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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Giovanni Nieto spent his childhood peering under doors to see if his mom was alive, sometimes calling an ambulance for her.
“I grew up around needles and people overdosing,” he said. “People coming in the house with guns and throwing us in the closet.”
Nieto was in elementary school when his Aunt Julie Nieto vanished. His mother, Valerie Nieto, couldn’t handle her sister’s disappearance.
She slipped into depression and overdosed in a Central Avenue motel three days after her son’s 10th birthday. Nearly two years later, her sister’s body was found buried with 10 others on Albuquerque’s West Mesa.
Giovanni would start using drugs not long after his mother’s death. He’s been struggling with addiction ever since.
Nieto’s story illustrates two key realities about the drug epidemic plaguing Albuquerque and the rest of the state.
Children exposed to traumatic events – such as experiencing violence in the home, living with someone experiencing depression, having a parent who is suffering from addiction, and dealing with the death of a parent – are at higher risk for future substance use disorders.
And wanting to get clean, in most instances, isn’t enough.
Dr. Bill Wiese, chairman of the Bernalillo County Addiction Treatment Advisory Board, says many facing severe opioid dependency find that their drug use is “screwing up their lives, endangering their lives, killing them.”
“The vast majority of them don’t want to be there,” Wiese said. “They are there because they’re addicted, and part of the definition of these drugs is that it’s something you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to stop.’ They can no longer control themselves, and so they want to be off, but they can’t be off.”
Deeper into addiction
Nieto found sobriety at age 18, after a stint in juvenile detention and a stay in a detox center. He found work in warehouses, which is also where he found a co-worker who introduced him to fentanyl.
“He took me to go get one after work one day, and right away I fell in love with it,” the now 22-year-old Nieto said.
When he started selling to fund his habit, he was raking in enough money to quit his warehouse job.
But the deaths of two close friends pushed him into depression and deeper into his addiction. He lost his house, three cars, some dogs.
He said he started doing cocaine with the fentanyl and would forget days at a time.
“I just wouldn’t remember anything,” he said.
He and his girlfriend stayed in motels and eventually with her parents, who urged them to seek treatment. That’s what he was doing the last Sunday in September when the Journal caught up with him.
On that Sunday afternoon, Nieto was dressed in the green scrubs that the Metropolitan Assessment and Treatment Services program requires clients to wear as they go through detox. He checked in two days earlier, hoping to kick his addiction.
“I just want my life back,” he said from an office in the MATS facility. “I just wanna be able to function every day without having to get a pill or something like that.”
Nieto said he went to MATS to “kick” his drug habit with the help of medication.
“The kick’s the scary part, I guess,” he said. “I guess that’s why I haven’t stopped. … It’s, like, three days to a week of just being sick, sick as can be. Your body hurts really bad. You just can’t do anything, you can’t function.”
Although the facility is hoping to offer Suboxone for detox from opioids, for now, medical providers are able to prescribe a variety of other medications that help clients through the withdrawal symptoms.
‘The other shoe’
Research showing that adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, can have profound impacts on children’s futures has prompted Bernalillo County and others to invest in programs to try to counteract that damage.
Nieto understands that his past has a lot to do with where he is now.
“A lot led up to what I do now,” Nieto said of his substance use.
Patrick Stafford, program manager for the Medication Assisted Treatment Clinic in southern New Mexico, said childhood trauma tends to leave a person feeling vulnerable and anxious.
“The world isn’t experienced as a safe place for folks who have those kinds of experiences,” he said. “You’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
When something traumatic happens to a close friend or family member, a person is left feeling at risk for the same outcome.
“Over time, that kind of unrelenting stress is very tiring, very unsettling,” Stafford said, “and we as people seek to escape that kind of stress.”
That’s the path that Nieto took and is now desperate to escape.
His legs are fidgety, maybe from the withdrawal, maybe from the medication he’s been taking. He said he’s not sure what he’ll do next, but he’s considering trying a long-term program to keep him sober after detox.
He knows what awaits him on the outside.
“If I go back out,” he said, “I really feel like I’ll probably f— up again.”
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7 2 h o u r s by Albuquerque Journal.