Opinion: I strugged with addiction for 24 years. Here’s how I found my voice and my purpose again.

Gomez recently graduated from UC San Diego with a BA in political science/race, ethnicity and politics. She was president of the Underground Scholars Initiative chapter at UCSD in the 2020-2021 school year. She is currently an Underground Scholars Policy Fellow and lives in Chula Vista.

Even when I was growing up in Ramona in the 1990s, I knew I wanted to advocate for marginalized populations. My mother was a big influence. She taught me about the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., segregation, Rosa Parks, Motown music and how racism is the biggest evil known to humanity. She also instilled in me that it is the duty of the privileged to stand up for others and fight back against American thinking, which is why I grew up I wanted to be a civil rights attorney and work for the American Civil Liberties Union.

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I worked to get good grades throughout high school in order to apply to some of the best colleges in the country. I was accepted to George Mason University with an academic scholarship and a few of the University of California campuses. I decided to attend University of California San Diego to stay close to home.

College was a whole new world for me, and overwhelming. Although I began drinking and experimenting with drugs in high school, things aggravated in college where I spent most of my time socializing, dating, drinking and using drugs, which led to my addiction. I spent more time at college parties than I did in class or at the library. I ended up dropping out of college my third year and moving around a bit while my addiction got worse. I was not aware that my brain was hardwired to addiction, a disease that ran in my family but was not talking about openly.

I struggled for years with drinking and then, after becoming addicted to prescription attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder medication, I became addicted to methamphetamine. My life took a quick turn for the worse and within three years, I had hit rock-bottom. I was a shadow of my former self and couldn’t even see it. But out of darkness comes light, and my light was South Bay Drug Court. Its team helped me gain my life back, giving me the tools to become the person I am today. I am now close to six years sober.

Drug Court also encouraged me to return to school and finish my education. I started at Southwestern College and fell in love again with learning and being a part of a community. I graduated with an associate in arts in psychology, and in 2020, I went back to finish my bachelor’s at UC San Diego in political science/race, ethnicity and politics. Since I wanted to participate in campus activities at UC San Diego, I asked for advice at Southwestern College. My friend and mentor, Raquel Funches, referred me to the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) at UC San Diego, a student-led organization made for and by formerly incarcerated students and those who have been legally, economically or familyly affected by the criminal legal system.

From day one, the Underground Scholars Initiative has given me a sense of hope, purpose and potential. Each member is special, and, as a team, we are making a difference in each others’ lives, as well as working with the community college students doing panel discussions, mentoring or assisting with transfers to UCs. USI has also given me the opportunity to organize at the statewide level with other USI members who are students across the UC system. At the statewide level, we discuss the ways to embody transformative and restorative practices, how we can advocate for students on our respective UC campuses and how legislation affects outcomes for our students.

I have also had the opportunity to be an Underground Scholars Policy Fellow, where I am learning how the California Legislature works and have been able to work on budget advocacy and on parole reform. In 2016, the Underground Scholars Initiative received $500,000 in one-time funding over five years to support formerly incarcerated individuals, and I recently had the chance to speak at the state Capitol and advocate to receive $4 million in ongoing state funding.

The work I have been doing through the fellowship, the UC San Diego Underground Scholars Initiative chapter and at the statewide level has allowed me to find my voice and purpose again. I want to push back against US institutions and systems that marginalize and subdue groups of people and help others through policy advocacy and legislation. My plan is to earn a master’s in public policy to be better positioned to make and reform laws.

I was never one to believe in the power of destiny, but that was mainly because my mind was lost in the chaos of addiction for 24 years, from when I was 12 to when I started my recovery at 36. But now, when I think of all that I’ve been through, I believe there was a bigger purpose to my pain and struggles. For without the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met, I wouldn’t be positioned as I am now to help others.

This essay is in the print edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune on March 24, 2022, with the headline, I believe there was a bigger purpose to my struggles

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