Drug Court Holds 80th Graduation At Edwards Park With Masks And Social Distancing In Place

Thursday, August 6, 2020 - by Mitch Talley, Whitfield County Director of Communications

Calvin’s father pulled him out of school when he was in the sixth grade. He couldn’t read or write and ran away when he was 13 years old. Life was hard, and he sometimes would eat out of dumpsters and steal things to get what he needed to survive. He hitchhiked all over the country, started doing a lot of drugs, and wound up in and out of youth detention centers, jails and prisons.

“I did not know any other way,” Calvin says now, “but drugs and alcohol.”

About two years ago, however, Calvin’s life finally took a turn in the right direction after he was accepted into the Conasauga Circuit Drug Court program.

In fact, he and nine other participants in the program – Heather, Meredith, Jennifer, Tomie, Michael, Gregory, John, Eric and Tanner - became the latest graduates from Drug Court on July 24.

Most of the first 78 such graduation ceremonies had been held in the Juror Assembly Room at the Whitfield County Courthouse, but the 79th graduation during the pandemic in May was forced to take advantage of technology and was shown only on the internet via Zoom.

This time, the 80th ceremony morphed again, moving to a large meeting room at Edwards Park Community Center where graduates, staff and guests wore masks and practiced social distancing, limited to three friends and family members in attendance.

Drug Court Judge Jim Wilbanks said he was glad to see a record number of graduates complete the program during trying times.

“Some programs just stopped - some programs have done not much of anything because they didn’t think they could be successful and continue with some high level of intensive treatment in this virus setting,” Judge Wilbanks said. “We made the decision – we being my amazing staff and team – that was not going to be us, so we have continued to do this program and move forward by using Zoom and some other individual counseling happening outside the Accountability Court building.”

Of course, Drug Court participants have grown accustomed to adversity in their lives.

Take Meredith, for example.

“I had never had any rehabilitation or professional help after my husband, best friend, then my Daddy died in just a few short months of each other,” she said. “My depression was dark and overwhelming. I couldn’t handle the pain. I had lost all sense of self control and right or wrong. I merely lived to use and used to live.”

Being accepted into Drug Court wasn’t an automatic path to redemption, however. “I entered Drug Court on a Thursday and made it through my first class on Friday morning and was back in county jail by Friday afternoon and headed to RSAT (Residential Substance Use Treatment Program, a nine-month program which targets high risk, high needs offenders in a correctional institution setting).”

While that wasn’t the preferred way, the end result has proven to be worth it for Meredith.

“Somewhere along the way, I began to smile again,” she said. “I began to trust this group of women and this Drug Court staff with my pain. I opened up. I found a sponsor in NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and began working the steps. The lost girl that entered Drug Court in December of 2017, the girl with no identity, no hope, no love, no control, no happiness or joy, now stands before you as a woman with self-esteem, self-love, boundaries, goals, hopes and dreams, respect, honesty, joy and unfaltering faith in my God above. True peace and happiness were once again mine!”

Heather, meanwhile, says her early recovery was also very challenging because she came into the program thinking she was going to do what she wanted and didn’t really need any help.

“I just didn’t want to be in jail,” she admitted. “However, my attitude towards the program, as well as my behaviors, led me once again to that very place. Sanction after sanction led me to RSAT.”

She came back from RSAT “a changed and determined woman” with “the strength to move forward in my recovery” and today is thankful for once more being a part of her child’s life, a “wonderful” NA program and able to set realistic and accomplishable goals.

Jennifer also spent time at RSAT because she was “really rebellious about giving up my old ways,” she said, admitting that “lying and manipulation were part of my life,” making entry into the recovery program difficult.

After “a few bumps in the road,” she’s grateful for the Drug Court team that never gave up on her, leading her to a different life where she has a strong bond with family members like her little sister, niece and nephew, a close friendship with her sponsor, and a welcome place in her home group.

Cutting off contact with others who are a bad influence is part of the program. In fact, Tomie says she had to spend time at PDC because her mother, also an addict, contacted her.

“Upon entering (Drug Court), my parents were no-contacts,” Tomie said. “I didn’t realize at the time that this would be a challenge for me and eventually a setback. Both my parents are addicts. I had to go 11 months without talking to or being able to see my two sons. This was the longest I’ve ever been away from (them).”

After completing the program, she calls her life “beautiful” and is grateful she can call her sons and is in the process of going back to school. As she puts it, “I set goals for myself and I achieve those goals.”

Eric, on the other hand, says he didn’t suffer from such a traumatic childhood. “I had parents who loved and nurtured me unconditionally and worked hard to make sure my sister and I had everything we needed and most everything we wanted,” he said. “Parents who instilled strong morals and values and taught me to the best of their ability how to be a man. Parents who made sure I was in church, to expose me to the most wholesome ways to live in order to form the happiest life possible in a manner that was pleasing to God.”

Unfortunately, right after high school, after being sheltered for so long, his curiosity got the best of him, Eric admits, and he began experimenting with alcohol and drugs. 

“I didn’t recognize the danger,” he said. “I thought that a drug addict was a weak-willed, spineless creature who must have no purpose in life or sense of worth. I would not, or could not fall into that trap, as I was an achiever, winning at the game of life and felt to have such great potential. But I was wrong.”

Experimentation quickly led to abuse, and it didn’t take long for Eric to realize his world was crumbling around him. Despite time in jail and prison and a trip to a 30-day inpatient treatment center, he remained “trapped and helpless” in addiction for more than 20 years. 

His wake-up call finally came when he wrecked his vehicle on Dec. 10, 2017 with a massive amount of drugs inside. “The difference this time was a 10-year-old daughter who desperately needed me,” he said. “I remember sitting in jail feeling desperate and alone facing not being able to wake up for Christmas with my family for the first time in my daughter’s life.

“How could I do this to her? I wasn’t raised this way. My parents never put me through it. How could I do this to her? I was consumed with guilt and remember praying to God and pleading for forgiveness and help. Here I was, after so many years running from Him, in a cold prison cell sending up foxhole prayers begging for just one more chance.”

Those prayers were answered in February 2018 when Eric was accepted into Drug Court. “I made a deal and commitment with God that day to become the dad my daughter deserves, the son my parents deserve, and the man I deserve,” he said. “So surrender came easy for me. Recovery was a smooth transition for me because I wanted to change. I was tired of being sick and tired and was ready to live.”

Eric says he knew he was in the right place when he felt God’s favor on him again. “For the first time since I was a little boy, I had honesty, acceptance, joy, freedom, courage, willingness, love and humility,” he said.

Eric expressed thanks to his fellow participants, grateful for the close relationships he has formed as he realized they also experienced the same feelings, sense of loss, doom, and degradation he had. “They too had been helpless, hopeless, and beaten down by the same hideous monster as me,” he said.

Like the other nine graduates, Eric also appreciates the dedicated and committed Drug Court staff. “Every one of you really have our best interests at heart and want us to succeed,” he said. “Since entering Drug Court, each one of you have been instrumental in helping me reach huge milestones such as getting out of a toxic marriage. You helped mold me into a man deserving enough to gain full custody of my daughter, you helped me quit smoking, get my license back. I’m a homeowner. I proudly work hard as I can at a small family business right beside my dad every day. I have a truck and a motorcycle paid off, and I maintain a checking and savings account.”

Michael, on the other hand, could have blamed his drug-addicted parents for turning him into an addict, too, but he candidly admits that he became an addict “because I made a choice to do so.”
Five years before entering Drug Court, he had gotten clean in a treatment program but didn’t remain so because he didn’t set boundaries “from the people that I hung out with, from the music I listened to, and from the places I would go,” he admits now.

“Because of not setting these boundaries, I began to have those feelings again,” he said. “I began to start drinking alcohol again. Shortly after that, I started using meth again. At that time, I relapsed and it was worse than ever before. I found myself locked up again in the same place that I had been before.”

Michael says he hit rock-bottom in jail when his grandmother – “the one person that really loved me and set an example before me” – passed away.
But then another family member stepped into the picture. Michael’s cousin was married to the pastor of a local church, and they welcomed Michael to the flock and offered the accountability that he needed for recovery.

“The Drug Court program taught me how to speak up, how to read and set boundaries,” he said. “I was able to put the things that I was taught going through the program in practice around my family and church that helped me build trusting relationships. It also helped me to get out of my comfort zone.”

Now, his hope for fellow Drug Court participants is that they reach the point where they surrender to the program. “Understand that you can’t be one way in the meetings and another way on the sidewalk,” he said. “You must accept the fact that you will not be successful unless you hang around sober people. I would encourage you to find a church family that will support you and be around people that will hold you accountable.”

Gregory, meanwhile, says he was in a miserably vicious cycle, with the extent of his day consumed by his quest to make sure he didn’t run out of drugs.

The last of many arrests landed him in Judge Wilbanks’ courtroom, he says, and that twist of fate allowed him “to examine the course of my life and the best ways to correct those behaviors.”

He soon learned that abandonment was a core issue for him, and he realized that his behavior was a carbon copy of his father’s behavior, making poor decisions and leaving it up to his wife to pick up the pieces.

“I always vowed to never put my family through the madness and hated that I was trapped in those same patterns,” he said. “Drug Court exposed the truth, as painful as it was, the work I did around it has shaped me into the father and husband my family deserves. I’m now the man my father should have been.”

John also had many of those same core issues, saying that he grew up with an absent father and felt unworthy of being loved. “This all led to me staying in trouble in my younger years and making the wrong decisions all the way to my addiction,” he said.

The program taught him to oversee his thoughts and feelings and proved to him that he can do anything he sets his mind to. “Now I can honestly say I feel that I am a productive member of society,” he said. “This program is designed to push you to your limits, to see how  you react under pressure, to use the tools you’ve learned in treatment. I have learned how to be pushed and to pick my battles instead of always being argumentative. I have learned to step back, take a deep breath, and start over when I’m upset and not to give up because things get hard.”

Tanner, meanwhile, admits he was hung over on his first day of Drug Court because “I remember thinking I better get really messed up because I won’t be able to for two years.”

Despite thinking that the other men in the program were “way older than me and were way ‘worse’ than me” on that first day, Tanner soon learned that “we were all the same.”

“We had an infinite appetite for drugs and alcohol that could not be satisfied,” he said, “and we were willing to follow that appetite all the way to prison or death.”

His early recovery was not smooth as he was staying up all night and barely getting to Drug Court on time to take drug tests. He learned his lesson, he says, after two days in jail for being late.

“I began to go to bed earlier and forced myself to wake up early to go work out before our groups every morning,” he said. “I had no self-discipline and this program forced me to grow up or go to prison. It was a rather easy choice for me. I had never been to jail sober before, and those two days were a great time of reflection for me.”

He says that selfishness is the root of all his troubles and almost landed him in state prison. “I gave up my way,” he says, “because it almost destroyed me. Today the only way I stay sober is going to meetings, reading, and asking my God to give me the strength for today and thanking Him before I go to sleep. In regards to selfishness: Give it up, it sucks!”

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