Junkies beware. A modern-day mercenary is on your tail.
Vincent Ceraso is standing in the living room of a posh house in the suburbs of Philly with a group of people he just met a few weeks earlier. The mood is somber as they quietly wait for the doorbell to ring. It’s a surprise party of sorts. Ceraso’s never met the guest of honor, but after weeks of investigating him, Ceraso feels like he knows him inside-out. “The only thing I don’t know at this point, is what [he] looks like,” says Ceraso, who’s likely been up the night before playing this scene out in his mind. It’s Ceraso’s job to get the target to surrender. So many things could go wrong. “They get extremely emotional, sometimes violent,” says Ceraso about the people he’s hired to confront. It’s not easy getting between an addict and his or her drug of choice.
The bell rings and Ceraso instructs the guest of honor’s wife to answer it. From where Ceraso’s standing, he can see the woman at the door, but her husband is still obscured from everybody’s view. She takes a deep breath and opens the door.
“He starts yelling at her, ‘Back up! Back up!’” remembers Ceraso, whose big blue eyes widen behind boxy dark-framed glasses (with mini skulls emblazoned on the sides) as he recalls the story. “So she’s like this, like it’s a stick-up,” he says, raising his hands up high in the air like in a Western. “All I see is her backing up … she looked like she saw a ghost.” In that moment Ceraso, a modern-day mercenary who travels all over the Northeast executing confrontations with addicts, envisioned a worst case scenario: the ghost holding a gun. “That was running through my mind because I didn’t know the guy, but … I knew he had some issues,” says 44-year-old Ceraso. “He just kept saying back up, back up, and then he walked her in.” With hand over heart, he says, “God as my witness, I swore I was going to see a homicide.”
It turns out the guy was just flipping out, terrorizing his wife in typical abuser fashion. Thankfully, there wasn’t a gun, but there was indeed a showdown: a battle of wills between an addict, an interventionist and a shattered family who just couldn’t take it anymore.
The drama unfolds like an episode of Intervention, the popular television show on the A&E channel that follows addicts who supposedly believe they are participating in a documentary about addiction. Cameras tail the subjects as they cop in dubious scenarios, like the episode where a girl desperate for a fix steals morphine from her dying father’s stash. Then the addict gets high on camera and blows long streams of smoke up everyone’s ass about where he or she was all night. Meanwhile, family and friends of the afflicted have secretly hired an interventionist to help wrangle their loved one into treatment. The show rides on narrative arcs full of quick-hit exposition, montages of addicts freebasing and snorting lines and assorted can-you-believe-that-shit schaudenfraude, happy endings and big blowout fights—basically, all the spectacle that makes for addictive TV.
Ten years ago, most Americans didn’t know what an intervention was or that there was a growing demand for the service. Popping pills on the regular has become so commonplace that the first pause brought on by an overdose isn’t surprise at drug use, but a question of whether or not the overdose was an accident. Death has become an acceptable casualty of roulette for the growing number of Americans who subscribe to the high life, as reflected in the pageant of accidental overdose celebrity deaths: Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger and most recently, DJ AM, aka Adam Goldstein from Philadelphia.
As the face of junkies continues to shift from unsavory characters scoring in the backrooms of shady countercultural hangouts and clubs to teens nicking OxyContin and Vicodin out of the medicine cabinet and Percocet- popping moms, the role of the interventionist has hit pop culture full force. There’s Intervention of course, and now MTV’s Gone Too Far , filmed with DJ AM serving as the role of the interventionist before he OD’ed himself, and the inevitable Dr. Drew show. The idea’s even parodied on sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother.
Now, thanks to mainstream awareness—not to mention the ever-expanding supply of middle-class and upper middle-class clients—a previously niche corner of the recovery industry has become one of the most rapidly expanding careers in addiction services.
The change in our drug habits has not only increased the demand for interventionists, it’s changed the game itself. For one thing, pills are a more expensive habit than alcohol and users have to be stealthier to cop.
“A lot of people don’t have $500 a day. You wake up in the hole every day and you have to make that up as you go,” says Ceraso. “With that sort of behavior you really need to be able to manipulate these people.”
So while politicians continue to throw endless rhetoric and money at the futile, decades-old war on drugs, there’s a growing list of guys like Ceraso who are pulling bodies out of the trenches with almost military conviction: You don’t leave one of your own behind.
Ceraso’s endearingly South Philly. He’ll tell you he’s just a married man with kids who now lives in New Jersey. But it’s the tough street-smart South Philadelphian that surges to the surface as he passionately recaps intervention war stories over coffee.
“Somebody always holds the key,” he says, referring to intervention. “There’s always all the people [in the room], but there’s always the person that holds something extra that helps you.”
Ceraso recalls an old man who held the key to the surrender of a 19-year-old star athlete who turned to drugs after he got benched with an injury.
“He was a tough kid, by all standards a badass,” says Ceraso. “We went and did this intervention at the kid’s friends house.” Ceraso says when he walked in and saw the frail, elderly man, the kid’s grandfather, he was hesitant to let him participate. “I mean, he was 80, pulling an oxygen bottle. I told his son, the kid’s father, I recommend against it. The guy said, he’s a tough old man and he wants to be there.” Ceraso allowed it.
The plan was to wake the kid up as he came off a crash on his buddy’s couch, but “he came out of his sleep and started to freak,” says Ceraso. “He got more and more violent and started taking runs at people. The kid was mostly swinging at his father, but the grandfather is the one who stopped him cold.
Here in the detox center of Livengrin Foundation for Addiction Recovery in Bucks County, drug addicts thrash, jerk and sweat addiction out of their dilapidated bodies under medical supervision, with the worst cases taking drugs to get off drugs.
Yaya Liem prolongs life by providing IV drug users with clean needles—along with HIV tests and referrals for training, counseling and treatment. It's a controversial job, but one he does with joy.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4