The leaves had just begun to change colors in the fall of 2005 when Flint Thomas overdosed for the third time.
Thomas had struggled with drugs since he was 7. For years he used marijuana, alcohol and hard drugs. But it wasn’t until a work-related back injury led him to opiate painkillers that his life became a nightmare.
He was 42 when he had his last overdose.
“My body weight had gone to 118 pounds,” he said. “My eyes were sunk into my head. I looked like death sucking on a lifesaver. I prayed, ‘God don’t let me die like this.’ ”
In 2007 Thomas had been clean and sober for three months when he was praying and heard the Lord call him to help people struggling with drug addictions. The next year Thomas and his wife, Marilyn, founded Recovery Works. This nonprofit, faith-based, long-term residential drug and alcohol recovery center for men is located on a 12-acre farm in Ridge Spring, about 50 miles southwest of Columbia.
He has admitted more than 175 addicts dealing with drug abuse, ranging from alcohol to crystal meth.
Using a unique blend of tough love and the 12-step recovery program used with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, Thomas is helping fight the war on drugs, which claims a life every 15 minutes in the United States, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever had the opportunity to do,” Thomas said. “Watching someone come to life makes my heart sing… The only way to grow, is to nurture others to grow.”
‘I lost respect for myself’
The smell of fresh coffee fills the air and a sign that reads “Nothing changes if nothing changes” hangs from the plywood walls of the meeting room. A dozen men wait for the morning devotional meeting to begin. In a room that was once a horse stable, a fluorescent light hangs overhead, illuminating a rug that covers the concrete floor.
Twelve men sit in a semi-circle mishmash of chairs and loveseats. The men sit in silence as one by one each reads a passage from a different book. One reads from Proverbs, then another reads from the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. All the while Thomas keeps a watchful eye on body language and demeanor. After each man has had a chance to read and share Thomas addresses the men. He relates his struggles of addiction to theirs.
“You know what I don’t like about you?” Thomas says. “Me,” as he points at himself.
The men know what he means. He’s referring to the one thing every man has in common – they suffer from the disease of addiction.
One of the men is Benji A., a 35-year old recovering cocaine addict from Georgia.
Benji began using drugs as a teenager. He eventually began selling cocaine to support his habit. When that didn’t work, he began stealing to support his addiction.
Recovery Works was an alternative to prison for Benji.
“I lost respect for myself … drugs were my master.” Benji said. “I never thought I could stop using until I came here. I’ve been given a new life ...”
Iron Sharpens Iron
Benji is not alone.
Roughly one in 10 people suffer from drug and/or alcohol abuse in South Carolina, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
More than 49, 000 people in South Carolina sought alcohol or drug abuse treatment in the past year according to the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.
And 17.9 percent of people in South Carolina prisons are serving time for drug-related charges — more people are admitted into prisons for dangerous drug-related charges than any other offense, according to the SC Department of Corrections.
“By taking people who would otherwise go to prison … people like Flint Thomas are the unsung heroes of the drug war that plagues this country,” said Saluda municipal Judge G. Dan Neel.
Neel, who has been a judge for seven years and the director of Saluda Behavioral Health Systems for 27 years, has referred more than 20 men to Recovery Works. He said close to 30 percent of those men have graduated from the program. “Flint takes people who have been forgotten, people who have no place to turn and he gives them hope,” Neel said.
Recovery Works is not a traditional treatment center. Men in need of immediate detoxification are referred to local drug and alcohol treatment centers.
“I’m not a doctor,” Thomas said. “I believe a person who’s been through it, helping others go through it, is unparalleled. As iron sharpens iron, so one brother should sharpen another.”
The root of the problem
Residents are required to stay for a minimum of six months, but many remain for a year. The men live together in three mobile homes on the property, with an average of six men to a home.
They must keep their hair cut above the collars and shave every morning. They are required to wake up at 5:45 a.m., eat breakfast and attend a morning devotional meeting.
Then the work begins.
The men stay busy throughout the day, working in groups of two or three. Responsibilities include cooking, cleaning their living quarters, and caring for livestock.
“It’s structure. It’s discipline. It’s learning to have self-respect, learning to no longer make excuses for how you think or act,” Thomas said.
There is zero tolerance for excuses at Recovery Works. If a man breaks a rule, there are consequences.
The consequences are given in relation to the offense. If a man forgets to shave in the morning, he may have to write a hundred times, “I will shave every morning.”
If a man breaks the rules two or three times, he may have to move a woodpile from one side of the 12-acre farm to the other or he may be given what Thomas calls, “Stump Therapy.” The man is given an axe and a shovel and must dig up a tree stump.
“Hard work will help a man focus. It will help a man get to the root of his problem.” Thomas said.
This type of therapy isn’t for everyone.
Recovering alcoholic George B. spent 78 days as a resident at Recovery Works before he was told to dig up a tree stump. After two days of digging, chopping and sweating, George was frustrated and discouraged. Believing that this type of therapy wasn’t beneficial to his recovery, he decided to pack up his things and leave.
Eight months later, George is still clean and sober, which he credits to prayer, working a full-time job, and staying busy.
“Recovery Works taught me that you do need self discipline, you need to learn to say no,” George said. “But some people need tender loving care, not so much tough love.”
With more than 20 years of experience in helping people with drug addictions, Kathleen Brady is no stranger to the plight of the addict. An internationally renowned substance abuse specialist and leading clinical researcher, she knows that no particular recovery or treatment center is right for everyone.
Currently a professor and director of clinical neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina, she believes hard work and clear consequences for your behavior are good.
However, if the punishment is too harsh, a person could lose confidence in themselves. Then the treatment won’t work, Brady said.
“There is a fine line in using consequences that are justly deserved and things that might seem overly punitive or judgmental,” she said.
I’ll never go back
The men were harvesting squash in the organic garden the day Benji A., the recovering cocaine addict from Georgia, graduated from the program. It had been eight months since he left his family in pursuit of a better life for himself – a better life for them.
His fiance of seven years, Krista sat in the back of the room, fighting back tears, with a smile on her face. One by one, each man told Benji what a positive impact he had on them and how they wished him the best of luck in his sobriety.
Four months later, he landed a full-time job and married Krista, the mother of his two daughters.
“He’s a new man, the man I always knew he was,” Krista said.
Thomas has been sober for 51/2 years.
Experts say it is a pivotal point in a person’s sobriety.
“I don’t have a desire to use, none whatsoever.” he said. “It’s gone. As far as the East is from the West, it’s gone.”
In 2011 Thomas began gathering letters from judges and political figures to request a pardon for criminal acts in South Carolina dating back to 1986. The process took about nine months, but on May 2, 2012, he was granted a pardon. “I feel like my positive efforts are being rewarded ... the state of South Carolina has forgiven me for things that God has long forgiven me for,” he said.
When the stresses of working at a recovery facility build and Thomas needs time to focus and talk to God, it is not uncommon for him to go for a long ride in the country on his 2006 Screamin’ Eagle Electra Glide Harley Davidson.
Although the work is difficult, Thomas says that being a part of another man’s recovery is the best thing to ever help him.
“There’s a peace that comes from running into somebody down the road and seeing them no longer bound,” he said.
“The lion had me in his mouth. I’ll never go back in that cage with the lion again with an excuse that I was going to get my hat, but I will go back in that cage and get another man out