Paul Watanabe will celebrate his 70th birthday in two weeks.
He feels blessed to be alive.
He said he’s had a complicated life, one that began with abuse and led him down a dark path of heroin and crime.
Watanabe spent nearly three decades addicted to heroin and a good chunk of his life in and out of prison.
“It’s pretty hard to explain to people,” Watanabe said. “That it’s not that me, as an addict, had a choice. It’s not like I woke up one day and said, ‘Hey, you know, I think I’ll be an addict, sounds like a pretty good choice. Gee, my life’s so messed up, maybe I should try be one convict. Maybe that will work.'”
Watanabe says he was abused by his uncle as a child. The only way he knew how to escape was to run away.
“I left, I like to say around 14, 15, and I went to the only place that I knew was the old Tin Can Alley Chinatown,” he said. “I was really afraid. I was really scared because I’m a young kid in an adult world, and I don’t know what to do.”
On the street, he started drinking and using marijuana before he found his drug of choice.
“Once I got introduced to heroin, yeah, that really did it for me,” Watanabe said.
Then he started stealing.
“Some of the people I associate with, they go in the store, steal, they come out,” Watanabe explained. “I started to do that, but I turned it into a profession, especially because when I was strung out on heroin.”
Watanabe’s first stint in jail came when he was 18 years old. He said he tried several times to kick heroin and stay out of prison, but ultimately failed.
“I did a lot of things that put me in jail, incarceration, off and on for years,” Watanabe said. “I always told myself, this time when I come out, I not going use. But coming out from an institution with no stable housing, no support network, no money, I resort back to what I have to do to survive, which is the criminal element.”
Watanabe was in an endless cycle, until he finally hit rock bottom in 1994. He described the experience with tears in his eyes.
“It was pouring rain, and I was soaking wet, and I had loose change in my pocket. I just saw and felt something unexplainable, like I had been through some stuff in life, but this was one that I couldn’t put a label on,” he said. “It was so dark, so painful, so lonely, so hungry. Nobody to talk to, nobody to call, no family. That broke me. That totally broke me down. I was contemplating suicide already. The pain was so great, it wasn’t about using no more.”
Watanabe made his way to Queen’s Medical Center and told the staff he was homicidal and suicidal. They admitted him, and he spent 10 days getting clean.
He said he’s managed to stay that way since.
For those who haven’t dealt with addiction, he says the real issue isn’t the drug.
“The drug is not the problem. The problem is why we pick it up to begin with,” Watanabe explained.
For him, drug was an escape.
“I never like feel the pain,” he said as his eyes welled with tears. “I didn’t want nobody to see the pain.”
The pain and shame that he’d carried with his since his childhood.
“I think those situations and circumstances left an indelible mark of pain and anger within myself that molded me into the person that I became,” he said.
He finally had the strength and courage to face those fears and deal with that anger.
“Through the process of a group of guys that got clean before me,” Watanabe said, “I learned to build this relationship with myself, with other people helping me, and to look at where all of this came from.”
His advice to others going through addiction to is to get help.
“Get a taste of it,” Watanabe said. “They may not get it the first time. They may not get it the second. In time, the hope is that they will.”
There are resources and organizations that can offer help and support.