realize that they now need professional help?

What are they willing to do to get over this problem? I tell them that it might require six-to-eight weeks of hospitalization. Usually, as soon as I suggest hospitalization, they say they're not all that bad. If they flatly refuse, I try to get them associated with an outpatient program. The first step is to admit you have a problem. I tell them I had to go in four times myself."

The son of a Las Vegas casino manager and a mother who is now a recovering alcoholic, Newman started drinking beer and taking Valium at 13. By the time he was 19 and working as a bellhop at his father's hotel, he was doing nearly $100 worth of cocaine a day—about $90,000 worth in three years. He and his girlfriend had a deal: She paid for food and housing, he used his income for drugs. Finally, when his father retired, a family friend took over the hotel and blew the whistle. "After I went on a four-day binge," recalls Mark, "he called me into his office and started to cry. 'You're fired,' he said. 'Go for treatment. If you come back cured, we'll hire you back.' "

Newman checked into several detoxification programs, but none of them worked until he came to Fair Oaks in 1981. Initially he faltered and even relapsed into heroin use, but eventually he returned and, after staying drug-free for a year, began counseling other patients. He says that the temptation to start using coke is still there, especially after a hard day's work. "To this day what keeps me off it is remembering the paranoia when I was on it," says Newman. "It felt like the whole world was crashing in."

To help himself stay straight, Newman has taken up new hobbies, including fishing, skiing and, most recently, skydiving. "It's an incredible rush," he says. "I've always been a daredevil. And boredom would be dangerous."

According to Newman, the typical cocaine user he encounters is older and wealthier than most drug addicts. "This is the only drug I've seen hit people over 30," he says. "I think it must have something to do with the social acceptability of it. You don't see that with heroin, downers or hallucinogens—they're for younger people. With cocaine you see people with stable lives and good jobs who just start using the drug at 35 or 40. They're highly motivated and seem to get hooked because they believe it increases their motivation and energy. They're not trying to escape from their problems."

The phone is ringing again. A New York City man says his wife is free-basing, that is, inhaling the potent fumes produced when pure cocaine is burned at extreme heat. "She goes out and doesn't come home," says the man, sobbing. "She gets money, but I don't know where. I hear all kinds of stories. I'm going out of my mind." After several minutes' conversation, Newman agrees that the situation is serious and gives the man the number of a counselor near his home. The caller breaks down again, sobbing uncontrollably. "Can you talk to someone about your feelings?" asks Newman. "It's important that you do. My name is Mike. Call me back if you can't reach anyone."

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