Tim Woodward

Tim Woodward: Lessons from three years in drug court

It was the most emotional graduation any of us had attended. That it was for drug court rather than high school or college only intensified that. Even the strict, no-nonsense judge was in tears.

One of the graduates was my granddaughter Hailey, whose troubles were hinted at but not identified in a previous column.

She was — is — a drug addict.

There, I’ve said it in print. My first grandchild — the bright, promising kid we all doted over — is a drug addict.

You don’t think it can happen in your family, but it can. It’s happening in families of every socioeconomic background. You could be a model citizen with a Ph.D. and a six-figure income and have a kid in jail for drugs. Idaho has one of the nation’s highest rates of opiate abuse among young people. Ada County Drug Court has nearly a thousand graduates now, most in their early 20s. And for every graduate, more young people either are in prison for drug-related crimes or are using and haven’t been caught yet.

Oxycontin, a prescription pain killer, was Hailey’s drug of choice. She was hooked at 16.

No one in the family suspected. We noticed that she was withdrawn and that she looked pale and haggard. We thought it was a physical problem.

Until the stealing started. Cash, her mother’s ATM card, her aunt’s jewelry, my wife’s 25th anniversary necklace. She hawked them all, along with her own laptop and her beloved Canon camera, to buy drugs.

“I remember cringing when I stole my mom’s ATM card,” she said. “I cringed when I took it and again when I put it in the machine. I stopped and tried not to do it. I felt sick about it, but I couldn’t not do it. You need the drug like you need oxygen. You’d do anything to get it.”

An expensive stint at a private treatment center changed nothing.

“I knew everything they taught me. I knew all about addiction, and I still wanted the drugs. My mother had rules to try to keep me safe. She thought that if I had rules and a schedule I could stop. But I was beyond that kind of help. It has to come from within and from a higher power than yourself.”

The road to drug court and recovery started with my wife and Hailey’s aunt. It nearly killed them, but they pressed charges for the stolen jewelry. If they hadn’t, she’d have kept stealing, kept doing drugs. Hailey later said that it probably saved her life.

Seeing a child you love led to jail in shackles is something you don’t forget, or get over. Judge Cheri Copsey sent Hailey to jail four times during her three years in drug court — three for breaking no-contact orders for people she wasn’t allowed to see and once for having diluted urine at a drug test. The test didn’t find drugs, but she went to jail anyway. Altogether, she spent a little over four months there.

“You have to shut off your emotions and not think about being there, because if you do think about it, it’s one of the most miserable feelings in the world. You feel so alone. The boredom, the anxiety, the missing everyone — it’s suffocating. But now, looking back, without that I wouldn’t have had the willingness to surrender to the program and get what I needed from it.

“Those moments were so dark and I felt so broken that I was willing to do anything. That’s the biggest thing, that moment when you surrender. When you say to yourself you’ve lost control and are powerless to help yourself so you’re going to listen to people who can help you and follow their rules.”

That would be the drug court people.

Drug court is voluntary. If they’re eligible — preference is given to first-time offenders — those arrested for drug-related felonies can choose between drug court and criminal prosecution (often leading to prison). The program includes regular court appearances, drug testing, home inspections, individual and group counseling, recovery classes and community service. Graduates to date have done more than 33,000 hours of community service.

It can be strict to the point of seeming harsh. Participants are praised for obeying rules, but break them and they suffer consequences.

“Straight punishment doesn’t work and voluntary programs don’t work,” Copsey said. “We’ve had some stellar failures in drug court, which are very sad. But drug court also has the best success rate of anything” more than 60 percent. And that’s not just drug free but crime free.

“ ... It works because of the role of the judge. You have the ability to put people in prison. I hate doing that. It’s heartbreaking. I have a reputation for being strict, but it’s like being a parent. If you just want your kids to like you and are always nice to them, you’re giving them what they want but not what they need. It’s the same with drug court. If there are no consequences, the behavior isn’t going to change.”

The program includes a weekend of sharing and education for participants and their families, and it’s an eye opener. Until then, I thought addiction was a weakness. Grow a backbone. Get over it.

It isn’t a weakness. It’s a disease.

“I was born an addict,” Hailey said. “From a very young age I felt like I was different and something was missing. Drugs and alcohol were my solution. I felt like I’d found what was missing, but at some point it stops working. That’s when desperation kicks in. You’ll do anything to get the drugs that you think can make it start working again.”

Even Copsey had to be convinced that addiction is a disease.

“I didn’t believe that at first,” she said. “I thought it was a cop-out. Then I realized that it really is a disease. It’s genetic. They’ve done brain images showing that parts of the brain are different in addicts. They’re stimulated differently. Addicts can’t just walk away (from drugs or alcohol) like other people can. They can’t ever use any mind-altering substance, not even alcohol. Not even once.”

Like Hailey, a lot of kids today get hooked on legal drugs.

“You’d be surprised how many get their first opiates from parents’ or grandparents’ medicine chests,” Copsey said. “It’s legal so it has the false aura of safety. But it’s very addictive for someone with an addict’s brain.”

Those whose addictions are most difficult to detect, she said, tend to come from “what we call good families, families that are intact and professional. They have the same issues as other kids; they’re just better at masking them.”

For Hailey, and for all of us in her family, it was a long haul. Setbacks, frustration, anger, heartache. But it was worth it. Unlike many of those who choose criminal prosecution or fail in drug court, she doesn’t have a felony to haunt her for life. She’s mentoring others with drug problems and studying to become a counselor. In her first year at BSU, she made the dean’s list.

Now all she has to worry about is the rest of her life.

“The biggest challenge is getting complacent,” she said. “If I were to stop doing the things I learned in drug court, stop going to meetings or mentoring or doing service work, I’d be lost. The illness is completely selfish. Selfishness and neglecting responsibilities are part of it. Even now, I have to fight that. And I can’t ever touch drugs or alcohol again.”

Her advice to others struggling to overcome addiction:

“Let yourself be vulnerable. Let yourself ask for help. Realize that you don’t have any power or control. You’re never going to get better without something bigger than yourself.”

In her case, multiple somethings. Her judge, her counselors, her higher power. To all of them, a heartfelt thank you.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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