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Local man makes journey from addiction and homelessness to sobriety and rejuvenation
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Zachary Coley poses for a portrait in Gainesville, on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. Coley has overcome homelessness and has gone on to self-publish his memoir, "The Lithium Journals: A Collection of Thoughts on Reality". - photo by David Barnes

The needle slides into Zach Coley’s arm with ease and care, the medicine administered to help keep his bipolar disorder in check.

For some, this experience might be unsettling or a prickly reminder of the troubles they face.

But Coley takes things in stride with the kind of perseverance known to those who have struggled and overcome.

“Honestly, I’ve had multiple bottoms,” Coley, 29, said.

And so representatives from the AVITA Community Partners ACT Team continue their work with Coley during a recent home visit, checking his weight and blood pressure and making sure he’s staying positive about the great progress he’s made in recent months.

All the while Coley showcases his infectious laugh and smile as he paces and talks his thousand-word-a-minute way.

“He’s very honest about himself,” said Doug Hanson, a friend and mentor who works with homeless and drug-addicted men in Gainesville to help get them back on their feet. “And he’s not afraid to share it. He’ll tell it to you straight.”

Coley describes himself as an overachiever in adolescence, winning a young authors award and excelling on his middle school golf team, for example.

But so many troubles, some self-inflicted and others simply unfortunate, began to wreck his life in his late teens and 20s, ultimately leaving Coley homeless in Gainesville.

He developed Crohn’s disease, which causes inflammation of the bowel and painful digestive issues, at a young age. 

Then a Jeep accident while driving hungover left him with a jaw broken in three places and a battered ego. 

“God pushed me back from going to the other side,” Coley said. “Shock is where you first experience him.”

But it wasn’t enough at the time to keep him on the straight and narrow.

His hard partying began to ruin his reputation, he said, until it eventually spun off center while attending Piedmont College about 10 years ago.

Coley did manage to earn an associate’s degree in turf and golf course management, and nearly a minor in English, but was never able to utilize this education because of his addictions and emerging mental health issues.

Marijuana became his drug of choice, but he couldn’t use it just now and then for fun, he said.

“I can’t smoke it once a day,” Coley added. “I smoked it five times a day.”

A DUI, a jail stint after catching a felony damage to property charge after an outburst while in a local mental health clinic and worsening bipolar disorder began to take its toll.

That’s when Coley found himself homeless, staying in a hotel some nights when he could afford it. Then, this past summer, he met Hanson.

“For the homeless, worship and transportation are two key ingredients for personal change,” Hanson said. “(Coley) joined us … After morning worship, Zach agreed to join us for lunch celebrating his first worship experience with us. He felt included and came back the next week for more.”

Hanson said Coley began to share his story in the ensuing weeks while also showing improvement in many ways: manners, language, self-discipline, courtesy for women, gratitude and a growing excitement to live.

“He was walking slowly, but forward,” Hanson said. “He showed no unhealthy ailments but a desire to reconnect with society and his family. He has been ready and willing to change.”

Coley is now clean and sober, having not smoked marijuana in over two years. His Crohn’s is in remission. He works closely with AVITA to stay on his regimens and they assisted in moving Coley into his own apartment in Gainesville in October.

“Each visit with us has been a celebration of personal responsibility, accomplishment and growing maturity,” Hanson said.

Coley said that as he ages out of his 20s, reconnects with old friends and his family, and begins to imagine a bright future, the old cravings for drugs and a wild life have dissipated.

“I’ve moved forward so well now that my mind doesn’t wander,” he added.

Coley recently spent time working with his father, who owns an antique store and boiled peanut stand in Clarksville. It was a special time for the two to strengthen the bonds of love. 

“I can tell with the way my parents communicate with me that they trust me now,” Coley said. “My words were empty before. There was nothing behind them. And they didn’t expect much from me.”

Coley recently self-published a book, “The Lithium Journals: A Collection of Thoughts on Reality,” which is available on Amazon and chronicles his trials and tribulations.

It’s a collection of journal entries, jailhouse poetry and musings on his life and how his story might resonate with others struggling through the same difficulties he experienced.

Indeed, Coley said he now feels a compulsion to assist others trying to get their life back on track. For example, he supports another patient assisted by AVITA by taking the individual to get groceries and calling regularly to check on their welfare.

“I just try to surround myself with good folks,” Coley said. “What’s different this time? First, I can point to God.”

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