Crack cocaine controlled years of Donnie White’s life, but today he enjoys a different kind of high -- an unobstructed view of downtown Columbus near the top of the Brown Nicholson Terrace apartments.
His rugged road to recovery has been littered with relapse and disappointment, and while White says he’s been sober “a good little while,” he is loath to declare victory over substance abuse.
“I’m a recovering drug addict and alcoholic -- it’s never over with,” White said recently in his living room, reflecting on a lifelong struggle. “The only thing is I’m not active any more.”
Cocaine and its potent derivatives have enslaved countless addicts like White, distracting them from daily life and driving them to great lengths to support the habit. White still has a ways to go in rebuilding his life, but according to counselors who knew him when he was homeless and helpless, the 55-year-old is walking proof that the cycle can be broken.
White’s achievements include his former role as a bass vocalist for the Tree Singers, a local group of recovering addicts who sang gospel around the country before going their separate ways.
“I think that Donnie’s recovery is more typical than remarkable in that persons prone to addiction, in my experience, are capable of more than the rest of us if they can overcome the addiction,” said the Rev. Tom Weise, a Phenix City priest who has counseled White for years. “It hasn’t been a straight path. It’s been rugged.”
With rheumatoid arthritis and weight problems, White is tempted daily to return to former coping mechanisms. Instead, he tries to take one day at a time.
“I want to be a positive part of society now,” White said. “If I’m not high and I got my head on, I can do something to help you.”
White’s seventh-floor apartment on 14th Street is more than 650 miles from his native Suffolk, Va., where he traces the beginning of his problems to a poverty-stricken childhood. His compulsive lying began on the schoolyard, where he recalls classmates poking fun at the wads of newspaper he stuffed in his oversized shoes.
“You got to wait ’til your uncle gets through wearing his shoes and they too big for you, but you got to wear them because your family’s not rich enough to buy you a pair,” White said. “That’s how it was for me.”
White attributes his early exposure to drugs and alcohol to his troubled upbringing. His mother was a child herself when she gave birth to him, and White is not ashamed to admit he ran away from home on several occasions because he was sexually abused.
“I knew stuff like that wasn’t supposed to be happening to me,” he said. “Life just went fast for me.”
White says he began experimenting with beer and liquor when he was just 8 years old in an effort to forget his problems. He began smoking marijuana at 13, and around the same time began having run-ins with the law for stealing food.
White consistently hung around the wrong crowd and eventually dropped out of school, trading books for long hours in shady pool halls. He was about 18 when he took his first hit of crack cocaine. He smoked crack -- the more intense, cooked-down version of cocaine -- because he was turned off by the notion of snorting powder; he knew addicts who sustained bloody noses doing that.
“When you first hit it, it makes your body feel so beautiful, and it makes you feel like nothing is hurting on you,” White said somewhat wistfully. “It just makes you feel so good and nice and warm. Once it hits your endorphins, you just feel so good, man.”
White said he supported his addiction in part by shooting pool.
“I’ve always had a good gift to gab,” he said.
In the late 1980s, White recalls, he reached a point near rock bottom when a new beginning presented itself. He was walking down a street in Norfolk, Va., with a pocket full of crack when he encountered a truck driver looking to score drugs.
The tractor-trailer pulled over and the driver told White he was headed to Georgia. He agreed to take him along in exchange for the crack.
White’s family, meanwhile, was left to wonder where he went.
“I didn’t know how he got (to Georgia),” said Carolyn Vaughn, an aunt who took White in as a child. “It was kind of hard not hearing from him for a while, but after awhile he called home.”
After a brief stop in Atlanta, White said, the truck driver dropped him off in Columbus and showed him the House of Mercy, the Valley Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army. Today, White insists the driver was an angel.
“He never smoked the dope in front of me,” White said.
White says it was during his prolonged stay at the House of Mercy that he first truly heard God’s Word.
“Nobody in my family ever took me to church,” he said. “I always thought the preacher was the only one who was supposed to read out of the Bible.”
One day, White and some other residents were singing under a large tree when the shelter’s founder, Ocie Harris, heard the chorus and encouraged them to organize and sing about God instead of the songs on the radio. So began the Tree Singers.
“Donnie played the biggest part because he was the bass of it,” said Betty Lawrence of Columbus, a former manager of the a capella group. “They made a CD with 14 songs in less than two days. I’ve never done this that fast and that good.”
Theola Barrow, the retired director of the House of Mercy, knew White for years as he battled his crack addiction. She said singing gave White a new purpose.
“When we can get them interested in another lifestyle or another mindset it does help,” Barrow said. “They seem to do so well when they have something like that to focus on.”
Of all the addictions she’s seen over the years, crack is perhaps the hardest for residents to shake, Barrow said.
“He never stayed down very long, I don’t care how often he relapsed,” Barrow said of White. “I’ve seen people be clean 10 years and then fall back on crack. Crack cocaine is just a monster.”
White won’t say when the last time he used crack was, in part because he doesn’t want to jinx himself and in part because “it’s personal.” Today, he attends Fourth Street Baptist Church and tells his story to other users, in hopes of providing inspiration.
“I still go to the House of Mercy and sing in the choir to let others know who are going through what I went through that you can come out of it,” White said. “I like being sober so I can do positive things in life. Maybe one day somebody will see in me that they can do the same thing.”