By Stephen Smoot
Countless individuals packed a circuit courtroom in Romney to celebrate the passage of addicts into productive lives at the regional drug court graduation last Friday. A standing room only crowd came to hear stories of struggle and salvation with the guidance of the drug court system and others.
“It warms my heart to see so many people here today,” said Judge Charlie Carl of the 22nd Circuit, which includes Pendleton, Hardy, and Hampshire counties.
Franklin attorney Kevin Sponaugle, who was praised by Judge Carl and also traveled three hours to and from the proceedings, said that drug court “gives participants an opportunity to have the only chance to get a handle on their addiction and turn their lives around.”
Judge Carl took time to explain that drug court serves as a painful and difficult journey for most participants. He lauded the four who completed the process, saying “this is their special day.”
Robert Smith, an earlier drug court graduate, led the assemblage in the Pledge of Allegiance. Judge Carl followed by introducing special guests who support and assist drug court, such as county prosecutors, representatives from the Day Report Center and Potomac Highlands Guild, defense attorneys, and others.
Judge Carl also cited the support of county commissioners, saying “if you see any commissioner in Hampshire, Hardy, or Pendleton counties, give them a hug.” He thanked state legislators for their help as well.
In turning to the graduates, Judge Carl said, “It’s a lot easier for any of these participants to go to prison. This takes a supreme effort.” Adele Lavigne later described the intense nature of the drug court program.
Participants must attend four meetings per week, do 18 hours of community service weekly, take between three and nine classes per week, find productive employment, and, as Lavigne explains “we’re forever calling them in for extra stuff.” The almost exhaustive pace of drug court leaves little spare time for participants to engage in self-defeating behaviors as well.
“This is a hard road,” Lavigne said, adding that “they fought it and they made it.”
Kendra Lewis then took the podium to bear witness to the struggles she endured before and during drug court. In what seemed a common theme, Lewis described taking her first alcoholic drink at the age of 12 alongside her mother in a bathroom. Only a few years later, injuries from a car crash and the subsequent pain prescriptions introduced her to opioids.
“Percs and molly (MDMA) were the cool thing,” in 2013, she explained.
Lewis bore three children during her descent into drugs. In 2015, one “was born withdrawing.” She remained on the radar of law enforcement, saying that when her first born was four months old, “I was busted by the DEA.”
She lost custody of her children and “fell in love with heroin” along the way, but admitted that “my girls deserved more than I could give them.”
Though she worked hard to get clean through the Day Report program, she relapsed. COVID’s mandated virtual meetings did not support her as well as face to face. Also, “I found myself around old people.”
After the struggles, Lewis finally committed herself to recovery, but still faced supreme challenges. One of the obstacles to recovery comes from the fact that sometimes good recovery centers are not a one size fits all solution. Addicts who endured trauma often have sensitive triggers and they can often hop from center to center before finding the right environment.
Only when Lewis could “accept my past and make peace with it,” as she said, could she truly enter the recovery phase that involves transformation and transition. As she closed her talk, she said, “Today I have learned that I have value within myself.”
Susan Kesner rose next and told the attendees “I had a lot of trauma.” She also “found drugs and alcohol at age 12.”
Kesner admitted “I never thought I would make it out alive.”
She endured not only severe psychological and emotional trauma as a teenager, but also debilitating drug connected physical injuries as a teenager. Kesner described living for a year with a massive “hole in my arm,” a wound that extended down to the bone and could not heal so long as she continued the addict lifestyle.
The wound even affected her nervous system, leaving her fingers on that side paralyzed and her mental state as “not caring if I lived or died, wishing for the latter.”
In 2021, Kesner entered the drug court program with the resolve that “I knew I needed help and was willing to go to any lengths.” She benefited from “classes, meetings, therapy, and all around structure.” Today she feels “stronger, healthier, happier, and proud to be two years clean.”
Derrick Stewart ascended to the podium last. Stewart, today aged 35, shared that “I started drinking and doing drugs at age 11.” He described falling into addiction in sixth and seventh grade, only to get clean to play football in eighth grade.
After playing the season, Stewart fell into a mental trap where, as he put it, “I was either going to be clean, or I was going to put anything in my body.”
Stewart was sent to Salem and returned home at the age of 21, when he “started smoking meth.” During these dark times, fueled by alcohol and methamphetamines, he “would do anything I could to make a quick buck” to feed his addiction.
He started off in the day report program, but said “my mental illness was out of control” and he “wanted to die.” COVID interfered with his treatment as it did many others and contributed to a relapse. When he missed appointments, Stewart landed in jail but, as he describes “it was needed. I could have avoided it if I cared about my life.”
Drug court, in Stewart’s case, likely saved yet another life. He announced plans to “start going to meth anonymous meetings” and credited Phoenix House with teaching him “to live recovery 24/7.”
Soon, Stewart will start working to help others along their own journey to sobriety.
Sara Brown also graduated, but chose to not recount her story.
Sponaugle afterward shared that drug court graduations offer “things that most of us will never see or have to think about.” He described the ceremony as “very moving.”
Drug court graduations also provide the hope that others need to believe that recovery can not only happen, but could lead to productive and happy lives beyond.
After the graduates spoke, the attendees saw a short movie of the experience of the four graduates. Notably, the musical accompaniment came from Katy Perry’s “Fight Song” This hit pop ballad includes the lyric “take back my life, song,” which is essentially what each of the four did with support and help from countless others.