“Hoke came in and was like ‘I need your address,’ and I didn’t have an address,” Kristopher Connolly said. “It sunk in there. I knew I still had family, but I couldn’t even live with them because I’d already burned too many bridges.”
For the first time since he was a teenager, he wanted to get clean.
In the next 37 months, Connolly, 36, navigated the five phases of Hall County Drug Court’s program. When he graduated from Drug Court and a residential treatment facility in November 2007, Judge Jason Deal, who presides over Drug Court, attended both ceremonies.
Neither knew it at the time, but they had one more ceremony to attend together. Connolly had always said he would never get married, but when he met Andrea Feltner, a Hall County native and fellow Drug Court graduate, that changed.
When the couple married on Oct. 25, Deal, who had also presided over Andrea’s graduation, performed the ceremony.
“We owe Judge Deal so much, and it was a huge honor to have him marry us,” Andrea Connolly, 34, said. “It was kind of poetic that he knew us when we were at our worst and we were given a second chance at a better life.”
A way to fit in
The Connollys didn’t meet until they were adults, though they went to the same church, middle school and high school. They even rode the same school bus.
Both also began using drugs when they were teens as a way to fit in and have fun.
“I started using when I was 17,” Andrea said. “I didn’t fit in well with the people in school, and it was a way to fit in somewhere.”
Kristopher started using marijuana in high school. As with his wife, the crowd he ran with didn’t do him any favors.
“The people that I was hanging out with were starting to use meth, and it seemed like they were having a good time doing it,” he said. “They were just having fun, and so I decided to try it too, and I loved it.”
Both will talk of how much they enjoyed meth in the beginning.
“Once I tried it the very first time, I loved the way it made me feel,” Andrea said. “I loved being able to feel like superwoman and get everything done.”
Andrea used methamphetamine on and off for 12 years. She quit when she was pregnant with her children, Brianna, 16, and Lucas, 5. She stayed clean for nine months after Brianna’s birth, but trouble began again after she left her ex-husband.
“As soon as I moved back home, I found the same friends,” she said. “They were still doing the same things.”
The pressures of being a single mother made it even more difficult to stop using.
“You can’t go to sleep for three days when you have kids, and that was what it took to stop using,” Andrea said.
She doesn’t hesitate to talk about the negative effects.
“My kids were around people they shouldn’t have been around,” she said.
At that point in her life, “everybody and everything was about drugs.”
It may sound like a line from an after-school special, but Kristopher echoed his wife when describing the lowest point of his battle with addiction.
“Eventually it got to be where the only thing I wanted to do was meth,” he said. “Everything I had went to getting the drugs.”
The wake-up call came for Andrea when the state took custody of her children.
“It took me having severe consequences and having me lose my kids for me to learn something else, because I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I had complete desperation when I was arrested and put in Drug Court.”
Finding help through treatment
Hall County Drug Court was founded in 2001 as the first accountability court program in Hall. Based on the science of behavioral modification, its ultimate goal is to get participants off drugs rather than punish them for the crimes they commit to feed their addiction.
The consequences of Andrea’s arrest were “severe” and she was looking at “a lot of time” — time she would still be serving had authorities chosen to punish her for the symptom rather than treat the disease.
“For too long our criminal justice system has been involved in this old system of punitive action that takes way too long, and therefore loses its effectiveness,” Deal said. “If you want to change someone’s behavior, you have to act swiftly and certainly and you have to reward good behavior as well as punishing bad behavior.”
The program lasts a minimum of two years and is divided into four tracks, including those for young adults and felony intervention. It includes substance abuse training, counseling, vocational and educational training.
Since 2001, 496 people have graduated Hall County Drug Court, according to its Treatment Services division.
As of July 1, 89 graduates have been rearrested, a recidivism rate of 18 percent. In 2012, the national recidivism rate for drug offenders was 76.9 percent, according to the National Institute of Justice.
“Our graduation rates are good, and those are folks who have stayed sober, who work full time, who have taken care of their children and their other obligations,” Deal said.
For a once “rebellious” Kristopher, the most difficult phase of Drug Court was the beginning, when his independent nature clashed with what his counselors asked of him.
“It took me a while for it to set in that they wanted what was best for me,” Kristopher said.
When he graduated in November 2008, he was ready to shout it from the rooftops.
“It was a long three-year process, but it was such a great feeling,” he said. “I knew I had a lot more proving to do afterward, but that was the biggest accomplishment at the time in my life.”
For Andrea, the major difficulty came in the “aftercare” phase.
“I cried like a baby at my (Drug Court) graduation,”Andrea said. “I was terrified at what I was going to do after that. It was the first thing I had ever completed.”
She spent 26 months in the program and graduated in November 2011. Out of all the gifts Drug Court gave her, including her sobriety, she also credits the process for helping her solve the identity crisis that drove her to drugs in the first place.
“Drug Court allowed me time to learn who I was, what I wanted and how to stay clean,” she said. “It enforced staying clean long enough for me to realize it was possible, because I didn’t think it was possible.”
The next right thing
For anyone who struggles with addiction, in or out of Drug Court, life can hinge on that next decision. For Andrea, who got her children back after her graduation, that decision was to be “really serious” about her personal relationships and attend support group meetings.
“I have numerous friends that graduated from the program and still have years clean, and that’s who I choose to call my friends today,”she said.
Having a support network is the recommended avenue for those looking to get clean.
“The key to recovery is sticking with it, doing the next right thing, and being honest with yourself about the issues you’re facing,” Deal said.
Andrea and Kristopher both made the decision to fill their friend circles with other people in recovery, which was how their paths finally crossed in 2012.
“We have a lot of mutual friends in recovery on Facebook, and so whenever I would comment on something on their post or whatever, (Andrea) would always ‘like’ it,” Kristopher said. “I got to looking, like ‘Who is this woman?’ and eventually I sent her a friend request. We started talking and we started dating.”
After two years of dating with their mutual recovery “intertwined” in their relationship, Kristopher began to ask himself what his next step would be.
“I was thinking, ‘Do I see myself old, grandpa old, with Andrea?’ And the answer was ‘yes,’” he said.
Kristopher consulted the director of his residential treatment program and his sponsor, who both told him to go for it. After asking Andrea’s mom’s permission, he proposed and she said “yes.”
“The first person I called was my sponsor,” Andrea said.
Couple come full circle
Before his October wedding, Kristopher Connolly pulled Deal aside.
“I thanked him, because had it not been for him I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “(Deal) always wants what’s best (for you) at any given time, because sometimes in Drug Court he gets close to people and whenever they mess up it hurts him, but he still continues to give the right treatment.”
Andrea describes the judge as a “father figure” to the couple.
“I think as the judge, it is one of those things where you have to be careful about keeping your distance, but I would be lying if I didn’t say you become emotionally invested in your participants,” Deal said. “There’s nothing worse than seeing someone who graduated come back before you with new charges. It’s also gratifying to see someone who graduated several years ago at the ballgame or the grocery store or at the gas station and they come up and say ‘I’m doing good.’”
As of the Connollys’ October wedding, both graduates were employed and about to buy their first home. They were accompanied by their family and all four of their children: Andrea’s children, Brianna and Lucas, and Kristopher’s sons, Aiden, 8, and Christian, 3.
“It was one of those full circle kind of things,” Deal said. “That made it feel like my job was worthwhile.”
After their wedding, the Connollys are still moving forward and benefitting from the plans they made in Drug Court. To complete her 10-year goal plan, a requirement of the program, Andrea has applied to go back to school to become an addiction counselor.
What would she say to someone considering getting clean? “Give yourself a chance,” she said.
She isn’t the only one seeing her goals fulfilled.
“In the beginning (the Drug Court counselors) tell you promises,” Kristopher said. “They tell you you’re going to get your life back, you’ll be successful, you’ll be able to give back to the community. Here it is nine years later for me, and all the promises they told me in the beginning, right now they are all true. As long as you’re willing to work at it, they will come true.”