From Wendell Burns, the Junkie

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.

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.”

"The thing about crack is that you’re always chasing that very first high. It’s a cycle. And I protected it. "

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