It wasn’t long after Pamela Aguilu had overdosed for a second time and was taken to a hospital that she knew she needed to turn her life around.
“The day that I hit rock bottom, the only thing that saved me was a policewoman coming through my bedroom window,” Ms. Aguilu said. “And she got me up. And if it was not for the paramedics here in Fountain Hills I probably would’ve died.”
Now seven years later, as Ms. Aguilu prepares to photograph team roping and jackpot roping in October, she has a number of people and groups to thank for her recovery from addiction.
One of those groups is Valley Hope of Chandler, where Ms. Aguilu went to in the weeks after her release from the hospital. Valley Hope is a nationwide organization that provides recovery services to people and their families who are impacted by substance-use disorder.
With September being National Recovery Month, organizations like Valley Hope are trying to educate the public and those struggling from addiction in hopes that they will seek help when they need it.
“Awareness and education helps eliminate dangerous stigma that keeps people from reaching out for help,” Valley Hope Media Relations Manager Ashley Barcum stated in an email.
According to a release, Valley Hope CEO Dan McCormick says 10% of addicts seeking treatment actually receive it. With statistics like that, Valley Hope is trying to share recovery stories like Ms. Aguilu’s with the public.
And Ms. Aguilu’s path to addiction, like others, is unique in its own way.
She was involved in a car crash in Washington state in 2002 and had underwent seven spinal surgeries. To treat that pain, and what would be ensuing chronic pain, Ms. Aguilu was prescribed oxycodone.
When she was prescribed the oxycodone, her doctors told her the drug was marketed as non-addicted. However, that turned out not to be the case.
Instead, the medication tricked her brain into thinking she was in more pain. To counter that pain, the doctors prescribed Ms. Aguilu more of the medication, not knowing its true effects.
As a result, Ms. Aguilu was in a cycle of continuous pain and reliance on her medication.
“So I was not making the best decisions for myself,” Ms. Aguilu said.
“I didn’t buy them on the black market or anything, but that doesn’t make me any less of an addict,” she added. “I think that’s a common misconception. ‘Well my doctor’s giving it to me, it’s gotta be okay.”
The drugs would cause her to either sleep a lot or be up all night. She missed out on her sons’ activities and other events. She overdosed for the first time while in Washington.
Another aggravating factor was her marital relationship. Between the increasing reliance on the medications and her marriage, Ms. Aguilu said she continued to abuse the medication.
After divorcing her husband, Ms. Aguilu moved to Arizona in October 2010. There, she helped take care of her parents, but at the same time she continued using the oxycodone to mitigate her pain.
Then Ms. Aguilu overdosed for the second time in her life on Nov. 18 2012. She recalled the paramedics pulling her out of the house and taking her to the hospital.
That night could have been her last. But she avoided being one of the nearly 700,000 people to have died from a drug overdose between 1999 to 2017, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Instead, Ms. Aguilu sought help. After she was released from the hospital, Ms. Aguilu was taken to Community Bridges in Mesa. One day at a meeting, three people suggested Valley Hope to her.
“This woman said ‘I don’t care what you have to do, you need to go there,’” Ms. Aguilu said. “And so I did. And it really was a life changing experience. I don’t know what happened to me — that I had an epiphany or whatever — but I had this feeling of I need to shut up and listen.”
Between stays at the Valley Hope locations in Chandler and Tempe, she went through group sessions one or two times each week. She was also in intensive outpatient care and continuing care.
But Ms. Aguilu also said the first six months of her recovery were hard.
“I was afraid of the pain. I think pain was the biggest trigger,” she said. “That feeling of ‘Well I don’t’ want to be in pain and I used to take something for it and now I can’t. What do I do?’”
Enter Judy Edwards, Ms. Aguilu’s original counselor at Valley Hope.
“She’s kind of a take no prisoners counselor,” Ms. Aguilu said with a laugh. “She didn’t let me get by with much. And that’s what I needed.”
Ms. Edwards helped Ms. Aguilu make sure her doctor and dentist had her charts marked “no narcotics” to keep Ms. Aguilu away from that road.
Now, Ms. Aguilu goes to meetings to support those going through addiction. She has a couple of people she sponsors, and she shares her story at different places.
She is also open about her addiction.
“Everybody who knows me knows about it,” Ms. Aguilu said. “I figure if people understand that it can happen to somebody like me — you know soccer mom and all that — maybe it can open that door to realize that it can happen to anybody.”
Ms. Aguilu said she hasn’t had any narcotics since her release from the hospital. While she still has chronic pains that wake her up in the middle of the night, medications like glucosamax and ibuprofen are all she uses before going back to sleep.
“It’s funny. There’s a lot of dates I can’t remember but that one is ingrained in my brain,” Ms. Aguilu said about Nov. 20, 2012. “When somebody makes it to their sobriety date they always call it your birthday.
“I feel like I was reborn. The life I have now I could have never imagined. It’s not perfect by any means but it’s a life that I can do more of what I ever thought I could do off the medication.”
Now seven years sober, with the support of Valley Hope and her family, Ms. Aguilu is ready to photograph the next rodeo that comes her way.
“There’s hope,” she said about those struggling or those who may be going down the path towards addiction. “People do change and you can change. With me I had to hit that point where I was ready to accept help.
“Try to get into the Valley Hope system. I was just incredibly lucky that I was there at the right time. I don’t know what my life would have been if I had gone someplace else either. It was like everything worked the way it was supposed to.”
Reporter Chris Caraveo can be reached at 623-876-2531 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @ChrisCaraveo31.