Christmas and Addicts
I met Michael Acosta at Sun Street Center’s Pueblo del Mar residential facility for recovering addicts. The Center’s Christmas Party was about to begin. Michael was dressed as one of Santa’s Elves. I spent the afternoon watching him and the other elves hand out gifts and smiles to all of the mothers and children in attendance; the families of the men living at Pueblo del Mar.
The following day, we have a chance to talk. Michael has doffed his elf’s cap and apron. He sits in the library at Sun Street Center just off Market Street in East Salinas. He stretches his lanky frame against a worn couch, but even as he speaks about restlessness, his disquiet shows itself, pushing him to rise and pace the room.
“Detoxification is the worst pain you can imagine. For a week, your whole body is in shock. You can’t get comfortable for even a moment. Your back aches. Your muscles are tight. You can’t relax. A million pins and needles are stabbing you, stabbing you, stabbing you, constant stabbing. You’re shaking, restless with anxiety….
“You can’t sleep. You can’t stay seated. You walk around, but then you can’t just keep walking forever, so you try to sit but that only makes you want to get up again. You can’t eat. You have no taste buds except for sweets; all you want is something sweet. But really all you want is to use so you can relieve the pain.
“My mom died of ovarian cancer when I was 12. That was tough because my dad was a drug addict and he wasn’t around much and wasn’t really there even when he was around. He was always either out getting high or in prison. Then, when I was 14, my favorite grandpa died.
“I was a freshman in high school — Salinas High. I played basketball. Although I had lost my mom and my grandpa, I was doing OK because I still had my grandma. After my mom died, she pretty much raised me. Then, Grandma was diagnosed with cancer. She was a fighter and she wasn’t going to let the cancer beat her, but it did. Just before Christmas, she died….
“She had been the rock of our family and my rock too. She had a beauty salon in south Salinas. I’d go there after school and be with her on weekends. She taught me everything; how to be a gentleman, how to cook, how to care for others, how to give back. She taught me about God … ”
At 28, Michael Acosta is good looking, articulate and comfortable sharing the ups and downs of his life over the past 14 years. He also listens well and seems to enjoy engaging with people. He has dark, gentle eyes and displays the easy charm of a natural storyteller. His expressive and supple face might have served him well as a stand-up comedian if his life hadn’t taken such a tragic turn.
“My grandma … this caring woman in my life suddenly has cancer and is undergoing chemo. What does she do? She starts sweeping up the hair in her shop and making wigs for some of the other women who are also undergoing Chemo. People later told me that she was the first one around here to do that for women who could never have afforded a wig otherwise.
“After she died, I was lost and angry. I went to a party on Christmas Day. For the first time, I drank hard liquor and I got high on meth. Before I knew it, I was doing drugs and drinking every day; I guess in a fruitless attempt to stop the hurt. That was the end of high school sports and just about everything else for me.”
“You know, Michael,” I say, “you strike me as someone with talent and brains. I can see you were dealt a rough hand, but you had a lot going for you.”
“Ya,” Michael responds, “you’re right, but that was also the problem. My charm and brains made me feel like I could get away with anything. I was into OxyContin, a synthetic heroin. And for a while, I made it work. I finished high school and enrolled for a semester at Hartnell. But it didn’t last. When you’re doing drugs, nothing else matters. You don’t care about anything but the next hit; not your family, not your work, not your future.”
Michael stops pacing and sits on the couch again. He leans forward and folds his hands on his knees.
“I’ve been trying to figure out why the holidays are so hard and emotional. When you’re doing drugs and drinking, your feelings are close to the surface. Christmas comes around and the memories flow over you. Everywhere you look, it all reminds you of the past … childhood … family … and you hate yourself for what you’ve done and what you’re doing.
“I had become everything I despise about my own dad. I had disappointed the people I loved and had ignored all they had taught me; my grandpa, and most of all, my grandma. And there’s the vicious cycle because the memories make you lose respect for yourself and you do more drugs and drink to try to forget that very pain … ”
Michael tells me that he first came to Sun Street Center seven years ago. He completed the rehab program.
“When I turned 20, I went for a year to live with my dad in Oklahoma. We worked together laying tile. We were both using cocaine. We were spending four or five hundred dollars a week on drugs and alcohol. By the time I left, I had lost all respect for him.
“I came back to Salinas. I turned 21 and kind of woke up. I had been working a good job as a dispatcher and was — I guess you’d say — engaged to my high school girlfriend. We set a date to get married. I spent five months here in counseling and group sessions and I cleaned up. Then, I got cocky. I figured that I could white-knuckle it.”
He explains that “white knuckling it” means going it alone; staying clean without the support of counselors and without help from a sober community of others struggling to maintain.
“Then, Christmas came around again. I was with my brother partying. I got so wasted, I passed out. My brother wanted me to go home, but I said no. So he went his way and I went mine. I ended up threatening some folks and got arrested. I spent 15 months in jail.”
“How can you hold a job while you’re doing drugs and alcohol?” I ask.
“You find a balance between getting high and coming down. Meth makes you high. Heroin brings you down. I don’t know if the people at work noticed or not. It didn’t matter.
“After I got out of jail, me and my girlfriend got back together. By then, she had had a child with someone else and they had split up.
“We got married and had a baby. I had a really good job as a plumber; but within six months, I relapsed. For the next couple of years, I tried to stop. I’d get some counseling and then go back to the drugs again. When you’re using, you lose all ability to distinguish right from wrong. As I said, nothing matters except the next fix.
“My wife wouldn’t put up with my relapses. We separated. During the summer, I went to see my dad back in Oklahoma. I spent a month there. He had cleaned up and he convinced me to do the same. I came back home to my family; but, once again, I started using. Then, this past October, my boss was going to promote me. I was slated to get a nice raise. Right now, I should be making $40 an hour; but I failed their drug test and lost the job.
“In November, I checked back into Sun Street Center. I knew I had to go to counseling, work the steps, get back to meetings and back to the Michael I used to be. Now, I’m living here and going through the classes and counseling again. But this time, I’m doing it for myself and for my family. I’ve got two boys that need a dad. My boss told me, ‘You get yourself straight. When you come back, there’s a job here for you.’
“But here it is, the holidays again. This morning during counseling, I found myself crying. When you clean up, your level of emotion rises. You’re super sad. You think about what you’ve done and all the hurt and destruction you’ve left in your wake. You’re uncertain and fearful about staying clean.
“I know this much, I don’t want ever to go back to being an addict. If you use heroin for only three days, you’re going to go through withdrawals in order to quit. So, I just have to face the fear and uncertainty and overcome it.”
“Michael,” I ask, “where do you think you’ll be in five years?”
“Oh, God, that’s hard … All I ever wanted was to have a family and be a good father for my boys. Sun Street’s making that possible for me. I’m better now at accepting the help I need. I’m not going to try to white knuckle it again. I’ll stay in the program for as long as I need it. I can go back to work in 45 days.
“Sun Street operates Pueblo de Mar over in Marina. My family and I can live there for up to two years, so I’ll have ongoing support for a good while. But I can’t think too much about the future beyond that.
“One thing I’ve learned: The past is gone. I can’t do anything about it. I have to stop beating myself up for what has happened. Yesterday’s over. We don’t know what will come tomorrow. All we have is today. I’m just trying to get through today; and I’m confident I will because this Christmas, I’ve got my wife and kids close by.”
Via The Salinas Californian