BUCKHANNON — On some days, West Virginians mourn the loss of another young life to a drug overdose, an occurrence that has become a routine part of the harrowing opioid epidemic ravaging the Mountain State.
But on other days — like Wednesday — a glimmer of hope emerges in the form of people who are in recovery from addiction – people who prove that recovery is not only feasible, but actually achievable.
On Wednesday afternoon in the Upshur County Circuit Courtroom, 23-year-old Arianna Clark and 25-year-old Luke Brecke shone as two beacons of hope as they became the eighth and ninth graduates of the 26th Judicial Circuit Court’s adult drug court.
Some adult drug court participants opt out of media coverage to protect their privacy, but Clark and Brecke, both of whom were addicted to opioids, wanted their stories to be told in hopes that they might inspire other addicts who want to turn their lives around.
After all, as Clark noted following the joint graduation ceremony, it was seeing other people succeed at the daunting task of becoming sober that kept her motivated.
“The most helpful thing is seeing other people do well, seeing other people change their lives and seeing that it’s possible,” Clark said.
When Clark started using, her initial drug of choice was methamphetamine, but when another user introduced her to heroin, it became her go-to to get high.
For the 23-year-old, the beginning of her recovery seemed like the end of her life.
“I had caught a felony operating a clandestine drug lab when I turned 18, and then I was on probation for two-and-a-half years, but I violated three times, failed three drug screens,” she explained. “I had already hit rock bottom, lost almost everything. I almost lost my kids.”
Clark nearly lost custody of her two children, a two-year-old and a six-year-old, and had been “pretty much at a standstill spot” living the home of her mother, who was growing increasingly weary of her drug habit.
“I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, and she was getting pretty tired of seeing me come and go, so I didn’t think that was going to last much longer. I was just emotionally at rock bottom,” Clark said. “I was in jail and thought I was going to prison and then Erika Morris came and visited me and offered drug court to me.”
Morris is the adult drug court probation officer for the 26th Judicial Circuit and regularly visits drug court candidates as part of her duties.
Although going to prison is an obvious punishment, to Clark, it seemed like the easy way out.
“Going to jail is easy,” Clark said. “You don’t really have to do anything. It’s easy. But I did want to live clean, and drug court offered me the opportunity to do that.”
Now, Clark has repaired her relationships with her children and maintains a steady job at the Hickory House Restaurant in Lewis County. She’s especially happy to have patched things up with her children.
“I was part of their lives when I was in active addiction, but emotionally we had a separation because of my addiction,” Clark said.
Morris said a person’s level of determination to get clean is the most critical factor in predicting their success in the program.
“They have to want to do it,” Morris said at the reception that followed the ceremony. “If we have anybody who is discharged from our program, it’s because they were doing it solely to avoid going to prison as opposed to doing it to get clean. If they really want to do it, they can achieve it through this program. I think with our particular program, the most beneficial part is they have such intense supervision where they’re getting drug screened three times a week, they have lots of group therapy, individual therapy, and there’s so much accountability.”
The logic behind drug court – which started in Upshur County in August 2015 – is to achieve a reduction in recidivism and substance abuse among people who have been arrested for drug offenses and to increase the likelihood of successful recovery through intense therapy and treatment, as well as periodic drug testing. The program also involves community supervision, sanctions and incentives, all of which is monitored by a probation officer, according to the West Virginia Judiciary’s website.
During the ceremony, presiding 26th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Kurt Hall marveled at the turnaround Clark and Brecke had made through the program.
“If you would have seen these people before they started the program, it’s amazing how much they have changed,” Hall said. “Luke, you’re 25 years old now. You’ve got a solid base now. When you started this program, you weren’t completely sold on the idea, and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sold on it when it was presented. I was a skeptic, but when I take a look at someone like Luke, I’m not a skeptic anymore.”
Brecke entered adult drug court Nov. 1, 2016 – the same day he graduated this year. Addicted to meth and Percocets, he was at the end of his rope, having violated his probation numerous times.
“They started me on probation because I got caught forging checks and writing bad checks of my own to feed my drug habit,” Brecke said, following the ceremony, “and then I got on probation and messed up time and time again.”
He gave drug court a try because he was strongly motivated to recover and start a family with his girlfriend, Angelina.
“You just have to want to do it,” Brecke said. “The number one motivating factor is the desire to turn your life around.”
Brecke and Clark are success stories in the midst of a drug epidemic that propelled West Virginia to the top of the list of rates of opioid overdose deaths in 2015, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. During Wednesday’s ceremony, Hall expressed hope in adult drug court’s role in battling the Mountain State’s current addiction crisis.
“I mean, this is what drug court does – it’s taken people with broken lives and drug addiction and drug abuse and given them an opportunity to recover their lives, so congratulations,” Hall told the graduates, as he presented them with their certificates.