On the morning James D. Gomez decided to turn his life around, he met his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor at an IHOP on Hot Wells Boulevard on the South Side of San Antonio. He had a plan to stop drinking, and it started with a handwritten letter. Sitting across from his sponsor, he held four letters in all: one to his father and his mother who divorced when he was 12 months old, another to his grandmother who took him in at a young age, a letter casting off alcohol, and finally, a letter saying goodbye to cocaine.
“I started to read my letters to him,” Gomez said, “and he said, ‘Put that down. Tell me what you’re feeling and what’s really going on inside.”
Gomez began to talk. His sponsor listened.
I shared with him people that I was ashamed of. I shared with him guilt and people I had wronged. And then he said, ‘Go off by yourself….pray to your higher power.’
Following lessons he had learned at Alcoholics Anonymous, the purpose of the letters, Gomez said, was to write down what had happened and and take a look at causes and conditions to break the vicious cycle.
“And from then on, it’s a clean slate,” he said, remembering his sponsor’s words of support.
The year was 2000 and Gomez, who will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, was 38 years old.
Gomez took his sponsor’s advice and went to Mission Espada to be by himself. He held the letters in both hands and then he tore them apart and watched as the letters — to family members, to drugs and to alcohol — floated in pieces down the San Antonio River.
“I kind of felt bad because I didn’t want to litter,” Gomez said. “But I wanted to see them float away. It was incredible, like a weight being lifted from me.”
Three reasons to celebrate
Last month, Gomez turned 50 years old. “I’m giving myself a degree for my birthday,” he said recently, as he was preparing for final exams. But he won’t walk alone.
The traditional graduation ceremony is about parents watching from the audience as their graduate crosses the stage. But for this spring commencement, the Gomez family will celebrate as father, mother and son will walk the same stage and accept their respective degrees.
James D. Gomez will earn his Bachelor’s of Arts in psychology and a minor in sociology. His wife, Yolanda L. Gomez, will graduate with a Bachelor’s of Arts in education with an emphasis in special education, and son, Eric M. Gomez, will graduate with his Master’s in counseling and guidance.
“The fact that one university has been able to service the needs of three individuals, to get what we want is incredible,” Eric M. Gomez said. “It’s momentous for a husband, wife, and son to be graduating at the same time — like some sort of cosmic alignment.”
The elder Gomez, an electrician, husband, a father of two sons, ages 26 and 30, and in less than a week a college graduate, has been sober for 12 years. His short-term goal is to work for Child Protective Services or Haven for Hope. His long-term goal, once he is able to complete a master’s degree in counseling and guidance, is to open a treatment center for other addicts.
“People who are going through recovery can make the best counselors,” Gomez said.
That’s what I love about my dad’s story; people can judge him from what he’s done in the past, but with what’s he doing now, judge him on that, Eric said.
“Having a father with those struggles is going to help me in the classroom,” Eric said. “His blood and his mentality is running through me, and that shows his strength. I see myself as someone who can face adversity, and I’ll never wish things were any different because it created the person that I am today.”
Eric added that as a graduate student, it’s easy to become lost or overwhelmed, and when it does he thinks of his parents; a father who sometimes works in 100 degree weather, and a mother who both works and attends school fulltime.
“When I think of my parents I am so proud of them. It is so amazing because it hasn’t been easy for them, but to finally see them get what they want is incredible.”
Since becoming sober, Gomez has turned his experience into a professional pursuit. He has researched the roots of alcoholism and last month presented his first co-authored research paper at the Southwest Psychological Association Convention in Oklahoma City.
Dr. Amy Bohmann, assistant professor of psychology, instructed and mentored Gomez during his senior year to help him prepare for his conference preparation and most recently during the School of Arts and Sciences inaugural student symposium.
“We don’t have a lot of students that present at conferences,” Bohmann said. “Undergraduates don’t usually present, so that was good for him and for our school.”
A teenager’s downward drift
Gomez volunteered to share his story with a reporter just weeks before graduation, saying he hoped to share his battles with other students who might be able to relate, or be inspired by his recovery.
“The odds ain’t good,” Gomez said for those in treatment, who said his relies on others for strength and continued support.
“I like the idea that I can relate to the people I’m helping. I can show them how to live without drinking,” he said.
Born into a broken home, Gomez led a challenging childhood where alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin eased the pain of abandonment.
At the age of one, Gomez’s parents divorced. He and his sister were left in the care of his paternal grandmother. From there on they rarely saw their mother, and Gomez would not see his father again for 10 years.
“I used to be an altar boy, and they had all the wine in the cellar,” Gomez said describing his first experience with alcohol.
Alcohol, he said, paved the way to drug use. Each year of adolescence brought on different trials and experiments, one in particular that would eventually land him his first arrest.
Gomez rarely saw his mother and when he did, he said it was ‘on and off.’
“My mom would come and visit us, take us to the malt house,” Gomez said. “Between the ages of 6 to 12, I would see her once to twice a year, and I wouldn’t talk to her for long periods of time.”
After years of moving in with his grandmother, rarely seeing his mother, Gomez and his sister finally saw their father.
Living with his father, Gomez said never felt quite comfortable with his new living arrangements. He added that he and his father were not able to make up for lost time.
“He tried to put in 15 years of discipline into one month,” Gomez said. “My mom then picked me up, brought me back, and dropped me off with an aunt. She took me in when no else wanted me.”
After six months of living with his aunt, Gomez moved back to his grandmother’s house after marijuana was discovered in his drawer.
“From then on I was just partying every day,” Gomez said. “I dropped out of school and I would hang out at the Alazan Apache courts by Lanier High School.”
“I pretty much did nothing ‘till the age of 17. Later on I was arrested for possession of marijuana.”
One evening after work, while driving home, Gomez was pulled over for speeding. Officers found a quarter of a pound of marijuana in the trunk of the vehicle.
“I was getting high in the car, and I had just bought a quarter pound,” Gomez said. “I was booked into Bexar County Jail, and then later released on bond.”
Gomez didn’t remember who bailed him out; he received six months probation.
“I guess I was done with probation, because later on I was arrested again for robbery,” Gomez said.
A father’s upward climb
In 2000, after years of alcoholism and substance abuse, Gomez made the decision to surrender himself and stop abusing.
“I was just tired. I felt like the little rat on the wheel running back and forth, running and going nowhere,” Gomez said. “I knew something had to change. They call it a moment of clarity, and I got on my knees and asked God to take this stuff away from me.”
Gomez refers to this point in his life where he became teachable. “I didn’t know everything. I stopped talking and started listening, and I’ve been doing that till this day,” Gomez said.
“I realized that nobody mattered but me. It was all about having a good time, getting high until it wasn’t fun anymore,” Gomez said. “It was more about not wanting to feel.…pain.”
By the age of 38, Gomez added that all of his friends were either doing outrageous amounts of time in prison, or dead. All the role models he had were no longer mentors. He estimated 95 percent of them were incarcerated on drug-related charges.
In a span of five years, Gomez checked in and out of four centers in San Antonio ranging from 60 days to eight months.
That was twelve years ago. He’s the first to admit that it hasn’t been easy. The goal of helping others, he says, is part of recovering from the past.
“It’s not where you’ve been, it’s where I want to get to,”Gomez said. “And where I want to get to is by helping people not live the life I did. That is my goal.”
Gomez will graduate from Texas A&M University-San Antonio the evening of May 18 at Freeman Coliseum.