I knew I was a good person, but I didn’t know how to change.

(Photo above by Marco Giannavola)

Learn how Omar Gonzalez overcame his substance abuse through his Buddhist practice and is studying to become an addiction counselor.

When I became a Buddhist in 2017, my friend told me that it would be easy to start my practice but hard to continue, so I would have to learn how to never give up on myself.

I kept these words close to my heart when a year into my practice, I admitted myself into a hospital after nearly dying from a drug overdose.

I had hidden my drug problem well by using in my neighbor’s house, distancing myself from family and loved ones, and missing family gatherings because I feared being cast out.

I knew the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The first time I chanted, I felt such overwhelming peace that I cried. So, in the most difficult days of my addiction, I would just sit in front of my altar, sometimes chanting, sometimes sitting silently or sometimes crying out in pain. I knew deep down I was a good person, but I didn’t know how to change.

My near-death experience was my turning point. I was tired of the sick cycle of relapsing and was ready to address my disease and the pain underlying it.

I was tired of the sick cycle of relapsing and was ready to address my disease and the pain underlying it.

In my case, I experienced trauma at a young age. In 2003, after failing my first attempt at college, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 18, believing it was my best option. After basic training, I was sent to fight in the Iraq War.

Life there was beyond description. For months, I narrowly escaped death in combat zones, evading bomb after bomb at all hours. On top of that, I endured derogatory remarks and even threats from those who were supposed to protect me. The war left me with deep physical and emotional trauma, which only fueled my anger and resentment toward others.

When I was discharged in 2005, I struggled with how to process my experiences. I was deeply depressed and suffered from insomnia and nightmares. I felt lost, so I turned to toxic people and hard drugs to hide from my pain.

The difference this time was that, after a year into my Buddhist practice, I was chanting. This enabled me to develop a spirit to fight for myself that I didn’t have previously.

The difference this time was that, after a year into my Buddhist practice, I was chanting. This enabled me to develop a spirit to fight for myself that I didn’t have previously.

I used my time in the hospital to chant as much as possible and detox. I did gongyo alone in the ward’s quiet room in the morning and evening, and chanted throughout the day. I also studied Nichiren Daishonin’s writings to gain a further understanding of Buddhism.

This gave me the courage I needed to share about my addiction with my mother and the mother of my son. To my surprise, they were very supportive, and my mother came to visit me in the hospital.

I realized that my family wanted me in their lives and that I was the one who had distanced myself from them. I also started to tell other patients and staff members about my Buddhist practice. One friend I used drugs with in the past started chanting with me and has now been clean for over two years.

My friends in the Buddhist community also came to visit me. They reassured me that I could win over any obstacle I face in life and showed me that people could change and lead a beautiful life filled with love and kindness.

I am now two years sober and clean from all drugs and alcohol. My overall demeanor and outlook on life is now positive. As part of the Veterans Affairs Compensated Work Therapy program, I worked at the same hospital where I was admitted. Now, I am a college student studying sociology with the goal of becoming an addiction counselor.

Being able to admit when I have a problem, chant to find a solution and be supported by my Buddhist community—that’s what hope means to me.

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