by Glen Doss, Major –
When Juan Castanon, 45, got out of the penitentiary in 2000 he already had a $300 a day heroin habit. “There were plenty of drugs inside,” he recalls; therefore, he immediately reverted to his former lifestyle of selling and using drugs. However, after two months of this routine, he arose early one morning, glanced at himself in the mirror, and, for the first time in his life, sincerely reached out to God. “I prayed, ‘Lord, I need help; please help me; please guide me…’ ”
This prayer was different from his previous ones, which had all been angry. “In my addiction I was mad at God for letting me wake up in the morning. Because I destroyed everything around me I didn’t want to live! All I knew was violence and the drugs, and I just didn’t know what to do. I would wake up in a strange place and pray, ‘God, why did you allow me to wake up again?’ I wanted to die, but I was too much of a coward to shoot myself so I would place myself in dangerous situations, hoping someone else would kill me. I hated myself for the monster I had become! But what really scared me was that I didn’t pity people, no remorse—I had complete disregard for human life!”
How he got this way is a mystery to Juan because his parents, he says, were very good people who worked hard to provide for him. “My father didn’t drink; my mother didn’t.” An only child, at 14 Juan moved with his parents from Mexico to east LA where he immediately took up with the neighborhood gangs.
“I developed a taste for the liquor and the drugs—I used a lot of pills and acid,” he says. His parents, very concerned, punished him, and at 16 sent him to stay with relatives in Mexico City. After his return, however, he picked up exactly where he had left off.
At 18 Juan married “a good woman” who followed him patiently around Southern California, two children in tow, as he moved from job to job. A capable young man, he had no difficulty getting jobs; keeping them was the problem. Because of the drugs and the alcohol, he would inevitably begin missing work and, when he saw the writing on the wall, would quit rather than get fired. Arrested repeatedly, Juan spent two years in a penitentiary in Mexico for transporting drugs across the border. Upon his return home, he says, “I told my wife, ‘That’s it, Baby—I promise, this time!’ She kept believing in my promises until the day she told me, ‘You’re a great guy and you love us, but I’ve put up with this for 17 years—I need a life!’ She was absolutely right!” insists Juan. “She stood by me way too long! Right after she left I picked up a new habit, heroin.”
Once he touched the heroin, he says, “it controlled me—I did what was necessary to get it. It was my god, my woman. I began going to prison again—this time for violence and selling heroin. But I continued using the drug in prison; so every time I came out, my sole purpose was to start dealing again.”
Shortly after his release in 2000, he arose one morning with a sudden moment of clarity. “I asked the Lord for help, and it came to me: ‘Go to The Salvation Army.’ When I arrived at the Harbor Light, I was sick [in detox] for 40 days. But I kept praying. ‘God, I don’t deserve anything; but please take this obsession, and I’ll do the best I can!’
“I was brought up going to church,” explains Juan, “and I didn’t have a clue who God was. But at The Salvation Army I learned how to really pray and be honest with him. There has not been a day go by that I don’t praise him and say, ‘God, please guide me through this day and give me peace of mind.’ And I thank him at night. Without God I wouldn’t be here.”