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Felipe Nystrom: From drug addiction and despair to the world championship

By now in his late teens, Nystrom discovered a party scene around the electronic music that he loved.

Aided by drink and drugs, it came with the acceptance he craved.

“I went from being not popular to ‘Oh, this guy is the life of the party’ and ‘This guy’s cool’,” he said.

“People were messaging me. ‘Hey, man, we’re going to go drink, let’s go!’ or ‘We’re going to get ecstasy’ or whatever.”

That awkward, angry young man, traumatised by the abuse he had suffered as a child, had found a way to fit in.

But while most people indulged themselves now and again, Nystrom found that he didn’t want to put the brakes on.

He found the first in a series of jobs working in call centres taking bets from the United States, where, in most states, it was still illegal to gamble.

A reliable telecommunications network and a large bilingual workforce had made Costa Rica a go-to destination for the backroom operations of a booming online gaming industry that bypassed American laws.

It was an environment as soaked in drugs and alcohol as the clubs he had begun going to.

“At first, a gram of cocaine would last me a week, maybe two weeks,” says Nystrom. “Then only a week, then half a week, [and] then I was taking breaks at work to go do bumps of cocaine.”

Nystrom remembers a colleague warning that cocaine was “white death”. But he wasn’t interested.

“It was cool, it was dangerous, and I was like ‘I’m so sneaky, nobody can tell’,” he remembers.

“It was something that I would think about, years later, when I was lying on the street. I was like ‘Man, that guy was right’.”

At least partly aware of the road he was travelling, Nystrom describes how hard he tried to resist temptation, only inevitably to give in.

“My brain [was] saying ‘I don’t want to do drugs today’ and my body on autopilot was walking from my apartment to the payphone to call my dealer,” he says.

“And all the way thinking ‘No, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.’ But it was like I could not control myself. I had to get to the payphone.”

He began to hallucinate: hearing voices, imagining he was being tracked on the street or being monitored by microphones and cameras secretly installed at his home.

“It was horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible. I was losing touch with reality,” he says.

No longer able or interested in going to work, he lost the last of his jobs, ran out of places to stay, and found himself on the street.

He was there for more than a year – sleeping in alleyways, begging for money, scavenging for food.

Staff at one of the local fast-food restaurants would sometimes leave a bag of tacos next to the bin at the end of the day.

“And all the time, [I] was begging for money, to go do drugs. It was all about the drugs,” Nystrom says.

Even in such extreme circumstances, bitter memories of his previous life broke through.

Nystrom sometimes used discarded newspapers to try to keep warm.

“I remember looking at a newspaper and seeing the sports section, and pictures of guys that I grew up playing soccer with, were now on the national team,” he says.

After more than a year of living on the streets, with seemingly no way out from his addiction and wracked with guilt about abandoning a young son whose mother he had separated from before the birth, Nystrom came to the desperate decision to end his life.

“I knew I couldn’t stop. It didn’t work. And so finally I decided, I can’t do this anymore,” he says.

He had tried several times in the past, but this time, on this day – 27 September 2012 – he says, he meant it:

“As soon as it was light, I went and started begging for money. I managed to get enough to buy what I thought would be enough drugs to die. I hadn’t put that much effort into anything in years. There was no way I was going to be alive the next day.

“I went into a used clothing store and stole a pair of jeans, and then I stole a polo shirt, because I didn’t want them to find me in rags. I had just enough money left to check myself into a cheap motel, so I could take a shower, because when they found me, I wanted to be clean.

“The last thing I remember was thinking that I needed to buy more beer. The next thing is opening my eyes and seeing two paramedics in front of me.

“There was this incredible rush of emotions: anger was the first one. Then fear and sadness because this was supposed to be it, I wasn’t supposed to be alive anymore.

“I remember trying to fight and the guy hugging me. It was the first time I’d been hugged in I don’t know how many years. He just held me while I was trying to fight him and said ‘It’s going to be OK. I don’t know how. But it’s going to be OK’.”

Nystrom’s life had been saved by a concerned motel receptionist who came to check on him and called the emergency services.

Before that last suicide attempt, he had sworn that this was the end and, if, somehow, he found himself still living, he would do what was needed to change.

That decision was reinforced when he witnessed a grieving family in the hospital in which he was recovering.

He can’t explain why they had such an impact on him. He had seen much violence and pain before, but this time, for some reason, it was different.

“It was like this weight that I had been carrying for who knows how long had been lifted,” he says. “Like I finally knew what I needed to do, where I was going to go.”

He headed to a rehab centre in San Jose, where the staff were clear. They would give him food, a bed, but no second chances. If he failed to follow their rules, if he slipped up, he was out and on his own.

“I’m alive today because of those people,” Nystrom says.

He describes the blissful feeling of simply falling asleep – as opposed to passing out through intoxication or exhaustion – but also the physical pain he felt as his body adjusted to a life without drugs.

There was temptation. He considered sneaking out and joining a party which was going on just over the wall from the treatment centre. Part of his brain told him, now he’d made a start, he could manage his recovery on his own.

But, somehow, the moment for him to quit the programme never came. He stayed the course and started the long climb to a different life.

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