Paulino Valenzuela is a member of the Yaqui tribe and a former meth addict. Today Valenzuela is helping fellow Native Americans in the SRPMIC Local Alcoholism Reception Center (LARC) program.

Saved by a Knife

By Angela Willeford
Au-Authm Action News

On reservations across Indian Country, methamphetamine is a problem that is causing crisis in Native American communities. In upcoming issues, Au-Authm Action News will share a few stories of Native Americans and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community members who have overcome the difficult obstacle of drugs to share how they got to that point and how they stopped. This article is written to inform Community members that there is help and you are not alone.

Paulino Valenzuela (Yaqui) grew up in the town of Guadalupe. Raised with both parents and three sisters, Valenzuela tells his story of his struggle with his addiction and how he overcame his obstacle as a Native American man.

Valenzuela grew up in what he calls a “typical” Native American home, where alcoholism and domestic violence were seen regularly. This was second nature to him.

Valenzuela said that during his annual summer trips to his father’s family village in Mexico, he would learn about his indigenous culture and take him away from a home where alcohol and physical abuse were taking place. There he learned about his people and his “Indian-ness,” which helped him stay grounded during his childhood.

“Culturally, it is forbidden to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” he said. “As Native people, it made me think that I want to take back honor, dignity and recognizing that every living thing is connected and sacred. A good place to begin this journey would be to begin a sincere look into Native people from the perspective of generational/intergenerational trauma.”

As a child, Valenzuela endured a world of hurt, and although he is in a different place in his life now, his culture wouldn’t save him from the years of torture he would inflict upon his body by drinking and doing drugs.

At age 13, Valenzuela said, his “drinking career” began.

At a camp hosted by his tribe at Mormon Lake was the first time Valenzuela would taste alcohol, and this is when he thought he was becoming a man.

Throughout his life, Valenzuela’s father instilled into him that men were tough. Because Valenzuela saw his father be tough with the help of alcohol, as a result this is what Valenzuela thought it was to be a man. He began experimenting with alcohol and enjoyed it. He thought, “I was starting to want to be a tough guy. This is what men are supposed to do. I seen my dad be all these things and he was violent. I said to myself, ‘I am a boy and I am going to be a man and this is how I have to do.’”

The summer before his freshman year, Valenzuela became a professional alcoholic. He would drink on the weekends and even bring liquor to school and share it among his peers.

Alcohol didn’t stop Valenzuela from finishing high school. Right after high school, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, but this only escalated Valenzuela’s drinking problem. With all the rage and anger balled up inside him from his abusive upbringing, he would get into fights and get into trouble.

Although his father drank, there was one thing that he despised, and that was drugs. Valenzuela’s father talked very candidly about drug addicts and how they were “losers.”

Since he didn’t use drugs and only drank, Valenzuela thought he was better than “those people.” He would say, “I drink, but you snort coke and whatever else.”

A bad break-up from a relationship caused Valenzuela to binge-drink for a whole year. He said, “For three months straight I was drunk from Sunday through Monday.” He was fragile, and his peers got the best of him. He succumbed to what his father despised: drugs.

It began during his year-long alcohol binge. Valenzuela picked friends who ended up pressuring him into something he deemed so wrong. For 28 years, Valenzuela hadn’t done drugs. But after persistence from his peers and with the alcohol in his system, he gave in and tried ecstasy. He kept saying no, but gave in. “I don’t know how fast it happened, but for three to four months, I was on ecstasy,” he said.

From ecstasy to coke to methamphetamine, Valenzuela’s life was in turmoil. His feelings stopped, and the only thing he cared about was hitting the pipe. One night during one of his smoke sessions in a hotel room with his good friend, the friend claimed to be having difficulty breathing. Valenzuela recalled, “He was sitting there hitting the pipe and said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I was like, ‘Calm down, you are always getting overly excited.’ He was like, ‘You are going to have to take me somewhere.’ But because I wanted to hit the pipe, I just wanted to sit there and not be bothered by his not being able to breathe. ‘You not being able to breathe is not my priority,’ I said. Now, looking back at it, now I am like ‘Holy smoke! This is my best friend here and I was choosing the pipe over his life. I didn’t care at all—I wanted my pipe and that was it.”

Saved by a Knife
After Valenzuela had been smoking meth for years, he was on the edge of losing it—he felt paranoid, a common symptom of people using methamphetamine. In his mind, he thought to himself, “White people want to hurt me.” To this day he isn’t sure why he thought this, but to ensure his safety he started to hang with people that he felt comfortable with, some “good friends,” or so he thought.
These “good friends” had been in prison more than they had been in society, and since they had this background, Valenzuela felt as though he would be safe with them and the accessibility to drugs with these new friends was much easier too. This was far from the truth.

During one of their tweeker (a term used for meth addicts) fests, Valenzuela and others were sitting down. One of the guys Valenzuela said was known for being dangerous kept trying to get close to him. He tells the story:

“He tried getting closer and closer. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘Nothing.’ It went back and forth like that. I was trying to figure out if it was true [or whether I was hallucinating]. Finally, I was like, ‘What are you going to do with that knife?’ He said, ‘What knife?’ ‘That knife you just had out and now it’s in your pocket.’ I asked him, ‘Are those people that keep passing by, did they pay you money to kill me? What are you going to do that for [mean killing me], just for the hell of it?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And then he asked if I could take him to the store. It was really surreal. It scared me enough. No reality there.”

After the knife incident, Valenzuela went straight to his mom’s house and told her what happened. They looked at him like he was crazy and out of his mind. Maybe he was, but this was when he realized that he had had enough of being a crazy person looking for his drug dealer and looking for “rocks” that he had hidden (so he thought).

A Fresh Start
Fear and realization made Valenzuela stay clean. He went to rehab for six months, came back, and relapsed after three months, but he has been clean since. During his time in rehab, he said he would cry because he felt like such an embarrassment. However, today he isn’t as fragile as he was after his break-up. He is strong and able to tell his story to help fellow Native Americans know that they too can change.

Today Valenzuela is helping fellow Native Americans in the SRPMIC Local Alcoholism Reception Center (LARC) program. He has spoken in front of members of the Yaqui Tribal Council, behavioral health, and medical professionals within the community and explained to fellow Native Americans that there is help. His community believes that if a person does drugs, then there is no hope.

Valenzuela has been clean for six years and continues to share his experience so that maybe people can learn from it.

It is evident Valenzuela cares deeply for his family by saying “Once I began to recognize my parents were once children themselves, having been shaped and molded by their own early life experiences, I knew there was a need for healing all around. There are a lot of intimate and very personal details which I shared during this interview; in no way do I attempt to disrespect my mother or my father. My hope is that someone in the community will be moved by my story enough to at least begin to contemplate seeking help for their addiction. It was indeed my mothers teaching of compassion, dignity, love for self and others; my father’s instilment of perseverance, hard work and importance of native culture that laid the foundation for the man I am becoming today. With each passing year my relationship to both my parents grows more honest, more loving, and more sincere. Since alcohol is no longer a factor in our relationship, it’s only natural to circle back to love.”

Valenzuela has learned that for him to stay clean, he has accepted that he has a problem and is an addict. Valenzuela said, “Once I realized and became consciously aware [of the] ‘addict mind,’ [I realized] I just need to step back and no longer allow it to take over.”

What Valenzuela can tell those troubled by abuse, alcohol and drugs is, “Hey, I have been there, I know what you’re going through. I know what it is like, and this is how I started a sober life.”


SRPMIC Local Alcoholism Reception Center (LARC)
If you know anyone who wants help overcoming substance abuse, contact the LARC center at (480) 362-5665. The doors are open 24/7.

LARC provides a safe and supportive environment in which a person can detoxify from substances that the person is addicted to.

Per directive from Tribal Council 34 years ago, LARC is open to only Community members and residents of SRPMIC.

All clients who enter LARC fisrt go through detoxification – they are monitored by LARC staff every minute and may remain in this component from the time they enter to up to 24 hours or longer depending on the detoxification needs.
• Person may stay in this component 1-24 hours or longer.
• Nursing services are provided.
• Guidance and educational insight into the person’s addiction is provided.
• Information on BHS services and inpatient residential treatment are provided.
• Meal and bed to sleep are provided.
• Staff works closely with the SRPMIC Paramedics in situations of emergency medical needs for the client.

If LARC is full, the client is provided information on local detoxification services in the surrounding cities, if client is open to this entry, LARC staff will transport to local facility for these detoxification services.

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