At 15, Joseph Valadez snorted heroin for the first time.
One line sent him spiraling into a struggle with addiction spanning decades, accompanied with nearly half his life spent incarcerated. But 47 years later, Valadez is defying expectations of people with addictions and those formerly incarcerated after graduating from Long Beach State this past fall and applying for his master’s in social work in hopes of helping at-risk youth.
Recently, Valadez’s story went viral on Twitter after a screenshot of Valadez’s post about him graduating on the President’s Honor List with straight As for his final two semesters. The post has now been shared over 67,000 times and liked over 398,000 times and is providing Valadez with a platform to share his story, which Valadez is grateful for.
Though Valadez has already been offered positions at non-profits upon graduating, Valadez said that he hopes with his master’s degree will put him in a position to help at-risk youth, who are often overlooked due to funding being funneled into adult programs.
As a kid, Valadez said he remembers contemplating whether or not to hang with his homeboys or join a gang before straying down a seemingly irreversible path.
“There was a time that I was teeter-tottering,” Valadez said. “That I was scared to get involved because I knew where it was going to lead me. And guess what? It led me where I didn’t want to go. After a while, I started enjoying it. But what about when I was just teeter-tottering? That’s when we need to get them, when they’re having that moment.”
Valadez grew up in an environment of drug usage and illegal activity and started using drugs young while hanging out with friends in his neighborhood. A former gang member, Valadez said he got involved early in illegal activity, though “gang” is a term he doesn’t like to use due to the “dirty” connotations society has attached to it.
“I seen how my older homeboys, my uncles, my older cousins [were], I wanted to emulate them,” Valadez said. “I was attracted to that lifestyle.”
Valadez was 11 years old the first time he was arrested for receiving stolen property. This started a lifetime of being stuck in the revolving doors of incarceration. As an adolescent, he would spend five months to a year in juvenile detention centers.
Though Valadez had uncles, friends and loved ones die from overdosing on heroin, he felt a false sense of security in his usage. He figured that since he was snorting the drug rather than injecting it, he was safe.
That changed with continued use.
“My eighteenth birthday was the first time I stuck a needle in my arm,” Valadez said. “For the next 38 years, I was a heroin addict.”
Not long after his birthday, Valadez was arrested. He had a choice to either go to jail or go to service. So, in 1976, Valadez started his four-year service in the U.S. Army, beginning in Texas. In the barracks, Valadez happened upon a cohort injecting himself with drugs who asked Valadez if he’d done it before. Valadez, who had only done it the once, said he had, eluding to being more experienced than he really was.
From that point on, Valadez’s drug use continued for the four years he spent in the service. He said he was strung out in Texas and the two and a half years he spent in Germany, where he overdosed on a train. After finishing his time in the service, he was honorably discharged in 1980 with rank.
Returning home meant returning to past habits. For 38 years, he used and went to prison 40 times for drug-related charges—33 violations and seven terms.
“During all that time, never ever did anybody ask me if I was a drug addict or if I wanted any help at a drug rehabilitation,” Valadez said. “Never was I ever asked. Now the state is helping people because they see the amount of money they’re wasting.”
It costs about $81,000 to incarcerate an inmate in California for a year, while drug rehabilitation is about one-third the cost. Valadez entered the prison system in the 1980s, when there was no effort to rehabilitate people. They locked people up with no resources, and people left the way they came in, according to Valadez.
It wasn’t until April 2013 that Valadez finally got and stayed clean after a week of his “worlds colliding,” a reference to experiencing problem after problem.
After decades of injecting drugs in his arms, neck, hands and legs, many of Valadez’s veins had collapsed.
“One day for about two hours, [I’m] trying to find a vein,” Valdez said. “I was so concentrated, I didn’t see. I looked up and I had blood all over me. I got disgusted. But I still did the drug.”
That same week, his wife left him and a childhood friend kicked him out after Valadez robbed a man for $20, despite already having two strikes against him. His friend connected him with someone who gave Valadez methadone pills to help him detox off of drugs.
“I must’ve kicked heroin at least 30 times in the county jail and prison,” Valadez said. “For the second time in my life, I kicked heroin on my own, on the streets.”
This April, Valadez will be eight years clean.
His journey to sobriety started with continuous calls and rejections from rehabilitation facilities due to lack of insurance. Eventually, Valadez connected with The Salvation Army Anaheim Adult Rehabilitation Center, and on April 22, 2013, he entered the program with six days clean.
Valadez entered the faith-based program reluctantly. Despite being raised Catholic, Valadez had lost his spirituality.
“I hated religion,” Valadez said. “I hated everything about religion. How can a loving God kill my homeboys? How could a loving God OD my cousins, my homeboys and my uncles?”
But one month into his stay at The Salvation Army, that changed. In the mornings, people were given fifteen minutes in the chapel to pray or meditate to Christian music.
“I heard ‘Amazing Grace’ that morning,” Valadez recalled. “I must’ve heard ‘Amazing Grace’ a thousand different times. You name it, a cappella, piano, guitar, choir, I’ve heard it all different. But that morning, I heard it. It reached deep inside me. So deep, I started to cry.”
Valadez said that was his spiritual awakening and the moment he accepted God into his heart. But, the Salvation Army also opened Valadez’s heart to self-love.
“The biggest thing about the Salvation Army [is] that learned to love myself,” Valadez said. “For a lot of years, I hated that person in the mirror, man. Every night I go to bed today, I tell that person, ‘Hey, you’re the shit, fool!’ It’s a far cry from being a piece of shit, because that’s what I used to be. A piece of shit.”
Valadez is a big believer in the 12-step program where he found support, unconditional love and lots of hugs.
“Oxytocin kicks in and you get that warm lovey feeling. You get that warmness all over you, that fuzzy feeling. That’s what we do man, we love you until you learn how to love yourself,” Valadez said with a laugh, though the coronavirus pandemic has put a halt on the hugs.
At the Salvation Army, Valadez said he learned the one thing he needed to change: everything.
His friends, environment, demeanor, but most importantly, his thought process had to be completely transformed.
“The disease of addiction is centered in our thinking,” Valadez said. “We brainwashed ourselves into the need of using drugs or whatever poison or drug of choice you have, whether you smoked it, inhaled it, slammed it or drank it. It’s still poison. We have this thinking that manifests more and more of our dependency on that poison.”
Despite always possessing the capability to attend college, it wasn’t until a veteran counselor, an alumnus of Orange Coast College, asked Valadez his plans after the program that Valadez considered college. Valadez figured he’d work for a family construction business he’d been employed with on and off throughout the years. But the counselor told him that at 55, he was too old for that business and suggested schooling.
“Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to go to college,” Valadez said. “All my counselors told me I’d be a good mechanic, a good landscaper, or work construction, but nobody ever encouraged me to go to college. Nobody, and I had good grades.”
With service-connected disability, Valadez’s educational path was opened through his eligibility for vocational rehabilitation. Valadez started at Orange Coast College in the summer of 2014 where he studied for three and a half years. When he started, Valadez said he felt ashamed of his past, but quickly realized that it didn’t matter what people thought. According to Valadez, he and God knew what was in his heart, and that was what mattered.
After transferring to CSULB, Valadez joined Rising Scholars and Project Rebound in spring 2020, two organizations at CSULB that aim to help formerly incarcerated students. Valadez expressed gratitude for both of these organizations.
Valadez was well received in his sociology courses due to his openness to share his experiences and knowledge. Assistant professor of sociology Esa Syeed, who worked closely with Valadez, remarked on his active participation.
“He was always outspoken in class and generous in sharing from his wide-ranging experiences,” Syeed said. “Sometimes it seemed like he had a story for everything.”
Another assistant professor of sociology, Steven Osuna, enjoyed Valadez’s presence and transparency, describing him as a “beautiful person” via email.
“I always enjoyed Joseph’s participation in class since he would not only talk about the lecture, but would link the lectures to his personal experiences,” Osuna said. “This is what the sociologist call the sociological imagination. Joseph is a critical sociologist.”
Through all of Osuna’s conversations with Joseph, whether in the classroom or during advising hours, Osuna said he learned much from Valadez. Now, the two share a valued friendship.
Valadez said that he hopes to help people with similar struggles to him in any capacity. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a record of overdoses and relapses. In the past year, there were 29% more opioid overdoes than prior years, according to Valadez.
“Joseph deserves all the recognition he is receiving and more,” Osuna said. “The system we live in failed him many times, like many in our communities, but he fought on. He will continue to be an inspiration to many of us. This is only the beginning.”
Many are moved by Valadez’s pursuits and personality, but to Valadez it is only natural.
“People help me, so I got to help people,” Valadez said. “If this story helps inspire, helps motivate, helps give somebody hope, so be it. My whole intention was just to break that stigma attached to people who were formerly incarcerated.”