“You know, man, I’m in this place where part of me hesitates to tell my story because of concerns about reputation and my business and all that, but at the same time, this is just who I am. It’s who I am to want to help people. That’s what this is about. Addiction doesn’t have the stigma that it had ten years ago, but it still has a stigma. A lot of people think that it’s a moral failure, and it might be that with some people, I don’t know. That was part of it for me. I did bad shit. I lied. I treated people wrong. I took advantage of people. I was ungrateful. I was inconsiderate… all that stuff. I was a nasty person. But, the thing that was fueling all that was what I know today as the sickness of addiction- that I was obsessed with doing drugs and getting more drugs. Anyone that slowed me down or got in my way, family events, Christmas, whatever, it was just ‘Get the fuck off me, I’ve got to go.’”
Addiction and substance abuse are a problem not only in Macon, but in towns all across the country. The Surgeon General’s report describes this chronic illness as “the use of alcohol or drugs in a manner, situation, amount, or frequency that could cause harm to the user or to those around them. Alcohol and drug misuse and related substance use disorders affect millions of Americans and impose enormous costs on our society. In 2015, 66.7 million people in the United States reported binge drinking in the past month and 27.1 million people were current users of illicit drugs or misused prescription drugs.”
Joshua Hale spoke with The 11th Hour about his struggles with addiction.
What follows is the powerful story of his ongoing recovery.
Addiction doesn’t discriminate. I didn’t become an addict because of where I grew up, it wasn’t because of my family, wasn’t because of a lack of spirituality or anything like that. There was something inside me that made me an addict. I had my first drink of alcohol when I was seven, and that night, it turned something on in me that had never been turned on before. I don’t know if everybody experiences that. All I know is that I did, and a lot of the other alcoholics and addicts that I’ve talked to, they remember their very first drink. They remember it vividly, whether they were seven or 27. It is a burning bush type of experience. I got exposed to other drugs when I was around 12 or 13. Smoking weed, snorting cocaine, recreational type stuff. The rest of my life was going along fairly normally. I went to school, did normal stuff, played sports, you know, it wasn’t like I became a drug addict over night. The wheels started coming off for me when I was introduced to prescription pain medication. I injured my shoulder and had my wisdom teeth cut out within a month of each other and I was prescribed large quantities of pain medications for both. That was the first time I ever felt physically addicted to something where if I didn’t take it, I didn’t feel right. I would get anxious, physically sick, and irritable every time I tried to quit taking them.”
“While I was considered a party animal in social circles, I didn’t think much of it. But, something changed in me when I got on those pills… and it scared me. I had heard the terms ‘addiction’ and ‘alcoholism’ all my life, but I always felt like if I wanted to quit, I would just quit. So, I decided to quit and went to my first treatment facility at 19 years old, Willingway Hospital down in Statesboro. They pumped my head full of all this information about addiction that was cutting edge at that time; now, it’s pretty widely accepted that addiction is an illness, a mental illness. It’s a progressive, chronic illness. In other words, once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict, it will never be safe for you to use mind altering or mood changing chemicals again. As to the progressive nature of the illness, they taught if you stay clean for four months, then you start back using, it won’t be like you’re starting over, and it won’t be like you picked up where you left off. It would be like you never quit using at all. I didn’t buy into any of that stuff. It just didn’t make logical sense to me. I felt like I was going to treatment and that would nip it in the bud. In fact, I thought spending 30 days off in treatment was a pretty drastic measure. After all, I had left everything in my life for a whole month! So, I completed the 30-day treatment program and came home.
But, nine days after I’m home, I’m using again. Didn’t even think twice about it, just went and used and after I got high, I said, ‘Damn, what have I done?’ It wasn’t like I was laying my head in the toilet bowl puking saying ‘I’m never doing this again.’ This was different. I had made a real commitment. I just spent a month of my life in a treatment facility. I swore I would never use again. Nine days after I’m home, I’m high again. I began to realize there was something wrong with me.
In Macon, Centenary Community Ministries, Inc. (“CCMI”) owns and operates a sober living house known as the Centenary Transitional House (“CTH”). The CCMI Board, along with CCMI Executive Director Eric Mayle, oversee CTH and handle the administration of the house. Joshua Hale and Don Wilkinson, who is not only a person in recovery, but a Certified Addiction Counselor, work with the residents from a therapeutic recovery perspective. Numerous people from the local recovery community, Centenary United Methodist Church, and elsewhere contribute in various ways to CTH. The purpose of CTH is to help recovering addicts get back on their feet and become contributing members of the community, but a lot of steps must be taken before that is possible.
The first step is detoxification, commonly known as “detox.” Detox can be miserable for the addict. During this stage, many addicts do not want to live and simply return to their addiction for relief. They simply cannot see that their lives can ever get better and that getting clean is worth the pain they feel during detox. In fact, detox can be so horrific that it’s deadly. For these reasons, medical assistance is recommended for anyone in need of detox and it is required by CTH. There are detox programs at The Medical Center, Coliseum, and River Edge Behavioral Health Center here in Macon. Typically, it takes about a week to detoxify an addict to the point that they are not in danger of seizures and their head has cleared enough to begin engaging in the recovery process.
After completing detox, addicts seeking help may come to CTH after a vetting process. The first step in that vetting process is an interview, some bloodwork, and a background check. “We have the bloodwork to check for HIV, Hepatitis C, and a few other issues that are not uncommon with addicts. You have to begin taking responsibility for your past actions. Similarly, in the background check, we don’t care about the crimes someone has committed nearly as much as we care about whether they are being honest with us and with themselves about their history,” Hale told The 11th Hour. “This is not the time for judgment. However, actions speak louder than words, so we require action of the residents from day one. We have a very structured program where you have to earn what you get. The first thing you begin to earn is some trust by being honest about what we find on the background check. Honesty is the building block for everything we do in recovery.”
Currently, recovery facilities are a weak point in our community, due to the lack of funding and the limitations of treatment. Sober living houses similar to CTH typically cost over $1,000.00 per month. Once an addict has gone through detox, unless they have the money for a longer stay in such a facility, there is very little to keep them from returning to using. All too often, detox facilities are a “revolving door” for addicts. They come in every few months just long enough to catch their breath, then they go on another run. One way to combat this problem is to release the addict from detox and into a sober living house. This is the purpose of the CTH.
I moved in with some people that were sober and I stayed clean for nine months after that one episode. I thought I’d stay clean forever, but I ended up relapsing after that nine months. That was when the progressive nature of this thing reared its ugly head. At that point in my life, I had never smoked crack, I’d never stuck a needle in my arm, but within weeks of my relapse, I was doing both. The first time I sunk that needle in my arm, a whole new world opened up. Another guy shot me up with heroin and it was just as much of a turning point as when I had had my first drink. It took my breath away. It knocked me out, and when I woke up, I said, ‘I’m doing that shit every day for the rest of my life… as much as I can… as often as I can.’ I changed. For the next four years of my life, if there’s something you can do to get drugs, or to get money to get drugs, I probably did it.
I was hanging out with criminals, I was hanging out with people that were dying, and I became a junkie. I became a lowlife. I spent the next four years in and out of jail, in and out of detox, on probation, trying to detox just long enough to go in to the probation office and pass a drug test.
I would sit in that office knowing I was about to pass the drug test because I hadn’t used in about a week, but having that freight train rolling in my head… I just couldn’t get out of there fast enough to go get something. I would get out of there and be running red lights, like, flying to the dope house if I didn’t have it in my car already. Just complete tunnel vision. I had an obsession, from the moment I woke up, until I passed out or fell asleep, I was either thinking about doing drugs, enjoying being high, or thinking about a way to get more. It just pushed everything else out of my life. I was so obsessed with drugs that I couldn’t do anything else.
When I would detox before reporting in, I would get to two or three days clean, the fog would start to lift, and I would say, ‘What have I done? Why have I done this to myself again? This shit is awful, It’s killing me. My family hates me. People want nothing to do with me. Why do I keep doing this shit?’ I went to great lengths to clean up long enough to pass those drug tests. I shaved my head one time. I would fast and not eat anything. I would pray asking God to take this thing away from me, but I would leave that probation office and man, it was on.
I stayed on probation for 20 months that way, reporting once a month. I’d blast out for three weeks, be suicidal and insane for the first couple days of detox, then go report once I was detoxed. I finally failed a drug test and they locked me back up in the fall of 2007.
At CTH, strict accountability is stressed to the addicts living in the house. Residents of the home cannot leave the house by themselves or seek employment until they have shown the requisite accountability and respected the house rules for at least 90 days. Addicts who have advanced in the program and have some clean time help the new guys coming out of detox and into the house. They share their experience of how they have been learning to live without using. The local recovery community and 12-step meetings are also a significant source of support. “We see addicts from all walks of life,” says Wilkinson, “being an addict doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or a weak person, or a stupid person. You’re sick and you’re trying to get well; accept it and work towards your goal.”
It is throughout these first few months that the transition begins and the addict must earn back their responsibilities. “When you’re an addict, you take and you take and you take from society. The purpose of our program is that it’s time to give back,” says Hale. While CTH does not charge the addicts when coming into the house, a percentage of the income they earn once they begin working while residing in the house goes to CTH. While this only covers a fraction of the operating costs of CTH, it is invaluable to the residents’ recovery that they contribute. “Everyone has to contribute while they continue their recovery,” says Wilkinson. “Detox gets the chemicals out of your system, but the chemicals aren’t the problem; addiction is the problem.” Wilkinson pauses before continuing, “A lot of people think that drugs and alcohol are the problem, but they aren’t. They’re the solution you’re using to fix your problem.”
When working with residents, Hale and Wilkinson confront the addicts’ behavior more than they listen to what the addict says. “I look at it more as ‘care-front,’” Wilkinson chuckles. Wilkinson holds group meetings at Centenary Church on Monday nights at 6:30 PM for addicts and their families. “Alcoholics and addicts have a bond the way that parents who have lost a child have a bond. You can recognize that pain in their eyes as soon as you see it. But for addicts, both have to have reached that bottom to notice it. That’s what recovery is all about: people sharing their similar problems.”
Living in full blown addiction, it’s like losing your soul, but having it at the same time. The thing I loved more than anything in the world was the thing I hated more than anything in the world. The thing that made me feel better than anything in the world was the thing that made me feel worse than anything in the world. It’s like being two different people. Some people say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. But, my definition of insanity became, ‘I know exactly what I’m doing, I know what’s going to happen when I do it, and I just can’t make it stop. I’m doing this shit anyway.’ It would happened every single time. I would get down in the same pit. The same misery, broke and strung out, disgusted and miserable, not even wanting to look in the mirror, but I could not stop myself from going there.
At one of my lowest points, me and one of my buddies went into the ‘hood to get some crack, and we had these $100 bills that looked real, but on one side it said ‘There’s some things money can’t buy,’ and it had these scripture verses on it. So, me and my buddy would take them and fold a $20 bill around it and hold it out and tell people we wanted $120 worth of dope. They would hand the dope at the same time we handed the money. Word was getting around that people were doing that and one night we were getting some dope from these two guys, and they wanted us to get out of the car and meet them. I tried to tell them we didn’t need to do it that way, but long story short, we got out and one of them nodded at the other one, then nodded at me, then they jumped my buddy. They wrestled him to the ground. They’re kicking him in the face. They’re kicking him in the ribs. They messed him up. I grew up fighting. To me, it was about a sense of loyalty. If someone tries to jump on you, I’m jumping in. I’d always been that way. But, not that night. I sat there and watched them pound on my friend and all I could think about was that dope in my pocket and whether they were going to try and take it. I felt terrible about myself while I was watching it, but I never moved a muscle, never said a word. I just let them have their way with him until they were finished. He got up, we got in the car and took off, but all my buddy cared about was whether I still had that dope in my pocket. He never said a word to me about not jumping in. He was the same way I was.
CTH is a men’s only facility, leaving a major void in the Middle Georgia area for women who are in recovery. There is a facility at River Edge called LifeSPRING that caters specifically to women in need of help for substance abuse However, this comes with many challenges, especially financially. The LifeSPRING program offered by River Edge is a lot like CTH in that it is a closed program so that the patients are not out among the ‘Earth People,’ which is a commonly used term by people in recovery for referring to those who aren’t addicts. In LifeSPRING, the patients help with housekeeping and earn privileges. “Insurance doesn’t cover treatment after detox, and a lot of people don’t have the money to continue their treatment,” Sherry Trotter, a certified addiction counselor from Coliseum, clarifies, adding “and it’s not just the money for treatment that people struggle with; a lot of times they have a hard time getting transportation to and from meetings.” Because of this, a lot of addicts are unable to find their place among the group and therefore aren’t able to build up enough trust in the process. “Addicts don’t trust anybody. Their families don’t trust them. They don’t trust themselves. So, they have a hard time trusting in others. When they aren’t able to trust their group, they’re absent and missing out on that community treatment they so badly need.”
I went on like that for four years until my miracle happened. It was almost like the stars aligned. I met my dad in a Bob Evans and was telling him how terrible my life had become and I believed with all my heart that he’d have been better off if I’d never been born. A guy happened to see me in there who knew I was strung out and he said to me, ‘Man we have got to get you well.’ He invited me to come to his office to talk. I took him up on the offer. Sitting at a chair across from his desk, he read me like a book and spoke some heavy and hurtful truth to me. He spoke of my failure to beat my addiction. He spoke of my powerlessness and how I was overwhelmed, confused, even baffled by the beating my addiction had put on me. He touched on the fact that even my heartfelt prayers and crying out to God Himself had not been enough, that I simply could not beat this thing without help from people Then, in a moment more profound than my first drink or shot of heroin, something happened. Something changed inside me. The only way I can describe it is that I was given some hope in a place that I hadn’t had any hope in a long time.
I signed a contract with him saying that I needed two or three men in my life to help me figure out how to live without drugs, that I needed to go somewhere safe and detox, and that I had to have fun sober or I would never stick with it. There had to be something that was as good as being high or why even fool with it. The awareness that came to me in that office was nothing less than miraculous. The main thing I realized was that I wasn’t going to beat this thing by trying harder. I wasn’t going to beat it by hating it. I wasn’t even going to beat it by praying. I needed people to help me. I don’t know how I realized it. I take zero credit for it. Alcoholics have historically had what are commonly called “moments of clarity” and I was fortunate enough to experience one. Miracles like this happen every day in the recovery community.
On January 21, 2008 I went back to detox in Statesboro. I was there about four or five days, and they were telling me I needed to stay down there and go into long-term treatment, and I said I needed to pray about it. The doctor at the detox center just rolled his eyes and sighed at me. I went into my closet and asked God what I should do, and as I was praying I saw a big neon sign in my mind that said ‘Kentucky,’ for me to go back home to Kentucky. I told the doctor that I thought God was telling me to go back to Kentucky and he said ‘I don’t think you need to go anywhere near those damn hills for a long time.’ He turned around and walked out of the room.
I went to my counselor and told him that I thought God was telling me to go back to Kentucky and he told me, ‘That’s just your addiction talking. Your thinking has been your problem this whole time You have people here who know how to help you, who are able to help you, yet you still think something you heard in your head when you’re four days clean is what you need to do. You need to stay here.’
That night I went to a meeting, and there was a guy in there who told his story of addiction and recovery. When he hit his bottom, he was a college professor who drove a red 1965 mustang, but he poured a liter of vodka down his neck every day. Never did a drug a day in his life, but when he told his story, he talked about how obsessed he was with drinking and how it pulled him apart on the inside. How he loved it more than anything in the world, and at the same time, hated it more than anything in the world. He was just pinging what went on in my heart. In 45 minutes of that man standing up and talking about what happened to him, he gained my trust. He didn’t even know my name. I don’t even remember if he made eye contact with me, but I began to trust him and I couldn’t even help it. I went up to him after the meeting and I said, ‘Look man, I’m real screwed up. I’m a bad drug addict. I know I need some help. I think God is telling me to go back to Kentucky. These people are telling me to stay down here and go into long-term treatment. What do you think I should do?’ He said to me, ‘I think you need to stay right here.’ That moment was the first time in my life I can remember when somebody told me to do something with my life that I didn’t think was a good idea, but I did it anyway. I had begun to let people help me. That’s the story of my recovery from that day on.
From the Surgeon General report on addiction:
• In 2015, over 66 million people aged 12 or older (nearly a quarter of the adult and adolescent population) reported binge drinking in the past month. Binge drinking, for men, is having 5 or more drinks and, for women, 4 or more drinks on the same occasion.
• In 2015, 20.8 million people aged 12 or older in the U.S. had a substance use disorder.
• Behavioral health problems such as substance use, violence, impaired driving and risky sexual activity are now the leading cause of death for those aged 15-24.
• Alcohol misuse contributes to 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year; 1 in 10 deaths among working adults is due to alcohol.
• In 2014, more than 47,000 people died from drug overdose. Nearly 30,000 of which died from an overdose involving prescription drugs.
At the advice of the folks running the detox, I went into a halfway house and spent 14 months in there. During the time I was in that house, the things that they told me to do started to make sense to me. I started thinking that I was actually going to make it this time. I really started gaining momentum with this thing. I was telling the guys who were in the house that I had found something that was bulletproof, that I wasn’t even wanting to use anymore. I got a job cleaning out horse stalls at a farm. I didn’t have a vehicle. I had to ride a bicycle 11 miles everyday. There had been days early on when I was embarrassed to be riding that bike. There were days I had hated shoveling that horse manure. Then, one day , I was riding that bike down the road next to a big open field where nothing was growing at the time. There were big pine trees surrounding it on all sides. I was going along and I could see the trees one by one turning around as I rode past, and I was just thinking, ‘Man, I wouldn’t trade places with anybody- People who have money… or people who have a nice house.” There was no place I wanted to be other than right there, doing what I was doing. At that point in my recovery, everything I had in my life became valuable. That job, that bike, just everything.
The feeling I had that day was not an emotion. It was deeper than that. Deep down in my soul, I felt okay. A friend of mine calls it “catching a buzz” while you’re sober. And, I started catching a buzz sober everyday as often as I could; I found it by being honest, by doing something for somebody else. Just random acts of kindness. Don’t tell anybody, don’t let them see, just do it, do it because it’s good. I started doing that and it was sparking me up. I started feeling a part of the world again. When I would go shopping at Walmart, if the lady gave me an extra penny, I would give it back. I wasn’t about to let some dishonesty kill my buzz! Something just changed in me that I wanted to live straight and it felt good. I felt better than I did with the best buzz drugs ever gave me.
I graduated from that halfway house after 14 months, and I needed every day of it. They let me graduate a little early because I agreed to work for them for a year as the “house manager.” I got to run the house that had saved my life. During that time, I finished college and was planning on going into drug and alcohol counseling, but I decided I didn’t want to make a career out of counseling. It wasn’t a job to me. This was something I loved to do, it was my whole world.
Someone asked if I had ever thought about going to law school. I thought that was a bit of a lofty goal because of my history, but I decided I had nothing to lose. Frankly, I didn’t know how much of my brain was left! I took the Law School Admissions Test and I slayed it. I started applying to all these schools, and one by one they turned me down. Mercer University, here in Macon, was the best school that I applied to, so I figured it was a long shot. In fact, I had already begun thinking of a “plan B” because I thought there was no way I would get in… but, they took a chance on me! I was in the Georgia Southern library when I found out and I was screaming and running around the library high-fiving my buddies yelling, ‘I got in! I got in!’
I started law school that Fall of 2010 here in Macon, and I figured I would go into criminal law, work in drug court and hope to one day open a long term, sober living house. The process of watching someone change, watching someone reintegrate themselves into the community is really close to my heart. I love that and I want to be part of it. But, as I was hammering through law school, I went in a different direction. I was around a lot of business people and I loved it, and I never even saw it coming. I began to learn about helping people take care of their business from a legal perspective and I had a knack for it. I was still doing my recovery stuff behind the scenes, going to 12-step meetings, working with guys one on one and everything. I was just enjoying getting back into society.
Then, I found out about Centenary Church. I learned that the church used to have a transitional house at one point in time and were looking to start another one. So, I jumped into the conversation. I was introduced to Eric Mayle, the Executive Director of CCMI, and we hit it off. We began working with the CCMI Board to design a program. We knew we needed a counselor, a professional, and we invited Don Wilkinson. Don graciously accepted and brought his wisdom and experience to the table. He’s seasoned. I call him the “Peace Guru.” We started taking people in off the streets. Some of them needed detoxing, so we sent them to local detox facilities. Over time, River Edge began to start funneling some people over to us. The sober living house was hard to get started because a lot of people come in, get a month clean, and think they had found permanent recovery. They would think everything was all good. Then, they leave and relapse. We see this all the time. But it’s that long term part that is key. We’ve been open for two and a half years and the house is really just now starting to gain momentum. It’s amazing how effective the message of recovery, coming from one addict to another, can be.
Someone told me one time that the key to long-term sobriety is, at some point you have to go from being a taker to being a giver. If all you ever do is sit back and say, ‘I want this, I want that,’ if you don’t ever become a giver and get your heart set on helping people, you’ll forget where you came from and you’ll lose all of your recovery. And, I’ve had a front row seat to watch that happen with a lot of people. But, every person who relapses, or who just can’t seem to find their way, helps me remember where I come from and helps to keep me on the way. I’m doing great now. But, if I ever forget where I come from, it would be like cutting my legs out from under me. If I’m not right in my heart, I won’t have anything. On the other hand, so long as my heart is in the right place, and I don’t drink or use, everything in my life is valuable, and I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. I just keep getting higher.
Hale is married to Jessica Griffith Hale, a native of Macon, who is also a person in recovery. Jessica has been clean since February 17, 2007. They have one son, John Wilder Hale, who was born in September, 2016. Together, they own and operate Maynard’s Mill Farm where they raise horses, sheep, goats, and honey bees. Hale founded Lighthouse Law Firm in May, 2016. A unique practice has grown up around Joshua that is primarily focused on real estate transactions. Dovetailing with his transactional practice, Joshua also offers business counsel. Last but not least, Joshua is what some would consider an “old-fashioned” lawyer in the sense that he uses his law license to do a significant amount of pro bono and charitable work in the community.
Medical assistance is available for local detox in several capacities: (1) River Edge Behavioral Health Center offers a detox program. In order to get into this detox, you must be assessed at the River Edge Mental Health Clinic at 175 Emery Highway, Macon, Georgia 31217 and can be reached by telephone at (478)803-7600; (2) The Emergency Room at Navicent Health (The Medical Center) offers a detox program. It is located on 777 Hemlock Street, Macon, Georgia 31201 and can be reached by phone at (478)633-1000; (3) Coliseum Center for Behavioral Health offers a detox program. It is located at 340 Hospital Drive, Macon, Georgia 31217 and can be reached by phone at (478)741-1355.