A personal account of addiction, recovery, and the spiritual connection that helped one man to find a different way of life.
Christmas was days away when Dutch Nelson reached rock bottom. The former high school football star and standout student was in the Cherokee County jail. In the preceding months, he had ruined his marriage, lost his job, abandoned his dedication to sobriety and reconciled with an old friend: cocaine.
In a matter of days, cocaine was once again running Dutch Nelson’s life. For those who have never been addicted, it’s hard to imagine how an educated, middle-class father of three with a Type A personality and a track record of success could chuck it all.
Think of it this way, he says: Compare it to a time when you’re starving. Not just hungry, but famished and dying of thirst. Multiply that many, many times over. Nelson said the compulsion to satisfy that kind of hunger is something close to what it’s like to be addicted to a powerful drug. It becomes the only thing that matters.
“What you have cherished, what has meant the most to you, what have been your most loved, prized possessions mean nothing to you anymore,” said Nelson, who has been sober again for 15 months. “It’s not you that is that person. But you become that.”
His cocaine compulsion became so powerful that Nelson went through all of his money, borrowed what he could and traded every valuable he had, including his fancy watches and laptops, for more drugs. When he had nothing left, he began to steal.
In no time, Nelson was facing charges in three counties and preparing to wake up on Christmas morning in a cell.
He went to a Bible study class with the jail’s chaplain, desperate for hope. “I am not a crying man,” he said. “But, oh my gosh, I just lost it. I lost it. I didn’t care that it was in front of all those men. I just lost it. I’m bawling like a baby and that’s my day — right there.”
That is the moment Nelson marks as his turning point. He says that is when he felt a deep, personal connection with God that was like nothing he ever experienced before. And he started to rebuild his life on that new foundation.
Nelson knew that he was facing prison time. But Fulton County offered him an alternative: drug court.
The option for nonviolent offenders is one of many “accountability courts” in Georgia that sentences addicts, veterans and people with mental health issues to an intense recovery program that demands personal responsibility. Gov. Nathan Deal is asking the General Assembly to dramatically expand Georgia’s network of such courts.
The governor views the courts as a way to slow the growth in the state’s prison system, which already costs $1 billion a year. But he also sees it as the right way to punish some offenders.
He thinks it makes sense to offer a shot at redemption to people like Dutch Nelson whose only obstacle to being a productive member of society is addiction.
At the end of January, Nelson, 40, graduated from Fulton County’s drug court program with credit for 324 days of sobriety behind him and a new world in front of him. And he credits the program, along with his faith, with enabling him to recover his life.
“There’s no doubt that when I signed up for drug court, I was thinking about two things — I do not want do to go jail and I don’t want this to be on my record,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be there. You are talking about a very, very intense program. Rehabs are not this intense.”
Phase 1 of the program requires early morning calls, every day, to see whether it’s your turn for a drug test. There are classes that help addicts understand how they think and how they are wired. Group sessions require participants to open up emotionally. Recovery meetings, like those at Narcotics Anonymous, are also mandatory. Participants must regularly go before a judge to report on their progress. And, they must go to work. If they fail in drug court, they get locked up.
Nelson decided to embrace the program and try to be one of the most successful former offenders that Fulton County’s drug court had ever seen. “I believe Fulton County, for me, created the structure and the environment that I needed,” he said.
The program forces participants to “dig down deep emotionally,” he said, “And there is no doubt about it. I needed it.”
Unlike some drug courts around the state, Fulton County doesn’t shy away from the tough cases. Nelson’s classmates in drug court included hard-core addicts who had been on drugs year after year. Many had been homeless and in and out of jail repeatedly.
But Nelson didn’t try to distance himself from the class. In fact, he made friends. He knew enough about addiction to know that he had a lot in common with his fellow participants. He confidently gave the invocation at the graduation ceremony. And after Superior Court Judge Doris Downs read a short version of his life story — and his recovery — to his classmates, he was lauded with applause and hollers of support from those who had shared this journey toward sobriety with him.
Nelson may not have fit the typical profile of the participants in the Fulton program. “But he is proof that drugs don’t discriminate,” said Candace Yates, who supervises the drug court’s case managers. “They took him down. And he was able to pull back from it.”
Today, Nelson’s hard-charging personality is all about recovery. He signs his emails with his new motto: “Driven to Redemption.”
A former bodybuilder, Nelson works full time at a gym in north Fulton County. But that’s just one part of what he’s up to. He’s enrolled in seminary at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where he is taking classes online and on campus.
He has started speaking publicly about his addiction and has become sought after at schools, in prisons and in recovery settings. He said he has taken on a position with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that he hopes will become his full-time work. He is back to being the devoted father he had been during his long stretches of sobriety before he relapsed. And he says he has been open with his two older children about his addiction, his recovery, his failings and his faith.
He plans to focus on pastoral counseling as part of earning his master’s degree from Liberty. And he wants to put that degree to work helping other addicts stay stronger than the drugs. “I like to work with people who are broken and to work with the people who are not — to keep them from being broken,” he said.
After getting clean twice in the past, Nelson maintained his sobriety for as long as 10 years. But during those years, he had worries about staying sober. Today, though, he said he’s not concerned. He said his faith has given him a new strength that he didn’t have in the past — and he treasures the moment of that conversion.
“It’s absolutely the most amazing feeling I have ever had in my life,” he said. “It’s the most warm, secure feeling I have ever had. I said I’ll tell you what — this is it for me. You can get me through this. I’m not asking you to dump my charges. I’m going to pay the price. But if you get me through this, I’ll do whatever it is you want me to do — for the rest of my life.”