[Editor's note: This story was submitted to NewsChannel 9 by Mitch Talley, Whitfield County Communications Director.]
A little over two years ago, Olivia McDonald describes herself as “literally a ticking time bomb and a very destructive woman.”
“I felt like I simply existed with no purpose in this world,” she said.
Fast forward to February 2019, though, and this Whitfield County woman describes her life now as “nothing short of amazing.”
She gives the credit for the turnaround to the Conasauga Drug Court program.
Surrounded by a room full of family, friends and Drug Court staff members, McDonald and five other participants in the program – Brittani Curl, Samantha Silvers, Jason Chastain, Donnie Ensley, and Lamar Hance – celebrated their completion of the program during the 73rd graduation ceremony held Feb. 21 at the Whitfield County Courthouse.
“If you had told me 27 months ago that treatment would have provided my life with so much improvement, I would have told you it was not possible,” McDonald said, reading to the crowd from a letter she had written to Judge Jim Wilbanks, who oversees the Drug Court program. “Hopelessness was replaced by faith, fear replaced by confidence, and anger replaced by peace.”
McDonald’s success story includes earning her GED while in the program. She will start classes at Georgia Northwestern Technical College this month, seeking a degree as an addiction specialist and social work assistant.
“My goals are to successfully complete college, get my footing in my career in the recovery community, so that I have an opportunity to give back what was freely given to me,” she said. “I did not go through everything I have been through for nothing. I believe it all happened for a reason. I could be effective and successful and have the ability to truly make a difference.”
Judge Wilbanks and his treatment staff have witnessed many such transformations in the years since Judge Jack Partain spearheaded the organization of Drug Court beginning in 2001.
“My goal for this program – and it has been since the beginning – is permanent recovery,” Wilbanks says. “Some programs don’t use two words to describe recovery – I do. This is not just about recovery - this is about permanent recovery, so that’s why we focus on core issues. That’s why this is a 24-month program. It takes time just to get the chemicals out of the brain so you can start thinking like a real person again. So we work to get them to that point, and from there we grow with them as they grow in their recovery.”
Recovering from drug addiction isn’t a “one size fits all” program. As they struggle with dealing with the core issues that contributed to their addiction in the first place, participants sometimes encounter setbacks along the way and have to face punishment from the judge.
As one graduate’s mother succinctly put it, “Drug Court isn’t for sissies.”
Wilbanks agrees. “I tell people on the front end when they plead into the program, this will be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done in your life. I say that because Judge Partain always said it, and I also say it because it’s true. Now I’ve got a bunch of participants and a bunch of graduates here today – anybody want to disagree with me about this statement I just made? I’m happy to have you disagree I don’t see any hands.”
While the program isn’t easy, the rewards are great.
“I want to thank you for the opportunity you gave me,” Curl said in her letter to the judge. “This program has saved my life and taught me how to live. When I came into Drug Court, I was broken, scared, lost, and hopeless. I am grateful for the people who have helped me get to where I am today, standing in front of you with my head held high.
“Today my life is awesome. I have my relationship back with my son. My family respects the woman I am today. I have been on my job for more than a year. I plan to start college this year to further my education. I have a relationship with God today. I thank God that He gave me another chance at life.”
Silvers echoed that sentiment, saying: “I had some really tough issues to work through from my past, and there were times I felt like quitting, but God gave me the courage and the strength I needed to keep pushing forward. I truly believe that God put each and every one of you in my life to show me that there are people who care and wanted to help me.”
Chastain, who had the distinction of graduating sanction-free, says he battled drug use for 25 years before it escalated to the point that “it destroyed anything good that I attempted.”
“Entering the Drug Court program, I met some people that had such a similar story,” he said. “I was placed at the Providence Homeless Shelter, where I discovered why my past attempts had failed. I had never learned to surrender my will to my higher power which I now call God.”
Ensley likewise says his life before Drug Court “was full of anxiety, anger, and fear.”
“I had no confidence in myself or my abilities,” he says, “and I felt like I was a failure. In order to deal with life, I turned to drugs and alcohol. In October of 2015, my using took a turn for the worse and I was charged with multiple counts of felony possession. I was in danger of losing everything and everyone that I cared about.”
Two months later, though, his life began to change when he entered the Drug Court program.
“I started to like myself for the first time in my life,” he said. “It was all in my mind. If I could gain control of my thoughts, I could change for the good. Through counseling, M-TREM, meeting with my sponsor, the Resolve Program, and anger management classes, my mind started to change. The miracle finally started happening. My cravings went away, I saw there was no value in anger, and I truly started to care for others. I do not think today the same as I did when I first started in recovery.”
That was a sentiment repeated by each of the graduates, who spoke to the audience with their booking photos projected onto a screen behind their heads, only to be triumphantly replaced with a current photo after they had been given their Drug Court diploma by the judge.
That old photo wasn’t meant to embarrass the participants, Wilbanks pointed out. “My participants and my graduates know the only way this program works is with complete and brutal honesty and transparency. Each one of them have a story to tell – each one of them are different.”
While their stories may be different, each of the graduates realized the harsh effects they were having on other members of their family.
Hance, for instance, recalled when Judge Wilbanks told him that instead of Drug Court, he could sentence him to 30 years to life in prison. “I will always remember the gasp that my dad made,” Hance said. “It was in this moment, I realized the mistakes I had made, and how I wanted to fix them.
“My dad took a turn for the worse when I entered Drug Court,” Hance recalled, “but I would not trade those six months with him for anything. You allowing me to be there for him, saved my life. I do not know where I would have been if I was not there for him. It would have haunted me my whole life. I was not sure how I would take losing him, but I used what I learned to honor him instead of a reason to fall back. I now am the son I was before drugs.”
Andrew Powell of the Public Defender’s Office told the audience he has known Hance since he was 15 years old and made a strong push for him to be accepted into the Drug Court program.
“I’m glad this program got him to where he is now,” Powell said. “I know it’s been tough. I’ve never went through it, but I represent a lot of people here and I know the struggles that they go through from day 1 till the accomplishment of completing this program.”
Ensley’s wife, Melissa, recounted how the program had made such a difference in their lives as a family.
“You know when you get married, you think that you’re gonna have a partner,” she said. “That’s what you expect, and that’s what you want. So when we got married, I was pretty naïve. I didn’t know a lot about drug addiction. I knew Donnie had a past with drugs, but I didn’t know that it was still going on or that it would be in our present and our future. As time went on, of course, I figured it out.”
She praised her husband for working hard in Drug Court over the past three years, “and I can honestly say that I can depend on him for every area of our lives together, and I couldn’t do that back then. He’s worked really, really hard for it, and he couldn’t do that without the help of all of you. Thank you to everybody who’s been a part of it – all of the people in Drug Court with him, his brothers, thank you to all of the team members, the counselors and Judge Wilbanks, thank you because now I can totally depend on him and he’s truly my partner. I’m just so thankful to God.”
That kind of joy in the lives of the graduates and their family members is one reason why Wilbanks called the graduation ceremony “a celebration of life” and “a celebration of people changing their lives.”
“This is not a court session – we’re not in a courtroom,” the judge told the crowd at the beginning of the program. “So you’re gonna see emotion today – you’re gonna see happy faces, you’re gonna see a lot of people yipping, yelling and clapping, which is absolutely anticipated. And I’ll probably be doing some of that myself.”