Beginnings: Figueroa-Vargas was 7 when his family moved from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia. His brother Luis, about 15 years his senior, became addicted to crack cocaine and landed in prison. After his release, on New Year's Day 2002, his family found Luis dead after he had overdosed on a speedball – cocaine and heroin mixed.
Introduction to opioids: “I didn’t think much of drugs, especially watching what my brother went through," said Figueroa-Vargas. “I never picked up marijuana, cigarettes, caffeine, any of that.” But at 25, he was in a motorcycle accident and was prescribed an opioid pain medication, Percocet. Then living with a girlfriend and their child, he was devastated when they left. The pills helped take the edge off, but he needed more and more to get the same effect. He thought he was OK because “the doctor was giving them to me.”
Addiction: Soon, the doctor would not renew the prescription, but withdrawal symptoms were so bad that Figueroa-Vargas bought pills on the street, and added anti-anxiety pills to intensify the good feeling. He worked up to 50 Percocets a day and was arrested for driving under the influence. He lost his job, started losing friends. He sold drugs to pay for his habit. He started dabbling in heroin — cheaper, stronger, and exactly what he thought he never would use.
Redemption: Five years after he started on Percocet, Figueroa-Vargas was arrested for retail theft. His parents went to court hearings, pleaded for him to be sent to drug treatment. His mother prayed for him.
In 2011, he was alone in a prison cell, sick from withdrawal. “I remember feeling the presence of something greater than me, which to me was the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit — something telling me I was going to overcome this. I remember immediately after that being able to hear the birds chirping outside. I remember smelling grass being cut. My senses came back to me.” Invited to be the prison chaplain’s translator, he studied the Bible. He was released to an in-patient drug treatment program, Nuestra Clinica Residencial in Lancaster. From there, he went to outpatient treatment. He joined his counselor’s church. “I’ve been there ever since.”
Sober life: After earning his G.E.D., he earned degrees from Community College of Philadelphia and Eastern University. He married a woman who stood by him while he pursued his recovery. They have a new son. He works as a program manager with the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, helping the homeless, including those struggling with substance abuse.
When he meets people in the Kensington area's notorious heroin encampment, he tells them: "Things could be a lot worse, even if it seems to be the end of the world. Look at my brother. He doesn’t have the option to seek recovery. Folks still here have the option to make some different decisions.”
Parting thoughts: “I believe there are many pathways to recovery. Faith has been my pathway to recovery. You have to have will. You have to want to change things. Recovery is possible.”