Drugs

How a Former Drug Dealer Survived Hepatitis C, HIV and Cancer and Overcame Addiction

He can now be found on the street corner in High Point reaching out to others in the hopes they can avoid his mistakes.

Photo of Steve Daniels, courtesy of Tessie Castillo.
Photo Credit: Hadley Gustafson

The scars on his face tell stories. Outside a coffee shop in downtown Winston Salem, North Carolina, Steve Daniels aka “Gator” sits straight and proud, eyeing the small tape recorder in my hand. I lay it down and press ‘record’.

“Let’s start from the beginning,” I say. “Tell me about your childhood.”

He frowns and purses his lips, perhaps reluctant to reveal a life of pain to an acquaintance less than half his age. A tall black man, handsome, but gaunt, a muslim kufi tops his gray-specked hair and he walks with the aid of a cane. People hush when Steve enters a room, not because he is famous, but because one look at the broken body and defiant jaw and they sense the presence of a veteran, not of war, but of life. Steve is a man who has survived hepatitis C, HIV andcancer, a man whose every move brings a spasm of pain, but whose proud eyes dare you to pity him.

At drug policy conferences where we occasionally meet, Steve stands out amidst the talking suits, the well-meaning people who’ve never taken a hit of a crack pipe in their lives, yet cry for reform. Drugs are Steve’s forte. He has snorted them, smoked them, shot them, sold them, and now, 17 years sober, he is here to make amends. Since leaving a life of drugs and crime, Steve runs an underground syringe exchange program in central North Carolina. From the back of his van he quietly distributes supplies to brothers on the street whose lives are still embroiled in drugs. He teaches about HIV and hepatitis C prevention and helps those who are willing get into treatment. Though syringe exchange is illegal in North Carolina, Steve does what he believes is right, and scoffs at any definition of himself as a hero.

“I do it because somebody’s got to do it,” he says with characteristic bluntness.

Outside the coffee shop, the occasional freight train shrieks past, rattling our table and forcing the interview to pause. As Steve recounts a life of crime and loss, the story floods out in so much detail that we can’t finish in our allotted time and have to reschedule another meeting. And then another. And another. In between interviews, he calls and texts frequently to add more to the story, things he’d forgotten to say. I ask him why he’s suddenly so open. He pauses before answering.  

“All my friends and family are dead from HIV and hepatitis C. I’m the only one left alive to tell the story.”

***

Steve Daniels grew up in High Point, North Carolina. Son of an alcoholic, absentee father, his mother, grandmother and aunts raised him with strict lessons in independence and self-sufficiency. But they also taught him to serve.

“My grandmother grew vegetables and canned them, then gave them away to the neighborhood,” Steve explains. “To other black people, our family had a lot. From a white perspective, we were poor.”

Possessed of keen intelligence even as a boy, Steve did well in school and went on to attend Virginia Union University in Richmond with a major in biology. He planned to study medicine. But the freedoms of college had an irresistible allure for a mischievous young man and Steve was often on academic probation, in his words, for “actin’ like a damn fool.” Soon a thirst for new experiences took him on frequent trips into town.

“I used to catch the bus to downtown Richmond,” he says. “In North Carolina I’d never seen a drug dealer or a pimp, so I was curious when I saw these well-dressed guys leaning on Cadillacs. They had pretty women, nice watches and rings, alligator shoes. They looked peaceful to me and I told myself I wanted that.”

Steve began to buy heroin from the dealers. At first he only snorted it, but after sores developed in his nose, he switched to injection. At the time, the late 1960s, heroin use was considered a cool pastime, not something that would lead to addiction, so Steve didn’t worry even as his tolerance built up and he began cutting class to spend more time in the city with the dealers. Even when he was expelled from school and forced to move back to High Point to live with his grandmother, he refused to believe he had a drug problem.

“I saw drug addicts as dirty, uneducated people, not college students like me,” he said. “By the time I realized my own addiction, it was already full-blown.”

Back in North Carolina, Steve transferred to another university, UNC Greensboro, but his appetite for school waned as his taste for heroin increased.

“I hooked up with some guys who were getting drugs in dead bodies coming from Vietnam,” he says. “I started distributing heroin through them. I made a lot of money, but at the same time, I was my best customer.”

Through dealing, Steve emulated the men he had admired in Richmond. He bought a slick car, diamond rings, alligator shoes, and beautiful women flocked to him. The lifestyle became as addictive as the drugs, and the street corner became Steve’s home. At some point he developed the nickname, Gator.

“People thought I had tough skin like an alligator, but a lot of it was front,” he says. “People on the corner are actors. You have to project a certain image to survive. I was good at that.”

Eventually Steve dropped out of UNC Greensboro and turned to shoplifting, or “boosting” to supplement money from dealing. He’d get up every morning and take a gate shot - two bags of heroin, a bag of cocaine, and a bottle of wine. Once he started to feel good, he’d go boosting for a couple hours, buys more drugs, shoot up, hang around, go back to boosting in the evening, come home and use drugs again. No matter how much money he made throughout the day, he wouldn’t wake up with a dime.

The lethal combination of heroin, cocaine and alcohol meant that death from overdose was common in Steve’s circle. He lost many friends. But although Steve overdosed at least 25 times by his own estimate, remarkably, he survived. Today he believes that divine intervention saved him from a fatal overdose, as it would continue to protect him from the other trials headed his way.

***

Life changed for Steve when he met Pat, a beautiful woman with a wide smile and winning personality. She worked at a pharmacy and didn’t drink, steal, or use drugs. He was smitten and determined to marry her, though before the wedding, Steve’s mother tried to dissuade her future daughter-in-law.

“I wouldn’t marry that man if he had a gold dick and silver nuts. He’s no good,” she warned.

But Pat was in love, and she and Steve wed in a charming garden ceremony when she was 22 and he was 26. Over the next few years, they had two children, a boy and a girl. Today when he speaks of his former wife, now deceased, the hard lines of Steve’s face soften. “She was good people,” he says, looking wistful. “She took care of me.”

The marriage was not an easy one, as Steve’s crime and drug use continued to escalate. He’d often drive up to New York to buy drugs and come home with bullet holes in his car or a new scar raked across his face. He went to prison five times and drug treatment fourteen, but refused to give up his lifestyle. Remarkably, Pat stayed with him, continuing to work and provide for their children, until the HIV epidemic of the 1980s shook their small family at its core.

Steve had tested positive for hepatitis C years before, when little was known about the virus, but the diagnosis hadn’t caused him to alter his lifestyle or even slow down. HIV was different. All around his friends and family were falling sick. Fear, misinformation, and stigma abounded. For Steve, the news came when he was tested for HIV during another stint in rehab.

“I called my wife and she said to come home and we’ll deal with it,” he says. “So I left the rehab center, but instead of going home, I got high. I thought it didn’t matter; I’d be dead in a week anyways.”

Steve was 37 years old when he was diagnosed. He refused to take the HIV medication, opting instead to wait for death. But death didn’t come. Not to him. Instead, it was Pat who was soon hospitalized for symptoms.

“The way they treated her made me so angry,” Steve says, his face contorting from the memory. “The nurses would come into her room with gear like they were at Three Mile Island. The food service people put her tray on the floor outside her room because they wouldn’t go in.”

Steve took care of his wife at the hospital until he was arrested on an unrelated shoplifting charge. While he was in jail, Pat died.            

“I have this shame and guilt I carry with me because of what happened to my wife,” Steve says. He gets quiet. “Within a few years I lost my wife, my brother, two cousins, and many friends, all to HIV. It was a gift that kept on killing.”

***

Years after his wife died, when Steve was 47 and had struggled with addiction for almost 30 years, he decided to get clean for good. “I was hopeless,” he says. “I thought I would be locked into the lifestyle of addiction and prison until I died. I’d been to treatment fourteen times because my wife and mother wanted me to go, but for the first time, I went for me.”

Living drug-free hasn’t been easy for Steve. He’d always used heroin to numb feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and loss, but being clean has forced him to confront his demons. Along his journey of personal growth, Steve has become involved in harm reduction, a public health approach that reduces the negative consequences of drug use through education and nonjudgmental services. Though Steve no longer uses drugs, he believes in helping people at all stages of addiction, teaching them small steps to improve their health even while they are still using. Some people call that enabling. Steve calls it common sense.

“To me, drug use a public health issue, especially when it comes to syringes,” he explains. “Sharing syringes because you haven’t got clean ones puts everyone at risk. I’ve lost too many people to these viruses. I don’t want to lose anymore.”

With his syringe exchange program, Gator is back on the corner, often helping the same people he used to shoot drugs with.

“This type of work was tailor made for me because I use the lessons I learned in active addiction to help other people not become infected. The people trust me and I take pride in what I do.”

Though he’s come a long way, Steve admits that his journey of growth and healing is far from over. “I’ve made some horrible choices, and I didn’t always deal with situations or pain in a healthy way. At 64 years old it is humbling to realize that no matter how long I stay clean or how long I live, I will always have personal issues to work on.”

Now recovering from pancreatic cancer, Steve can still be found on the street corner in High Point reaching out to others in the hopes they can avoid his mistakes.  

“It ain’t about me anymore, it’s about how many people I can help,” he says. “I used to think HIV and the other struggles in my life were gifts that kept on killing. But now I see that it all depends on how you use the gift.”