Rodolfo Lopez's journey to and through substance use recovery.

When Rodolfo Lopez arrived in Philadelphia nearly 10 years ago, he brought with him a great deal of pain he did not know how to heal.

Lopez, now 49, did not know how to function without using drugs or how to connect to the world. However, he said he learned through his journey in and out of the prison system that he had reached his limit and didn’t want to use drugs anymore.

“Addiction is so much more than just drugs,” Lopez said. “We suffer from pain, depression, isolation, and we want control.”

Lopez was born in New York but raised in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico where he began using drugs at the age of 13. When he was 17, he moved back to New York, where his drug use continued His parents were not involved in his childhood, and instead, he was raised by his grandmother. Growing up, he did not understand why his parents were not present in his life, which caused him a lot of pain and confusion.

“Every time that I’d graduate, the only person who was there was my grandmother,” Lopez said. “I’d see all the other kids with their father and mother. I’m like, ‘Why my father and my mother don’t want to be here? They don’t love me?’ I started feeding into that negative energy.”

As time passed, Lopez found himself selling drugs in addition to using them. He also began stealing.

“I didn’t know who I was,” Lopez said.

As a teenager in New York, Lopez finally met his mother. He struggled with the fact that she had never been there for him and continued to use drugs as a way to make his mother go through the pain he experienced as a child.

“My mentality was like, ‘Okay, she was not there for me and she made me go through hell,’” he said. “My thinking was like, ‘I’m going to continue getting high.’”

“I wanted my mother to experience what I experienced …  going through the pain, but actually, the problem just became bigger,” he added.

Lopez realized that if he had just taken the time out to talk to his mother about how he was feeling and what he had experienced, he may have avoided a bigger problem. But he never took the opportunity to get to know his mother or gave his mother the opportunity to get to know him.

“Addiction is so much more than just drugs. We suffer from pain, depression, isolation, and we want control."

— Rodolfo Lopez, Person in recovery

Today, now that he is in recovery, he and his mother are working on building a relationship. But he realizes that while he could have approached his pain in a different way, his experience was not a waste of time.

“I am about to be 50 [and] sometimes I be thinking, ‘Man I wasted my time,’ but in reality, it was not a waste of time because now I did find myself,” Lopez said.

Over the years, Lopez spent a lot of time going in and out of the prison system. In 1993, someone shot at Lopez and his daughter was struck by the bullet and killed. He turned himself in and served 10 years in prison.

“I lost myself behind that because I didn’t know how to deal with that and then you know I had to turn myself in,” Lopez said. “Then my ex-wife got pregnant by somebody else and it was too many things at once.”

Lopez couldn’t understand why these things were happening to him, but he finally had the opportunity to take a step back and analyze his actions while he was incarcerated. He started going to school. He also taught himself English in prison by reading newspapers and books. Whenever he’d come across any words he didn’t understand, he would look them up in the dictionary. If he didn’t know how to pronounce the word, he would ask someone else to help him pronounce it.

However, he also continued to do things that didn’t contribute to his recovery. He felt like he perfectly fit in inside the prison environment, which was similar to the streets, where he continued to use and sell drugs.

Lopez said it was difficult for him to change his behavior because he found himself caught in a cycle of being in and out of prison. He sought out addiction treatment programs in prison, but not with the intention of starting his recovery. Instead, his goal was to get an early release. He would tell his family that things would be different after his release and that he would change his behavior. But he said he was lying to himself.

“I manipulated the system to get what I want,” Lopez said. “My mother was always like, ‘You’re going backwards you come for a little vacation to see me and then you go back there for a few years”

Though Lopez continued to struggle with his addiction, he became conscious about his environment and how it influenced his actions. Eventually, he realized that upon his release, he wasn’t interested in selling drugs anymore. But while he stopped selling drugs, he found himself using drugs again.  

“I didn’t know how to change … because I never had a father figure to tell me early in life how life is,” Lopez said. “I had to learn maybe going through the pain, that was my main theme the pain was a motivation for me.”

“I had to learn maybe going through the pain, that was my main theme — the pain was a motivation for me."

— Rodolfo Lopez, Person in recovery

In 2010, Lopez had nowhere to live in New York, so he decided to reach out to his mother again. She allowed Lopez to move into her home in Philadelphia under the agreement that he attends a treatment program and seeks help. At the time, he didn’t feel comfortable with attending a program or seeking treatment, but he did as his mother requested so that he was able to stay with her.

Lopez enrolled himself in a program called Casa Transito at 5th Street and Indiana Avenue. He was able to find a job and maintain sobriety for nearly a year while living with his mother. During this time, he learned how to identify his mistakes and was able to navigate the obstacles he often f faced that would usually lead him to start using drugs again.

While Lopez found some recovery there, he began using drugs again. His mother encouraged him to once again seek help from a program, and he enrolled himself in a program called Everything Must Change on 25th Street and Lehigh Avenue. Lopez maintained an abstinence-based recovery for two years and was offered a job working for Casa Transito, the program in which he was previously enrolled. However, he said that when he got more comfortable with having a stable income, he started using drugs again. His mother gave him one last chance.

“My mother opened my eyes,” Lopez said.

The last day Lopez used drugs was in a park.

“I was fighting with myself because I didn’t want to get high, but my body was telling me, “No, you need to go there,’ because I was sick,” Lopez said. “But in my mind and in my heart I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”

In March 2016, Lopez said he made a conscious decision to begin changing things about himself and began working towards his long-term recovery.

“One thing about recovery is when you help yourself, people start helping you. But if you can’t really help yourself, you’re not going to allow people to help you,” Lopez said.

“I couldn’t understand that in the beginning,” he added.

After spending 60 days in a program at Casa Transito, he approached Everything Must Change and asked for another chance to enroll in their program. The staff granted him that opportunity.

He is still in touch with the people involved with the program and is often called in to host meetings. However, Lopez now spends most of his time doing volunteer work for PRO-ACT, which hosts among many other things the Latinos in Recovery support group meeting.

“When I connect to another human being, the possibility of maintaining myself clean and to be a better human being in this world, the chances are high because I’m not still trying to live alone,” Lopez said.

“Now my kids are in my life I have people in my life,” he added. “I can do things to help others even if they don’t want to help themselves.”