Published April 13, 2019 in the Maryville Daily Times. Read the original web version with paywall here.
Addiction is a disease with a staggering death toll, but it can be treated. Daniel McQueen’s life depends on it.
Before he pleaded with a judge to put him in Blount County’s recovery court program, he said he shot up hundreds of dollars worth of heroin every day for years, a habit he took to supporting with stolen credit cards and cars.
When dope wasn’t available, he’d tear strips off of Suboxone, a mild opiate offered at clinics to treat addiction, and mix it with alcohol, rainwater, or anything he could squeeze into a syringe. Anything to stave off the dopesickness.
Addicted since his teenage years, McQueen thought he was “irredeemable.” But now, 40 years old and sober for a year and a half, he thinks differently. He says he is addicted to recovery.
He credits much of his progress to the Blount County Recovery Court, a treatment program with a strict regimen and focus on rehabilitation that the county offers to drug offenders as an alternative to jail. One of the program’s many requirements is regular attendance of recovery meetings similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Last week, at one such meeting in a small, fluorescent-lit space tucked off the side of Highway 129, McQueen stood up and announced himself to the group, “My name is Daniel, and I’m an addict.”
“Hi, Daniel,” erupts the response from two dozen or so other men and women struggling with addiction. It’s a ritual both sides do every week.
At that week’s meeting, McQueen told the group an anecdote about the small joys of redemption. Earlier that day, he helped a woman and her children whose car had broken down on the highway. A sheriff’s deputy soon pulled up, and McQueen rolled out from under the car. The deputy recognized him immediately as a chronic recidivist he’d fought many times in jail.
“McQueen? Is that you?” the deputy asked in disbelief. It was. After a few minutes, the deputy decided McQueen wasn’t a danger to the family, and left him to finish the job. (The Blount County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the story). It was a hard-fought sign of trust from a system that had long treated McQueen with suspicion and violence.
Four months into Blount County’s recovery court program, McQueen’s leash is longer. Counselors now only require him to attend one addiction meeting a week, though he still attends one almost every day— sometimes two or three. He has an app on his phone that notifies him all meetings within a 25-mile radius. He’s even become the chair of one regular meeting in Rockford.
“To be honest,” he said, “I’m scared to stop.”
He’s right to feel that anxiety, said Pam Spindel, a counselor at the addiction treatment center Cornerstone of Recovery. Eleven years sober herself, she says she knows the struggle.
“In early recovery, it’s important to be dedicated,” she said.
Family and former friends expected her to fail when she began recovery, she said. She’d been arrested 19 times in Blount County alone, records show, not counting the times she said she was arrested in other counties. Her rap sheet began when she was 16 years old, arrested on three counts of selling cocaine.
That life ended when she begged a Blount County judge to put her in a program with strict rules and frequent drug tests. “I didn’t trust myself,” she said. She craved structure. She found it in the Blount County Recovery Court.
Like McQueen, Spindel attended multiple meetings a day long after she was required to. That new habit subsided only after years, when life’s other responsibilities — a job, her children — slowly reclaimed her time.
Today, she still attends at least one a week, but she says she’s no longer recovering from addiction. She calls herself “fully recovered,” though this is a designation many recovery advocates warn can promote a vulnerable confidence.
When Spindel uses the term, she said she means that when she shops at the Kroger grocery store on Hall Road in Alcoa, she isn’t reminded of the years she spent walking up and down that road as a sex worker, shooting up in the Burger King, or sleeping under the hot air vent by the former Save-A-Lot. She said she’s moved on.
As in most success stories, Spindel’s was driven by a need to give back, or to “make amends” as it is known in addiction circles. “It’s about cleaning up the wreckage,” Spindel said.
For her job as a counselor at Cornerstone, she relies on her years of experience to help those going through similar traumas. Every week, for the last nine years, she has volunteered at the county jail — the same one she spent many long stints in.
The path walked by these men and women isn’t easy.
Around 40 to 60 percent of addicted opioid users can achieve remission with medication-assisted treatment, according to the National Institutes of Health, but sustained remission can take as long as 10 years or more. Meanwhile, overdoses claim the lives of about 4 percent of the opioid-addicted die annually.
Blount County’s recovery court boosts those numbers, a program spokesman said, but he declined to give specific numbers. Even without hard data, there is a strong belief among county leadership that the program is a success, especially when compared how the county treated addiction before the program’s creation.
Judge Tammy Harrington, who presides over Blount County’s recovery court, remembers that time well. In the 1990s, when she served as an assistant district attorney, she said the court kept throwing the same recidivists behind bars for addiction-related crimes, again and again.
“There was a consensus in the system that we were spinning our wheels,” Harrington said.
She and others pushed county leaders to recognize that for law enforcement officials to get a handle on the problem, recovery would have to be involved. The recovery court program began in fits and spurts before coming to its present form in the mid-2000’s, she said.
She said it’s revolutionized the lives of many, and that even hardened, long-term offenders — those no one thought fit for rehabilitation — emerge from the other end with a firm grip on sobriety. She credits much of it to the program’s case workers and therapists. For many who struggle with addiction, it is their first time speaking with a mental health professional, she said. The county plans to expand its addiction treatment options with a new “transition center,” which would house hundreds more of those entering recovery by way of the criminal justice system. County leaders envision something of a Scandinavian prison, focused on restoration and therapy rather than coercion. Inmates with a good behavior record would serve the later part of their sentences there.
But just as some triumph in this new system, many others fall.
Take for instance the story of a man in the recovery court program who fled last week. His halfway house had allowed him to leave to attend a meeting, but he didn’t show up to it, and he didn’t come back.
McQueen, the man who is four months into the program, messaged him on Facebook, “What are you doing??”
After a short discussion, the man agreed to turn himself in.
McQueen picked him up from a trap house — a meet-up for habitual drug use — in Knoxville, located a few doors down from another rehab center. Driving back, the man requested McQueen stop at Walmart so he could pick up some sweatpants, in preparation for the cold jail floor.
Once at Walmart, he fled again.
McQueen shakes his head telling the story. The man now will go to prison if he’s not found dead first, McQueen says. “And it’s a shame, because recovery really is possible.”