In 1994, Lee Garner was living on the street in Columbus after his crack and alcohol addictions cost him his livelihood. He dropped out of college, turned his back on his family and failed to clean up after three stints in treatment centers.
Then he checked in at the Pines Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Center in Columbus and changed forever.
Sixteen years later, Garner is an addiction treatment coordinator at the facility that saved his life, and is pursuing his Ph.D. in counseling at Mississippi State University. He”s helping people with chemical dependency problems just like his, but as he told the Columbus Kiwanis Club Wednesday at the Columbus Country Club, the Pines and Community Counseling Services can”t stamp out addiction in Columbus alone. They need the community”s help.
“There”s a bigger picture. The way to make (drug awareness) grow is to be a safe community,” said Garner.
The Pines and Community Counseling do accept donations, but Garner”s statements to the Kiwanis Club along with outreach coordinator Dr. Greg Little weren”t about a handout. They were about understanding and building a relationship.
“We want an ongoing relationship between Kiwanis, Community Counseling and The (Columbus-Lowndes Development) Link. While the country is suffering people are under increased stress. Which leads to more use of drugs and alcohol. It creates a vicious cycle,” said Garner.
He says drug education is a community issue because the consequences on the back end affect the whole community. More drug use leads to more dropouts and more prisoners, which puts a strain on taxes. More DUIs lead to increased insurance rates.
“We need to work with the criminal justice system to find positive solutions,” said Garner. “We need positive role models. We need a collaborative effort to make the community better.”
Little drove home the idea that drug abuse affects everyone. During various epidemics, whether crack, crystal methamphetamines or prescription drugs, he says addicts are not homogenous.
“I”ve treated housewives, college professors and prostitutes,” he said. “One patient was an ordained Baptist minister. He told me, ”I was at Woodstock. I think.””
Little explained the Pines has two treatment options. One is 42 days and the other 102 days. During the patient”s stay at the treatment center they are counseled and taught to live without drugs — to work, relate to others and have fun without drugs.
The Pines” recidivism rate of 70 percent is in line with national averages, but the 30 percent who turn their lives around witness stunning transformations.
“We take a picture of every patient when they come in. When they leave they look much better,” said Little.
The process of abandoning the crutch of drugs, he says, can be excruciating.
“The average age most patients started using drugs is 14, and they”re scared to death of being sober. They”ve never had fun without drugs,” he said.
Little says addicts will “lie like rugs” to avoid truly kicking their habits. He compared the dependency on such a brutal master to Jews liberated from concentration camps following World War II.
“When the Allies liberated the concentration camps, the Jews were scared to death of us and what we would do to them. They had been living in hell but that had become their comfort zone.”
But treatment doesn”t end after leaving the Pines. In fact, it”s only begun. Little says regular meetings with support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous are essential along with some wholesale changes.
“You must change your play pals, your play pen and your play things,” he said.
Kiwanis members asked the counselors about the recent explosion in popularity of crystal meth. Garner stated 70 percent of patients treated at the Pines had problems related to crystal meth.
He cited the ease with which the drug is created as a major hurdle to stopping its spread.
“When people picture a meth lab they think of this big place with separate rooms. Crystal meth can be made in a two-liter bottle in 15 minutes with ingredients from Walmart,” he said.
He added that the average age of patients treated at the Pines has dropped from 30 in 1995 to 22 in 2010.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.