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Recovering addict finds ways ‘to be part of the solution’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — He was the golden boy, a basketball star at Albuquerque High, where basketball is a religion and honey-hued hair like his was a rarity.

Adan Carriaga – Dino to his friends in the Wells Park and Sawmill communities where he grew up – was the cool one, the popular one, the party boy.

“Those were some times,” he said. “We went hard then.”

Forty-three years later, Carriaga, 61, is still going hard, though in a far more sober, somber, salient way.

Adan Carriaga says he founded Albuquerque Celebrates Recovery because he wanted to show that there is life after addiction. With him above is civil rights activist Dolores Huerta holding one of Carriaga’s santos. (SOURCE: Adan Carriaga)

It took a lot to get to that point, a lot of death, drugs and destruction. It took finding his way back from the brink and a determination to show others the way to recovery.

“Every time you read the paper, you read how an addict did this, robbed someone, pulled a gun on someone,” he said. “But there are literally thousands of addicts in recovery who do good things, and wouldn’t it be nice if the city heard about that instead of all of the bad things?”

That was the idea three years ago that inspired the first Albuquerque Celebrates Recovery, an event of hope and help and information that he put together with the blessings of the city and the help of partners Jennifer Weiss-Burke, executive director of Serenity Mesa Youth Recovery Center in Albuquerque, and Ann Edenfield Sweet, executive director of Wings Ministry.

Each year, the event has attracted more than 1,500 visitors, he said.

This year’s Recovery celebration opens today with Art From the Heart, an exhibition featuring artists in recovery at El Chante Casa Cultura.

That will be followed by a daylong Indian Powwow on Sept. 14 at Tiguex Park.

The main event of the celebration is Sept. 27 on Civic Plaza and features 65 information booths on addiction recovery services, guest speakers, live music, Narcan distribution and food.

Albuquerque is one of 10 cities across New Mexico holding events in September, designated as National Recovery Month.

“Everybody from the artists to the Native American dancers to the speakers is in recovery from alcohol or drugs or both, or recovering from mental illness,” he said. “This is our effort to take our city back by making recovery available to all, to show that recovery is possible and that you just can’t put people in jail who really should be getting help. A lot of people view addiction as a moral issue – they say you’re a bad person trying to do bad things instead of you’re a sick person who needs help to get well.”

He knows what it’s like to be thought of as that bad person.

When the golden days of high school and college faded, when the roar from adoring crowds at basketball games went silent, Carriaga was left with the partying, the booze, eventually the heroin, ultimately the despair.

“Because of my drinking, my wife divorced me and I lost my family,” he said. “That was really devastating.”

In 1984, one of his best friends died of alcohol poisoning. That same year, his mother – the woman who had raised him and his five siblings alone after their father died when Carriaga was 9 – was struck and killed by a drunken driver.

High school friends kept dying, too.

“I kept a list of all the funerals I went to – 67 funerals of friends who either OD’ed, had AIDS, cirrhosis, got shot in a drug deal,” he said. “I quit keeping track after that. It was overwhelming. I decided I did not want to go to any more funerals and that I wanted to be part of the solution.”

With the help of several angels – relatives and friends who gave him a job, a place to stay, a second chance – he found that road to recovery. He’s been on that road now for 32 years.

In that time, he has worked in the alcohol and drug treatment field. He became the first street outreach worker for Healthcare for the Homeless. He managed the DWI addiction treatment program at the Metropolitan Detention Center. He was administrator of the Bernalillo County substance abuse program.

All of which is to say he knows where to find all the recovery services available locally.

He found serenity and spirituality in his work as a santero and will share some of his work at the Art From the Heart exhibit.

Three years ago, he found his heart in Seica Santana and married her.

He has found his golden moment again, better and deeper than before, in his mission to help others find their way back from addiction through Albuquerque Celebrates Recovery.

“This isn’t about me,” he said. “This is about we. This is how we make this society healthier. This is how we get better.”

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.