“One day I woke up, and this was my life, and I couldn’t get out.”
On the streets of L.A.’s notorious Skid Row, the smell of crack, heroin and human waste hangs in the air. For 47-year-old Khalil Rafati, it brings back old memories.
“That triggers me a little bit, seeing a syringe,” he laughed.
“I wouldn’t have even noticed that,” said correspondent Mireya Villarreal. “But you picked it up in an instant.”
“Yeah, ‘cause that’s what I used every 15 minutes,” he said.
Rafati was a homeless heroin addict who turned his life around and began a popular Los Angeles juice chain. He is now sharing his story to inspire others, documenting his unlikely journey in his book, “I Forgot to Die” (Lioncrest).
Rafati grew up in Ohio. He escaped a childhood scarred by physical and sexual abuse by moving to Los Angeles, but there was no escaping his demons. He started using and selling drugs.
That led to a felony drug conviction and, later, his descent into heroin addiction and homelessness.
Rafati showed Villarreal where he would get drugs and panhandle. “It’s like being hijacked,” he said. “You have to have drugs.”
More than once, Rafati ended up in the Los Angeles County Jail.
Withdrawals there, he said, were “the worst ever. On a cold, cement floor, just horrible.”
Rafati has been sober for 13 years now, but admits he still thinks about getting high sometimes. What stops him, he says, is the life he has now … a thriving business he built with his partner, Hayley Gorcey, and the roughly 200 employees that depend on him.
Sunlife Organics has six locations in Los Angeles. His flagship shop in Malibu, with its loyal celebrity clientele, sells superfood smoothies and a healthy lifestyle that Rafati credits with saving his life.
It’s a long way from Skid Row.
Villarreal asked, “What was the point where you were like, ‘No, this really is the end, I’m stopping’?”
“The seizures,” Rafati said. “The abscesses. My teeth were literally rotting out of my head. So just the physical condition that I was in really drove me to kind of have the realization that, like, my time is pretty much up if I don’t make a change.”
After finally getting clean, Rafati started working odd jobs doing yard work and cleaning houses. That led to steady jobs, then investments, and eventually a successful business venture focused on -- of all things -- wellness.
Rafati says he got a second chance at life. But his past remains very much a part of his present.
“The addict in me is what I bring to this operation,” he said. “This relentless pursuit of greatness and pure, authentic self-expression, that’s what it’s all about. So what I bring to the table is, yeah, being nuts.”
“Could you say that this has become your new drug?”
“This isn’t just my new drug,” he said. “This is my anti-depressant, and it’s the greatest anti-depressant I’ve ever tried, and I’ve tried ‘em all.”
Villarreal asked, “What is that advice that you give to, maybe not just recovering addicts, but also people out there who have the dream that you had of owning a business?”
“Never, ever, ever give up. That’s it. Never give up.”