Resisting temptation, when you're young and addicted to heroin in Kensington

Recovering drug addicts Angela Caruso ( left) and Ryan Sipler take the El at Allegheny station, near the heart of Kensington’s drug crisis area.

On their way back to their recovery houses, with methadone from the clinic still dulling their cravings, Angie and Ryan descend the stairs at the Somerset El station. They’re returning to the neighborhood that nearly killed them.

As always, Ray mans his post at the bottom of the stairs. He’s a sort of concierge of the station. He sells “works” for $1 — clean syringes for the outsiders who get off the train looking for the cheapest and purest heroin. Ray promises to take you to the best dope around, as long as there’s a bag in it for him.

Angie and Ryan wave.

A few steps down, past the MISSING PERSON posters hung for children lost to heroin on the Kensington streets, there’s Angie’s old Xanax dealer. “A sweet girl,” Angie says.

Josh from Bucks County huddles on the corner. He’s been kicked out of Ryan’s recovery house for relapsing.

And there along the side street stands a sex worker, also addicted, her throat still bearing the jagged mark of a john’s blade. Everyone talks about her like a cautionary tale.

Angie Caruso, 27, is days away from the coveted milestone: 90 days clean. Ryan Sipler, 34, has just hit his.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Angie says.

Angela Caruso talks a guy she gave a cigarette to along Kensington Avenue. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

But here they are, young and addicted to heroin in Kensington. And most every day, passing through the gantlet of their old lives – the epicenter of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, the blocks surrounding the El and McPherson Square Park.

A terrible place to try to stay clean.

They no longer come to use. For them, the place is an addiction in itself, a flame that still draws them near. “We are playing with fire,” Angie says.

Ryan says they come for the churros, but the bakery just happens to be on the avenue where, a few months ago, he came to swallow Xanax, shoot dope, and snort cocaine.  And where Angie shot heroin, snorted Xanax, and smoked crack in abandoned buildings and on the lawn of the historic McPherson Square library. Sometimes, she disappeared for days.

They never got stuck here, they say, the way many young people do. They never slept on the streets for more than a few nights at a time, instead staying in cheap hotels or on the benches of Center City stations.

But still they walk the same streets they did when they got high together, taking it one day, one block, one step at a time.

'Everyone ends up here'

They are not far from home, yet home now seems distant.

Angie, the sixth of eight kids, grew up in a Bear, Del., development called Rolling Meadows. Ryan grew up in a townhouse community in West Chester.

Angie, the adopted daughter of elderly parents, lost her biological brother, Kris, to an overdose when she was 19. By then, she was already into Percocet.

So was Ryan. When his father died from cancer in 2004, Ryan took the leftover pain medicine. When Ryan, who’d studied biology at West Chester, slipped on wet grass and shattered his collarbone, he scored more pain meds.

Thirty miles away in Bear, Angie got a prescription after a car accident. Soon, she and Ryan were riding the train to Kensington for heroin, on parallel paths that would lead them to meet in 2015 at a Huntingdon Valley clinic.

“We just gravitated here,” Angie said of Kensington. “Everyone ends up here.”

Together, their families have spent almost 30 years trying to get them help. Interventions and rehabs, broken promises, and tearful arguments. Lies. Betrayals. Thefts.

Ryan’s mother, Mary Beth, who works in accounts payable and receivable for a printing company, is now digging into her retirement fund. Ryan has stolen so much from the family that his brother has lost all trust in him – and his mother had to install a heavy-duty safe. He broke into that, too. She has had him arrested.

Before Angie was adopted, her parents lost a son named Steven, killed in a car accident days after his high school graduation. They kept his class ring in a jewelry box. Angie stole it to buy heroin. The worst thing she has ever done, she said. Her dead brother’s ring. She said her family doesn’t know.

But they do, her brother David told me from his home in Folsom, Calif., where he works in IT. They have for a long time.

“My mom and dad have always wanted to help Angie in any way that they could,” David said. “They are emotionally drained, they are sickened with worry – it’s not just happening to Angie. It’s happening to everyone in the family.”

Her parents are not taking her calls now. Angie understands.

Ryan wants to go home. Mary Beth told him not yet.

She says she has never told him this, but there have been times when she planned his funeral in her mind. Something private. That would be the only way she could get through it.

“Sometimes, I think if he’s never going to get better, then why do I have to go through all this pain?” Mary Beth asked. “Which is really a tough thing to think about. … I don’t know if it makes you stronger. I feel like it’s weakened me. It has brought me to my knees.”

Struggling together

Ryan Sipler and Angela Caruso, sitting on a bench in McPherson Square, wound up in Philly chasing heroin and are now in treatment. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer) 
Back on the avenue, Ryan and Angie make their way through the afternoon rush. Sober, they stand out. Angie wears a jean jacket over a polka-dot dress, her oversize sunglasses pushing back her blond hair, showing her bright green eyes.

With his dark, brooding looks, Ryan dreams of being a model. “That’s an ultimate goal,” he says, embarrassed. He’s been sending out head shots. He hopes to start in commercials.

Angie dances at a Center City strip club. She knows she shouldn’t anymore – that it’s bad for her recovery. But the cash is an addiction, too, she says.

In March they decided to get clean. After the overdoses.

One of those times, they had a room at the Neshaminy Inn along Route 1. Ryan suspected from the heroin’s pinkish tint that it was laced with the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.

“I should have known better,” he said.

“You didn’t care,” Angie said.

Angie dragged him into the shower, and gave him mouth-to-mouth. She has an active warrant in Montgomery County, connected to a DUI charge. So she didn’t call 911. “It was wrong,” she said, “but I was terrified.”

For a time, after they first met, they were a couple. Angie knows how he feels about her, and she always will, Ryan said. Angie feels comfortable walking the avenue with Ryan, more than she would alone. There were nights when they were using when he had to hold her up when she could not stand. He could have left her, she said — “or taken advantage of me. And he has never done anything like that.”

Angie’s recovery sponsor thinks they shouldn’t even be friends. But the sponsor doesn’t know how well they look out for each other, Ryan said.

Recently, when a dealer stuffed a free sample of dope into Ryan’s hand, Angie slapped it away.

And when they walk together and the pull of crack feels overwhelming, when Angie can see the puff of smoke and feel the rush, when her heart pounds from the thought of it, Ryan will get her home.

Testing themselves

They sit on a bench in McPherson Square. Last summer, when the park was crowded with young people from all over, shooting heroin, Angie and Ryan would use in the grass.

So many needles and baggies littered the lawn then, you could hide your stash in the grass and police would be none the wiser. They didn’t even realize the library was open, until one day Ryan had to use the bathroom. “I thought it was just there,” Angie said.

Now, the park is quieter. Now Angie and Ryan eat their churros and water ice and admire the view.

“I think it could be really, really nice,” Angie says.

They walk on, toward Allegheny Station. They know they are testing themselves with these walks. As we near the El stop, I realize that I am not walking them back to their recovery houses, just back to the train.

The train they never had to get off in the first place. Their stops are farther down the line. This was a detour.

They make their way through huddles of young people buying and selling, past a man searching for a nephew lost to heroin and who has robbed the family, past all the markers of a life they have yet to fully leave.