By: Nicole Goodman

Luis was barely a year old when he was placed aboard a boat in Cuba, destined for the shores of the US. He was a marielito, the name given to the thousands of Cuban immigrants that left from the Port of Mariel in 1980—a name that Luis now has tattooed on his arm. After arriving in the States, Luis entered the foster care system and bounced between dangerous homes, where he was subjected to sexual and physical abuse. Thankfully, at five years old, Luis was adopted by a loving family who tried to create the best environment for him, always instilling the importance of discipline, work ethic, and philanthropy. His adoptive parents worked hard to provide a good life for Luis and his siblings. Luis attended private school in Lake Elsinore, went on many family vacations, attended church weekly, played sports, and was an excellent student who always had a large group of friends. After high school, Luis received his Associate’s Degree and even studied abroad in Kent County, England while traveling the world with his friends.

Still, Luis suffered from depression brought on by the pain and abuse inflicted on him as a young boy. He remembers the feeling of being hungry and having nothing to eat—a thought that brings tears to his eyes even today. Trying to cope with the trauma from his youth, while also battling with shame around his sexuality, he came to a point where he didn’t want to live anymore. Luis attempted to take his own life. His brother found him and immediately brought him to the ICU, followed by two weeks at a psychiatric facility. After leaving the facility, Luis was able to control the depression enough to finish high school and eventually thought it was something in the past that he dealt with and moved on.

At 21 years old, while living in England, Luis had his first experience with alcohol—a bottle of Smirnoff that he shared with his friend. Luis used to judge addicts; never did he think it would ever be something he’d deal with in his own life. After moving to Los Angeles, at 26, Luis got drunk for the first time. From that instance on, Luis was not able to hold his liquor and would constantly end up blacking out, getting in fights, and regretting his actions the next day. At 30 years old, Luis tried marijuana for the first time, and by 35, he started experimenting with more drugs. “It opened Pandora’s box” Luis recalls. It wasn’t long before Luis found his true love: cocaine. After using cocaine for the first time, Luis remembers thinking, “where has this been all my life?” His obsession with cocaine was both personal and professional, as he used the drug to help get in the “cool club” as an elite hairstylist in LA. At the time, he didn’t realize that the cocaine was helping him cope with his depression that he had been repressing for years. Cocaine was Luis’s only form of self-care.

For a while, Luis was able to maintain his life and his addiction—he had a nice house, car, a dog, and a thriving career as a hairstylist working for celebrities, high-end salons, and entertainment companies. As his friends took notice of what was happening to Luis, they convinced him to seek help at an outpatient facility in 2016. He had no intention of getting sober at the time and secretly used drugs while going to the facility each day. After finishing his treatment at the facility, things took a turn for the worse.  Once able to maintain work and life, Luis began no-showing clients and taking extended leaves of absence. He wasn’t able to show up for his friends and family. The downhill spiral continued and eventually, Luis overdosed from a mixture of cocaine, acid, and alcohol. Even after the near-death experience, Luis couldn’t stay sober and overdosed again a week later.

At this point, Luis’s friends, along with his dad, showed up to his apartment, begging him to get help again. He agreed and checked himself into his first inpatient residential program, where he stayed for over four months. When the pandemic hit, Luis was unwilling to deal with the new regulations in place to keep clients safe and decided to leave treatment to go into sober living, relapsing shortly thereafter. “After this relapse, my addiction got very dark, very fast” Luis recalls. He soon escalated to using heroin, meth, and fentanyl, overdosing three times in the span of four months, in one instance flat-lining for over 10 minutes. The overdoses scared him, but they were still not enough to stop him from using drugs. He continued to use for a while after, traveling to and from Mexico, slowly losing all feelings of hope for himself.

Finally, Luis realized, for the first time on his own, that his life was not sustainable, and he needed help. After hearing about Beit T’Shuvah through a friend, Luis tried to get into the house and finally was able to come in September of this year. When he got to Beit T’Shuvah, like many, he was in a dark place. For a while, he isolated, not wanting to be a part of the community until one day when he realized that doing it his way wasn’t working. As Luis explains, “surrendering was a slow process for me.” Once he was able to come out of his shell and take direction and love from others, he immersed himself into the BTS community. Before this, he had never realized how much self-hate he possessed within until people around him at BTS kept loving him and lifting him up until he was able to see it for himself. Throughout his life, Luis felt that he had to compartmentalize himself in order to fit in. He explains that “Beit T’Shuvah is the first place that I can be my true self, feel understood, and know that I matter and that I belong somewhere.”

Luis, looking for something to keep him engaged in the community, started buying art supplies and using his innate creative ability to repurpose different elements to create art. After his spiritual counselor gave him an assignment to make an art piece that represented him, he immediately used his skills to create a crown made from pine needles found in the garden at BTS. He explained that this represents his life because “pine needles are something common, often seen without value… and that’s how I felt about my life… disposable.” For Luis, taking something seen as disposable and imbuing it with a new purpose gives him hope for his own life. After making the crown, Luis continued making art using repurposed materials to remind himself and others in the community that he matters and that life matters, even when it may seem pointless or disposable. These pieces are displayed throughout the campus reminding us all of the value of life, art, and creativity.

Now, just celebrating six-months sober, Luis is hopeful for the future. After years of dealing with his own shame and stigma, he has been able to open up about his addiction and is constantly learning to embrace the joy and pain that come with recovery. “I feel like I am just getting to know the real Luis and learning how to love him. I really lost myself out there and BTS is helping me find out who I really am.” Looking back, Luis recalls walking into the doors of BTS lost, alone, and hopeless and now, he sees a future for himself and a community to call his own.

Check out some of Luis’s art pieces below:

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