CNN Photos

Ex-addicts find solace as caregivers

At first they told him the area was off limits. But eventually photographer Nick Oza was invited to spend the night in the lock-down detox room of a drug rehabilitation center in northern Mexico.

He hesitated before deciding to take the opportunity to see what drug addicts go through in the early days of recovery. The screams kept him up at night, and he gained a new perspective on addiction.

“It was an intense experience because I was with them as they were going through withdrawal,” he said. “People were yelling, sweating and in pain.”

Oza works as a photojournalist at the Arizona Republic, a daily newspaper in Phoenix. For the past six months, he has been spending long weekends and holidays at the Integration Center for Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics, or CIAAR, in Nogales, Mexico.

The facility currently houses about 180 people. Of those, about 50 have been diagnosed with mental illnesses on top of their substance abuse issues.

Bernardo Estrada, a former crystal meth addict, has been living at CIAAR since he was deported from the United States more than five years ago.

Through therapy and medication, Estrada was able to turn his life around. Now he volunteers as a caregiver in the mental health unit.

“He wanted to help others after he recovered,” Oza said. “He saw what these people are going through and saw a reflection of himself.”

Other volunteers shared similar stories. The work seemed to give them a new sense of purpose.

Through his long-term documentary project, Oza has seen the difficulties associated with overcoming addiction and managing mental illness.

After getting permission to document each person’s life, he says he still had to earn their trust before they would fully open up.

“Sometimes I was just sitting with them as an observer. I didn’t have a camera the whole time.”

More than 60,000 people lost their lives in drug-related violence during the six-year term of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Instead of focusing on the rising death toll on the border, Oza wanted to look at another side of the war on drugs. He treated it as a matter of public health.

“I’m a photographer. I’m not a policy maker,” he said. “But I think when people see my work, they will be more aware of what is out there and what the consequences are.”

- Brett Roegiers, CNN