As a young child, Aaron Martinez said, he remembers watching his dad resuscitate his mother after a heroin overdose. His father stumbled as he walked but was able to pour water over the woman’s body in an attempt to wake her from unconsciousness.
“You don’t get that picture out of your head,” said Martinez, now 22.
The memory is haunting, and Martinez said he battles every day to make sure he doesn’t go down the same path.
“I’ll never touch that stuff,” he said.
Opioid abuse, a killer of 130 Americans a day via overdose, has become a central issue among politicians who call the epidemic a national health emergency. Those who’ve seen it firsthand know it’s more than that — it’s a looming shadow.
Martinez, who lives in Cordova, is making a stand. Before a crowd of about 3,000 teens at the New Mexico Youth Opioid Awareness Summit in Rio Rancho a few weeks ago, he offered a riveting speech based on his own experiences. As he spoke at the Santa Ana Star Center, his youthful audience went silent.
Then it erupted in applause.
“It made me feel like I did what I was set out to do — to make an impact on the kids in some way,” he said.
On Friday in Española, he gave a similar talk at a conference focused on youth leadership, again in hopes of inspiring kids within the community to “rise above” an epidemic of drugs and violence.
“I want them to know they’re worth something,” he said of his audience.
Martinez’s resolve has bitter pain as its foundation: Nearly two years ago, he said, his oldest sister Heather died from a heroin overdose at 27. And just before Christmas, his 47-year-old father, Ronnie Martinez, died from an overdose when he took too many painkillers he’d been prescribed since a severe car accident when he was 14.
Aaron Martinez said their deaths “put a pit in my stomach, a hole in my heart.”
Throughout his life, he said, his father was incarcerated on numerous occasions, almost always with drugs involved. His mother, he added, also spent periods of time in rehab. The scourge of abuse followed a variety of other family members; his sister started using heroin in her mid-20s, he said, shortly after giving birth to her first child.
After one of his mother’s relapses, Martinez said, he and two of his siblings were separated and placed in foster care in California for about a year. Their grandmother then adopted them and they moved back to Española.
Martinez stayed in the house until he was 17. After watching relatives repeatedly drink and get high, he said, he “didn’t want to be around that no more” and moved out. For several years, he essentially was homeless, he said, staying with friends from high school or sleeping in his car.
His mother, Charlotte Sandoval, who said she’s been sober for six years, acknowledges her kids’ tumultuous upbringing.
“I put my kids through a lot,” she said.
Yet, Sandoval believes the hardships have made her son stronger.
“It’s made him who he is,” she said. “I keep telling him, ‘Don’t be ashamed of who me and your dad were. … You’re your own person. Just keep looking forward.’ ”
Martinez remembers his parents as “totally different people” when they weren’t intoxicated. He describes the sober version of his father as handsome, strong and creative — a talented woodworker with “a good heart and good soul. … You could see the light shine off his skin.”
But under the influence, Martinez and Sandoval said, it was a different story.
“It was like yin and yang,” said Martinez. “The damn drugs just push to a dark corner of their soul.”
Many young adults from families of addiction will continue the habits of their loved ones, experts say.
Friends and family say Martinez’s decision to stay clear of opioids is borderline miraculous.
“Aaron really came close to the bullet. I ask him, ‘How in the world did you not use drugs?’ ” said Roger Montoya, co-founder and artistic director of Moving Arts Española, where Martinez has served as a youth mentor and gymnastics teacher for 2½ years. “His story is remarkable. He managed to stay clear and clean of drugs against all odds.”
Martinez admits that he experimented with marijuana and started drinking alcohol in high school, but he says he’s never been tempted to try harder drugs. He said he’s been offered cocaine and pills on numerous occasions. Every time, he said, “I look at them and say, ‘Nah, I’m good.’ ”
Loved ones say they’re impressed.
“I’m very proud of my son,” said Sandoval. “I made those mistakes. I tell him, ‘You’re not us.’ ”
Angel Martinez, Aaron’s younger sister, agrees.
“He’s a role model,” she said. “We’ve always had each other to lean on.”
Today, Martinez said, he is striving to be “the best reflection of” my parents — the better parts of who they were; the people they were before their addiction: Funny, sweet, “full of life.”
Still, there are images that can never be shaken. He recalled a fight with his sister Heather the night before she died, when he saw her son playing with foil used for cooking heroin. When Martinez confronted his sister, he said, she told him something he’d heard from countless others: You’re going to be a tecato, a druggie, just like me, mom and dad. Just you wait and see.
The next day, she was gone.
“That was the last thing she told me,” Martinez said.
That’s the memory. That’s the pain.
But in many ways, it’s also the motivation. And Martinez certainly doesn’t lack for productive pursuits. Along with his gig at Moving Arts Española, he’s a casino security guard and an art teacher at a Montessori school.
He is frank in acknowledging his path is hard. But the memories keep him going.
“That’s not what I want for myself,” he said of his family’s difficult history.
Day by sober day, he goes about living his life different from the one he experienced growing up.
“As a kid, I always wanted to be a superhero,” Martinez said. “I always wanted to make a difference.”