“In ’94, I was locked up in Rikers. The Latin Kings and the Bloods were just starting to take over. They were at war every day, and I watched them carry guys past my cell with shards of Plexiglas coming out of their chest. It was bad,” Robert Anderson recalls.
And it was going to get worse.
Anderson grew up in the Bronx in the ’70s. His father split when he was 2, but his mother was a strong figure from the very beginning, capable and devoted.
“My mother was ahead of her time. She was an executive with the Nielsen ratings company, had an office—the whole Mad Men deal, when women didn’t have those careers,” Anderson says. “She left it all to take a job as a teacher, so she could have better hours and be there for the family.”
But Anderson drifted the streets of The Bronx, Yonkers, New Rochelle, and Mount Vernon, getting his education there instead of focusing on school. “My role models were criminals and gangsters,” he says. “My mother should’ve been my hero.”
Ambition wasn’t the problem; Anderson had lots of that. He learned how to style hair, then opened a salon in the Bronx, which became successful. He was a club boy, break-dancing in the late ’70s and early ’80’s, making MTV appearances and taking in all of what the club life offered.
And then he started to deal heroin, crack, and club drugs. “I thought I was slick,” he says. “I was going to make millions of dollars doing this. Everyone wanted it back then, and with my connections in the clubs and on the streets, business was going to be great. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was going to become my own best customer.”
Anderson says his drug use started as a recreational thing, but soon, he had a habit. For a few years, it was under control, or so it seemed. But then things went bad. Real bad. “I was using daily, but my business was in good shape and, like everybody else, I thought it was something I could handle.”
It went downhill fast. “I had a great clientele, and I think my work [at the salon] was still good,” he says. “But I stopped paying the bills and used the money for my habit.” He lost the salon and, with no business, there was no income—but still the need to use and support his habit. First, there were the arrests for possession and then, when the money was gone, there were arrests for theft, breaking and entering, and all that goes with trying to get the drugs your body needs. “I got arrested 53 times and, because of my family hiring good lawyers, I stayed away from any felonies. You’d think I would’ve learned,” Anderson says.
He went in and out of treatment programs, six in all, but they were always related to plea agreements to avoid incarceration. Each time he completed a program, he went back to the street. He eventually found himself bouncing from house to house, from night to night. “I think a low point came when I was getting high in an abandoned building, with no power and not having any idea where I was going next,” Anderson says. Still, that was not his bottom, which is what addicts call the point in their addiction where life can’t get any worse.
Hunger and imprisonment weren’t it for Anderson, either. His bottom came when he was back inside Rikers and he went to use his allotted phone call. He called the one person who never turned her back on him no matter what: his mother.
Instead of hearing his mother’s voice, he heard a recording saying that the number had been disconnected. He noticed there was no money coming into his commissary. There was no way to contact his family. They cut him off. He was alone.
When it was time to go back in front of the judge, he asked for treatment, but, this time, he knew it was going to be different. It had to be. He wanted to go to Daytop Village in Duchess County, a no-nonsense rehab that was all about life change and not about country-club comfort. But Daytop was filled and there would be a six-month wait. Anderson told the judge he’d wait—inside Rikers—until he could go to Daytop. He did an extra six months to get the treatment he wanted.
“My family smartened up and got some help learning about tough love,” Anderson said. “Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t happy at the time. But what they did saved my life.”
There was work to do. Though Anderson had experienced 15 years of addiction, he knew how to work and get things done. And he wanted his family back.
In 18 months, he graduated from Daytop and turned down lucrative offers in the salon business, so he could enter a counselor-intern program at Daytop. The former dealer with wads of hundreds in his pocket was now topping out with an $18,000-a-year salary. “I was focused and determined to stay clean, but making ends meet was really a struggle back then,” Anderson says.
He went back to college in 2001, earned an associate’s degree in human services and then a bachelor’s in psychology. At the same time, he worked to obtain his New York State CASAC (Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor) accreditation. Then he enrolled in graduate school at Fordham, obtaining a Licensed Master of Social Work credential, and, ultimately, a Licensed Clinical Social Work degree (the highest title you can get in New York State). He became the senior manager of Odyssey House, a New York City social services agency, and today is the executive director of the Counseling Center at Yorktown Heights. He has a private practice, a consulting practice, and teaches graduate courses in social work at Fordham, where he’s an adjunct faculty member.
And his family welcomed back the man they once knew with open arms. About 18 months into recovery, he met Victoria, now his wife of 13 years.
“We started real slow and fell in love,” says Victoria. “Today, he does everything he can to help people because of what he went through. It’s what he does, and I have to remind him he can’t save the world.”
He counsels, teaches, administers programs, advocates for addicts at various governmental levels, trains agencies on clinical workforce development, and, in his precious free time, he’s been a two-time president of Kiwanis, teaches kids martial arts—and keeps his eye out for those in need of help.
“Rob and I were watching football in a restaurant and he noticed a guy who was clearly in trouble with substances,” says Anderson’s longtime friend Nick Sarracco. “Rob quietly went over and checked in on him and offered his help. He never stops doing stuff like that.”
At 51, keeping his past as part of his present is a balancing act for Anderson. Even though he’s closing in on two decades without a drug, he never gets too far away from it. That’s the way he wants it to be.
“I see what I went through every day in others,” Anderson explains. “Recovery works and people do change. Even if you don’t like the person looking back at you in the mirror, you do matter, and you do deserve recovery. That’s something I learned, and I share that message whenever I can.”