In Episode 16 of The Courage to Change: A Recovery Podcast, Leo shared his story with podcast host Ashley Loeb Blassingame. We’ve edited and condensed it here for a fast read. You can listen to the entire interview here.

Leo Martinez, 43, is a Substance Abuse Counselor and Social Worker with very diverse populations. He is also a therapist, husband, and father to a beautiful one-year-old little girl. He was raised by two loving parents, who have been together for almost 50 years. Both of his parents grew up in El Salvador, in some of the worst environments that you can imagine. His family worked hard to keep Leo away from gangs and drugs. They moved to a suburb of San Francisco around the time Leo was in middle school, where he soon found just those things. 

The Overweight New Kid

Leo has struggled with his weight as far back as he can remember. He was made fun of a lot. When he got to high school, he noticed that girls weren’t interested in him and associated that fact with his weight. 

At 17 years old, Leo joined the Marines for one reason: to lose weight.

“I left home terrified because I didn’t know what was coming. I was told that everything was going to be scary, and that I was never going to make it.”

In fact, when he walked into the recruiting station for his qualifying test, the recruiters laughed at him and said, “No, no, no,” because he was too heavy. He had to lose eight pounds to even qualify.

Leo was accepted to the Marines and ended up losing 72 pounds in 13 weeks. Once returning home, he didn’t receive the praise from his friends and family that he thought he was going to get. Instead, they said, “Oh, you think you made it now? You went to basic training and you think you’re a badass?” He was hurt that his peers didn’t accept him the way that he thought they would, which is what he was craving in the first place.

At 23, Leo got out of the Marine Corps. Feeling just as empty inside as when he originally left for the Marines, he returned to his old ways, experimenting with weed, alcohol, and then mushrooms and cocaine. Leo shared, “The thing is, is that it was not acceptable. I couldn’t share it with my mother or father or partner. So I ended up doing a lot of secretive use.” He needed the substances to be a part of something.

“What I didn’t realize, what I know today, is that alcoholism is progressive.”

Dealing with Trauma

While he searched for that connection, he was also looking for another job. He ended up going to school to become an aircraft mechanic. Around the time of graduation, he started dating a woman, who had a son. She soon became his fiance and found out that she was pregnant. She made the decision to not keep the child based on Leo’s erratic behavior. Leo marched out of the house when he found out, and he drank.

As his drinking continued to progress, his behaviors began to get erratic. He blacked out, raised his voice – he doesn’t remember a lot of it. Leo continued to drink excessively, until one day, he woke up in the hospital, having no recollection of how he got there.

“All [he] remembers is waking up face down with his hands behind [his] back.” He was thrown into the back of an ambulance, and woke up again handcuffed to the rail of a hospital bed, bleeding. His fiancé was sitting with him in the hospital when she said, “you see why you can’t be a dad right now?”

The two ended up breaking things off. Leo had trouble getting over the incident. In fact, he was angry at women for 10 years. Leo shared, “I was just trying to get that memory out of my head. My mind plays pictures. Clear as day. And alcohol was the only thing that could turn it off.” Even then, it still wasn’t enough for him to realize that he was dealing with severe alcoholism. 

That led to his second trauma. A friend of his invited him to go to a party. They hadn’t known each other for very long, but he still considered her a friend. They were going to go to the party to drink, do drugs and have sex. He went to the party, drank and used, and blacked out. He came to find out later that he was actually intentionally drugged by someone else at the party. He woke up from his black out with an electrical sensation through his entire body – fire, heat, burning pain. “[He] was being held down forcefully and was being sexually assaulted by another male. And [he] couldn’t move.”

“We talk about the Me Too movement, and sadly it’s not as uncommon as we’d all like it to be for women to be victims of sexual assault or survivors of sexual assault. It’s a really difficult thing for men to come out and talk about it as well.”

Over the next 10 years, Leo experienced severe alcoholism, hatred, pain, humiliation, and brushed with the law quite a few times. It was when he heard a knock on the door. The police had come for him at his parent’s home for attempted burglary. “They dragged [him] out of the house, handcuffed, face down again. Except this time [he] was fully conscious.” The next thing he sees is his parents handcuffed, his grandmother handcuffed, even his basset hound held down by the police. That’s when he realized for the first time in his life what he had been doing.

He felt lost. He wanted to end his life right there. He even called his drug dealer for a gun and thought, “It’s time for me to go.” Instead of pulling the trigger, he called a friend from a therapy group he knew. And there, in front of an Old Spaghetti Factory, his friend showed-up 10 minutes later to convince him to keep his life. 

That was the last day Leo used drugs and alcohol.

Finding Acceptance and Learning To Put Recovery Above All

Leo shared, “we are all seeking a group to accept us. We are all looking for freedom from those feelings and that void.” 

Now, Leo is eight years sober. He is also a therapist and helps other people overcome their addictions. He started to learn about psychiatric presentations and how it’s made worse with dual disorders. He went back to school for substance abuse counseling and started to do boots-on-the-ground social work, working with some of the most difficult, acute psychiatric cases.

This population – those without resources, those on the streets, those behind dumpsters – ”nobody knows they’re even there.” Leo shares that when people have these kinds of disorders and they’re diagnosed with severe mental illnesses as well as drug and alcohol addiction, there is a difference in how we engage with them because many of them do not know that they are mentally ill. Leo also believes that, “when you effectively engage them and motivate them to seek treatment, medications, and help, that they’re able to recover fully.”

Leo is 43-years-old, and while the pictures are gone, there are still wounds that haven’t healed fully. He understands that stressors can show up when he overworks, overthinks, over-anything. But what ended up happening is that he decided to seek additional help. 

“In order for me to get to wherever I’m going, I have to keep moving because if I stop, I’ll end up on the floor eventually. Each one of those steps to recovery is a day. So I have to do some kind of activity for my recovery every day.”

Quotes have been edited for clarity.