I had my first sip of liquor one day when I was 12 years old, and I blacked out. Family legend has it that I was following in the footsteps of my father and his father before him, both of whom drank themselves into oblivion early in their alcohol careers. Though I had only lived in the wake of those benders, they must have sparked in me the idea that the nasty vodka in our pantry could be an antidote to pain. It could numb the guttural loss I felt when my first real boyfriend, or the first boy I considered my first real boyfriend, started seeing the counter waitress at a nearby Stewart’s Shop. I had been in love. I knew I could manage the jealousy and the heartbreak, but I couldn’t imagine giving up the feeling of being in love. I wouldn’t miss him; I would miss that emotion. Even before I started drinking, I was certain that much of life would be kept away from me, and I became terrified as I watched everyone around me flatline from birth to death, with little evidence that they had put up a fight.
In the beginning of our relationship, I was right. Alcohol proved more dependable than love. I had the sense of a boundless future, even when I dropped out of high school, or had one of my frequent run-ins with the cops. Two years, two failed marriages, and way too many forgotten nights later, my AA sponsor looked me in the eyes and told me that an alcoholic is a person with a hole in their soul who will use many empty things to fill it up. Nothing merely physical, I realized, will really ever stick for good—and that’s why we just use more and more, until we get sober, or die, or, perhaps worse yet, don’t die. What kept coming back was the expectation that, once I was sober and helping others, I could be of service. Once I was able to maintain and share my sobriety, my sponsor assured me that I was of need to the world. For years, I had watched life be barely tolerated by seemingly everybody I knew. I was humbled and honored that anyone would hold me up to the task of being human.
Since then, I’ve published two books, both dedicated to my sponsor. The most recent, Upstate Girls, contains the images featured in these pages. Right now, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I had been sober for 16 years when I met young people upstate who were growing up much the same way I had. They reintroduced me to what, for so long, had eluded me. Watching their lives unfold has been its own kind of drug for me. Instead of downing a bottle, though, I’m compelled to witness truth. The clarity I had sought through chemical dependency has literally come into focus, as I look at what separates us from one another—those holes in our souls that we try to fill with whatever’s available to us. And the feeling of euphoria when a photograph summons up the only thing that’s real enough to fill the void: love.
“Big” Jessie Schubart had never been arrested until she accidentally set fire to an abandoned building in her neighborhood. She was placed on house arrest, but after she was caught hanging out in a derelict school building with her sister and friends she was sent to jail for ten months. It was there that she received her of diagnosis of separation anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Jessie’s father was an alcoholic, but with the support of his church, he had gotten sober and regained custody of Jessie and her sister, Dana. The effects of the separation from her father entitled Jessie to a disability check and a prescription for Zoloft. When she got out of jail, the church and her father’s strict Christian beliefs were a major force in her life.
During her first stint in a group home, Andi-Lynne Cavanaugh was diagnosed with PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression, and received prescriptions for Seroquel and Prozac. She was released after three months and went to live at her stepsister Kayla Stocklas’s house because her mother and stepfather fought a lot when she was around, and her mother thought it best that she live outside the house. Andi-Lynne is now 28 years old and has three children. In 2017, while living in a domestic violence situation, she was introduced to ecstasy. She became dependent on it and lost custody of her youngest daughter to the child’s father. She is currently battling depression and taking stabs at treatment. Her current boyfriend has custody of her two sons, and she lives with them in his apartment.
Kayla Stocklas and her mother both had their first children when they were 17 years old. Tony, Kayla’s son, started getting suspended from school in the second month of kindergarten. By the end of that school year, he had several diagnoses: PTSD, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and oppositional defiant disorder. He began taking prescriptions to manage the school day and was placed in special classes. Call of Duty Black Ops became his constant companion, and with each suspension, his mother would take the game away as a punishment. One such time, in spring 2010, he threatened to jump out their second-story apartment window, so he was placed in a crisis center and had his meds reevaluated. This year, Tony still spends most of his out of school time playing the video game and sometimes refuses to go to school so he can stay home to play it. Most of his young aunts and uncles are gamers, so there are often two or three video games running in the house—and it’s torture for Tony to see them while his privilege has been suspended.
Terri Lyn Secore and her boyfriend. Terri Lyn was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, and she battled crack cocaine addiction for years—she had been free of it for more than a year. She was living farther upstate, in Plattsburgh, where her pain-management doctor was, but returned to Troy to be near her daughter Chantelle. Terri Lyn was often unable to get transportation there to see her doctor, and would turn to street drugs for pain. On May 16, 2018, Terri Lyn died in “Pigeon Park,” a hangout spot for all of Troy’s old-time street folks, after snorting heroin laced with fentanyl. Chantelle, who grew up in many child-placement facilities, was devastated. Her mother was the last living member of her immediate family.
Kandice has a different father from most of her brothers and sisters, and she says it makes her feel like an outcast. When she was 12 her father gained full custody of her and she went to live with him until she was 18. She had a difficult time when she was away from her mother, and ended up in a crisis center for risk of self-harm. Living with her father, Kandice was given a Catholic school education, and he raised her with many rules, which was a huge contrast to the rough-and-tumble chaos of life with her mom and other family. From the moment Kandice left her father’s house, she enjoyed all the freedom that her siblings had. In that first year, she got her first job and her first boyfriend, and she fell in love and had a baby. Kandice is the first person in her family ever to ride on an airplane. She saved the money she made working at Wendy’s and bought a plane ticket to visit a school friend in Tennessee.
I first met Lawrence when he was 12 years old and living in a homeless shelter with his mother and two sisters. They had lived on the same block as most of the families featured in my Upstate Girls book, until the roof in their apartment caved under the weight of a heavy rain. Lawrence was 15 when he started dating his first boyfriend, and eight years later, he began his transition to Madison. Lawrence and his family were homeless 75 times before settling into a permanent apartment, and that’s where Madison began to emerge. According to Madison, Lawrence was a “big bitch” and a very unhappy person. Madison says that her dramatic weight loss is because she’s “becoming the person she is supposed to be.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.