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Post Bulletin
     July 17, 2018      #13-197 PB1
Michelle Garcia and her son Michael at a wedding last year, right, and a photo of Michael in Fresno recently. Photos by Michelle Garcia / Tribune News Service

Mother photographs 'hard reality' of son addicted

La madre fotografía la "dura realidad" del hijo adicto

By Carmen George
Tribune News Service

Michelle Garcia went to meet her son Michael for coffee last week and found him passed out in front of a Fresno cafe. She cried, and as tears were still streaming down her face, lifted the lens of her camera and snapped a photo.

The black-and-white image of Michael asleep on a sidewalk in the Tower District is one of seven she recently shared on Facebook talking about how her 20-year-old son is homeless and addicted to methamphetamine and heroin.

It’s been shared more than 3,200 times since June 28.

The aim of the images, foremost, is to raise awareness about addiction.

“Now addicts are faced with tainted drugs that are laced with fentanyl,” she wrote, “and that is killing people at a rapid rate. … I would never want any other parent to watch their child the way that I’ve had to watch Michael go through this disease.”

The photos are also for Garcia and Michael.

Garcia is a photographer. Creating images is her form of therapy and expression.

“I cry every time I take those pictures — every time,” she said. “But that one (outside the coffee shop) I was probably hysterically crying because everything came to a head.”

Rapid change

She posted her photos on Facebook a few hours later, after Michael asked if she wanted to share the photos so more people can see what addiction and life on the streets looks like.

Garcia said her photos are not meant to glorify or exploit her son, who also suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“As hard as it was for me to post, it is the truth,” she said. “It is the hard reality.”

Garcia said her son had only smoked marijuana until last year, when he turned to cocaine after a bad breakup with a girlfriend that sent him spiraling into deep depression. Michael did so much cocaine it blew a hole in the septum of his nose, she said, making him unable to snort the drug anymore. He started smoking crack, then using meth and heroin.

Michael was living on his own and working for a garbage service. Since last year, he’s been evicted from his residence, lost his job, and crashed and totaled his car, Garcia said.

His mom said the drugs also changed his personality and made him paranoid.

“Mental illness came out in full force. I’ve taken him to the hospital like a bazillion times, tried a dozen different treatment centers. You name it, we tried it.”

Garcia said her son now chooses to live on the streets.

Bring awareness

Michael’s addiction isn’t unique in Fresno, where many struggle with the illness — including children.

Far more children are treated for addiction locally than other California counties. Of all children in a county-sponsored program for addiction statewide, around one in five are treated in Fresno County, according to data from the Department of Behavioral Health.

Illegal drug use isn’t the only problem. There were 280 reported deaths related to opioid pharmaceuticals in Fresno County between 2009 and 2013.

Michael becoming one of those statistics is Garcia’s worst fear.

“The whole reason I posted the photos is to bring awareness to how bad the epidemic still is,” Garcia said. “If I can bring awareness and if people can start opening up about their stories in their communities, to ensure their kids don’t go down that path, then that’s what Michael wanted and what I wanted. … If it opens the door for conversations that will lead to something else, then I’m all for it.”

Garcia said she’s had trouble finding drug rehabilitation programs willing to take Michael while he’s high. She said some programs require participants to be sober for several days prior to an interview, and if chosen, it might still be weeks before there’s space in a program.

Garcia describes her son as intelligent, caring, sensitive, talented and personable. She hopes her photos might later help Michael stay away from drugs if he ever gets sober.

“Before this happened to him, he was the guy who would go get food to bring to the homeless people,” she said. “He would go get blankets. He’s the guy that gave you the shirt off his back if you didn’t have one.”

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A photo by Michelle Garcia of son Michael outside a cafe in Fresno’s Tower District on June 28. Michelle Garcia