Edwin Hernandez's journey to community and self-empowerment through recovery.

Last October, Edwin Hernandez decided to seek out addiction treatment again.

“I went to a crisis center down on 8th and Locust and told them I felt like committing suicide,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez had previously received treatment from Penn Presbyterian Hospital in January 2014 and maintained his recovery for close to eight months. He was close with the staff members there, who he shared stories with about his childhood trauma.

“I told them some stories and stuff about the time I was molested at 12 years old running the streets fending for myself,” he said.

When Hernandez left, the Penn Presbyterian staff members told him if he ever needed help in the future, he was welcome to come back again.

“They accepted me with open arms,” he said. “I really poured it on at Presbyterian.”

Hernandez was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico. At the age of seven, he moved to Philadelphia, where he was raised. A few years after arriving in Philadelphia, he was repeatedly sexually abused by a family member. He was too young at the time to process that something wrong or inappropriate was happening to him.

“I didn’t really comprehend the whole thing,” he said. “I didn’t know what was supposed to happen.”

According to Hernandez, his mother couldn’t do anything about the abuse at the time. He said that even if she had done something, he would not have seen any results the family member was still around. It wasn’t until his abuser moved to New York that he was finally freed from the abuse.

The trauma that he experienced, in addition to the absence of his father, played a role in Hernandez’s addiction, he said. As a result of his trauma, he felt drawn to the adrenaline rush of doing bad things. He started stealing and doing things that other people — like his brother — wouldn’t do. Eventually, he was using drugs and living on the street.

“I tended to be with the goons and the goblins of the streets,” Hernandez said.

"It’s not something anybody wants to do, but the addiction is so deceptive it grips you because it makes you forget everything. It allows you for those few minutes to just forget your pain."

— Edwin Hernandez, Person in recovery

In 1990, Hernandez was convicted of third-degree murder. He served 12 years in federal prison and was released in 2002. According to Hernandez, he did not commit the crime. He said he struggled with his addiction during that time because the conviction was a good excuse to keep using.

“It’s not something anybody wants to do, but the addiction is so deceptive it grips you because it makes you forget everything,” Hernandez said. “It allows you for those few minutes to just forget your pain.”

Ten years after his release from prison, Hernandez was convicted of selling drugs and was incarcerated for two more years. While he was incarcerated, his mother died. Her death was a weight on him, especially because he wasn’t there for her when she died.

“I told myself that she was sick [and] that I wouldn’t go back to jail, but I never stopped dealing drugs,” Hernandez said.

In 2014, Hernandez sought help from Penn Presbyterian Hospital, where he spent 20 days in treatment and was able to make peace with himself and his mother’s death. He also found some peace through Christianity.

“I took some counsel and sat down, took some suggestions and humbled myself,” Hernandez said.

After leaving Penn Presbyterian, Hernandez decided to go to a 12-step group and get a sponsor someone that could mentor him through the 12 steps. He actively attended 12-step meetings on Lehigh Avenue because he said they held him accountable.

“It’s one of the best meetings I’ve ever been to,” Hernandez said. “Some days it’s great they have a lot of good speakers — a lot of recovery guys who got 20 or 30 years. You’re going to get the best stories there.”

"The same adrenaline I got from stealing and robbing people, I get from helping people. It’s the same kind of high.”

— Edwin Hernandez, Person in recovery

Though Hernandez again struggled with addiction less than a year after leaving Penn Presbyterian, he’s in recovery now and back on his feet. He is living in transitional housing and also participates in an intensive outpatient treatment program at Casa de Consejeria (CASA) at 6th Street and Lehigh Avenue. He meets with support groups three times a week, has multiple urine screenings each week, and has a one-on-one meeting with a therapist every month.

“I have no plan on getting high,” Hernandez said. “I would like to still be screened to have that pressure for a while.”

Hernandez has also done volunteer work for the addiction and recovery advocacy initiative PRO-ACT and is working on getting certification to become a certified peer specialist. Through this certification, Hernandez will be able to support others in their recovery process. He also facilitates a mental health group that is also held at PRO-ACT, on Thursdays from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m., which usually has attendees that come from Torre De La Raza’s outpatient services at 8th Street and Girard Avenue.

“I open the floor up, I’ll give them a word or sentence to feed off of and build,” Hernandez said. “It could be ‘What are you going do after you leave here? What are you getting from the program? How do you feel getting off of medication?’ and they’ll go with it and then I put my input into it.”

Not only that, but Hernandez is also taking a storytelling class on Saturdays at Chestnut Hill College and is enrolled in Project TEACH, a health education program offered by Philadelphia FIGHT that trains people living with HIV/AIDS to be peer educators.

“The same adrenaline I got from stealing and robbing people, I get from helping people,” Hernandez said. “That’s why I say when I stand up in front of people — it’s the same kind of high.”