“There would be all these pictures on the wall and on the mantle, and I was never in any of the pictures. It really hit me hard because it was not just literally, but figuratively, I was never in the picture.”
My name is Tony Sanchez, and I’m a person in long-term recovery. What that means to me is it’s been over fourteen years since I’ve had my last drink or drug. The reason that I’m committed about my recovery is because recovery changed my life. I went from being unemployed, unemployable. I used to live better in prison or in jail. I’ve been homeless. There was time when I thought that I would die using or that that’s what’s what I deserved.
But today, fourteen years later, I’m employed, I’m a homeowner, I’m a taxpayer. I have this wonderful relationship with God—a God of my understanding. I also have this amazing relationship with my five-year-old grandson. What is so cool about that is that he has never seen me under the influence. What he knows is that when he’s with me, he’s safe. There’s some other pretty amazing relationships that I have that I would have never had thought possible and that I wouldn’t trade in for anything in the world.
I was born and raised in New York City. I started using at a very young age. I was born in Spanish Harlem. Grew up in Spanish Harlem and then we moved to the Bronx. I come from a two-parent home and my parents are still together. You know, hard working. They didn’t have too much education, however they emphasized the importance of education. So I had that structure, but there was always a part of me that felt like I didn’t belong or I didn’t fit in. I just wasn’t good enough. I did really, really well in school. I’ve always excelled. I was always in the advanced classes, but I didn’t think that at the time growing up in the Bronx or in Harlem that those were things that were important. It was about how good you fought, how tough you were, and those type of things, or at least that’s what I thought. Not necessarily that that’s what I was taught at home, but that’s what I believed.
When I started to use at a very young age, around the age of eight, it was a way to escape. It wasn’t that I really liked the drugs, it was just a fact that I liked the way people accepted me when I was under the influence. So I continued to do it, do it, and do it until it became… it got to the point where I didn’t have a choice. That I had to use it. I started off with alcohol and marijuana, and my drug of choice is cocaine. That was my first love, my true love. Inhaling it and then smoking it. That’s how it was for about sixteen years. I went from a place of being safe and with good strong family values to being homeless and committing crimes and doing anything that I had to do in order to get one more.
There was times when I wanted to die. I remember blaming God, and being really angry for putting me on this earth to become a crackhead. There was a lot of anger, and I started to believe that there was no way out. Looking back, there was times I think that, and I do believe in God, and I believe that God was with me the whole time. Even throughout my incarcerations, I could see that those were times that I was able to get a break, and get some sleep, and actually eat food. Perchance to dream. So I could see that there was times when he was, there was something, that doing for me when I couldn’t do it for myself. I was the type of guy who would use until I couldn’t use anymore. I remember a time my body would just collapse. Anyway, it got really ugly, it got pretty hopeless.
There was times when I thought that I would have been better off dead and I had done some things hoping that somebody would just put a bullet in me, know what I’m saying? I didn’t have the courage to do it myself, but I would put myself in situations hoping that, “Today’s going to be the day and I don’t have to suffer anymore.” Man, I am so grateful, man, that that didn’t come true. Recovery is amazing. I got to Georgia thinking that if I got out of New York City that all my problems would be solved. What I found out was that they had cocaine in Georgia too. I’m a convicted felon in the state of Georgia as well now.
I actually found recovery, was introduced to twelve-step programs along the way. I went to treatment twice, and I’ve been to twelve-step programs but, however, just always thought that I was different. For whatever reason, I [thought],”Those guys, they were a bunch of losers.” I’ve been in and out of jails and prisons for a long time. I’ve been to every building in Rikers Island. I’ve been to prison in Upstate New York. I came to Georgia and I started getting in trouble with the law here and I was incarcerated at the Clark County Jail in Athens, Georgia. I was thirty-five years old and I didn’t have anyone. My family, they had just completely cut me off. I got to the point where I was all alone and I was still really, really, really, really angry. I was still blaming everyone else.
Then, some guys were coming in and bringing in a twelve-step program that I would attend, but I was attending more so so that I could get out of my cell than to actually change. One day I was sitting in this meeting, and thinking about all the reasons why I was better than them. Then it just hit me. I just had this epiphany. I was like, “If I’m the bright one, why is it, after this meeting, they get to go home and I got to go back to a cell?” That was that ambivalence in my thoughts that came up. I started thinking about that, so I kept coming back, but it was a different mindset. I started to ask questions like, “How do you go to work and get paid on Fridays and go home with your money? How do you become a man?” These are tough things to ask because first of all, I was incarcerated, and you can’t show any signs of weakness, and it went against everything that I was taught and believed in all my life.
I’m talking at the age—I was thirty-five years old—to have this challenge in my thought process, right? I kept coming and I kept asking questions. I finished out my time there. Luckily it was a probation violation, and I didn’t have to go to prison. I ended up doing six months, but I kept going to meetings, kept going to meetings, kept going to meetings, and then when it was close to my release day, I told the guys I was about to get released, and they said, “Call and we’ll come and get you and take you to a meeting.” That’s what they did. It was really cool to hang around other men who are really doing what I thought was impossible. That was the beginning. That acceptance from these guys who are still, a lot of them are still, I mean, we’re family until this day.
I can’t say that it’s been an easy journey. In the time of my active addiction I also got married thinking that that was going to change everything. I tried marriage, I tried abandonment, which lent to the sense of low self worth because I can’t get anything right. I saw my father being a husband and I didn’t know how to do that. I just, I really didn’t know what that meant. I remember coming out of jail, or prison. It wasn’t the first time, I was just noticing that when I would go home, my wife who, God bless her, she took care of stuff. The fact that I even had a home to go to was amazing. There would be all these pictures on the wall and on the mantle, and I was never in any of the pictures. It really hit me hard because it was not just literally, but figuratively, I was never in the picture.
It also, it hit me hard because as a man, a Hispanic man, right, seeing that my wife was actually the head of the household. That was really, really hard to take. Because of everything that I was taught, and then my prayer being to be a husband, and I knew that I wasn’t living up to that. It wasn’t the first time that I felt that, and other times how I would deal with that, I would go and get high. It was a great excuse to numb whatever I was feeling. It was usually shame, guilt, resentment, anger, and fear, would I ever get it right. Stuff like that. This time I did what I was asked to do and I called those guys who were bringing that twelve-step meeting in, and I went to a meeting. I continued to go to meetings, and then I found the courage to be able to talk about those feelings, which was new to me, and I didn’t spontaneously combust or any of that stuff. It was like, certain things, you just don’t say out loud. You just talk to, you keep that, you take that to the grave or whatever.
That wasn’t working for me anymore. I didn’t want to get high anymore. I wanted something different. I started to believe that there was a possibility that I could get better and that recovery was for me, too. I could see recovery in other people but I still didn’t quite believe that it was possible for me. They didn’t do what I had done. In my mind, I’m still looking at the differences. I stuck with it. I started working, and paying my supervision fees and all that stuff. Life started to get better.
When I had about five years, I was a manager at a catering business. I was doing some really cool stuff. I was going to work in suits and stuff like that. Which is really cool for someone who was homeless. You know what I’m saying? I had my own car, I had a bank account, all the cool stuff that comes when you stop using. That financial stuff. I was going to meetings on a regular basis. I was really active in my twelve-step program. I had a sponsor and I was doing the things that were suggested. At that point, I thought I had arrived. Looking back, I was kind of, I had gotten to the point of a self-righteous piece. Like, “You got to do it this way. You know why you not getting it? Because you’re not doing it like this. If you did this, you would…,” and I became really self-righteous even with my family members. Things got really good financially so I was able to move to a bigger apartment, and then I bought some land, I was getting my house built, and you couldn’t really tell me anything. My way was working, you couldn’t tell me anything. My way was working. One of the things that I was doing, I was pushing away my family because, these are the people that were with me when I was getting high, who love me, and now that I wasn’t using I just started being really judgmental and I pushed a lot of family members away.
I thought I was doing the right thing. I think a lot of it, as I look back, was fear. I didn’t want to go back. You know what I mean? I had a really tight grip on what I thought was recovery and the way to do it. I didn’t want to go back to using, I was so scared to go back that I held on to it hell or high water. What I was doing was I was still hurting the things that are valuable to me now. The things that are most important to me right now, which is my time, and my family. The close relationships. I know how to get money, [but] just things that are really important. My health. Those things, I wasn’t doing too good with those.
At five years, my relationship with my wife had gotten better. There was a period in the first two or three years that we had to get to know each other again because I was a different person. Then there was that power struggle of who’s leading this house. There was a huge power struggle. We separated for a while. I thought we were going to get divorced, but we ended up staying together. Things seemed to be going really good, and then she got sick.
When I had five years, and I thought I was on top of the world, she lost her vision. It was all due to diabetes. It started off with her losing her vision. At work, I use to work sixty, seventy hours a week, and I was the man. There was this illusion of control there. I was an event manager, and I could make people’s dreams come true, and I could serve really, really well. I was immediately stripped of that illusion because I couldn’t touch my wife and heal her. It was so humbling.
That powerlessness, that powerlessness piece came around at five years, and it had nothing to do with drugs. It hit me so hard that my belief system was a sham. At least I thought it was. There were some foundational pieces there that kept it together. She continued to get sick. Then she had two heart attacks, then she had open-heart surgery. Her kidneys failed and I had to make a decision on what I needed to do. My career was on the rise, I had a small business that I had started and my twelve-step group. I would always show up, and I couldn’t do these things anymore. I had to be home with her. It was really, really hard to do. That’s who I thought I was at the time, this person from work that you could rely on. This person [at] the twelve-step meetings that you could rely on, and I couldn’t do that anymore. I was lost again. Even without the dope. Even without drugs, I was lost again.
I didn’t have the drugs to hold on to. I got tired of going to meetings and sharing about the same thing and how angry I was. I’m being responsible, but I’m not getting the results. I didn’t know when this was going to end, and there were times when I just wanted to leave, but I didn’t. I went from being a star at work, to being unreliable, and it really messed with my sense of self-worth. After all these feelings of inadequacies that I thought that I dealt with with twelve-step, you know this step working, all that stuff. All that stuff that they told me that works, it wasn’t working for me anymore. I became really angry and resentful again. I just wasn’t using. That went on for about seven years.
She finally got put on the kidney transplant list. I got tested and I was match. I was going to give her a kidney. We were making the arrangements to do so, and they said she would benefit from a pancreas. That comes from… you have to get that from a cadaver donor. I love my wife, but not that much. I can laugh about it now. She got placed on the list, and that was a trial. We got called five times. I remember one time, it was on Thanksgiving, the day before Thanksgiving. We get called that there’s a possible donor. We go to the hospital and are so hopeful, because you’re driving to the hospital dreaming about what life is going to be like tomorrow. Like it’s going to change. Then, we were told that the organ wasn’t good, it was damaged. They sent us back home.
I remember driving home on Thanksgiving morning. It was surreal because I was on I-85 and I look, I remember looking to my right, and a car was passing me and people were laughing, enjoying life, and we had to go back to this life of—I just didn’t understand; I didn’t get it—illness, and loneliness, and anger, and resentment, and stuff like that. I need to say that, even that experience, I don’t know if you remember me saying that, I prayed to be a husband, and it came to me. It was like, my idea what a husband was, and what a husband really is, is totally different, so I had the opportunity to learn to be a husband. That was my process. I learned that it was okay to feel what I felt. The anger and stuff like that was normal based on the situation, and that God was still with me. He was still with me.
She ended up getting a kidney and a pancreas. She no longer has diabetes. She never received her sight back, so life is still different. However, I learned that it’s not about a person, or place, or thing that’s going to make everything all right. Even my hopes were that the transplant was just going to change everything, but that was like what I thought about the dope. That if I just got one more hit, I was going to be okay. I was still acting out in the same, in similar ways. I put something else before what really matters. It was just the gratitude that I had the opportunity to be there and serve in spite of all of my past. That I was able to be of service at home. I thought that when it came to those feelings of guilt and shame about not being able to make it to my own group, that it was more important that I serve at home.
If I’m serving out in the community, but I’m neglecting my family, then what’s changed for them? There were some really deep lessons about life and recovery. It’s ongoing. I’m not going to say that I made it through all of that unscathed, but I’m definitely not that same person I was when I had five years. I no longer believe that I’m Mr. Recovery.
Today, she’s a lot better physically. Our marriage is still under a lot of strain. Part of it is because, in three years since the transplant now, I feel that we should be at a different place. I just know that I don’t have all the answers. All I can do is show up to the best of my ability and that it’s okay to feel what I feel, but because I feel something doesn’t mean I have to act out on it.
I’m learning how to be supportive. I’m learning how to take care of myself and still be supportive to her, and still do the work that I’m so passionate about, [which] is let people know that recovery’s possible and available to anyone. No matter where you at. Not try to control the situation, you know? For a long time, even during that process of her illness and her healing, there was a lot of times when I became so obsessed. Again, a lot of similarities to active addiction. What they taught me was that, you can take the dope away, but you can still act out on those type of behaviors. So how do I get better with that and meet people where they’re at? I talk about peer supports and there’s many different pathways to recovery and all that cool stuff. If I’m not practicing it at home, then what am I doing?
I’m learning how to do that at home. About two years ago I started to get sick. I ran myself to the ground. I ended up getting pneumonia four times in thirteen months. I would get better, and then I would get sick again. I would get better, and I would get sick again. A lot of that was, I just wasn’t taking care of myself. I had gained a lot of weight. That process and how I feel now, is true, like coming from anger and resentment to being hopeful and trusting God is true. Dealing with it on a day-in, day-out basis, how I dealt with it is, I was eating. I was eating a pack of Oreo cookies. I wasn’t getting high anymore, so that’s all I had. I would go home and I would just eat. I gained a lot of weight. I wasn’t sleeping right, and all that stuff, and I started to get really sick.
Now I’m trying to do some things that are different. It’s funny because I had to go back to basics in a lot ways. One of the things that I believe is, that if I put in the effort, and I put in the work, I could get the results. It’s not always easy. I’m not a victim in any of this. Even in the last seven to eight years, it’s been nothing but opportunity to grow and to learn and to know that I can. I was talking to a friend of mine, and I was like, “You know what? Everything that we’ve been through, when situations come up, they’re not as serious to me. After being through what I’ve been through, know what I’m saying?” “Oh what, that? Okay.” “Well, why you not mad? Don’t you know this?” “Yeah, I get it, I heard you. I know it’s rough right now. We’re going to get through this.” “How do you know?” “I just know. We’re going to be okay. We’re going to be okay,” and that my responsibility is to show up. The results are not up to me, but as long as I have the opportunity to get up and show up, I’m well on my way.
Like I said, it’s been fourteen years now since I’ve had my last drink or drug. I get to talk about recovery and let people know that recovery’s possible. I just came back from New York yesterday, and it was an amazing visit. I was able to go home to the very place where they used to not let me in. Maybe throw me a sandwich out the window, five dollars, or let me in to take a shower. Follow me to bathroom, stand outside the bathroom door while I took a shower and then they escorted me back outside. Not because they didn’t love me; it was that they had to love me from a distance to embrace in me. It was just safe, and it was just a really cool visit not being a burden because I can take care of myself today in so many different ways. Recovery did that. I am so blessed.
Photographs taken outside the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse in Atlanta, Georgia.