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story.lead_photo.caption Michelle Smith says a local drug court helped her find her way back from a decade of addiction and prostitution. Photo by Hunt Mercier / Texarkana Gazette.

Michelle Smith spent a decade on the streets of Texarkana supporting her addiction to meth through prostitution and drug dealing. At one time she had a pimp who kept her high while he turned her out.

Today Michelle marvels that she can afford a manicure, owns a car, has a nice place to live and is in management at a local business. She gives much of the credit to the drug court program she completed in Miller County, Ark., and praised her Celebrate Recovery group.

That local drug court was key to her finding her way back, as it has been for many local women. Here is her story and two other success stories.

Escaping the 'trap'

Michelle was working at a Burger King in a Texas city when she was taken into custody on drug-related charges filed in Miller County. When she got out of jail in Texarkana, her only clothing was the Burger King uniform she was wearing at the time of her arrest.

Homeless, she returned to a familiar "trap house," where she survived without water or electricity amid other addicts actively using drugs in her presence.

Michelle walked for miles to her first meeting with Miller County's drug court counselor Staci Marshall.

"Ms. Marshall taught me how to live on life's terms without drugs," Michelle said. "The drug court team is awesome."

When Michelle made that first visit, wearing her Burger King uniform left over from a job she no longer had, she was given support, rules to follow and a few things to help her get by.

"They took me under their wing," Michelle said. "They gave me food, clothes, underwear and socks."

A friend took her to a Burger King on Richmond Road and Michelle—in her old Burger King uniform—told her story honestly to the general manager.

The following Monday she started working there. Michelle walked from the trap house, near downtown Texarkana, to her job on Richmond Road. She also walked to meetings with probation and drug court—until someone got a church to donate funds used to buy her a bicycle.

She moved from the trap house to a boarding house where she recognized many residents from her life on the streets.

It was better than the drug house, though a less-than-optimal living situation.

Eventually a friend who helped sponsor Michelle as she worked in recovery donated a car to her.

"The car's name is 'Hope,'" Michelle said.

Michelle stayed clean and kept working. She transferred from the Richmond Road location to a Burger King store closer to the house where she now lives with a "fenced-in yard."

Earlier this year Michelle gave a speech to a meeting of drug court professionals in Little Rock about her experience.

She has dreams of someday opening a transition house for women leaving jail—people with no place to go who want to get off drugs and off the streets.

Michelle sponsors other women working 12-step programs and leads a group at Celebrate Recovery. She advises addicts to "take everything you had put into getting high and start putting it into getting clean."

"Remember, you can't do it on your own," Michelle said. "I don't care who you are. You can't do it alone."

"Help me"

Joey Elliot began using alcohol and meth to feel comfortable with herself and other people. She was a successful hairstylist who functioned for years while using—until her drug addiction cost her a business, her home, her car and her hope for the future.

"I thought I was just going to be a thug," Joey said. "Now I'm addicted to recovery."

Joey shared her story at a recent Bowie County drug court graduation ceremony. She said her probation officer chose a sobriety date for her.

Joey described walking along a roadway, picking up cigarette butts to smoke because her pockets were empty. She talked of her probation officers and the way her relationships with them have changed from tumultuous and conflicted encounters to treasured friendships.

Though sober, she was outwardly difficult and challenged those with authority over her, she said. "But on the inside I was like, 'Help me.'"

Joey participated in 102nd District Judge Jeff Addison's drug court, and years later was sworn in by him as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASA volunteers advocate for children in court who are involved in the foster care system.

She now works for CASA in an administrative capacity. She credits the drug court system for her success.

 

"Forgive yourself"

Jill White's stunning looks and stylish appearance illustrate addiction's ability to affect individuals of any socioeconomic group, any race and any gender. Addiction is a disease that doesn't discriminate. Those who've experienced severe emotional trauma may be more vulnerable.

Like many women with addiction, Jill suffered sexual abuse as a child.

She started abusing alcohol in her teens and later developed a full-blown addiction to methamphetamine that devastated her life.

"At first it was fun, and then I woke up one morning and realized my addictions owned my very soul," Jill said. "The drinking and using once served a purpose for me. It brought freedom, clarity, peace of mind and escape. I don't really remember the exact point when my 'solution' became my problem. My means of escape had ironically become my own personal prison."

Jill looks back on her past as she looks forward to the future and enjoys the moments she now lives in sobriety.

"I lost everything I had. I was homeless," Jill said, an active toddler bouncing on her lap. "People make snap judgments because of the way I look. They have no idea what I've been through."

A 2017 graduate of a Bowie County drug court, Jill clearly adores her young daughter and describes her children as her "whole world."

"I'm three-and-a-half years sober now," Jill said. Before drug court, parenting wasn't an option.

Jill's own parents, who live in a beautiful home, paid for her to go to private rehab centers but Jill always went back to using meth. She got arrested and was offered probation.

"I needed more. I needed something more intense and long-term," Jill said.

"You feel so alone when you're sobering up. There's so much guilt and shame. You realize you don't have a house, a car, you haven't been taking care of family."

Jill said she believes forgiveness is essential.

"You have to forgive yourself. That's a very important key to recovery. Everybody is worth saving and everybody deserves a chance," she said.

Jill completed a court-ordered treatment program that includes months and months of follow-up care, group meetings, counseling, drug testing and relapse prevention classes.

"Getting in trouble saved my life," Jill said. "It was time for a solution, and God allowed my poor decisions to be my saving grace."

Faith is a major component of her sobriety, she said.

"Addiction is a crafty, relentless, seemingly unmovable force. But put addiction in the ring with God and it's a joke."

Once Jill moved into recovery, she set the goal of acquiring gainful employment—a target that is harder to hit with a sketchy work history and a criminal conviction. Jill applied repeatedly for a job with the same clinic where she now handles medical billing. When she finally landed an interview,she was honest about her past and pleaded for a chance.

State District Judge John Tidwell granted Jill an early discharge from her probation June.

Her involvement with Celebrate Recovery, a Christian-based organization, won't end as a result of her probation.

"I feel at home there," Jill said.

Jill is passionate about helping other people fighting addiction.

"It is very important to change your people, your places, your things when you are in recovery. If you don't, you will fall back into your old ways," she said. "I hope someone will read this and have hope to overcome their own addiction. You can do it, and you are so worth it."

 

How it works

Bowie County operates felony and misdemeanor specialty courts to help those whose law-breaking behavior is rooted in chemical dependency or mental illness. The programs range from intensive treatment in a lock-down prison setting to a less-restrictive outpatient approach. Across the state line in Miller County, Ark., similar drug court programs are available for defendants whose criminal conduct is driven by drug abuse.

These programs are staffed by judges, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and counselors who work long hours and become personally invested.

"We are a family," Miller County Circuit Judge Carlton Jones said. "The drug court team and the participants all work together to lend a hand to a struggling participant."

In Bowie County, either Tidwell, District Judge Jeff Addison or County Court at Law Judge Craig Henry oversees the cases.

Tidwell said that 85 percent of people placed on probation admit to current or past drug use and 50 percent disclose problems with mental health. He said the county's specialty courts have served more than 2,000 since inception in 2005. Following this path isn't easy.

"It takes hard work to complete the program," Jones said. "The AA/NA meetings, the group sessions, reporting to a PO and a drug counselor all while maintaining employment and, many times, caring for family, requires a lot of effort to be successful. Yet, the successful drug court participants do it with a sense of determination and are happy to be involved in the program."

Graduating from one of these programs may be the first successful outcome for many of the individuals who graduate, Jones said.

Michelle said Jones may be a taskmaster at making you fulfill your obligations, but in equal measure he will tell you how proud he is of you.

Many officials associated with these programs have similar approaches.

"They're not just a probation officer, a drug counselor, a public defender and a judge. You begin to see them as human beings," Michelle said. "They don't look down on us for what we did." 

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