Howard C. Samuels, 64, grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, Howard J. Samuels, founded Kordite Co., which produced the Hefty bag; he sold the company for $43 million in 1958. The sale catapulted him into New York’s high society and prompted a political career that included a stint as undersecretary of commerce and director of the Small Business Administration during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Meanwhile, the younger Samuels struggled with a learning disability and little parental guidance. He turned to drugs, using heroin in the slums of New York City. His addiction landed him in jail, rehab and a world of trouble until he had an epiphany and found his passion in drug counseling. From there, he worked his way up the higher education ladder, earning his doctorate in clinical psychology. Today, Samuels is 32 years sober. He owns and operates his own addiction recovery facility, Hills Treatment Center located on Mulholland Drive at the edge of Studio City, and is the author of the book “Alive Again,” which combines advice on addiction with his autobiography. Samuels met with the Business Journal to discuss his privileged childhood, the start of his addiction and his career as an addiction counselor.
Question: How did you come to grips with the fact that you were an addict? Answer: I knew I was an addict, but I didn’t care. I started shooting heroin at 16. I would use it on and off until it got really intense. I think that between being arrested numerous times, being a convicted felon and being locked up in treatment centers for three years of my life, a lot of damage had to happen to me, or to any individual, to finally get to the moment when there’s a psychic shift. When you sort of see your death, and you go, “I’m done.”
When was your psychic shift? I was 32. My family did intervention after intervention on me. I finally surrendered and said, “Ok, I’ll go to treatment.” I remember I was at dinner with my father and four of my sisters. When I finally said I would go to treatment, my father started crying, and then my sisters started crying. They sent me to a place called Phoenix House, which is a year and a half program. Now close to two months in, they (Phoenix House employees) woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me my father had died of a heart attack. I hadn’t talked to my father since pretty much that dinner. When I went back to New York to bury my father, I made a commitment at his grave that he would never have to worry about me again. And that was it. Right in that moment, I had that psychic shift where I saw how short this thing called life really is. I got back on that plane, went back to Phoenix House and spent a year and a half of my life there. Then, I became a counselor for them for another two or three years.
What inspired you to start your own addiction recovery center? I started to work in the field of treatment, because I’m the kind of drug addict that thinks he’s well. I knew that if I was really going to stay sober, I needed to surround myself with it. So, it started off as sort of a therapeutic treatment for myself. Then, I realized how much I loved it, and it became my passion. It’s the best thing I’ve ever found in my life.
Many addiction treatment programs are considered scams. What do you say to that? What is really sad today is that it’s true. There are a number of treatment programs in L.A. and across the country that are just in it for the money. The addiction crisis has become so huge that people are seeing money opportunities. And that’s bad, because it harms the good people who are trying to do really good work. So, the only thing that we can do is to try to set good examples for our clients and their families. I only work with other treatment facilities that are ethical, and I make sure that everything we do is ethical.
Can you tell me about your childhood and upbringing? I grew up a rich kid. My father started this plastic bag company, which was huge, that he sold for a lot of money. He ran for governor of New York and was in (Lyndon) Johnson’s cabinet. I grew up in a very politically active family, and because my father was a workaholic, my mother was an alcoholic. There were eight kids – I have six sisters and one brother. I also grew up with a learning disability, so I was sort of lost in the shuffle. We were raised by housekeepers, so there was never a real connection between me and my parents.
How did growing up dyslexic before it was identified as a learning disability influence your drug use? I think that growing up with that disability really sort of fueled the flames of my drug use. I couldn’t really read; I couldn’t really write very well. I grew up with a lack of confidence in myself, and I had this belief system that I was stupid. So, drugs were very easy to turn to in order to gain some self confidence in myself, because I had none.
How did school life affect your drug use? I went to Maret (School) in Washington, D.C. The only reason I got in was because the vice president (of the United States) gave me a personal letter of recommendation. That was Hubert Humphrey. I was driving around with one of my classmates, and he was dropping off packages of heroin to people. I had never done heroin or cocaine, and he had them both. When we went back to my place, he took out a spoon and a syringe, cooked up the heroin and cocaine and shot himself up. Then he said, “Hey, do you want some?” I said, “Absolutely.” I had never done it before in my life, and I said, “Absolutly,” because I didn’t care. I wanted to be on the edge.
Can you tell me about the time you were tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed and arrested? It was in Chicago in 1968, and my father was undersecretary of commerce in the Johnson Administration, which was a cabinet level position. So, he was a delegate to the (Democratic National) Convention, and I was in the street protesting, high on speed. I was throwing trash cans through bank windows and just rioting with everybody. We got tear gassed; we got maced. I remember I was arrested that night.
Since your father was prominent, did your run-ins with the law play out in the media? The first time I was arrested – because my father was running for governor in ’69 and ’71 – I had my 15 minutes of fame. Drugs were considered an inner-city issue, so for society, I represented sort of that first red light so to speak. I had my picture in Newsweek magazine, Time magazine and Rolling Stone. I was on the front page. I was on the front page of the Daily News handcuffed (see photo).
What is your most memorable story from the New York social scene during the ’70s? We lived on East River and 52nd Street. In my building lived Greta Garbo, who never would go out in public or even go up the elevator with anybody. But she would go up the elevator with me, because I wore shades and so did she. And the Heinzes lived in the building; they had three floors. We had rented the penthouse from Mary Martin, who was Peter Pan on Broadway. One night, I came home so loaded that I smoked a cigarette in bed, passed out and woke up with flames throughout the whole room. Mary Martin’s apartment had silk wallpaper all over, so the bedroom went “whoosh.” I got my sisters and my mother out of the apartment, and in the street was Greta Garbo, all the Heinz family and all these extremely wealthy people. The next day in the paper, it said, “Samuels’ Son Starts Fire.”
How did your father react to you selling drugs? He caught me by overhearing a phone conversation about me making a deal selling pot. The guy I sold the pot to was unhappy, because I shorted him. He called to complain, and I went back out and gave it to him. My father said we need to talk. He goes, “I heard you on the phone. I know you are dealing drugs. As long as you live under my roof, there are no drugs to be done or sold from this apartment.” I said, “Ok, I’m sorry, Dad.” Then he said, “But let’s look at the good news. The good news is you’re learning how to be a salesman. You’re learning how to satisfy your customers and make them happy, so they come back and want to buy more from you.” I was in a state of shock; I think he didn’t know how to handle it.
Why did you move to Los Angeles? I was in a relationship with a woman who lived in Atlanta. My life wasn’t going anywhere in New York at that time. I think I was five or six years sober. She was moving out to L.A., so I moved out with her. Then the relationship with her was horrible and I left. I remember I went and rented an apartment. I had no furniture, didn’t know anybody in this town and had an old beat up bicycle. That was 1990. Now 27 years later, I own my own treatment program; I know everybody in town; I have a lot of friends; I have a family – the whole nine yards. It just goes to show if you stay sober and find your passion, life takes you to amazing places.
What do you think will happen now that marijuana is legal in California? I believe there are going to be more people addicted, not just to weed, but to other drugs. For almost all drug users, marijuana is the gateway drug. I started smoking weed before I started shooting heroin. Ninety-nine percent of everyone here (at the Hills Treatment Center) started smoking weed first.
What should an employer do if one of her employees has a drug or alcohol problem? First of all, I think the employer is in a great positon to get the employee help. You got to have compassion but you have to set boundaries. There’s a middle ground there. If they see that the person’s drugs or alcohol is interfering with their productivity, I think there needs to be a work intervention, and I think they need to be given the opportunity to go get help. I think that goes a long way in helping that individual face that problem. When I find an employer who is really working with and not against the person, that person has a lot better of a chance of getting sober.
What is considered a successful outcome at the Hills? Complicated question. Just because somebody does 30, 60 or 90 days, six months or a year (in a treatment program), to me, that is not the sign of success. I think that’s great, but the sign of success is if they make the transition from my treatment program into the 12-step program, that they’re in the 12-step program, they’re actively involved and they’re taking birthday cakes of sobriety for one, two and three years. Once they’re doing that, then it’s a success. I have to see them out in the real world actually being productive and being of service to the community, helping others and actually helping their families instead of the other way around.
What sets your treatment program apart? I have a lot of licensed therapists here, myself included, but we are all in recovery. I’m 32 years clean and sober. So, it’s not professional; it’s personal – very important. We are not “normies” (people without addiction issues). I’m probably one of the very few licensed professionals who is a recovering addict that owns his own treatment program. Now you may find other recovering people, but they’re not licensed. Or you may find “normies” that own treatment centers that are run by “normies.” That isn’t the same thing. I have people that come in here who are convicted felons, who used to shoot heroin and have served time in prison, and they relate to me. They connect to me because of what I’ve been through.