On January 25, 2015, Vic Vela was sitting on his bedroom floor around 3 a.m. “I had just smoked my last rock,” he says. “I didn’t have any more drugs and I didn’t have any more money.”
He then made a call that saved his life. He looked up the number of a guy he met during a previous attempt to get sober—and an answer came from the other end of the line. “When I called, he answered. The first words out of his mouth were ‘Hey, Vic. How’s it going?’ and I just lost it.”
He asked the old friend to bring him to a recovery meeting the next day, and he’s been sober ever since. Five years later, Vela, a Colorado Public Radio news host, is launching a podcast that he hopes will help others connect with the pain and complexities of addiction, the beauty and triumph of recovery, and our shared brokenness in general. Hosted by Vela, Back from Broken is out today (available wherever you get your podcasts) and will feature stories of recovery—including his own—in a series of 10 episodes, one of which will released every other week. We spoke with Vela ahead of the podcast’s release to learn more about the show and his own journey.
5280: Will the podcast focus squarely on addiction and recovery?
Vic Vela: It’s not just addiction. It’s people recovering from addiction, mental health issues, PTSD, bipolar [disorder], gambling. We’re going to talk about anything that causes suffering. There’s a lot of great reporting out there from incredible journalists on opioids and mental health. And sometimes, we see a lot of numbers…and that’s great, that’s important. But I also think it’s important, as someone who’s been in recovery, to hear success stories.
Will most the stories be local?
No, it’ll be national, all over. There will be a couple Denver locals [Editor’s note: one episode features The Lumineers], but these are mostly people from all over the country. The first episode is about New Orleans songwriter Anders Osborne. You’re going to hear from everyone from a Major League Baseball groundskeeper to a former professional wrestler and a well-known journalist. The guests are from all walks of life.
When did you start thinking about this podcast?
From day one, I was always really thinking about how I can use my experience as a journalist and as someone in recovery. You know, I can’t just be some guy who reports on drugs and addiction without acknowledging that I’m addicted to drugs. It would be a disservice to our audience if people didn’t know that. One day it just came to me: I want to do a podcast about recovery. I called my news director who was on maternity leave at the time. To the credit of CPR, everyone here was supportive the whole way and now we have an incredible team.
For those who don’t know you and your story, would you give some background on your own journey with addiction and recovery?
Colorado Public Radio is the only job I’ve ever had sober, so this place is particularly meaningful to me. It wasn’t that long ago that I was hiding behind dumpsters smoking crack outside the Capitol, and then I’d go back inside and interview the governor or lawmakers. It wasn’t that long ago that living in Arizona, I did a bunch of cocaine and interviewed the future head of the Department of Homeland Security. I was doing these important things with important people, but my car was getting repossessed and I was going through bankruptcy. I always describe my life before I got sober as that meme of the dog that’s sitting there drinking coffee with flames in the background like everything is fine. That’s exactly what my life was like.
Did the drugs help you cope?
The addiction is a symptom of a much larger problem. Drugs guided me in everything I did. I did cocaine daily for a good solid 15 years before I got clean…Cocaine was my master. A few years before I got clean, I wrecked my nose because I did so much blow. I would wake up in the morning and my nose would feel like I got punched by Mike Tyson. I physically destroyed my nose from all the shit I was putting up it. I couldn’t snort cocaine any more, so I had to do drugs a different way. And that’s when I started smoking crack
Drugs are fun for a while. Until they’re not. That’s why we do drugs, right? Drugs are a blast. Until they become a problem and you have to do drugs just to maintain. And that’s where I was really for the last several years of my using. I had no joy using cocaine any more. But I had to do it just so I didn’t crash.
Were you self aware during those years?
Toward the end I was. For the first couple years I just kind of ignored it. In 2006, that was the first time I realized I really needed help and I did check into rehab in Estes Park for 28 days. It was the first time I ever admitted I had a problem. But I wasn’t ready. Admitting you have a problem and being ready to do something about it are two different things.
So, what happened five years ago?
Everyone asks what my bottom is. It’s not necessarily that there was one defining moment. It was a series of events that led to me being really fucking exhausted. So when people ask, why did you decide to stop? Because it was exhausting. My life was exhausting.
What have the last five years been like?
They’ve been the best five years of my life. I had a lot of problems. And I think you realize in recovery that your problems don’t start the first day you pick up drugs. Your problems started long before. For me, I dealt with a lot of issues as a child. I’m gay. Growing up, dealing with my sexuality—that was a hard thing, dealing with that in a small town [Longmont] at that time. My parents had some issues in terms of finances. Just a lot of different things that led to me handling things in my life the only ways I knew how.
Will your recovery journey be featured?
Yes, it will be one of the episodes.
Will your story also be a throughline in the series?
You’ll hear me from time to time chiming in whenever it’s appropriate. You’ll hear me often interjecting throughout the interviews with my own experience…I’m in a unique position to do this because I’m in recovery. It’s not just because I’m a journalist. It’s because I know what these people are talking about. Then I can tell the audience: ‘OK, I can relate to this because the kind of hell this person is describing is exactly the kind of hell that I went through.’ Being able to have a sense of empathy…is going to hopefully be special for our audience.
I know you’re a huge music fan. Any music in particular that’s going to be part of the podcast?
I don’t want to take away any surprises. But I will say that music is a huge part of my life. It was a huge part of my life when I was getting high. And it’s a huge part of my recovery. And it will be well represented in my episode.
You’re vocal about your own addiction and recovery. You’re active on social media. Why did you decide that was important?
I just wanted to start talking about this stuff. It’s who I am. It’s like talking about my dog or the Grateful Dead or how much I love Mexican food. It’s just part of me. And to mute that didn’t feel right. I started talking about the things that are important to me. When I Tweet something about recovery, I don’t do it for likes or for pats on the back. I do it because I guarantee there is someone who might need that message today. Because there were times in my early recovery that I needed that message.
Who do you hope listens?
I hope everyone listens. This show is not just for one audience. We’re not doing this just for people that need help…It’s also for people who have a brother or wife or mother or uncle or coworker or best friend who are struggling. You may not know what it’s like to smoke crack every day, but you certainly know what it’s like to be broken in some way or another—and I think everyone of us is broken in some way or another…I’m just here to say it’s OK to talk about this stuff. I just want people to know whatever pain you’re going through, it’s OK. And it’s OK to have conversations around it.
Listen: Back from Broken debuts Friday, February 21. A new episode will be released every other Friday. Find it wherever you listen to your podcasts.