By Joel M., 18
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Illustration by Brian Lopez-Santos, 15, Marshall HS

My whole life has been messed up, but the worst was when I did drugs. That life was leading me to a bad place. But I have been clean for 10 months and turned my life around.

I started doing drugs when I was 15, but my problems started when I was younger because I lived with my aunt and uncle. There were good times, like when the Lakers won and my uncle let me take the Suburban and people were going crazy in the street. But most of the time I felt like I wasn’t part of the family.

I went to live with my aunt and uncle when I was 6. The police had taken custody of me and my six siblings because they said there were too many reports about my mom and stepdad being abusive and fighting. I was crying because I thought I was being taken away from my mom for no reason. Sure, they argued and my stepdad drank, but I didn’t feel it was a big deal.

My aunt took me and one of my sisters, my grandma took four kids and my other aunt took one. My aunt and uncle put me in elementary school but I was behind. I’d missed a lot of school because my mom and stepdad hadn’t taken me. The teacher would help me, but by fifth grade I was frustrated because I was the only kid who didn’t know how to read or write, add or divide. I flunked fifth grade and in sixth grade I only passed PE. I wanted my aunt and uncle to help me with my homework, but they couldn’t because they worked at night.

In seventh grade at South Gate Middle School I took the same classes over again. I’d get frustrated and cuss my teachers out. Sometimes kids made fun of me because of the way I dressed, with my shirt tucked in. I would get mad and talk back and get in fights. I ditched and hung out with my girlfriend behind the gym. Things were going so badly, I wished I could start my life over with my mom. I missed how she would spend time with me, which made me feel like she cared about me.

My aunt and uncle weren’t happy with the way things were going. When I brought home Fs, they wouldn’t let me watch TV, go outside anymore or go out to eat with my uncle. They’d take my stuff away, like my Spanish rap CDs. I started running away to a friend’s house because I wanted to have fun.

At the end of seventh grade, when I was 15, I got kicked out of South Gate for fighting and ditching. I went to an alternative school in Compton. People would do drugs at school and I wanted to try them. I started with weed, then I tried speed and crack, which got me hyped up.

Drugs were an escape

I knew drugs don’t take you anywhere. I knew I could end up in jail because I’d see cops when I was walking down the street high. But I liked being hyped up because my family couldn’t control me. I’d be acting a fool and cussing out my aunt’s kids. They’d yell at me to stop but I wouldn’t listen. At school when I was mad because I had been arguing with my aunt and uncle, I’d go to the bathroom to do drugs, which got my anger out and made me forget about everything. Looking back at that time, I feel bad about who I was. I wasn’t being the person I really was. I was trying to be someone else, a bad kid, instead of a nice person.

When I was about to turn 16, my aunt threatened to send me to boot camp and started calling places. I said, “I’m not going”  and ran away. When the police picked me up after a few days and I went home, I was still mad at her.

The next day I went to the house of a friend’s friend, who was in a gang. They had guns stacked in a dresser. I asked them for a .22-caliber gun. I was drunk and high on speed. I walked back to my house and saw my uncle working on his car. I pulled out the gun and threatened to kill him. My sister’s husband tried to stop me. “Just put the gun down,” he said. “All I want to do is talk to you.” I didn’t believe it so I shot the gun into the car window. Neighbors called the police and I took off running into an alley. I heard a police helicopter announcing there was a person in the street with a weapon and to be careful.

I was going to turn myself in. Without thinking, I fired another bullet into the air and the helicopter shined light in my face. I ran but cop cars trapped me. I was scared. They told me to drop the gun and get on the ground, then they took me into custody. I was thinking, “Why did I do that?” Luckily the shots I fired didn’t hit anyone, but I knew I could have hurt somebody. Sometimes when I get angry I do something that I later regret.

They sent me to juvenile hall for six months. When I got out I was scared of getting sent back to juvenile hall because I saw kids get beat up by other kids all the time. So after school I stayed in my aunt’s house. If someone called I wouldn’t answer. I sometimes unplugged the phone because the ringing would get on my nerves. I was doing good for a couple months. But then I got tired of being inside the house doing nothing but watching TV. I saw dealers sell drugs from their car by my house and wanted to buy some.

Everything started all over. I started running away again. I got caught selling drugs and was put on house arrest for six months. So many bad things were happening. One day when I got in an argument with my aunt, I grabbed my pills for depression and took off running to the park. I didn’t feel like being alive no more so I took 15-20 of them. I felt dizzy and tired and fell to the ground. The police found me and took me to an emergency room. I was shaking. It scared my whole family.

I woke up in a mental hospital, thankful to be alive. My uncle came every day to visit. He said, “We want you to come back home.”

But I couldn’t change at my aunt’s house. At night I’d go outside and smell weed and see people drinking. Finally my aunt told a social worker she couldn’t control me anymore and put me in a group home. I was devastated. I felt like she was giving up on me. I was losing another person in my life, another mom. I didn’t realize it at the time, but if it wasn’t for her, I’d still be doing drugs and probably be involved in a gang.

At my group home in the San Fernando Valley, the other kids would smoke weed and cigarettes in the back yard, and I did too. I’d go to a house and get weed from someone the other kids knew, while the staff thought I was just going to the park. I’d come back high and cuss out the staff or play my music loud. Then I’d get in trouble and couldn’t visit my family or go out by myself.

I was tired of doing drugs so I got into some positive things. I asked the staff to take me to a park and I’d do laps. Another staff liked to run too, so me and her used to run. She’d take me to eat and on Sundays she’d take me to church. I’d read the Bible. I thought, Jesus gave his life for us, I’m going to respect him. Every night when I went to sleep I read the Bible.

Even though things were going better, I still had times when I got upset, like when my cousin told me he would visit but never came. I told the staff I was going to kill myself, so they took me to the hospital for a week and put me back on medication for depression.

The judge sent me to a strict facility

When I went to court last December the judge said I needed to be in a stricter group home because I had been leaving my group home without permission and  was still doing drugs.

I went to my new group home on December 7, but this time it wasn’t hard to stop using drugs. I knew I was going to do good because it was a lockdown facility so you can’t go out by yourself and the other kids couldn’t go out and bring back drugs or alcohol.

The staff would talk to me and I immediately felt I could trust them. When I got to know them better, I played around with them. I hit them on the shoulder and they’d jokingly smack me in the back of the head. The staff told me, when you’re mad at your family or depressed, you can write it down and rip it up. I would write in my journal and rip the page up so I didn’t have to look at it and go off.

I went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. At one meeting they showed the movie Losing Isaiah, about a mom who was using drugs and left her kid in a dumpster. Someone found him and the kid lived at another house while the mom fought to get him back. It was saying not to go back to drugs.

In the spring I joined the baseball team. Running laps, practicing and doing sit-ups would take my anger out over not being with my family and missing family events like funerals and birthdays. I lost weight and looked better. My team made it to the semi-finals and they had a barbeque for the team after the last game.

Others said I could make it

I was doing good and following the staff’s directions. In June the judge told me he had seen changes. He said that when I turned 18, I could go to transitional living, which is like a group home but you have more freedom. I wanted to go because I had nowhere else to stay when I turned 18. A lot of the staff said, “I know you can do good when you leave here. You’re a nice kid.”

But my family didn’t believe I had changed. One day my aunt picked up the phone when I called my cousin and said, “Why are you calling us? You’re going to go back to that person you were. Don’t keep calling the house.” I felt mad. I hung up the phone and went to my room. I saw a bottle of cologne. I wanted to stop the pain so I drank it. I immediately told one of the staff and they had a nurse talk to me. She told me I could have found a better way to deal with my emotions. I regretted it.

I didn’t talk to my aunt again until right before I left for transitional living in September. I wanted to talk to her because I want her in my life. I want to show my family that I’m a different person.

I feel much better about my future. I’m in a transitional living house in Van Nuys. It’s like you’re on your own but they pay for your rent and food and there is still staff in the house. We’re learning how to pay bills on time, cook and budget money when we go grocery shopping.

I go to AA meetings every Monday. I’m going to finish school and get my GED, then try to enroll in college so I can take automotive classes and get a job repairing or rebuilding cars. I’ve wanted to be a mechanic ever since I was a kid and my stepdad let me help him at his job, sweeping and passing tools to him.

I’m going to visit my family on the weekends and go to church with them on Sundays. My family moved to a house next to a police station so there are no more drive-bys or people selling drugs.

Writing this story has helped me a lot. Now I know I did wrong at my aunt’s house and I’ve gotten my past out of my mind. It’s better to admit your mistakes. You’ll always have a second chance to do good. I started doing good because God was watching me and giving me chances. Now I respect everything—my family and God. I’m not going to get back into drugs.