“The madness of addiction was the only way of life that I knew. I was homeless, felt worthless, I had lost custody of my children, and I had no one to turn to.”

“I spent a total of 17 years in prison, and never learned anything except more criminal thinking and behavior. I was stuck in a vicious cycle and never had a chance at recovery.”

“I was tired of being in and out of jail, tired of being controlled by crime and substance, but more than anything, I was tired of hurting everyone I came in contact with.”

“Growing up with a mother and stepfather who were addicts, I never really knew what a healthy life was.”

“I was in addiction for 20 years and during that time, I had broken and destroyed everything and everyone that I loved or even touched.”

Those were just a few of the comments made by the five most recent graduates of the Conasauga Circuit Drug Court, members of the program’s 75th graduating class.

While their lives may have seemed hopelessly damaged two years ago, now these five people — Charlotte Ware, Lee Grogan, Richard Morrison, Cody Martin and Randall Warren — have made significant progress, according to letters they wrote to Conasauga Circuit Drug Court Judge Jim Wilbanks.

Ware, for instance, has been accepted by Georgia Northwestern Technical College. Grogan says he is now trustworthy and has a steady job and healthy relationships. Morrison was baptized and joined a church, then saw all three of his children get saved and baptized. Martin describes himself as “a good father” and “a good friend” and says he is financially stable and has bought a vehicle. Warren has a new car and savings for a rainy day and has been helping build a church from nothing.

Those life-changing feats did not go unnoticed by their family, friends, Wilbanks and members of the Drug Court treatment team during a celebration at the Whitfield County Courthouse on May 23, when they received certificates for completing the intensive 24-month (and sometimes longer) program.

After all, Wilbanks for years has called Drug Court “the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”

“I’m a strong believer that this program is about permanent recovery,” Wilbanks said. “Anybody can get into temporary recovery, but the reason we focus on permanent recovery is because we want our graduates to leave here and be successful. Their core issues have been addressed in a very positive, therapeutic way. Once they leave here, they will have the tools for the rest of their lives to stay clean. That’s our goal.”

The judge pointed to Grogan as a prime example.

The 51-year-old Grogan has been in jail one-third of his life, some 17 years.

“I had two choices,” Wilbanks said. “We were either going to take him in the program and give it our darnedest to help him get his life turned around, or I was going to send him back to prison. Lee is the example of who we want to focus on — high-risk, high-need. Can you think of anyone that’s a higher risk or higher need based on his addiction for all those years than Lee? Again, I’m not picking on you, Lee; I’m just happy you’re here. I’m happy you chose to come in this program — you accepted the invitation because you wanted to change your life.”

Not everyone is eligible for the program. Once someone has been referred to Drug Court, the treatment team assesses each person and makes a recommendation to the judge whether they are suitable. It is ultimately up to Wilbanks to make the final decision, and then it’s up to the person to accept. When the judge sees people successfully complete the program and turn their lives around, it’s obvious why he frequently calls Drug Court “the best thing I do.”

Wilbanks praised the efforts of retired Judge Jack Partain for starting the Drug Court program nearly 20 years ago.

Partain, at the courthouse serving as a fill-in judge, stopped by the graduation ceremony and talked about the early days of the Drug Court program.

“It all started when I was in Judge (Coy) Temples’ office one day in 2001,” Partain said. “I went into his office for no good reason — I don’t even know why — and he said, 'I want you to check this out.'”

A brochure on his desk described a then relatively new idea known as Drug Court. “Judge Temples said, I don’t know what this is, but they’re going to have a seminar down in Brunswick and how about going down there and just checking it out to see what it’s all about?”

That three-day trip soon turned into a program that since its first days in 2002 has literally changed the lives of dozens of local residents — and their families. That much was obvious from the appreciative comments of moms, dads, relatives and friends of the five latest graduates — not to mention the hugs given to them by their smiling children.

“If I can get somebody in recovery, then typically what happens is they’re going to reunite with their children,” Wilbanks said. “Their children are either in family care or state care (before Drug Court). We have a lot of children in foster care, and the driving force of that is drugs. So in this program we’re fighting our own battle not only against addiction but also about the reunification of the family, children with their parents, and when we have that happen, then we have people getting into jobs in the community — they’re back with family, they’re in churches, they’re paying taxes, everything’s good. We’ve got the children out of care — I mean, across the board, this is happening because they’re in recovery, and these children are a driving force for our staff. And we focus on that a lot.”

The program also focuses a lot on two basic principles — honesty and transparency. That’s one reason why the graduation ceremony includes old photos of the participants, often not very flattering mug shots. Once they’ve received their diplomas, though, those photos are torn up because that person doesn’t exist anymore.

“I can guarantee you when Charlotte steps up here, for example,” Wilbanks said, “you will know that is not the same person that’s graduating today, which is the point.”

In their traditional letters to the judge, the latest graduates offered words of wisdom to others in the community who may be facing addiction problems.

“If I can get clean and sober, anyone can do it,” Ware said. “Never give up hope! The sky starts at your feet and it is never too late to start following your dreams.”

“Surrender to this program,” Morrison said, “and then surrender to God. His plan is way better than ours.”

Said Martin: “If there were one thing that I could share, it would be get outside of yourself. Once you start looking at life as the gem that it is, you will be able to grow and treasure even the smallest of things that this world has to offer.”

“The message I would like to give to my peers is do not take this time for granted,” Warren said. “Do not cheat yourself on your recovery. Dig in and get the junk out even when it is uncomfortable because you will gain so much in your life to come.”

Next graduation

The Conasauga Circuit Drug Court, which serves Whitfield and Murray counties, will hold its 76th graduation ceremony on Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Whitfield County Courthouse. A reception with refreshments will follow. Judge Jim Wilbanks, who will deliver the keynote address, warmly invites the public.

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