By Jeff Keeling
Most people wouldn’t have noticed, but in early 2014 Alvis Lowe’s life was on a precipice. Lowe, in his late 20s, had a job and a lovely wife, Holly, who was in her final semester of pharmacy school in Johnson City. But he also had a serious prescription drug habit, and it was about to catch up with him.
A welder by trade with a highly successful work history, the Claxton, Tenn., native was taking an average four suboxone (an opiate blocker that is frequently abused) and 20-30 Xanax (an anti-anxiety medication) a day. Then one day, “feeling like Superman” thanks to the Xanax, Lowe stole a bottle of cologne from a store.
“I had $200 in my wallet and I had a bottle of cologne at home, but I wanted it,” Lowe remembered last week, a day before becoming one of the first three graduates, along with Dylan Greene and Joshua Hammer, of Washington County Recovery Court. That $200, he added, could have bought a decent amount of drugs.
Several weeks later Lowe – who had “dodged a lot” in his teens and 20s and had just a few minor brushes with the law – shoplifted again and got caught again. At this point he’d violated probation and was looking at six months on what had begun as a misdemeanor theft charge. Holly Lowe had had about all she could take.
Facing consequences for those thefts turned out to be one of the best things that’s ever happened to him, Lowe said. Thanks to the Recovery Court and the continued support of Holly and her family, Lowe graduated from the intensive program Friday having been clean for well over a year, the proud father of 5-month-old Cooper and husband of a pharmacist at Fort Sanders Hospital in Knoxville.
“I think I probably would have used while I was in jail, and then gotten out and used again,” Lowe said of his likely path had he served his 180 days. Instead, Lowe took his defense attorney up on the suggestion that he try and get into the new program, which uses an intensive blend of therapy, accountability, and close monitoring including very frequent drug tests, to help misdemeanor offenders with drug addiction change their lives.
“I think the program can have a huge impact for people with offenses such as mine or even worse offenses,” Lowe said. “I thought I could shortchange this and get by with anything I wanted, but these people genuinely do care. All they’re teaching us as addicts – we tend to do what we want, when we want – is to be accountable and responsible and make adult decisions and be a good member of society.
“Anybody who wants to get sober and wants a better life, this is the way to do it. But you have to work.”
That work involves a team, with a coordinator from Frontier Health at the center of it, whose members work with participants through a lengthy road to sobriety. Probation officers, attorneys, Sessions Court Judge Don Arnold, counselors and others interact intensively with the participants. Some of them make it. Those who don’t, serve out their sentences.
It’s all proven stuff, said Karen Hulsey, the program’s coordinator, based on best practices from around the country.
“What we’re working on with these people in our recovery system has been a part of best practices, and then we look at how does it meet their needs and how can we tune this to be individualized just for them in their recovery,” Hulsey said the day of Lowe’s graduation.
Long road to the problem
While Lowe’s road to recovery has already spanned more than a year, that period is dwarfed by the years that led to his crisis. Lowe said hecan hardly remember a time when drugs and alcohol weren’t around him. Abandoned along with his younger sisters by their mother when he was five, Lowe lived with an aunt who provided materially, but was a functioning drug user – just like he would become.
“We sold drugs, done drugs, and that’s how we paid the bills,” he said. “That was our lifestyle.”
Older brothers (cousins, really) started partying hard when Lowe was 10 or so, and he was smoking pot soon, followed by more.
“I’m talking 120-people parties all the time, like 15 kegs, bricks of marijuana and cocaine, and people passing out in the showers with needles in their arms,” Lowe said. As an impressionable kid, “I thought it was a cool thing,” Lowe said. “I had brothers and I looked up to them. It just ruined my life.”
Yet there was another influence, too. Holly and her family. After meeting Holly in world geography when he was a high school sophomore and she was a freshman – “we had a poster project and she was really good at drawing bubble letters,” Lowe remembered with a grin – Lowe graduated and went through welding school.
He got into pills because they don’t stay in one’s system as long and it was easier to pass drug tests, and he ended up in good jobs with TVA. Holly said she kind of played along, because the pair is very compatible, Lowe is a really great guy, and it’s just hard to confront addiction in a loved one.
“I knew, but I denied and was naïve to some point,” she said. “I always said, ‘he’s young and he’s just experimenting, he’s just having fun, he’s not an addict.’ I probably said that up until two years before he went to treatment.
“There’s just that level of you don’t want to know, you’re scared to know, and if an ultimatum is presented, what’s going to happen?”
When the Lowes moved to Johnson City for pharmacy school in 2010, Lowe found a good welding job. While he earned a raise fairly quickly, he even more quickly found a source at the factory where he worked, and bought 90 “footballs” (Xanax).
“I bought those, got messed up, my wife found out about it and got mad like she always has,” Lowe said. “I don’t know how I’ve been with this person 13 years and her not left me after all the cheating and lying and stealing.”
It didn’t stop there. Lowe found someone at his workplace who was using suboxone, “and it just went from there. I was a functioning addict.”
Lowe, who said Holly has “worked at suboxone clinics run legitimately,” said it’s far too easy for people to become addicted through legal prescriptions. “There’s a very effective method (of suboxone therapy) where you go in and take your medicine at the clinic, in front of the doctor, and you screen when you come in.”
Then, Lowe said, there are what he said are too many doctors willing to bend the rules because running patients in and out is lucrative. It’s lucrative on the street, too, he added.
“You take one suboxone, you sell it for $25 apiece. One subutex, you sell it for $35. I would sell four of them (out of 21 prescribed) and have my money for the doctor at the end of the week, and then buy Xanax. There’s so much money to be made in it.”
Enter Recovery Court
After his second theft arrest, Lowe told his defense attorney he had been under the influence when he stole and was an addict who had used for 17 years. The attorney advocated for him to get into the program, which was brand new to Washington County.
Lowe was still thinking like an addict when he met then-coordinator Anne Snodgrass and the rest of the recovery court team. “I figured, ‘okay, I can skim by this just like I have everything else.’ Instead of doing jail time, I wanted something easy.”
Instead, Lowe got something hard, worthwhile, and effective enough to not only salvage his marriage and keep him out of jail, but to turn his life around 180 degrees.
“He’s always been willing to help anyone,” Holly said of Lowe. “What’s mainly different is, there’s that trust. When he says, ‘hey, I’m gonna go here or there,’ it’s not for drugs. If he says he’s gonna do something then he does it.”
It almost didn’t turn out that way for Lowe, who said he is the only one among the court’s first participants who didn’t drop out. He relapsed in April 2014, using a recreational drug (at a time when he was still taking suboxone and Xanax under supervision while being weaned off those addictions). Like addicts do, he lied about it – and the team told him to check in to inpatient treatment in Knoxville.
“They knew exactly what I was doing,” Lowe said. “I was trying to beat the system. There were repercussions, and I’m very glad, because going to treatment is what saved my life.”
Lowe attended Holly’s graduation from pharmacy school and then checked in to treatment. That lasted more than a month and was followed by continued progression through the steps of the program. Cooper Lowe entered the growing family along the way.
Lowe credits the entire team for his transformation, but particularly now-retired Snodgrass and her successor Hulsey, as well as Sessions Court Judge Don Arnold and Brenda Downs, the chief jailer at Washington County Detention Center.
“All of the team offer words of encouragement every time you see them, but those four in particular really helped me along the way whether they realize they have or not,” Lowe said. “They make you accountable for what you’re doing and the decisions you make.”
At Friday’s graduation at the Jonesborough Visitors Center, Arnold said Lowe and fellow graduates Greene and Hammer were making good decisions.
“We’ve got three young men who graduated here today that if you had seen them two years ago you’d have never thought they wouldn’t been able to make it through the program,” Arnold said. “It’s a tremendous endeavor these young folks have to undergo, and not everybody makes it. We have to take some people out because of their inability to cope with the rigorous requirements, but we’ve got four more that are going to graduate pretty soon, and more coming, so we just feel greatly honored about the success of the program.
“It’s the answer to the criminal problem,” Arnold continued. “Rather than putting people in jail, it gives people a chance to cope and rehabilitate themselves and contribute to society again.”
That’s partly because the program is evidence-based, said Hulsey, who announced her pending retirement from Frontier Health at the graduation. Frontier coordinates the program, which is partially funded by a state of Tennessee grant. Hulsey said the program utilizes best practices gleaned from recovery court programs across the nation. A program has been operating successfully in Sullivan County for several years.
“The drug court team becomes actively involved in each of these individuals’ lives. The recovery process is tailored to their needs,” Hulsey said. “As a former probation officer, I can tell you having people come in for probation, there’s no way you can meet their needs like you can in a program like this. There is a world of difference.”
Lowe’s fellow graduate Hammer spoke Friday of something that struck him deeply – his younger brother, who had come to a point of essentially writing Hammer off, had called and told him he looked up to him.
Hulsey said whether it’s the younger Hammer’s rediscovered trust in and admiration for his brother, or Holly Lowe’s trust in her husband, the graduates are likely to uphold it.
“It’s more expensive in some ways, but in the long run I have every confidence that these young men that graduated today are going to live clean sober lives, law-abiding lives from here on out. Yes, they’re going to have temptations, yes, they’ll have some struggles, but they had a whole lot of tools now that they’ve never had before, and they have experienced life without drugs, a clear mind able to think, make decisions, have good relationships. It’s totally different than how they were living before.”
The road ahead
Alvis and Holly Lowe both admit they’re a little nervous about life without the up-close-and-personal accountability of Recovery Court, but Alvis said he knows he can stay clean.
“For me being an addict, drug court is really intense when it comes to going to your meetings and doing what you’re supposed to, being accountable on a daily basis, reading your literature, working your steps,” Lowe said. “This program teaches you to develop great habits. These habits they instill in you and want you to do on a regular basis – you don’t want to waver from that just because (the program) is over with now.”
“One of the pitfalls of inpatient rehabilitation, I think, is that a lot of people go, and they get out, and that’s it,” she said. “There’s no structure. This program offers the treatment, but also the habits that you need in order to continue sobriety. He’s been accountable for a year-and-a-half now, it’s not like it was just six months, so having all that time under his belt is one of the things that gives me confidence that it will be able to continue.”
Lowe, who’s studying social work now, would like to serve on a recovery court team himself, or become a probation officer or drug abuse counselor. “Anything in that type of field, I want to do simply because of people like the drug court committee who helped me along the way. That’s the least I can do, and I enjoy learning about it, because not only does it help others, it continues to help me along the way.”
Holly Lowe said the couple’s Christian faith and their church are an important element in continued success.
“There’s so much shame and embarrassment that comes with addiction, not just for his actions but for your own actions. Like ‘you’ve been in this so long, how could you just let it go?’ I’m a smart person. So knowing you can go to church where there’s usually no judgment, you can be among your peers and talk about things and they understand and offer words of encouragement – even during addiction and now after, it’s always been a safe place.”
Lowe said when he was in treatment and began talking about his life story, “I bawled, because I’ve had it buried in so long. I realize that, ‘hey, all I’ve been trying to do is cover up emotions and trust issues.’ It was so difficult to get that stuff out. “As men we’re taught men don’t cry. One thing somebody said to me in treatment right when I was about to leave – I was telling him about me being upset, and he looked at me and said, ‘well, so you became a man today.’ It took me a minute to process that and realize what he was saying, that everybody has emotions and feelings, and it’s okay to get upset, it’s okay to let those emotions out, because it you keep em buried in you’re not getting anywhere, you’re just hurting yourself along the way. That’s what I did for 17 years is just hurt myself along the way because I didn’t want to talk about it.
“God is so forgiving that it’s unreal the things He’s let happen in this 18-month period,” Lowe added. “He put these people around me for a reason and has been able to build a foundation from the ground up, literally.
“Just like my little boy here. He’s learning to walk and talk and crawl, but I’m having to do those things too, only as a grown man now. And that’s okay, because it’s okay to start over. It took me a long time to realize that, but it is alright, it’s normal, and it happens.”