POLITICS
04/01/2014 07:34 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2014

How A Painkiller Poster Boy Turned His Life Around

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Daniel Haley, a recovering heroin addict, became a minor celebrity on Staten Island due to a rap video he made. (Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post)

The video began to go viral a little over a year ago.

Filmed on the south shore of Staten Island, a suburban area on the edge of New York City, it featured the White Trash Clan, a pair of local rappers, rhyming about the joy of getting high off prescription painkillers. Though the south shore is about an hour’s drive from the heart of the city, the rappers cheerfully encouraged viewers to get in their cars and “pay a little visit.” Flashing devious grins, they advertised their often-overlooked island as a “painkiller paradise.”

The three-minute video, “My World Is Blue,” has generated more than 70,000 views on YouTube, thanks in part to the publicity surrounding last year's arrest of a woman who briefly dances in it. (She had allegedly sold prescription painkillers to undercover officers.) But for Daniel Haley, the video’s mastermind and one of its stars, the months since his flirtation with fame have not gone smoothly.

Haley, 28, is a regular in New York’s underground rap circuit. In “My World Is Blue,” he’s seen bouncing around in front of a pharmacy prescription counter, rocking a pair of cheap sunglasses with blue plastic frames. In another sequence, he calls himself “Marge Simpson,” a sly reference to a street term for pill users (“blueheads”). When he raps about seeing “blue skies ahead” or having “the blues,” he’s invoking the color of a 30-mg tablet of oxycodone, a prescription painkiller at the root of Staten Island’s drug troubles.

Part of what makes the video strangely engrossing is the wicked sense of humor that Haley brings to a subject that most people wouldn’t find funny. But when I called him a few weeks ago to ask about the island’s drug problem, he didn’t seem to be in a joking mood.

“The drugs out here, it’s a terrible thing,” he said, adding that he had never meant to “glamorize” Staten Island’s drug culture with his video or his music, as some of his critics have suggested. Despite the flurry of media attention around “My World Is Blue,” and the persistent press coverage of Staten Island's drug problems, Haley hadn’t had any contact with the media in over a year. A lot had happened since then. “Three months ago, I almost died of an overdose,” he began.

Like many other places around the country, Staten Island has had a prescription painkiller problem for about a decade. There were 10 unintentional painkiller overdose deaths on Staten Island in 2005. Last year, there were 36, making the island’s overdose mortality rate the highest of the city's five boroughs.

That’s still a small fraction of the island’s half a million residents, but when you add it to the dozens who fatally overdosed last year on heroin, a drug that is often used as a cheap alternative to prescription pills, that amounts to a Staten Islander dying of an overdose every five days. Last year, 34 people on Staten Island died of heroin overdoses, compared to 22 in 2011 and 14 in 2010.

The origins of this situation date back to 1996, when Purdue Pharma, a drug company based in Stamford, Conn., introduced Oxycontin to the market. For late-stage cancer patients and others suffering from chronic pain, the drug provided real relief.

But bored teenagers and anyone else who wanted to experience a more intense high discovered a simple technique that allowed them to get around the drug’s extended-release system -- a system advertised as a safeguard against abuse and addiction. As Haley explains in “My World Is Blue,” you just needed to “crush the pill, roll a bill and sniff it.”

In 2012, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman declared that Staten Island’s rash of overdose deaths had reached “epidemic proportions.” By then, authorities around the country had begun to crack down on storefront clinics that were doling out prescriptions to people who didn’t legitimately need them for chronic pain. These campaigns contributed to a 13-percent decline in prescription drug abuse between 2010 and 2011, allowing President Obama to declare last year that America was “turning a corner” in its efforts to curb the pill addiction crisis.

But the shrinking supply of prescription drugs has inflated their street value, which has in turn boosted the demand for a cheaper alternative: heroin. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of Americans who used heroin at least once a year rose from 373,000 to 669,000, according to the federal government’s most recent data, published last fall.

Many of the drug’s new users live in suburban areas like Staten Island’s south shore. In Charlotte, N.C., a medical center recently examined the zip codes of heroin patients and found that most come from the area’s upper-middle-class neighborhoods. In Marinette, Wis., so many job applicants are testing positive for heroin that some employers are struggling to staff their companies, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Staten Island is technically part of New York City, but the island’s south shore has all the trappings of an ordinary American suburb. The lawns and driveways, the tailgate parties at the high school, and now, the syringes on the railroad tracks, the empty pill bottles in the parks.

Even the drug deals have a suburban feel. As the New York Police Department noted in a press statement a year ago, the alleged drug dealer who appeared in Haley’s video was arrested for selling painkillers to the cops while working in an Edible Arrangements store in a Staten Island strip mall. When she wasn’t hustling drugs, she was hawking whimsically arranged bouquets of fruit and candy.

Haley met me at a Starbucks in Tottenville, a neighborhood on the south shore’s southernmost tip. He had on rectangular, wire-rimmed glasses, an oversized Champion sweatshirt and a customized baseball cap embroidered with a question mark, his rap logo. After crediting Alcoholics Anonymous for helping him stay clean for the last three months, he explained how his love affair with the drugs had nearly killed him.

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Haley in his neighborhood on the south shore of Staten Island. (Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post)

Haley said he had a typical suburban, middle-class upbringing -- firefighter dad, schoolteacher mom. He got good grades in high school and pitched on the varsity baseball team. But his real love was rap. Sitting in his bedroom with his headphones on, he’d spend hours listening to the Wu-Tang Clan, a rap group that managed to go from Staten Island to stardom. He started recording his own rhymes when he was 15.

His parents weren’t thrilled. They felt that his fascination with hip-hop somehow contributed to his drug abuse, but Haley has a simpler explanation: “I just loved getting high.”

Friends knew him as “Danny Kegs," the crazy, fun-loving kid who always pounded more beer than anyone else at the keg parties out in the woods. They would show up to those parties with pharmaceuticals that they’d stolen from their parents, and Haley would pop the pills without thinking twice about it.

When he was a sophomore, his father hurt his back on the job, and a doctor prescribed him painkillers. Haley began to raid his parents’ medicine cabinet. After that supply dried up, he bought from friends whose parents still had enough pills to go around.

At 18, Haley collected the first installment of an $85,000 settlement that his family had won after he tripped and hit his head on a radiator in preschool. He blew the entire $25,000 payload on pills in about six months.

He received the rest of the money when he turned 21. This time, he made sure to buy a camera for his sister and a few other nice items before the remaining thousands disappeared into the pockets of his dealers.

He did several stints in rehab clinics around the city, and eventually moved to a halfway house down in Florida, hoping to get away from his drug-using friends back home. But the move didn’t change anything. He started taking pills again, and soon began “scheming and scamming” to feed his addiction.

He made his way back to Staten Island, where an overdose was about to kill one of his older cousins. “Even seeing that, it didn’t stop me,” he said. “You never think it’s going to happen to you until it does. You think, ‘Oh, I can handle it, I can keep tabs on it.'”

A few years ago, Haley checked into another rehab center and sobered up long enough to land a job in human resources at a Manhattan hotel. He was still clean about a year later when his rap partner, a guy known as Incite, dug up a lush 1966 recording of “Love Is Blue,” an English-language version of a ballad by the French composer André Popp.

“Blue, blue, my world is blue. Blue is my world when I’m without you.”

Haley broke out laughing when he heard the song. “We wrote our verses within 15 minutes and recorded it in the next 15 minutes,” he said. During the video shoot, his sister’s car broke down on the Verrazano Bridge. Still sober but ever a risk-taker, Haley insisted they get out and keep shooting as the traffic flew past.

Soon after they posted the video online, Haley noticed that hundreds of people were sharing it on Facebook. “It just confirmed for me what I had already been thinking,” he said. “I knew we had a video that was entertaining and hit on a touchy subject, so it was going to be big.”

Then came his friend’s arrest. Sharissa Turk, 22 years old, had appeared in the video dressed as a sort of bluehead fairy -- blue tutu, blue tank-top, blue Tinkerbell wings, a handful of blue pixie dust. In a statement announcing her arrest, authorities criticized the video for “rhapsodizing” Staten Island’s drug problem. Stories appeared on the local news channels, in the New York tabloids, even on The New York Times website.

Haley learned about the incident from a reporter for the Staten Island Advance. “I felt bad for Sharissa, but it’s gonna happen,” he said. “If you’re out there doing illegal things, you’ve got a chance you’re gonna be arrested.”

The video and the arrests made Haley a minor celebrity on the island. Strangers came up to him at the grocery store and on the Staten Island Railroad -- mostly to congratulate him, he said. Turk, meanwhile, was ordered by the court to enter an outpatient treatment program. Although Haley hasn’t talked to her recently, he hears she’s sober now, and thinks getting arrested was probably a wake-up call.

“The ends justify the means,” he said. “It’s like what happened with me: I had to go through this situation of me being in the hospital to get clean again.”

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Two years after he recorded "My World Is Blue," Haley is still making music in his home studio. (Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post)

People who work in drug recovery often say that change happens after someone hits “rock bottom.” Haley thinks there’s something to the idea. His lowest moment came a few months after "My World Is Blue" went viral, though he says the two things had nothing to do with each other.

He’d been clean for about three years and was working at the hotel when he slipped up and had a beer, and another beer, and then a couple of pills. Soon he’d slid back into the “20-pill-a-day habit” he raps about in “My World Is Blue.”

At some point a dealer offered him heroin for $10 a bag, about half the price of a pill. He’d used heroin before, down in Florida, and didn’t like it any better than prescription opiates, but he didn’t like it any less, either. “I thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll give it another try,’” he said.

On the night of the overdose, Haley’s girlfriend found him unconscious in their apartment and called 911. He has a single memory of the episode. “There’s a fireman in my apartment, and he says, ‘You need to go to the hospital right now,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m fine,’ and he says, ‘You’re naked and covered in vomit,’ and I look down and sure enough, I’m naked and covered in vomit,” Haley recounted.

He described himself as a “garbage can” of substances: alcohol, pot, Xanax, Adderall, PCP, heroin and crack.

In the hospital, his parents were told he’d be brain-dead for the rest of his life. The doctors were shocked when he regained consciousness. To this day, he said, no one knows how he recovered.

Three months after getting out, Haley says he's "genuinely happy" for the first time since his relapse. He shows up at support groups about twice a day, and he’s slowly finding his way back into the good graces of family members. He’s broke, unemployed and facing eviction, but he recently sent out a bunch of resumes, and he’s thinking about moving into a halfway house on the island’s north shore.

He’s also been spending late nights in his living-room recording studio, working on an album about the importance of sobriety and the 12-step philosophy. On one unfinished track, “What Got Me Here,” he says he “did a complete 180, having a lot of fun lately.” In the context of being sober, that means going out to dinner with his friends from Alcoholics Anonymous, he said.

For those who still aren’t sure that he’s serious when he talks about the pain of drug abuse, Haley recommends listening to “Bottomless Pit,” a song he recorded after his most recent relapse. Unlike “My World Is Blue,” “Bottomless Pit” isn’t funny at all, or particularly clever, and it doesn’t try to be. “My life is nonsense,” he raps over a dark, pounding beat. “I have no conscience, I have no common-sense.” He talks about contemplating suicide and being trapped in a never-ending “vicious cycle.” He says he wishes he was never born.

At the Starbucks, speaking in the blunt, energetic style familiar to anyone who's listened to his music, Haley offered a theory about why so many people in places like Staten Island's south shore are finding themselves trapped in the circle of drug abuse and depression the song describes. “I think it’s just that kids are bored out here,” he said. “Nothing else to do.”

He pointed out that people in recovery programs are taught to avoid four pitfalls -- hunger, loneliness, tiredness and boredom.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “At least I have the rap.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the 30-mg Oxycontin tablet as blue. Some prescription painkillers, such as oxycodone, are blue, but Oxycontin's 30-mg tablet is brown.

staten islandLike countless other suburban places around the country, the south shore of Staten Island has become the scene of a pervasive painkiller and heroin problem. (Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post)

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