Addiction: Stories of Triumph in the South
Junkie. Burnout. Drunk. Pill popper. Stoner. Rummy.
There are many words to describe addicts, and few of them are positive. Even for those who have faced their addictions head-on, coming out the other side victorious, there is still an unfortunate stigma that they are somehow weak despite their triumph. Conquering a disease is not weakness, it is the purest form of strength: the quiet power to go on living one day at a time. These four professionals are proof of that power.
There’s one thing Mike Farmer likes to tell every potential client that comes through the doors of the NewDay Counseling facility and treatment center. In the back office of his building on Abercorn Street, he sits down with them as if they were just two old friends, getting together to mull over politics or the weather. It’s the next string of words that tend to catch people off guard.
“Don’t be ashamed,” Farmer says. “When most people start thinking about getting help, they consider everything that could happen, when all they really have to do is just talk to someone. All these fears they have don’t usually come true, and a lot of times it’s denial because some part of them doesn’t really want to quit. Addicts can sabotage their own recovery if they can find some kind of hole to crawl through.”
Farmer is all too familiar with the grit it takes to start that conversation. He’s spent the last ten years of his life sober, but those first few decades were like riding an on-again, off-again merry-go-round of relationship problems, unemployment, and physical dependence on alcohol. He’d often schlep off the consequences of his addiction, rationalizing in his mind that it was merely a patch of bad luck and things like this just happened sometimes.
“I’d gotten to a point where I was depressed and I just didn’t care. What brought me back was the guilt of knowing it was wrong and knowing that I continued to do it anyways. I knew if I kept on drinking, it was going to kill me.”
It wasn’t until he was around 30 that Farmer truly admitted that he had a problem and sought help. There were two or three rounds of detox treatments, each of them fruitless in keeping him away from the same groups of friends that led to the same old dangerous habits. The situation turned around when he found a support network, and he enrolled in educational courses at Georgia Southern University to become a certified addiction counselor. Farmer took a job as a nurse’s aide—the bottom of the proverbial food chain—at Willingway Hospital in Statesboro but eventually scaled the ladder to become clinical director at a brand new, swanky treatment center in North Carolina. It was the type of place where celebrities go to escape the prying eyes of the paparazzi. For Farmer, it was where he got away from the foundation of his recovery. He relapsed in 1990, and again a few years later. He self-labeled as a hypocrite, and remanded himself away from the field to pursue real estate. Ironically, it was the emotion Farmer frequently tells clients to surrender—shame—that emboldened him to start anew.
“I’d gotten to a point where I was depressed and I just didn’t care,” Farmer admits. “What brought me back was the guilt of knowing it was wrong and knowing that I continued to do it anyways. I knew if I kept on drinking, it was going to kill me. When you get to the point where you think you’re going to die, it grabs your attention.”
He means that quite literally—Farmer has gone under the knife for five bypasses already due to complications from his addiction. It’s a piece of the story, not a secret to hide. When he and his wife Susan decided to open NewDay in 2014, it was on the grounds that the facility would never sugarcoat the rocky parts of recovery; a client’s time in treatment would be just the “bare beginning” to a long-term, holistic approach that encompasses exercise, nutrition, support, and a relationship with the right medical professional. Should you fail, Farmer cautions, don’t beat yourself up. Just get back up on the horse and ride again for another day.
“I want to help people understand that addiction is a chronic brain disease,” he says. “Even though we’ve been dealing with this for years and years, people still think of it as a problem of willpower, not enough religion, or something like that. Doing my part is helping establish that this is a medical issue that never goes away. Even if you’ve been sober for ten years, it’s always there waiting for you to remember.”
The phrase “rock bottom” is thrown around often in the recovery community.
It’s sort of symbolic for most addicts, that wrinkle in time where one realizes that yes, they’ve hit the lowest point, and all other low points leading up to here were just practice rounds. You’ve heard of a fork in the road? Well, this is it.
There isn’t just one singular event upon which Wendell Burns hinges his decision to get sober. After all, the Savannah native had spent decades denying there was even an issue with his drug use, relying upon that ol’ crutch term—“functioning addict”—to validate what had essentially become a ritualistic timepiece that broke up the minutes in his day.
Wake up. Score some crack cocaine at the trap house by 9:30 a.m. Get high. Save enough dope to make it through lunchtime. Come down a little. Put in a few hours of work. Reward yourself with another high. Swing by the trap again. Shell out $50 more. Home for the night. Pray. Rinse and repeat. This is the addict’s agenda, albeit a well-hidden one.
“The thing about crack is that you’re always chasing that very first high. Like chasing your tail,” Burns admits. “People don’t just become addicted to the drugs. They’re addicted to the lifestyle. You’re always using. When have you it, you’re thinking about getting high. When you don’t have it, you’re worried about getting more. It’s a cycle. And I protected it.”
Masking his drug use turned out to be surprisingly easy. He ran car detailing businesses to avoid drug testing and afford the freedom to “beam up” between services. When he needed more structure, Burns started to courier for a local law firm, again choosing the job for its flexibility and minimal supervision. He had an excuse not to engage with his peers, to be passive. If they asked, he was heading out on another run. Busy, busy. Burns isn’t sure whether his friends, family and coworkers overlooked his unclean appearance, ignored the unwashed odor. Maybe they simply chose not to say anything. What he does know is that when he looked in the mirror, what stared back wasn’t Wendell Burns; it was a shell.
“You know how they say that the eyes are the gateway to the soul? When I looked at myself, I saw nothing,” Burns says. “I didn’t even know that person. I’d be thinking, ‘I know that’s me, but it can’t be me.’ I wasn’t living. Just existing.”
But on January 9, 2009, three separate interactions—one with the police, one with a coworker, and one with a longtime client—would become the catalyst for Burns’ journey of “discovery” rather than “recovery.” Not far from the trap house, he was pulled over by Savannah Metro after making his usual morning dope run. In a twist of cosmic fate, Burns’ own car—littered with incriminating evidence—had broken down earlier and he was driving his wife’s “clean” vehicle. The cop let him off with little more than a word of caution and a warning for Burns’ expired license. Later, he crossed paths with Tammy, a pregnant coworker who was due to be induced later that day. Like so many other times in his life, Burns says God spoke to him then, urging him to stop and pray with the woman for the healthy delivery of a baby with ten fingers and ten toes. That moment of obedience, he believes, was a saving grace.
“People don’t just become addicted to the drugs. They’re addicted to the lifestyle. ”
It wasn’t until he arrived at the law office that afternoon that he realized the gig was up. Stopped in the hallway by an attorney and friend whom he’d known for years, Burns found himself facing down the barrel of a question he’d avoided far too long: “Wendell, what’s really going on?” The police had already called, so he couldn’t lie. Instead, they spent the rest of that Thursday in the attorney’s office, hammering out a plan. By Friday, he was checked into Bridge of Hope, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Louisville, Georgia, where Burns spent three months learning how to function again—not just as an addict, but as himself. Now eight years into his sobriety, Burns still attends meetings daily. His presence, he says, serves not just as a personal reminder for what life was like on the other side, but as an opportunity to reach someone else.
“Although I knew I had a problem and I needed help, I didn’t ever actually think I was going to get free,” he admits. “But I always had this little mustard seed of hope that it would happen. And because somebody was there for me, I want to be there for the next Wendell that comes in the door.”
Rob Horton is no stranger to the pages of South.
You may recognize him from his previous advertisements in the magazine, big colorful spreads featuring the hairdresser lounging seductively in bed flanked by half-naked models. “Sleep in,” their eyes say. “Why get up early when you can just get a blowout?”
“Those are crazy to look back on,” Horton laughs. He gestures upward. “When you’re drinking and doing as much coke as I was, everything up here seems like reality. I thought I was so amazing. I just didn’t understand how I was this huge rockstar and yet they’re backing all my shit out of the driveway at 11 p.m. and I’m selling my Rolex on Craigslist to keep the power on.”
Horton describes himself as a “little guy” who started drinking in his teens to feel bigger. It was a good supplement for his high school persona, but whereas casual drinkers find relaxation at the bottom of a glass or two, Horton got anxious, always seeking the next level of effect. Sometimes it was four drinks. Sometimes eight. There were a few brushes with the police, all minor, all alcohol-related. One of Horton’s first weekends in Savannah—he was dating a SCAD student at the time—came after he’d been charged with a DUI back home. The law was a bit slower in catching up with out-of-state license suspensions in those days, but Horton still reflects on how alcoholism had gained a foothold in his life.
“I was very much a chameleon. I just wanted to be liked and I was scared not to be.”
“In retrospect, drinking was affecting my judgment and all of my relationships. I tried to go to college three different times, but it was always a mess,” he explains. “Addicts tend to think of things geographically, like if you move somewhere else, it will be better. Then six months later, you realize that the same problem came with you.”
After a stint in London studying under Vidal Sassoon, Horton opened his first salon in Savannah, a one-of-a-kind, boutique-style outfit located on Liberty Street. A second property downtown (along with a failed marriage) soon followed, and by 30, Horton was compounding his alcohol abuse with cocaine, attempting to combat the exhaustion of a thousand “Groundhog Days” of drunken dinners, late night parties and hungover work shifts—the days he even bothered to show up, anyways. Unsurprisingly, that too failed, and Horton’s professed “empire” began to crumble. Suddenly, the man who had spent his entire life worrying what everyone else thought of him realized that he didn’t even know who he was.
“I was very much a chameleon. I just wanted to be liked and I was scared not to be,” Horton says. “I’ll never forget the day that my brother invited me to go to a meeting with him. I was like, ‘Well, what if everyone thinks that I’m an alcoholic?’ And another neighbor who was in recovery said, ‘Rob, do you know anyone who doesn’t think that?’ That’s when it dawned on me.”
In that first meeting, Horton says, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Here was a group of same-minded people, who, like him, were highly creative, motivated, and successful. Somewhere along the line, they’d simply fallen off track. Horton entered the recovery process at full force, relying on the steadfast support of his fellowship group until he learned how to support himself. It’s a gift he’s repaid tenfold in nine years of sober living; Horton is not only an open book to the clients in his chair, but he’s also extensively trained and certified as an interventionist. That same void he’d once tried to foolishly fill with material possessions has been sated through helping other addicts find their self-esteem. The thrills he seeks now are slightly more tame—Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Half Ironman marathons, eating clean, and raising two kids—but Horton says it’s those kind of consistencies that keep him grounded.
“All that rockstar, egomaniac shit I had before, when I got into recovery, I realized just how unimportant I am—but in an okay way,” he muses. “The world doesn’t revolve around me, I don’t have to be greater than or less than anybody else. I can just be here, and that was one of the biggest reliefs. And honestly, thank God I lost most everything. Imagine your whole persona being tied to these things, not what you do or who you are. Just things. I had to be stripped of all that stuff to find out who I really was. It wouldn’t have been possible any other way.”
Emily Eisenhart had not done her homework.
For any other college student, cruising through their final semester at the University of Georgia with a 3.8 GPA (in the honors program, no less) the slip might have been considered minor, a brief lapse in memory that could be easily corrected with an all-nighter at the library or a quick Wikipedia rundown.
When you’re an addict, things aren’t quite that black and white.
“It sounds so simple. But I always did my homework, even when I was going to drink,” she says. “I got up one morning and realized I’d been drunk all weekend when I said I wasn’t going to be. I’d been driving around spun out on cocaine and prescription pills. I knew it was only a matter of time before something really tragic happened.”
Eisenhart describes her story as atypical. And in many ways, it is. She dedicated the majority of her high school career to athletics and academics, rising to captain of the soccer team before abruptly calling it quits senior year. Fed up with rigid structure, Eisenhart’s new norm became afternoon trips to the local gas station—fake ID in hand—to pick up a six-pack of Corona. Collegiate life, with its Thirsty Thursday’s, sorority mixers and marathon tailgates, only further exacerbated the issue, and it wasn’t long before the rotation of drinking/studying became a natural ebb and flow. Though she made numerous vows to cut down on the booze, Eisenhart soon recognized that this addiction didn’t necessarily conform to the same standards she’d applied to her other endeavors. She couldn’t understand why she kept failing. True, she was still maintaining the appearance of an astute scholar, but Eisenhart was sinking further into the “underbelly” of hardcore substances. The facade only cracked within the confines of two groups: those she was doing drugs with and those who knew her best.
“I didn’t believe that it would happen for me, but then this field I swore I’d never get into, it ended up changing my life again.”
“It was one of those things where only the people I was using with or living with saw the effect addiction had on my personality. The way it would change the decisions I was making,” Eisenhart says. “Even the people who were doing it too, they held a kind of intervention and told me I was out of control. That was who stepped in, because the rest of the world didn’t know.”
That last bender took place over Labor Day weekend in 2007, right after the first football game of the season. This time, however, Eisenhart took action. She spent six days (all her insurance would cover) in state-funded care at Anchor Hospital in College Park before returning to campus. Choosing sobriety at 22, Eisenhart knew how important it was for her recovery to find a support group with young peers who shared her experiences and interests. Music had always been a huge part of her life, and she spent many nights posted outside the Georgia Theatre with other twelve-step supervisors, shaking and chain smoking to get over the hump—anything to keep from taking a drink. It worked, and finishing her college career sober just became one of many firsts on what she sums up as a “crazy journey” of things she thought she’d never do.
“People in my recovery would always say, ‘Imagine the most wonderful things happening in your life. If you can do the things that others have done before you to get sober, your life is going to exceed your wildest dreams,’” Eisenhart recalls. “I didn’t believe that it would happen for me, but then this field I swore I’d never get into, it ended up changing my life again.”
Back in 2011, Eisenhart had just earned her master’s degree in social sciences from Georgia Southern. When the position of director at the university’s on-campus Center for Addiction Recovery became available, she initially bristled at the idea, wanting to keep her recovery identity “separate” from her professional one. But six years in, the mother of two now relishes the vital role she plays in the lives of the students that seek out the center’s resources for continuing treatment support each semester. They’re not so different from the person she was ten years ago, trying to successfully navigate the scary spaces and social constructs of a customarily “abstinence-hostile” environment. A self-proclaimed research fanatic, Eisenhart is also currently pursuing a doctorate in public health and remains hopeful that the national conversation on addiction in America will only continue to progress.
“This job has really enlightened me as to what it means to be ‘out’ and in recovery,” she says. “For some people—whether it’s that nature of their career or not—there’s still such a stigma that it can somehow harm your credibility. It’s a shame, but it’s changing. It already has.”