When Martin Felix first walked into a local peer support center in 2015, he was there to get help.
The 36-year-old Nogales native had spent half his life battling substance use. But when an overdose in August 2015 left him in a coma for four days, a switch flipped.
“I woke up from that coma, just, a different person,” he recalled.
After a stint at a residential treatment center in Tucson, Felix returned home and sought help at Wellness Connections, a small center in Nogales that’s staffed entirely by people with what Felix called “lived experience.” It was the start of a journey that, four-and-a-half years later, has him on the other side of the recovery process.
These days, Felix is an employee at Wellness Connections, working with people struggling with mental health challenges and substance use. In his job as an outreach and re-entry specialist, he works with people leaving jail and rehab institutions, helping them access services and supporting them along the way.
“I feel like I found a calling, a passion – that I was saved for a reason,” he said.
Last year, Felix won the Max Dine Mental Health Criminal Justice Advocacy Award for his work. While he insists that he’s not looking for recognition, the award was a milestone for Felix, who slowly worked his way to his current role.
When he was a Wellness Connections member, as people who seek support at the center are called, he started off by volunteering with clean-up and helping the staff. In part, he said, he just wanted a reason to stay at the center, which felt like a “safe haven” for him.
Later, he found a job doing maintenance and transportation, working 10 hours a week. Two years ago, after receiving a peer support certification, he started in his current role at Wellness Connections, where he works directly with members. He said he’s worked with more than 100 people so far.
Lessons from his past
On an average day at work, Felix starts with a morning check-in and leads a workshop on subjects ranging from anger management to addiction education. Later, he’ll meet one-on-one with members and head out into the community to do outreach.
He’s spoken at local schools and the juvenile detention center about addiction and recovery, but also makes informal visits to places like the Nogales public library, where he might find people who could use the services that the center provides.
One of the tricky aspects of the job is figuring out what kind of support people are open to.
“I try to identify what stage they are (at with respect) to treatment,” he said. “If they don’t want the help, that’s OK. I’m like, ‘If you don’t want to stop using right now, I respect that, but what’s another way we can help you?’”
Felix says that his own past helps him connect with members, who benefit from someone that understands what they’re going through and can be non-judgmental. And when he’s having trouble making progress with someone, Felix remembers his own struggle to get on the right track.
“There’s times where I get frustrated with my members, like, ‘Come on man, I took you already to detox and rehab three times and you relapsed again, you were doing so well,’” he said. “That’s when I remember, like, ‘Martin, it took you how many times?’ Who am I to give up on them?”
Sometimes, people that he met while he was using drugs, or during one of his jail stints, will reach out.
“I’ve had those random calls where (someone says), ‘Hey, I’m tired of living like that and I just want help,’” he said. “I usually just drop what I’m doing and just go talk to them.”
At the same time that he’s supporting others, Felix is still working to heal relationships with his parents, wife and children. He said that reconciling with his family has been the most difficult part of recovery, but also deeply rewarding.
Now, he sometimes finds himself torn between his family and the ringing phone.
“There’s some times where I feel like I want to say no,” he laughed. “But I’m like, I can’t… I feel like I was saved for this reason.”