Suzy PetchEam grew up in Florida with her grandparents while her parents lived and worked in New York.
She did well in school, and stayed out of trouble.
“I was a really good kid. Almost a perfect kid,” PetchEam told Humanity.
However, PetchEam battled depression growing up and found love and acceptance hard to come by.
“I was always very different. I was heavier than the other kids. I was taller than the other kids. I looked different than the other kids. I was really smart, and that wasn’t cool back then,” PetchEam explained.
Because of cultural norms, she didn’t receive a lot of affection at home.
“I wasn’t raised with lots of love, you know, hugs and ‘I love you.’ Not that they didn’t love me, it was just a very different time,” PetchEam recalled.
She moved to New York for college, and to pursue a career in acting. She began drinking a lot, and started experimenting with drugs.
PetchEam met a man and they began a relationship together, but he was psychologically abusive and set her on the path to destruction.
“He actually was my first introduction into hardcore drugs,” she said.
Despite the tumultuous relationship and her burgeoning drug use, PetchEam did well in college and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1999.
She held a retail job while pursuing her career in acting. Yet throughout, she continued to abuse a variety of different drugs.
“I basically did anything. I liked how it made me feel. It made me feel very accepted. It made me feel cool. It made me feel creative,” PetchEam explained.
When her drug dealer was arrested, she took the dealer’s place and started selling cocaine.
“That was the beginning of the end,” PetchEam recalled.
PetchEam became introduced to opiates when she tried Oxycotin, which led her to heroin.
“I think growing up I always wanted to be the biggest and the baddest,” she explained.
She would be the first one of her friend group to inject the drug.
“The first time I pushed down that needle, I felt like I was home. I felt like finally I found the love that I was seeking my whole life. I didn’t care whether I had acceptance because the heroin was everything,” PetchEam recalled.
She remembered sneaking into her parents home and stealing money from her mother’s purse to buy heroin.
“That was the day a heroin addict was born,” she remembered.
In 2003, with the help of her mom, PetchEam sought treatment for the first time.
PetchEam checked into a rehabilitation program at Phoenix House in New York. But she wasn’t ready to change.
Her life became one of just getting by. Relationships were complicated. And she would relapse several times over the next decade.
“If need be, I could always go back to heroin. Heroin was always there for me. Heroin loved me regardless. Heroin never left me,” PetchEam explained.
In 2012, PetchEam had reached a crisis point. She hadn’t worked in two years, unemployment money was drying up, and public assistance was running out.
“I was just a disgusting shell of some semblance of a human being,” she recalled.
At age 36 she checked herself into Phoenix House again.
During her recovery, she attended an event at another facility. A flyer for a play caught her eye. The play, “The Gun Project” was being put on by the Stella Adler Studio in association with Phoenix House.
But it was who the actors were that really intrigued her.
The studio had an outreach program that provided acting training and classes for addicts in recovery, as well as incarcerated individuals and at-risk youth.
In 2013, PetchEam went to Phoenix House in Brooklyn and watched one of the acting rehearsals there.
After watching the performance live, the staff at Phoenix House urged PetchEam to attend the outreach program.
Initially she was reluctant, but PetchEam began taking acting classes at Phoenix House with a group of other addicts in recovery.
“I started making friends and engaging in life and forming relationships again,” PetchEam recalled.
She met another addict named William in the class and they became friends. After a while, he told her he wanted their relationship to develop into a romantic one. He said he wanted her and only her.
At first, she was hesitant. She didn’t believe he knew what he wanted.
“Like everything else in my life, [I was] surrounded by a lot of fear,” PetchEam recalled.
But she decided to take a chance.
“When we finally made the commitment to truly be together, I believe wholeheartedly it affected everything in my life. I always say that I wouldn’t have this life without him,” she explained.
Her relationship with William has allowed her to see what she couldn’t see before.
“It’s shown me that I have the capacity to be loved. It’s one thing to be in love, but it’s another thing to allow another human being to love you,” PetchEam explained.
One evening after a show at Phoenix House, William proposed to PetchEam. She was so overwhelmed and surprised that she forgot to say yes. Then she did.
“I’m not saying this is a white-picket fence, Prince Charming type thing, but for me it is,” she explained.
Not only did she meet her fiancé in acting class, she has become the Director of Field Programs in the Outreach Division at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.
“I think it’s what I was always looking for. It wasn’t the heroin. It was him.”