SOMERSET – “I felt like there was no hope, that I would always be an addict,” said Aaron “Cody” O’Connor, reflecting on his return to jail a few years ago after failing a Drug Court drug screening. “I (finally) realized I wanted help, I just didn’t know how to get it.”
Upon qualifying for an Operation UNITE Treatment Voucher, O’Connor was able to enter long-term residential treatment at WestCare-Kentucky’s facility in Pike County. On Thursday, April 26, the now 30-year-old stood proud as he was recognized as a graduate from the 28th Judicial Adult Drug Court.
Ashley S. Laxton, Program Supervisor for the Drug Court program serving Lincoln, Pulaski and Rockcastle counties, said after O’Connor returned from treatment he went sanction free, and even organized a fundraiser for the new SKY Hope Women’s Recovery Center currently under construction in Somerset.
“I wouldn’t have been able to go (to treatment) without (the UNITE Treatment Voucher). I couldn’t afford it,” said the Pulaski County resident who had struggled with prescription opioid and methamphetamine use since age 15.
A total of nine individuals were honored as Drug Court graduates. O’Connor was one of two – both Pulaski County residents – whose journey to recovery included receipt of a UNITE Treatment Voucher.
“It’s been very, very rough,” said Aston Cook, whose drug use began at age 14 following the death of her grandmother.
“It started with marijuana,” Cook recalled. Pregnant at age 16, things kept progressing until she was into much “heavier drugs” by age 21.
After an arrest on a possession of a forged instrument charge – a crime related to her need for money to purchase drugs – “I realized I had a drug problem.”
A UNITE Treatment Voucher allowed Cook to receive residential treatment from Hope In The Mountains (“Hope House”) in Floyd County.
“She has done exceptionally well (in Drug Court),” Cook said. “She’s a good example. She’s come a long way.”
Cook said sobriety has “made me optimistic and positive that there are people out there who are willing to help. It means my life, my family, my (three) children.”
A Drug Court is a specialty court providing a sentencing alternative of treatment for non-violent offenders through an extensive supervision program. Drug Court is a non-adversarial public health team approach for those with substance use disorders.
“This is one of the best days of the year for me,” stated David A. Tapp, Drug Court Judge for the 28th Judicial Circuit.
Tapp likened the graduates’ journey to that of American rap artist Eminem – who overcame his own struggles with addiction – and the 2010 album “Recovery,” which was dedicated “to anyone who’s in a dark place tryin’ to get out. Keep your head up … It does get better!”
“You have worked hard to get here. I’m sure there were a lot of ups and downs. Lots of struggles,” Van Ingram, Executive Director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, told the graduates. “We need you in the workforce. We need you to stay involved in your recovery community.”
Ingram, turning to the audience, said it was important to do everything possible to reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorders. “Yes, people relapse. But, they recover, too,” he stated.
Before the clock strikes midnight, four Kentuckians and 150 Americans will have died from a drug overdose, Ingram noted, adding that while Kentucky is currently on the right path – opioid prescribing and drug overdose death rates have declined in the past year – we cannot let our guard down.
“This is a man-made epidemic caused by greed,” Ingram stated. “We’ve let opioids become the default drug for everything.”
Elizabeth Nichols, Specialty Courts Manager for the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts and a member of the Operation UNITE Board of Directors, thanked those in attendance for supporting the graduates through the Drug Court process. “Continue to support them,” she urged. “They are going to need you now more than ever.”