The more people we have the louder the voice and more lives will be saved. That is what this is all about.

My name is Joel Pomales, and I am a person in long-term recovery from a substance-use disorder. It is more commonly known as addiction today. A chronic disease that affects the way I think, feel, and behave.

I have been in recovery since July of 2011. For me recovery means I haven’t used alcohol or any other drugs.  Since that time, I have gained a life for myself that I never thought I would have. A life I could only dream of. A full and rewarding life filled with family, friends, laughter, and love. These things I did not have in my life for far too long.

So about me… I don’t come from the best background, kind of your typical broken home story. Not much money, parents fought a lot, and divorced when I was young. I grew up without a father figure in my life so there wasn’t much discipline or direction. I started acting out at a young age. Stealing, smoking cigarettes, and getting in trouble at school. I hated the way my life was and wished it was different. I loved the attention I got from being the bad kid. Unfortunately, that led to hanging with a bad crowd and getting into drugs at a young age. I feel I was misinformed on what addiction was. I thought that it was only an urban issue, an inner city problem, and that if I wasn’t homeless living on the streets I wouldn’t have anything to worry about.

The first time I got high I loved it. At the time, I didn’t know I loved the feeling so much because I hated the way I felt normally.  It was fun for a few years and then I started getting in trouble. I got arrested twice when I was 15. I was sent to my first treatment facility right before my 16th birthday.

One of the barriers that people face when trying to enter recovery is a lack of access to treatment. My insurance only covered me for 8 days out of a 28 day program. After 8 days I was sent home, still sick, and without guidance. I abstained from using for about a month then went right back. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I got the treatment I needed back then, but I didn’t and my disease continued to progress. I was arrested 9 more times after that treatment stay. I spent time in 5 different jails between two states. For a while, I figured I would wind up serving most of my life incarcerated. I had several hospital stays, countless terrible life experiences, and situations that a person should never be in. I ruined my family, particularly my mother and my younger brother. My friends watched in despair as I continued to spiral downward. I acted like it didn’t affect me and that they were the ones with the problem. After time, nothing was important to me at all anymore. Not my family, friends, education, employment, hobbies, or my future. For years I just accepted the thoughts “this is the life for me” and “this is the hand I was dealt.”

I wanted to feel human again.

Eventually though, it became too much. I no longer wanted to feel what I felt for so long. That empty feeling of simply existing, and not living life. Feeling hopeless. Feeling broken. Feeling trapped. A certain quote took on a whole new meaning to me. “When the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing, we will change.” So I decided to make a change. I went to another treatment facility, but this time I wanted to go for me. Not for the judge, not for my probation officer. I knew I needed to go. I wanted to feel human again. I went into a 5 day detox and then a 28 day program. After about a week into the program I felt completely changed. I can’t really explain it honestly. I knew that I was going to be able to escape the terrible life my addiction created for me. I was a little fearful of what the future would hold but I was filled with so much hope and anticipation. I knew my life was going to be so much better without drugs. It was like almost overnight I gained inspiration and motivation. A desire to live and become the person I was meant to be came over me. I couldn’t get the smile off my face.

After the program I was fortunate to be able to move into an oxford house with other men in recovery. I stayed there for my first two months in recovery. I was attending recovery support groups and was making friends with many positive people who were in recovery. It was a bit difficult to leave my old friends behind, but I knew if I wanted to change and stay on the right road I had to.

I got my first job and began paying back my old debt. I had never really worked before I came into recovery so it was a very trying process for me. Getting used to a 9-5 routine and being responsible. Showing up on time and working hard was not something I knew how to do very well, but I tried and continued to get better at it. I joined a gym and was exercising regularly. I figured I beat my body up for so long I should start taking care of it. This helped me start eating healthy and sleeping normally, two more things that were foreign to me. Also, I started volunteering at a local food pantry in my hometown. I wanted to give back to the community I had taken from for so long. It wasn’t easy but it felt amazing. I felt like I was recovering, because I WAS!!!

I started feeling like I was a good person and wasn’t the bad person I thought I was. I started to learn about myself. I was caring, kind, and heartfelt. I was genuine, honest, and funny. I was a good friend and natural leader. That I had many assets addiction hid from me.

After a year in recovery I got involved in recovery advocacy. I helped develop the New Jersey chapter of Young People in Recovery, YPR-NJ. I was elected as the Chairman for the state chapter. This is one of my greatest accomplishments in recovery.

I learned the importance and impact of having people hear my story.

I learned the importance and impact of having people hear my story. My story impacts those in or seeking recovery, their friends, families, and most importantly to those like me, who had misinformation or a false preconceived image of what someone with this disease might look like. Sharing my story to help reduce the stigma surrounding addiction and change the public’s perception has become a huge part of my life. I got even more involved joining in the conversations that were taking place in my community, and in the state about addiction. Having my voice heard. I became a leader with another advocacy group NCADD-NJ. I joined several other boards and committees that were making decisions which affected people in or seeking recovery. All of these things require the skills I learned in early recovery. They are responsibility, commitment, dedication, perseverance, honesty, ambition, and consistency.

It’s very tough at times but also very rewarding. I don’t know exactly where I’m headed but I know I’m headed in the right direction. I continue to do the same things today that I did in early recovery. I attend recovery meetings, I work, exercise, spend time with my family and friends, continue to work on myself, and learn. Recovery is an ongoing process. Today, I take advantage of the opportunities that come my way, instead of letting them pass me by as I once did. I’m going to college for addiction studies, and have hopes to one day receive my masters in social work. It amazes me that I once believed I was going to spend most of my life in jail, and now I am dreaming big and chasing them with all I’ve got.

I thank anyone who took the time to read this. I also encourage you to get involved in the recovery movement. Anyone can make a difference. I say to the people in recovery, their friends, family, and supporters of recovery that here is a lot of work that needs to be done. The more people we have the louder the voice and more lives will be saved.  That is what this is all about.