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[ Personal Narratives ]

My Road to Freedom: Part 1 & 2

A three-part journey of addiction, solitary confinement, and the Secret Service.

Story based upon actual events. Some names have been changed to protect certain identities.

————–

June 26 , 2009

6:00 a.m.

Location: US/Mexican Border

At 6:00 am I was jolted awake by a loud banging on the door.

*KNOCK *KNOCK

“Mendoza! Get up!”

My body still shivering from the coldest night of my life, I slowly lifted my face off the flattened roll of toilet paper I’d been using as a makeshift pillow.

“This can’t be real, this just can’t be real,” I kept thinking, over and over. “Please don’t let this be real.”

I looked down at the ice-cold concrete floor that also served as my bed. Everything in this place was made of cold steel or freezing concrete, with the exception of a small wooden bench that was off to the side, not quite wide enough to sleep on but too wide to sit upon comfortably. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was by design.

“He paused, looking me in the eyes to make sure what he was about to say would really set in.”

Examining my surroundings, reality began to set in. This was not a bad dream. Apparently I wasn’t processing this reality quickly enough for the guards.

BAM* *BAM* *BAM*

“Mendoza, show us your face!” yelled an officer from the US Department of Homeland Security.

I did as I was told, because really, what the fuck else was I going to do? Turning my face toward the small double paned window on the cell door, I was blinded by the stinging light from his military grade flashlight.

The pain from the light sensitivity was intense. As luck would have it, my pupils were already dilated from the onset of early stage opiate withdrawal, meaning the pain from this officer’s flashlight felt like somebody was sticking a needle through my eyeball.

“Yep, that’s my guy.” I heard someone say in a new voice. “Matt, how are you doing? Are you all right?”

Whoever this was, he spoke in a kinder tone than the others, so I took an immediate liking to him. It felt surprisingly good to be referred to by my first name. I began to show signs of hope, thinking this just might be a defense attorney.

“My name is Agent Peterson,” he continued, “and this is Agent Monroe.”

He paused, looking me in the eyes to make sure what he was about to say would really set in.

“We are from the United States Secret Service.”

Fuck.

—————————-

Rewind.. 10 Hours Earlier

June 25, 2009.

8:00 p.m.

Location: Tijuana, Mexico

Seated at a table in the sportsbook of the Hotel Pueblo Amigo, in Tijuana, Mexico, I didn’t have a care in the world. Pueblo Amigo sits within a five minute walk of the U.S. border and contrary to what you might expect to find in TJ, it’s actually a very nice hotel. I’d compare it to a Marriott of sorts, here in the States.

Pueblo Amigo was more than a hotel to me. It was my home. I leased out a junior suite for over a year, paid by the month, and while I still spent a couple nights each week back at my parent’s house in Orange County, Tijuana was my home. Tijuana is where I felt free. Tijuana was where I could be me.

So what takes a kid from Southern California and turns him into a Tijuana native?

Drugs, of course.

“No human relationship is strong enough to come between the bond of an addict and his or her addiction.”

I am a drug addict, a five time alumni of various rehabs and sober living homes. I lied, cheated, and stole trying to maintain an $800 per-day addiction to OxyContin.

Needless to say, I burnt nearly every bridge I crossed as the selfishness of my addiction took over. As the ones who loved me attempted to squeeze me out, cut me off, help me hit something resembling a bottom more quickly, Tijuana came along and fucked up their whole program.

Addiction is a disease notorious for its ability to obliterate the true version of one’s self. Selfishness and insanity consume the heart and soul of what was once an entirely different person. It’s remarkable to see the power of addiction, and it’s ability to overcome even the most sensible and strong-willed person.

No relationship is strong enough to come between the bond of an addict and his or her addiction. It’s an extremely difficult concept to digest, especially for friends and family of the addict.

I make no excuses for my behavior while I was active in my addiction. At some point, if an addict is going to overcome their condition, they must face the consequences for the damage they’ve caused. They must take accountability for what they’ve done, make changes in their life, and begin mending the relationships with those they’ve hurt.

I must however assert, that addiction is not something I developed. I was always an addict, pre-programmed in a sense. After my very first experience with opiates (Vicodin to be exact), it felt like I had found the piece of me that I had always been searching for.

Going to rehab or getting help or surrendering to the realization that I’m an addict who cannot use drugs responsibly — these things all sound reasonable when you’re isolated and broke. In Tijuana I wasn’t isolated. And I sure as hell wasn’t broke.

Walking across the border from San Diego into Mexico, problems miraculously evaporated and my net worth gained a few zeroes. The employees at the hotel and sportsbook replaced my friends who I’d abandoned back home, with my drug dealer elevated to the echelon normally reserved for Best Friend status. These people knew how fucked up I really was, and I felt a sense of relief in being able to be myself.

The real me.

Mo Pesos, Mo Problems

“It’d be sort of like calling 911 and reporting the theft of your mass stockpile of cocaine.”

I’ve been an entrepreneur of sorts since before I can remember. It’s always come really naturally to me. In elementary school I went door to door with a wagon full of car washing materials to make money with my amatuer auto detail service. In middle school I used to trade and sell baseball cards online, buying packs of cards at wholesale rates, and reselling them for a higher price on some new website called Ebay.

Money was my first real addiction, in that I obsessed over it and the drive for more made my life unmanageable. Whatever I had wasn’t enough. It was never enough. As I got older, my financial endeavours (some would call them schemes) became more lucrative. They had to. Toward the end of high school, drugs were introduced into the picture, and no longer was my addiction to money simply feeding a desire for money. Now, it was feeding a drug addiction.

One addiction feeding another. Go figure.

For a few months I began producing fake IDs, but this turned out to have an inverted risk-reward ratio, so I quickly lost interest. That was followed by a scam where I created bots to spend 24 hours per-day clicking on ads for a multi-level marketing company, a company which paid me for each click I could “generate.” They eventually caught on, but not before I’d done a little financial damage to them.

One of my more lucrative ventures was ripping off Central American casinos for large amounts of money. Technically, it was more of a “loophole,” but shit, at this point it’s all semantics anyway. At the time, the tiny island-country of Antigua had a plethora of online sportsbooks, but only had one money-wiring service, and it closed at 7 pm. Of course, the casinos and sportsbooks of Antigua needed to be able to take bets after 7 o’clock, so since they were unable to pick the money up after 7, they simply called to verify that it was there. I discovered that up until the time the money was picked up, I could take my wired money back. This essentially meant that any bets placed after 7 o’clock Antigua time, I couldn’t lose. If I won, I got paid. If I lost, I just cancelled the wire. Using a fake name and profile for each bet, there was no way the sportsbooks could catch me.

“As it turned out, the Antiguan government was no longer a fan of these online betting establishments”

It was the perfect scheme, because the casinos weren’t legally supposed to accept money for bets via wire transfer. Thus, they couldn’t go to the authorities, because they weren’t legally supposed to take my money in the first place. It’d be sort of like calling 911 and reporting the theft of your mass stockpile of cocaine.

My knack for making money and my six-figure per-year drug habit proved to be a bad combination. It enabled me to keep using, and the more I used, the more numb I became. The more numb I became, the more willing I was to rip off any and everybody. This just further financed an ever-increasing drug habit, completing a vicious, destructive cycle.

I’ll never forget the evening that one of the sportsbooks asked me to send my deposit to them in Costa Rica and not to Antigua. My scheme only worked in Antigua, so this was somewhat disconcerting.

Still, I had a dozen or so sportsbooks I would rotate using, so I figured I’d just call and use the next on my list. One by one, I was told that all banking services for these offshore sportsbooks were moving, all in the same night! I was told to send money to Costa Rica, the Philippines, Chile, Panama; everywhere but freakin Antigua.

As it turned out, the Antiguan government was no longer a fan of these online betting establishments. Just like that, in one evening, my income was no more.

I had no more money coming in, but my body didn’t give a shit about petty things like finances. It just wanted the drugs and fast. Opiate withdrawls are no joke, and I only had about two weeks worth of pills. After that I’d be broke, without my antidote to a debilitating sickness.

So I devised yet another plan, and it worked well for a few months. It worked, of course, until it gained the attention of the United States Secret Service.

The Arrest

For legal reasons, I cannot go too much into what the Secret Service arrested me for. But it had to do with a large scam I was running, for large amounts of money. I’d walk across the border, collect my money, then return to Tijuana.

I was in a good mood. It was a Thursday evening and I ordered the filet mignon from the hotel restaurant, had it sent to my table in the sportsbook and browsed through my many fictitious email addresses with one of my many throw-away “burner” phones. Suddenly my phone notified me that there was a few thousand dollars waiting for me just on the other side of the border, on the US side.

I checked and there was virtually no wait at the San Ysidro pedestrian crossing, so I figured I’d pounce on the opportunity and get it over with. With no wait, I could walk across, get my money, and be back in less than 30 minutes. I began jogging toward the border, which took about three minutes. A little out of breath — in the shape of a drug addict living in Tijuana — I reached the custom gates to enter the U.S.

The pedestrian border crossing from Tijuana to the USA, this is where I was apprehended.

I crossed this line a thousand times before, and it normally consisted of me showing my passport and being waived right through. Trip number 1001 was going to be different. You know that little voice in your head, that feeling in your stomach, that tells you when something just doesn’t feel right? When your subconscious is telling you to get the fuck away and run? Well, I’d numbed that out for years with OxyContin, so I couldn’t hear it. I like to think it was doing its job that day, but I’ll never know. What I do know is when I crossed the border, the agent handling my passport took longer than usual. He also appeared to hit some sort of button while acting like there wasn’t shit wrong. And out of nowhere, a host of US Homeland Security Agents swarmed me, taking me to the ground and placing me in cuffs.

That’s the thing about government and law enforcement agents. They don’t discriminate. You could be Osama bin Laden, or you could be some kid running a money scheme out of a Tijuana hotel. They are only trained to swarm and apprehend one way, and that’s with full force, overwhelming and intimidating. To the casual observer that day, I might as well have been wearing a 3-piece Canali laced with explosives from Gaza. It didn’t matter. All they saw was a kid trying to cross the border, taken to the ground by the United States Department of Homeland Security.

“You got the wrong guy,” I begged, realizing as soon as I said it how guilty it made me sound.

“Right,” said one of the agents, lifting me up and pushing me toward a holding cell. “We’ve never heard that before.”

“No, seriously,” I protested, “I’m innocent!”

Placing me inside a freezing cell, they slammed the door shut. For the first few hours I was in there, I actually thought that they had detained the wrong guy. As an ignorant kid, I thought I was invincible. I thought I did enough to cover my tracks. About three hours into my ordeal, an officer came through the cell door, and told me that they had confirmed the warrant for my arrest.

“What’s the warrant for?” I asked, stupidly thinking that maybe it was for a traffic ticket I never payed.

And then the words that would change the entire course of my life were uttered by the officer.

“I don’t know, all I can tell you is that it’s from the Secret Service, so unless you threatened the president, it probably has something to do with a scam that involves a lot of money.”

I’ll never forget the physical feeling that took over my body at that very second. A warm sensation burst through my veins, my face became beet red.

What followed was the realization that not only was I in custody, about to be the property of the US Secret Service, but that my freedom was gone, and I wasn’t going to get it back any time soon.

This also meant my body would soon be demanding I deliver OxyContin to avoid the most painful physical experience an opiate addict can go through: withdrawal.

And that just wasn’t going to happen

End Part 1

PART 2


Finding Freedom on My Way To Prison

There’s something about sitting in a Homeland Security holding cell at the California-Mexico border that makes you really take a look at your life and ask some difficult questions.

Questions you’d rather not ask.

Questions you’d rather not already know the answers to.

Questions you know damn well don’t have any answers — like how the heck am I going to get through this.

Luckily, I’d snorted a line of three crushed up 80mg pills of OxyContin right before leaving the hotel in Tijuana, so I was good and high for the night. I even fell asleep in the holding cell. That’s the thing about opiates. They don’t really care where you are or what you’re doing. I’ve been eating, driving, working, and managed to nod off and fall asleep on the spot. Opiates truly do not care about your surroundings. They’ll put you out when they decide to put you out, and all you can do is close your eyes and go with it. Feel it. Enjoy the ride.

Of course, the flip side of that sadistic coin is the fact that you will inevitably wake up. And when you wake up, your brain is going to want to feel like it did before you went to sleep. And feeling like you did before you went to sleep is going to require more opiates. And if you cannot get those opiates, your brain takes one look at your body and says: “Alright, You don’t wanna play nice? Then. Fuck. You. Watch this.”

And just like that, your brain triggers withdrawal, demanding that every fiber of your being turn on itself, tiny, minuscule cellular suicides, triggering a total physical and psychological implosion of suffering and anguish.

It is the worst pain you’ve ever experienced, and you suffer for every minute for the next 7–10 days. This is not an exaggeration. In fact, I have yet to find a description that comes close to accurately illustrating the agony of opiate withdrawal. There are literally no words to describe the pain.

I will never forget my first taste of withdrawal at the age of 19. The morning I woke up in a Newport Beach hotel, a two hour drive from my supplier in Tijuana. It had followed a month long binge on OxyContin. Yes, I had been warned about it, but again, nothing could have prepared me for what I would come to experience. I was in so much pain, I couldn’t drive myself, so I called a Taxi and paid $250 for a one way, hundred mile trip down the coast to Tijuana. From that moment on, I was enslaved. No longer was my addiction rooted in my attempt to get high, but simply to feel normal. My priority in life, became to avoid withdrawal at all costs.

Ironically this -not prison- was my first real experience losing freedom.

Here’s the other thing about withdrawal. The brain works on its own. And the level of pain it dispenses depends upon the proximity/possibility of your next dose. On the typical Tijuana Wednesday morning, I could wake up, and if I was out of OxyContin, I knew I was only five minutes and a phone call away from having one of my many Tijuana dealers show up at my hotel lobby with more. Sure, my body’s narcotics level was waning, but help was on the way so the withdrawal wasn’t too bad.

It was nothing compared with — say… waking up that first morning in rehab. This was a dance I knew well, and it sucked for sure. But at least in rehab, there’s a part of you that knows that if you really wanted to get high, you could. The place is full of detox meds and if there’s anything I know how to do well, it’s how to con and manipulate (see part 1). Shit, just knowing there were meds on site added a level of psychological comfort that made things a little more bearable.

Next on the list, a bit further down, is waking up in jail. Waking up in jail dope sick is almost as bad as it gets. In jail, you’re not going anywhere until they decide you’re going somewhere. It’s a complete and total sacrifice of anything resembling control, handing everything over to some bitter assholes who decided that the career of correctional officers was for them — something they all later regretted, but were too far into their 401Ks to make a change, so they took out their angst on you — cuz they can. But at least in jail there’s the hope of bail, and unless you did something really fucked up, you’re going to make bail, which will give you time to kick on your own, prior to whatever date the court gives you for surrender.

Notice I said that was “almost” as bad as it gets. Worse than all of these is waking up in a cell at the freaking US-Mexico border, needing OxyContin, awaiting the Secret Service’s arrival to come take you to a federal judge who, as far as you can tell, has no intention on granting you bail since you’ve been living in a foreign country off and on for the past few years, and are considered a flight risk.

I was screwed.

Meet & Greet With The Secret Service

“Matt,” I heard someone yell out from my cold-cement bed, “You doing ok?”

I didn’t respond. Not because I wanted to play tough guy. I didn’t respond because I wasn’t sure what the answer was.

Was I OK?

Turning me around, the guard from Homeland Security secured my wrists as my Secret Service escort handcuffed me and lead me out of my cell. The fact that these two agents knew me by name and appearance seemed a little disconcerting to say the least. I mean, aren’t these guys supposed to be protecting the President?

The agents led me out of my cell, down a long hallway, before opening the door to the very same room which holds the pedestrian border crossing. The exact room I had been through so many times before. I held my head low, feeling the stare of each border crossing citizen, annoyed that they stopped all pedestrian crossing until I was escorted through.

When we reached outside, I was shocked to see just how close we were walking parallel to the line that separates the United States from Tijuana.

Though handcuffed, I couldn’t help but to entertain the idea of making the 20-yard dash to the other side. Maybe I was still a little high, but I thought I had a shot of out running the secret service agents. Agent Peterson had what seemed to be a rather weak grip on my wrists. Granted, I wasn’t in peak physical form at the time, but 20 yards seemed doable. In my mind, I could cross that line and worry about buying my way out of handcuffs on the Mexican side.

So close, yet, So far.

We continued walking when Agent Monroe hit the unlock button on his key fob. This was my last chance! Just as I was about to make my dash for freedom, I noticed a trio of trigger happy Federalies on the other side of the border, right at the end of my escape path.

“Don’t even think about it, Matt,” said Agent Peterson, who apparently had a side-gig as a mindreader. “It’s not worth it.”

He was right. I was caught.

Sitting me in the backseat, passenger side, they buckled me in the way you buckle a child into a car seat. I assumed they’d take my cuffs off once I was buckled in, but I was wrong. My hands were going to remain cuffed behind my back for the entire trip to wherever we were going, cutting and tightening with every bump and turn.

So off I went, loaded into an ordinary looking minivan, pondering my very unordinary circumstances. As thrilled as I was to leave that detention center, I was just as weary of what my next stop was to be. After all, I knew the secret service hadn’t come all that way just to give me a ride home.

Mexico in our rearview mirror, we drove north, through San Diego, toward Los Angeles.

The Drive up the Five

It wasn’t until we got in the van that I got my first good look at both agents.

Agent Monroe looked surprisingly young, somewhere south of 30, and like myself he had grown up in Orange County. With such close proximity in age (I was around 25 at the time) I couldn’t help but to compare the difference in circumstances between us. How just a few wrong turns and a genetic disposition had led me so astray. He wore jeans and a white collared shirt, not fitting my preconceived notion of what a Secret Service agent should look like. He was noticeably annoyed about making the 200 mile round-trip to pick me up.

“Mendoza,” he snapped, “thank you for the 4 am wake up this morning,” he said, deadpan, dripping with a facetious tone. “The Mexican border, first thing in the morning — now that’s the way to start a day.” I had no response.

Agent Peterson on the other hand, was precisely what I envisioned an Agent to look like. Military haircut, tall, skinny, full black suit. He could’ve been an extra on the Men in Black set.

“I thought you guys were supposed to protect the president,” I said from my adult child-seat. “What are you doing with me?”

“We do protect the president,” said Agent Monroe. “We also protect the United States Treasury.”

“We rotate,” explained Agent Peterson, “between protecting the president and other VIPs, and protecting the Treasury from things like money-wire scams.” As he said “money-wire scams” he looked directly at me. “Personally, I prefer protecting the president. Catching guys like you isn’t nearly as exciting.”

They spoke very candidly, and I found this endearing.. They weren’t your average pair of detectives playing good cop/bad cop. In fact the Secret Service was hands down the most professional federal agency I would come in contact with this day.

“So you know why you’re here, obviously?” asked Agent Peterson who sat next to me in the middle row, as Agent Monroe drove alone in the front.

I didn’t know what to say. I know every criminal defense attorney in the world would tell me only to say those 4 magic words, “I want a lawyer.”

“Matthew, this is serious,” he continued, as he pulled out a large manilla envelope with my last name etched in black sharpie. “At this point we are probably the best chance you have at getting a reduced sentence. If you cooperate, it could mean the difference between a eight year sentence and a two year sentence.”

He had a poi — wait, HOLD UP… Did I hear eight years? Eight Years? EIGHT YEARS?

Two years was impossible to comprehend, but EIGHT-FREAKING-YEARS?

That’s like two presidential terms, two summer olympics, eight birthdays which meant my twenties could be done only half way through!

He just threw “two years” out there as the low end of the bargaining spectrum, meaning two years was my BEST case scenario. Two years was if I cooperated and just confessed.

Shit. I should have taken my chances with the Federalies at the border.

“At best, their evidence is circumstantial,” I thought to myself. “I covered my tracks. There’s no way they got me. They probably just want to question me. You’ll be ok, Matthew. Just keep up the facade.”

If there’s anything drug addicts are good at, it’s lying. And we’ve mastered the art of lying to others by practicing on ourselves.

An addict must first learn to lie to themselves — usually in the form of “I can stop whenever I want” or “I don’t need to get help. I shouldn’t listen to the people who love me most. What do they know?” Lies like these make “They probably just want to question me” sound logical in the moment.

Unfortunately, believing something doesn’t make it true.

Opening the envelope, Agent Peterson began listing off all the wire fraud offenses they had caught me for.

“So here are the occurrences of wire fraud that you are being indicted for,” as he handed me a thick stack of papers.

One Hundred and Seventeen counts of wire fraud.

If that weren’t bad enough, my self-convincing theory of them only having circumstantial evidence went right out the window.

“We have CD’s of audio back at the office” Agent Peterson said as he handed something up to Agent Monroe, “We actually have a few we can play for you right now.”

Some people listen to Spotify on their road trips. Others Pandora. The radio, perhaps. But not us. No, sir. Agent Peterson had a playlist of incriminating tape recordings of yours truly.

“You’ll also notice that the bottom stack of those papers you are holding are full page still photographs of you picking up the money you stole.”

“Holy shit,” I thought as I slumped into my seat. “They have pictures too?” I flipped through the photos. High quality, high-definition, each printed in full color.

Not even I could lie to myself anymore. I was fucked. This was a slam dunk case. As good a thief as I thought I was, the Secret Service was just that much better.

After thirty seconds of silence, withdrawal beginning to set in, I decided, to give in.

“Agent Peterson” I muttered “I’m not sure what you want from me, but I don’t want to do this anymore. I haven’t told the truth in years, I don’t even remember what that feels like. For what it’s worth, I am just a strung out drug addict, with an expensive habit, and this was my means to an end.”

The agents looked at each other as I continued.

“I’m not saying what I did was right. I know it wasn’t. But that’s why I did it. That’s the god’s-honest truth. I need help, man. I’m fucked up.”

They looked disappointed that they hadn’t nabbed a serial white collar criminal with millions of dollars hidden in some storage locker.

In a sense I was disappointed too. How lame to be looking at eight possible years, with nothing to show for it. Everything I had done was wasted on drugs, spent on a lie that I bought into for so many years- that the drugs would be there for me in the end.

“Well, we know you didn’t do this alone” Agent Monroe said, driving like someone who wasn’t afraid of getting pulled over.

“Matt, you don’t want to fall on this sword all on your own” Agent Peterson chimed in “We know about the woman.”

“The woman?” I asked.

“Yes, the woman. The older woman with a southern accent. We have phone calls on record, so don’t try to cover for her. Do you work for her?”

“Oh, shit. The woman?” I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.

“Yeahhhhh…” I said reluctantly, knowing this would be difficult to explain. “About that — You see… Well, people tend to trust women more than men. That’s proven. And they tend to trust older people more than younger people. And they tend to trust Southern accents. So… I created an older, Southern woman on those phone calls. That was actually me.”

I could tell that neither agent quite believed me, and by this point I wanted to earn their trust.

“I mean.. do you want me to do the accent?”

I couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to be the butt of some joke for them back at the office.

“Yes, go ahead” he said.

For a moment I sat, thinking, “Is this really happening.”

Throwing on my best older-Southern-female voice, I gave the agents what they wanted.

“Hi, y’all,” I said, high-pitched Southern drawl. “I’m here to pick up some money”

We sat in silence for what seemed like forever, before the three of us cracked up laughing. They couldn’t believe it. It had been me this whole time. They’d built up this big case against a female who didn’t exist.

“I’m telling you,” agent Monroe said. “I don’t care who you are. That shit’s funny.”

It was surreal to be laughing in the situation I was in, but I did, and it felt good.

As the laughter subsided, the opiate withdrawal began to really kick in, it had been a solid 12 hours since my last fix, and I was really starting to hurt. Agent Monroe just drove north while I prayed for the first time in a long time — that we’d get into a seriously horrific traffic accident that would either kill me, or buy me time to make an escape.

My prayers went unanswered.

The First Day of the Rest of My Life

The mission statement for Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, California, is “Our Family of doctors, nurses, and staff will care for you and your family as we would our own.”

I’m not sure when they came up with this mission statement they considered the guy who’d be brought in handcuffed to a gurney, surrounded by Secret Service agents tasked with handing him off to US Federal Marshals. I hoped they wouldn’t treat their family this way.

I don’t think they thought that one through.

“What the fuck’s wrong with him?” I heard one of the men wearing US Marshal’s fatigues ask Agent Peterson. “Is he sick?”

“He’s in pretty serious opiate withdrawal,” Agent Peterson explained. “Which one of you is taking custody of him?”

“Us? No, fuck that,” snapped the Marshal. “We can’t take him in this condition. Nuh-uh. He’s gotta get cleared by the doctor.”

“Shit,” I heard Agent Monroe say, “we gotta get this figured out.”

Uncuffing me from the gurney, Agent Monroe went off with the Marshals while Agent Peterson cuffed my hands behind my back and sat me in the ER waiting room. No doubt, a few were there to score the same prescription drugs that got me into this predicament in the first place. Perhaps I was a glimpse into their future.

Western Medical Center, I was lead through the door right below the red emergency sign by the agents.

I was a leper for that morning. People in the ER waiting room looked at me and you could actually see their minds race trying to figure out what I was in for. I wanted to assure them that I wasn’t a murderer or a rapist or something crazy, that I was just a wire-fraud running, scheming, scamming, conniving, central-American-casino-ripping-off kid with an $800-per-day OxyContin habit.

But that simply would have taken too long. So I let them use their imaginations.

One good thing about showing up to the hospital in cuffs, in the grip of the Secret Service, is the wait time at the ER is decidedly shorter. Agent Peterson escorted me back, where I was laid down on a hospital bed and, once again, cuffed to it. The doctors and nurses all kept their distance, widening their circumference of “personal space” significantly.

“Can’t we just give him some OxyContin to stabilize him for the hand-off?” asked Peterson.

I knew there was a reason I liked this guy.

“Umm…” began the doctor, hesitantly, “I suppose we could do that.”

Just like that, I perked up. My situation didn’t seem so bad. I could make it through this. For the next five minutes, my withdrawal symptoms lessened. I liked the agents more. I liked the Western Medical Center staff of nurses and doctors, treating me like they would their own family! This was great. Even those not so nice US Marshals weren’t so bad. Everybody is just doing their jo-

“We’re out of OxyContin,” said the doctor, walking back into the room.

Crushed.

“But I can give him a shot,” said the doctor.

Ears, perking back up.

“What is it?” I asked, stupidly.

“It’s to help with the nausea.”

Fuck man, lie to me! Tell me you’re shooting me up with pure Dilaudid, or better yet — straight morphine. Lie to me, because that placebo effect is no joke.

Just like that, my ears went back to normal and reality set itn. My situation seemed worse than it did before, because now it was topped with an Oxy-teasing doctor. I no longer liked the agents. Fuck Western Medical Center and their poor inventory control. And the US Marshals were dicks.

While the agents stood over to my left, trying to figure out what to do. Out of nowhere walked in this nurse, male, late-40s, handlebar mustache. He clearly stood out from the rest of the staff, not only in his appearance, but in his willingness to get close to me and talk to me like a human being.

When you live as a drug addict, you become really good at reading people. You have to. It’s a survival mechanism in a cut-throat industry. This guy had the look of someone who’d seen some stuff. Done some shit. He didn’t take the traditional path to where he was in life, but unlike most people, he didn’t fight to hide history’s scars. Something connected us, but I wasn’t sure what.

As he took my vitals, it was like he knew me. I don’t know how to explain it, or if there’s a way to explain it, but he had a knowing, comfortable demeanor. As he finished taking my pulse, he knelt down and looked me square in the eyes. I will never forget what he said.

“Cheer up, kid,” he told me. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

And just like that, he disappeared. I never saw him again and I never caught his name. For a second i wanted to punch him. Didn’t he see how bad of a situation I was in? How can there be any hope left? I’m in a hospital, handcuffed and in pain, awaiting possible years in jail!

But then something strange happened. That statement stayed in my head for a while. I actually begun to buy into the hope this stranger of a nurse had passed on to me.

I had two choices; I could feel sorry for myself and drag out the next few years of prison in the same self-loathing and defeat that fed my drug addiction, or I could make today ‘Day 1’ of something different.

Words from a stranger that changed the whole direction of my life. What a great example of how we can inspire others, even when we don’t know their name.

And I would need that inspiration to help move forward, because the next few hours, days, months, and years of my life were going to be one hell of a battle.

READ PART 3 RIGHT HERE!