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Valley treatment center founder has personal experience with addiction

PHOENIX — Gabriel Tomaeno was 13 when he started taking substances like oxycodone, OxyContin and morphine.

His opioid substance abuse quickly escalated. Soon, he had moved on to heroin.

“[It’s] like being in a pool, putting your head underwater, staying underwater until you can’t breathe and then at the very last minute, you go up to take a breath,” Tomaeno said of his addiction. “When I wasn’t using or when I was coming off, or detoxing, or getting clean it was always that urge in me.

“I couldn’t stop. I had to take a breath. My breath for me was unfortunately heroin and alcohol.”

Tomaeno, now 23, wasn’t a unique case.

According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 21.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with some form of substance abuse disorder.

Arizona has been a hot bed for the opioid epidemic.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, between June 2017 and June 2019 there were more than 21,000 suspected opioid overdoses in Arizona. In that same time, there were also more than 3,000 suspected opioid deaths.

In 2017, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency to begin combating the growing epidemic.

Tomaeno, who has been sober since March 2012, is doing his part to help reverse the cycle of addiction in the state.

Tomaeno’s journey to sobriety inspired him to start Purpose Healing Center, a Scottsdale addiction treatment center focused on men with drug and alcohol dependence.

“I was just ready,” he said. “There [were] no options laid out for me anymore. I was done trying to do it on my own.”

It was difficult for him to kick the habit that took over his life.

Tomaeno went through several treatment centers and had nine relapses in a year before his sobriety finally stuck.

In order to maintain his sobriety, he began working in different detox and treatment centers.

He started as a behavioral health technician before moving into marketing and admission roles.

The roles gave him a different insight and perspective into treatment centers.

“[After a] couple of years, the facilities that I was working in, I didn’t believe in and I didn’t want to admit clients into anymore,” Tomaeno said.

The holistic, family-based treatment center provides not only traditional support for addicts, like group meetings, but also helps with things like job placement and long-term healing through counseling sessions.

Tomaeno said they also work to make sure their treatment is accessible by providing scholarships for those who need it.

“[We’re] making sure we’re actually helping this thing and not continuing it and making it worse,” he said.

Tomaeno said that this is not only how he’s chosen to make a living, but it’s also the thing that brings him purpose.

“When you’re looking through your timeline [of addiction], looking through your life and you’re seeing how everyone was placed in there perfectly, exactly where they’re suppose to be so that you’re staying alive,” Tomaeno said. “You’re kind of thinking ‘I have to do that for someone else.’ And it’s a debt you have to repay and it’s our service.”

Tune in to KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Bruce St. James & Pamela Hughes Show each day this week at 10 a.m. for special coverage of Arizona’s opioid epidemic. 

To reach the Arizona Opioid Assistance and Referral Line, call 1-888-688-4222, or visit the website for more information.

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