On Sept. 28, about 250 people gathered at Lakebottom Park to celebrate victory over addiction.
The group consisted of recovering addicts, their families, rehab professionals and representatives from the law enforcement community. They called themselves Columbus United in Recovery and vowed to break the chains of marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, crack, methamphetamine, prescription drugs and other unhealthy substance addictions. The event was held in observation of National Recovery Month.
"Substance abuse and mental health are issues affecting the whole community, and prevention benefits everybody," said Josephine Ford, administrator at the Columbus Day Reporting Center, an alternative program for addicts on probation. "We wanted to celebrate the ones that have recovered and let others know they could recover, too."
The event is just one of many initiatives developed in the community to combat substance abuse.
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There are many programs available for those struggling with addiction: Some people get help through the court system where they're ordered into programs such as CDRC. Others show up at rehab centers such as Talbott Recovery, Bradford Health Services and New Horizons after they've hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to turn. And many get help at various 12-step programs around the Columbus area.
One day last week, about 20 people showed up for a daily Addicts Anonymous meeting at the Safe House, across the street from the Muscogee County Jail. The program was created by the Christ Centered Recovery Network, which falls under the umbrella of the Chattahoochee Jail Ministry. They shared their struggles and pain. Some said they had slipped along the way, but they wanted to stay on the path to recovery.
"One thing about recovery is that you have to get up and keep going," said Ron Jackson, one of the administrators of the program. "Everybody makes mistakes. We're all human."
Yet, the demand for substance abuse services is so great that there never seem to be enough programs, local rehab professionals said. The need is especially prevalent among those who are low-income and uninsured. Donna Pearce, director of development at the Valley Rescue Mission, said the organization serves recovering women through the Damascus Way Home for Women and Children, and men through a program called Crossroads. She said the services are free, but the program only graduates about 70 people a year. The organization has a waiting list and recently launched a capital campaign to double its capacity.
"During the time period of January to June (of this year), we tracked the calls that came into Damascus Way, and we learned we were only able to accept 11 percent of those that inquired and we were turning away 89 percent," she said. "It is just heartbreaking to turn away people who are desperate for help."
David C. Wallace, director of development at New Horizons and a licensed professional counselor, said the Great Recession has exacerbated the problem. He said the organization covers eight counties in southwest Georgia.
"There are an array of services in the Columbus area," he said. "But when the economy turned and things got worse, we found that people started using alcohol and drugs as a coping skill, and if they were just dabbling, that's when they really began to use. We saw a real spike in the number of people needing services so we've had to expand a few of our sites and get additional beds in place.
"But the problems continue to grow so there never seems to be enough people to handle all the crises that occur. But we do the best that we can, and as people need help we meet them where they are and continue to help them on the road to recovery."
Wallace said there are many steps families can take to prevent substance abuse from ever developing. He recommended that parents be transparent and honest with their children about drugs.
"Talk to them ahead of time about the dangers and the pitfalls," he said. "And make it a friendly, fun conversation, if you have younger children, so you're planting the seed and letting them know what they can do to avoid those kind of temptations. But if they ever face a problem or some kind of temptation, let them know that they can go to you, and if you're not available, they could always go to a teacher."
He said parents should also pay attention to behavioral changes, such as stealing, irritability, restlessness, dropping grades, a new set of friends. If they look like they may be a harm to themselves or others, then it's time to intervene and get professional help. "These are all warning signs that we have to be aware of. And if we begin to see those signs, we need to address them immediately."
Cheryl Sapp, clinical program director at Talbott Recovery, said people of every age need to be careful and stay away from drugs.
"Drugs and alcohol do not discriminate," she said. "They don't care how old you are. They don't care what color you are. They don't care how much money you have. Everybody who uses long and hard enough will become addicted."Sapp, who had a heroine addiction in the 1970s, said people also need to be aware of their genetic disposition. Her grandson, Michael Gray, was recently released from jail after being arrested for marijuana possession. His mother, who is Sapp's daughter, is a recovering cocaine addict.
"I think we need to be educating people just like they do with diabetes," she said. "We say, 'Look, you are predisposed to diabetes, so if you don't eat right and if don't do things right, then you're probably going to develop diabetes.' Well, it's the same thing with alcoholism and addiction. You're predisposed to the disease. If you know that, and you're tempted with drugs, you might think twice. Nobody ever starts using drugs because they want to become an addict, they just think it's fun."
Nationally, there were about 4 million people ages 12 and older who received treatment for alcohol or illicit drugs in 2012. But millions more didn't receive help because they had no health insurance, were not ready to stop using, had no transportation or were concerned about the negative impact admitting to the addiction would have on their job and relationship with others, according to a survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Health Services Administration.
"I think it's a disease that people refuse to accept as a disease so it never gets treated and looked at as it should," Sapp said. "There's still a lot of stigma, a lot of shame, guilt about having this disease. So the generations that need to be educated don't get the information."