Believe it or not, reporters are human, too.
And on Thursday, Colorado Public Radio anchor Vic Vela shared a story that shined a spotlight on a very human problem -- one that he kept under wraps for the better part of 15 years.
He told his remarkable story of addiction and recovery Thursday as the afternoon plenary speaker at the 2018 Hot Issues in Health Conference, sponsored by the Colorado Health Institute and held near Denver.
Vela, a Longmont native, has been a reporter since 2000, including a four-year stint as a respected member of the state Capitol Press Corps. He’s covered politicians, rock stars and sports heroes, and won awards of all kinds for sports and political reporting.
But at the same time he was chasing scoops, he was also being chased by a demon -- drug addiction.
I sat next to Vic Vela in the press office at the state Capitol for the first two years he was a Capitol reporter -- I was with the Colorado Statesman and Vic was with Colorado Community Newspapers. He dazzled everyone with his insightful reporting. No one, including the reporters, knew his dark secret.
But at the same time, he later acknowledged, he was running out to the parking lot in between press conferences and bill hearings to snort cocaine, and later, smoke crack and meth. He was a master at keeping it all hidden.
Until he couldn’t anymore.
“Drug addiction is not a Disney movie,” Vela told the audience. “But there is a happy ending, and [happy endings] are possible.”
Vela has hit rock bottom more times than he can count.
In the summer of 2002, he’d just been fired from his job as a morning anchor for a national TV show, fired for not doing his job. But his boss didn’t know he was hooked on cocaine.
“No employer ever knew I was doing drugs,” he told Colorado Politics. “What they saw was the behaviors common to drug addicts."
During that summer, unemployed and with a boyfriend who was an alcoholic, he found himself hundreds of dollars in debt to his cocaine dealer. Yet he had the courage (from drug use) to go to the dealer’s home in Boulder, where he became the subject of a beatdown and at the business end of a gun. And still he had the cajones to ask for more drugs.
“I was a good customer,” Vela said.
After that beating, he asked himself, 'How did things get this far? Why am I in bad health? Why can’t I quit doing drugs?'
And yet he still kept doing drugs.
Drugs weren’t the first problem he faced. He came from a large Latino household with parents who loved him unconditionally. But they struggled financially, in part because his father was an alcoholic. “I grew up in a household where substance abuse was prevalent," he told the audience.
On top of that, Vela was gay, a secret he kept until he was out of high school. But it led to insecurity and fear, problems that he dealt with in unhealthy ways. That’s where he first started using drugs and drinking.
“I could self-medicate the feelings away,” starting with marijuana and later tequila, LSD and psychedelic mushrooms, he said.
While high school was torture, college at Metropolitan State University of Denver was better.
“Every addict remembers a time when drugs were fun. For me, that was college,” Vela said.
He became the first member of his family to earn a degree, and months later, he was a sports anchor in Texas, where he interviewed people like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Texas Tech (and five-time NCAA men's basketball champion coach) Bobby Knight.
“I was on my way to being [an ESPN] SportsCenter anchor,” Vela said.
But something funny happened on the way to his dreams. He fell in love with cocaine, he said. He became consumed by it while he was in Texas.
And as his cocaine use increased, so did other risky behaviors -- IV drug-use and anonymous sexual encounters, because relationships and love were just too frightening, he said.
The job in Texas didn’t last long. The station went through a reorganization and the job vanished. Vela came back to Denver and shortly after won a job as a TV news anchor with a station, later Outdoors TV.
Vela said he would do cocaine all day, and that’s when it started to affect his work and personality. He’d go to the station after being high all night and do cocaine in the newsroom at 7 in the morning. He became irritable. He described himself as a prima donna who was high and happy or sleep deprived and miserable. His work suffered and he was eventually fired.
During the summer of 2002, he hit real rock bottom.
"Most people would see that as a wake-up call," he said. Not me.”
After that summer he headed to Arizona and graduate school at the prestigious Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. He was interviewing big-name politicians and rock stars.
And he was still doing cocaine, he said, adding that he ran out of money, declared bankruptcy and his car got repossessed.
Still, that wasn’t enough to make him stop. It got worse. He starting smoking meth and using cocaine intravenously.
In 2006 he moved back to Colorado and for the first time admitted he needed help. He entered a 28-day rehab program in Estes Park. But he wasn’t ready to stop using drugs, he said.
“I couldn’t imagine not doing drugs again,” he said, adding that the day he got out of rehab, he got high.
At the same time, he started working for a newspaper in Cañon City, and started to notice he wasn’t feeling well. He was tired -- he felt like he had the flu, he said -- and finding bizarre rashes on his body. Finally, a doctor asked him when he had last been tested for HIV.
He was HIV-positive, he said, and on the borderline of developing full-blown AIDS.
The drug use didn’t stop, he said. He moved to Santa Fe to work for the Albuquerque Journal, and his career began to pick up steam. He was showing talent that people couldn’t say no to, and for six years he was a top-notch reporter.
But like so many times before, he sabotaged his success with cocaine, he said. The next rock bottom was arguing with a police lieutenant in the middle of the newsroom. He got fired and came back to Denver. He took out all of his retirement money to keep his drug addiction fueled, he said.
It was just before the start of the landmark 2013 session at the Colorado General Assembly, when Democrats had control of the House and Senate and Gov. John Hickenlooper was in office.
That’s when I first met Vic, freshly hired with the community newspaper chain. Once again, he quickly began winning awards for his top-notch journalism.
“That was part of my problem,” Vela said Thursday. “It was impossible to convince me I had a problem. People thought I was funny and charming. I had access to lawmakers, writing important stuff every day. How could I possibly have a problem?”
By then, the cocaine had destroyed his nasal cavities, and he switched to smoking crack and meth, he said. Eventually, he became socially isolated and paranoid because of the drug use.
After four years, he again lost his job.
“My life was constant damage control," he said. "I would lie in bed and pray for my [racing] heart to stop beating.”
Jan. 25, 2015, became the turning point. Vela had been up for three solid days, smoking crack, he said.
“I was tired of being tired,” he said.
He found the phone number of a sponsor from rehab. Vela called him at 3 in the morning and begged him to take him to a meeting.
“Everything was different when I finally admitted the addiction was beating me down and I had to change," he said.
Recovery has meant examining what drove him into addiction.
“I never loved myself," he said. "I got high so I didn’t have to be myself.”
He embraced a spirituality and learned about the power of community, he said. He can now go to concerts (he’s a big fan of the Grateful Dead and Phish) and stay sober.
And he’s not the only one. His dad has been sober for 16 years.
Vela is open about his recovery -- follow his Twitter feed (@vicvela1) and you’ll hear bits and pieces about his story of addiction and recovery. It’s risky, especially for someone in the public eye. But he tells the story because he gets messages from people working on their own recoveries, thanking him for inspiring those recoveries.
“I hope to inspire others” and to remove the stigma attached to addiction, he told the audience.
“Everyone is broken. The more we shine a light on our problems the less scary they are. ... If you’re struggling with addiction, you don’t have to live with fear and resentment and anger.”
Jan. 25, 2019, will mark four years of sobriety. Vela has the first job he’s ever held sober: As an anchor at Colorado Public Radio, occasionally delving into sports reporting, still his first love as a journalist.
And AIDS? It's no longer detectable in his bloodstream, he said.
Next month he will begin teaching journalism at MSU Denver, which he views as a remarkable journey: beginning with being thrown out of high school to becoming an associate college professor.
“Addiction can make you feel so alone," he said. "But there’s a way out. You don’t have to be alone.”
And, to quote his favorite band, the Grateful Dead: “We will get by. We will survive.”