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The Story I Heard in Jail That Shaped My Addiction Recovery

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“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” — Khalil Gibran

I was happy as a child. I was a little awkward, a little shy, but I was happy. My parents protected my brother and I from sadness and pain when we were little. They left their country in search of a better life for us in America. We were born in Colombia in the ‘80s and while it was always a beautiful country, civil unrest and drug cartel activities made it one of the most dangerous countries in the world at the time. There were shootouts in public spaces, abductions, and murders almost every day. So we moved to Southern California. My parents worked hard to build a home where we were always safe and loved.

One thing you have to know about Colombians is that we love to have a good time. We throw little parties any chance we get, round up family and friends, listen to music, eat good food and throw back a generous serving of Aguardiente. If you’re not familiar with Aguardiente, or Fire Water, it’s a strong anise-flavored alcohol that’s popular in Colombia. 

It was at one of these lighthearted family parties that my life took an unfortunate turn. I was about 9 years old and the world was my oyster. My parents had always encouraged me to go for what I wanted — they told me I could be anyone and do anything. Well, 9-year-old me really wanted to be a grown-up. I was especially interested in Aguardiente. The adults would always have it at our parties and I noticed how much more fun they seemed to have after taking a few swigs of the clear, sweet-smelling stuff. I had asked to try it before, after which I got a very stern lecture, but I wasn’t going to give up. That night I snuck a little bit when the adults weren’t watching. I didn’t like it very much, but it made me feel pretty grown-up so I wanted more. I took my chance when the adults were all dancing to drink more and more until I was eventually drunk. Oh yes, little 9-year-old me was drunk. A cousin of mine noticed me and took me back to where the kids were playing. He made me eat food and drink water, told me to never do this again, and that he was only covering for me this one time so my parents wouldn’t get upset.

Sadly, that wasn’t the last time it happened. Truth is, I liked the feeling of being drunk. I liked how it seemed to make me feel more free, less awkward, less shy. But a couple of years down the road, alcohol just didn’t do it for me anymore. At 13 I started smoking marijuana and at 19 I got hooked on meth.

It wasn’t long before all my bad choices caught up to me. Next thing I knew I was sentenced to two years in prison for drug-related charges. I look back now and I wonder how on earth I didn’t do something about it sooner. But to be honest, back then I didn’t even think I had a problem to begin with. It was all a good time to me. I was just letting loose, just having fun and everyone else just needed to relax.

I joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous while in prison for the sole purpose of spending some time outside of my depressing cell. I didn’t contribute, answer any questions or even speak for the first couple of months.

One day, in one of the AA meetings, all of that changed. An elderly man stood up. He looked rugged and a little bit intimidating, you could tell from the way he carried himself that he’d experienced his fair share of curveballs in life. It was the first time I’d ever heard him share and his story shook me. There was a woman he loved, who loved him back, they were married and had a life of their own. But his marriage was getting a little crowded with him, his wife, and his addiction. For years she made excuses for him, put up with him, comforted him, and tried to help him. She blamed herself for the fact that he wasn’t getting better. Until one day she left him. She couldn’t take it anymore and she just left. He lost the one person in the world who ever really had his back.

That resonated with me. My parents are my whole world. They risked everything to give my brother and I a better life. To this day they both work hard to make sure they have enough to be comfortable. My relationship with them plummeted at the same time my life did. But they were still there, and the thought of losing them was enough to realize I had to make a change in my life before it was too late. 

When I got out of prison I managed to find a job. At first, it wasn’t much, I just sold cheap perfumes and colognes. But when I discovered that I was pretty good at it, I dove right in. I did so well that I got promoted. Soon enough I was in charge of training new people from the comfort of my very own office with my very own desk. I ate, slept, and breathed work. I was a workaholic. I had sublimated my addiction to alcohol and drugs for work. Even though the latter is more socially acceptable, it was my new high. And before I knew it, I relapsed.

The relapse hit me hard. This time I knew it was wrong, I hated myself for drinking. I hated myself when I lied. I hated myself when I started using up all the money I had saved. I hated myself for lashing out at my parents. I just couldn’t even bear to face my own reflection anymore. I would get drunk and high, sleep all day and I barely ate. My addiction was battling my conscience as the words of the old man in prison kept echoing in my ears. I didn’t want to lose my parents. I didn’t want to hurt them anymore. I didn’t want to disappoint them anymore. I needed to end it. I needed to end it now.

This next part is still etched into my memory. I’ve never been able to forget it.

The lease on my apartment ended a couple of months before and, since I couldn’t afford a place of my own anymore, I had moved back in with my parents. My parents usually locked up all their prescription medication in their room, but a couple of days before I had seen my dad put the key in one of his old coats in the closet. I waited for them to leave the house as I pretended to be asleep. I was already grabbing the key when the car was pulling out of the driveway. I began chanting to myself, “It will all be over soon, this will all be over soon.”

I didn’t even hear the front door open. I almost didn’t register when she ran into my room, screaming at the top of her lungs, and slapped the pills out of my hand. The next thing I knew, my mother was holding me tight and rocking me. My father was at the door and she said to him, “I told you something was wrong. I knew it, I could feel it.” For the first time, I looked at both of them and said, “Mama, Papa, I need help. Please, help me.” 

They admitted me into a rehabilitation facility in Idaho. That place literally saved my life. One of the best things they did for me was give me a way to work through my guilt, self-hatred, anger — everything. They had me write letters to everyone I care about, including myself. I apologized to everyone, including myself. They helped me see that there were so many people and so many things to live clean for. And I felt the motivation to actually go somewhere in life.

Once out of rehab, I quickly joined AA and NA groups in my area. I wanted to stay as focused as possible. It was at these meetings I met my closest friend, who is also my sponsor. Next to my parents and rehab, he is one of the biggest reasons I have stayed clean. He gave me an ultimatum. It was either I pass a college course of my choice, or I find another sponsor. So I dragged myself to a local college and looked through course lists. You see, aside from my struggle with alcohol and drugs, I’d spent quite a bit of time fiddling with computers. Internet and tech stuff always intrigued me, which led me to choose an http course. That course gave me a future. Suddenly, I had the kind of knowledge and skill to be able to do something worthwhile with my life. My room was filled with books on coding, digital media, http, all of it. The same room I had once chosen to end my life in, was where I began to build a whole new life. A whole new me.

It’s been over eight years since I held those pills in my hand. Eight years since I took my last drink, or my last hit.

I moved back to Colombia, I even co-own a website development agency. I’m doing what I love in the country I was born. I am happy, I am healthy and I am clean.

People ask me all the time if I ever feel the urge to drink, smoke, shoot or anything. This beautiful letter perfectly articulates my feelings. Colombians love to have a good time, so when I go out on a Friday, there are plenty of people enjoying a good drink and sometimes I feel tempted. I feel my addiction trying to pull me back in. But what is stronger than that pull is the pull of my incredibly supportive family, friends and colleagues. There are so many ways to enjoy yourself without alcohol or drugs, and it’s come to a point where I almost don’t think about it anymore.

At the beginning, when I first came back to Colombia, it was much more difficult. I had to take it one day at a time. I would go to meetings almost every day, Skype with my sponsor a few times a week, and focus on how far I’d come. I became active. There are a lot of mountains here. I love to hike up and enjoy the view. I soak in how beautiful everything is. I let the beauty around me fill me. I started coaching a boys’ soccer team. I became invested in not only making progress for myself every day, but also in making other people’s lives a little better. The gratitude is the key. I am so grateful for everyone in my life. So grateful to wake up to a whole new day. So grateful for all the new opportunities.

I focus on all the blessings in my life, rather than the problems. The truth is, if I didn’t go through everything I did I wouldn’t have ended up where I am now. I am not ashamed of my journey. Now that I have come out of the darkness, I can see my scars and smile because I made it. And now, I enjoy every single day of my life.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Originally published: November 3, 2016
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