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I grew up in Puerto Rico, in Salinas, a southwestern district of the island. My father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and I were all raised in Salinas, in the same neighborhood. When I was around nine or ten years old, my parents split up and I moved with my dad. I went to school until 11th grade and was a good student. I also had good education at home. I had great support from family members and friends, and played all sports: basketball, boxing, even swimming. I had a promising future, both in sports and in education, but like everything, my course changed when at a young age I took unexpected decisions in my life.
After making some personal mistakes, I decided to come here to the continental United States when I was 21 years old. I came looking for the American dream everyone mentioned back in Puerto Rico. Longtime friends were coming back and forth to the United States and saying that the American dream was up there. The dream was more money. They were not talking about a good education or a good job; what they kept saying was more money. I never supposed it meant crime, drugs, or being involved in that lifestyle.
I came to Philadelphia 25 years ago with expectations and a clear mind to get ahead. My son and his mom were already living in the United States. I decided to do good, to work, and to try to be a good father for him. I started doing all of that, but later that fell apart. Another son of mine was born, and he died when he was five months old. From that moment, my life was not the same. I started making bad decisions, using drugs and escalating to stronger drugs I had never used before. It became a struggle for me to support myself, and I started participating in criminal activities, like selling drugs and doing other shameful acts. I went to jail. Later, I also served time in State [prison]. From there it was like a stamp was put on my body. Wherever the guard saw me, I was imprisoned.
I also started using other drugs out of curiosity: heroin and cocaine; both injected, smoked, or even snorted. When I started smoking crack cocaine, that’s when my life really, really got out of hand. I lost all control of my life and of myself; there was no future for me. There was no reason to live. I forgot the whole world because I forgot about myself. When I forgot about myself, I did not see any God even though I had always believed in God. I thought I was going to die that way, in the street or in prison. Once or twice, I thought about taking my own life, but I never did it. I overdosed once, but thank God it was not fatal.
When I wasn’t in jail or prison, I was living on the streets of Philadelphia. It was very intense during the cold season and in the summer. My life was homelessness, loitering, not showering, and sometimes not eating for weeks. The thing is: I chose to live a homeless life. My sisters, brothers, nephews, and nieces here never closed their doors to me. I already knew I needed help, but the disease of addiction had total control over me.
Eventually, the police were looking for me, so the woman I was living with told them where I was living. She did me a favor, and it has been a blessing. I did three years at Graterford, the state prison. Each day at Graterford was not easy for me. It was not the same as when I did my first years. I cried. I kept crying over my pillow, not of fear, not because I was weak, but because I was tired of continuing to do the same things. I was already tired of throwing my life away in the streets and in prisons. I was tired of letting other people take my life and of not having control of my life. I was tired of living without God. I was tired of being nothing, of being no one. I said, “You know what? I am going to make something different when I leave here.” I failed at certain times, but I kept fighting.
When I was in prison, I started to learn different skills and reached a point where I found myself and found what it is to live, what it means to be imprisoned and to be free. I said, “I am going to take this time and make it a positive thing.” Then, there was the moment when I fully committed to recovery. I was in a halfway house, I was sick, and I did not want to keep doing that. I told myself that this would be the last time I was going to use drugs, and it was. I have been clean since January 1, 2011. Three days after I made the decision to stop using drugs, I asked my Parole Officer to take me out of the halfway house and into to a recovery house. From that moment, I started my path towards recovery.
The core of keeping my recovery is God. I am also a member of a Twelve Step group, and I am very supported by my family. My wife and I also work together in an outreach ministry that she leads. We take calls from people in need and give food, clothes, and support not only for people who are using drugs, but also for families. Doing this work helping others with the person I love fills a void in my life, so it’s an immense joy to help others and to see how my wife works in this ministry.
I want people to know that you have to create a belief in yourself that you can do it. Where there is will, there is a way. If you believe in a god, if you believe in something superior, approach it, seek it, surrender, and let it guide you. If you do not believe in any of that, then believe in yourself. Get close to positive people who are going to help you, who will tell you to your face when you are wrong and when you are fine, who are going to be there for you through good times and bad times.
Ultimately, the greatest change for me is my closeness to God. This does not mean I am perfect or that I go out preaching to everyone. We are not perfect, but, thank God, He loves us even in our imperfection. I try to give that same love to other people. Through helping others, you get to see yourself too and to see what you are capable of. Then, you also can see another person’s results, how they grow. It’s always a blessing when people ask me if I remember them and tell me how they are doing in life. When I see someone else in their addiction, I see myself, so I do not judge. I will humbly help them if I can. Even if I don’t have the resources at hand in that moment, I may know someone and will connect them. I am not God to save anyone, but I see my work as contributing my little grain of rice. I believe that if we continue living together and putting all the grains of rice together, we can make a big pot for everyone to be able to eat and for everyone to live.
This is why I’m sharing my opioid story. I think we should never give up on people in active use. When people label others who are using drugs, they forget about the human. They forget why that person is there, how that person got there, and what made that person use drugs. There is no bad person. Together, we can work together to help those who are currently in this situation using drugs, instead of turning our backs on them.