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SALMAGUNDI: 'Why not give back in any way I can?'

“I have seen the faces of addiction. I am one of the faces of addiction.”

Jose “Tony” Acevedo is a remarkable storyteller, just by sharing the details of his own life.

The Ottawa native emailed in November following my column about the La Salle County State’s Attorney’s Office securing a planning grant to develop a local drug court. He’s among a growing group who strongly believes prison isn’t the way to help people defeat addiction.

That’s the kind of philosophy a person develops while incarcerated for five years, eight months and 11 days.

Acevedo started using drugs at age 11 and was selling marijuana and cocaine at 13. He left home around the time most kids learn to drive, entering a period where the only thing resembling stability was his reliance on the drugs that provided both money to live on and stoked his increasingly harmful addictions.

“Things were very hazy, crazy and just plain nuts when I look back,” he said last week. “Me and a few very close friends were selling and using massive quantities of illicit substances. And in the process I became addicted to heroin” in 2000 at age 19. “I continued to live a very dangerous lifestyle that consisted of selling drugs, doing drugs and being pretty much the worst type of person you can be in life in general.”

He recalls Christmas 2001 as delivering the hope of a turnaround: he learned he’d be a father and decided to quit selling. But the addiction didn’t leave. Feeding the beast cost thousands of dollars.

“My addiction and life spiraled out of control. I ended up broke and pretty much homeless and had burned many of the bridges I had in life.”

He turned to crime, earning him a 14-year state prison sentence in 2005, the start of a sober period still going some 13 years later.

In prison, he said, “my thinking patterns started to change and I started looking at myself and the cause of my issues and current situation.”

Life got better on the outside. Acevedo took a job as a cook, but a back injury prompted a career change. He felt called to a career in substance abuse treatment. That led him to Illinois Valley Community College, then Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, where in 2015 he earned two associate degrees.

Those paved the way for two internships, and ultimately a paid job as a counselor. He collected a bachelor’s degree from Governors State University in December and has been accepted to the graduate addictions program.

Late last year, he started working as a substance abuse counselor at Great Heights Family Medicine in Ottawa, which treats opioid and opiate addictions using methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol as well as provides outpatient services like group therapy and individual sessions. He’s turned down a job with Chicago-based Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities because of a commitment to rebuilding lives in and around his hometown.

“I have caused a lot of damage in this community over the years and there is no way I will ever make that up,” Acevedo said. “But why not give back in any way I can? I get to work with people I understand and who I am able to help understand why sobriety and living a sober life is not that bad.”

Now the father of three and married for almost five years, Acevedo said he works six days a week “and I love almost every minute of … seeing, meeting and treating great people who have strayed off track in life and help(ing) them in any way possible.”

It’s hard to imagine what it feels like for someone with his biography to tell a client who has fought addiction for decades their drug test came back clean, but it’s easy to see why Acevedo is excited to tell his story and to lead the crusade for helping people before they wind up behind bars.

“With our community in disarray from the disease of addiction, I feel we need to shine a big spotlight on this topic in the hopes of reaching those still suffering,” he said, citing his goals to bring such people “out of the shadows and diminish the stigma surrounding addiction and nontraditional treatment options.”

The more we listen to people like Acevedo, the better our chances of actually changing the way hard drugs undermine our communities. I’m glad he’s around to tell his story and join him in mourning the many who are forever silenced.

SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at scotth@mywebtimes.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.

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