‘Jail was my Damascus Road’ – an addict’s revelation and recovery

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Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing writer

Brian Burnett entered Main Street Coffee still dressed in his mechanic’s uniform. He placed his well-worn, large, leather-bound King James Version Bible on the table. From among papers peeking beyond the pages, he pulled out an important one: an Aug. 11, 2011, copy of the The Clayton Tribune. He points to the front page headline. “This was me.”

“Was” is the key word. Burnett said, “I know that Brian. I know what that Brian can do … his will, or me trying to do things my way.” He opens to Ephesians and reads chapter two, pausing at “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind” and emphasizing “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves.”

Although life was “a little fuzzy” for many of his 41 years, Burnett knows dates. Born Dec. 9, 1976; arrested Aug. 11, 2011; entered Damascus Road Recovery Dec. 5, 2011; began living an independent, recovered life, July 12, 2014.  

The headline on that fateful day in August seven years ago is a humbling, sobering reminder for Burnett: “Police Nab Rolling Meth Lab” in large letters underneath the masthead. He was arrested for speeding through Mountain City; his car was searched. Found was enough ingredients to make about 40 grams of meth. The benchmark for a trafficking charge is at least 28 grams. A state hazardous materials team had to decontaminate the scene. 

Burnett said he should be dead – should have died many times between his teen years and the date of his arrest. But he believes wholeheartedly that he was saved for such a time as this: To share his story so that others may sidestep the same troubles and/or glean from the navigational tools he learned. 

Articulately and carefully, he began his story at the beginning. He was born in San Diego County, California. His brother is three years older. When they were elementary to middle-school age, his parents separated. He had been in a Christian school and attending church with his grandparents, but the separation meant he had to enroll in a public middle school conveniently located next door to his father and new stepmother.

“It was a shocker. I had no friends … no feeling like I fit in,” he said. The young smoking/drinking/drug crowd accepted him. 

“For so many addicted to drugs and alcohol, the problem starts around 10 to 15 years old and when there has been a death, trauma, conflict,” said Burnett. “I look at the past now as a strength, but for a while I blamed myself … blamed others.” 

His addiction path is an all too familiar one in this modern era. He started with cigarettes, and then graduated to marijuana. Gradually he tried LSD, mushrooms, cocaine, the gamut. 

“When I tried meth … speed … I found a friend.” 

Methamphetamine, or meth, is a powerful and addictive stimulant drug. Unfortunately, the number of meth addicts in America is unknown. What is known is the death rate: 3,700 in 2014, 4,500 in 2015 (according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Those numbers just continue to rise, and Western North Carolina is not immune. 

Ironically, even though Burnett said his altered mind considered meth a friend, in reality the drug was his worst enemy. Contradictions, in fact, became normalcy. For example, he said that concurrently he was both conscious of and oblivious to his actions and circumstances. His thinking was manipulated by the need for the drug, but he manipulated others to score the drug. 

“Addiction starts small and secretive and then escalates to more and more,” he explained. 

Burnett paused intermittently to apologize. 

“The details are fuzzy. I was so messed up.” But then he added, “I think God only wants me to remember certain things.”

Drugs affected his relationships and schooling. He dropped out, eventually returning to finish up and graduate with the class below him. He lied. He stole money and valuables from his family to buy more drugs. He bounced around from family member to family member – all of whom fretted, prayed, and threatened. Inevitably, loved ones became exasperated. “My family – like so many loved ones of those with addictions – was lost and confused. They had no idea what to do with me.” 

A police officer friend attempted to facilitate an intervention. Counselors worked through multiple sessions and prescriptions of anti-depressants to bring about change in Burnett. 

He rarely ate or slept. It got to the point where it was easier to be “on the street” than staying with family. He wandered, consumed the drugs, and found shelter in vacant garages and dugouts. “Sometimes I would go sit behind a grocery store or other building and just fall asleep sitting there. Then I would wake up and start over. If I wanted food I would steal it or go back to a family member’s and eat and take a shower.”

He could not appreciate that his family loved him and tried to help. 

Finally, his mother, Janet Finn, told him she would send him to visit with an aunt and uncle in South Carolina. Burnett said, “I was interested in that because I had never been to the East Coast, but even as I planned to fly there, I was getting my dope stashed for when I got back … that was my addicted mind, planning.” But after two weeks, his aunt and uncle told him he would not be going back to California. They were committed to getting him clean and working. 

“I didn’t use drugs for those two weeks, but when they told me I couldn’t return I was really angry. I tried to buy beer to feel better, but I couldn’t because of the state’s blue laws. And that made me madder and desperate. I eventually started all over with the drugs.”

Burnett held down jobs and even married and had a son, all the while sinking lower into the darkness that he now recognizes as meth addiction. Even though he says he was never a dealer, he began making meth to satiate his appetite for the drug. 

“I was a zombie.” He eventually found himself without a job, separated from his wife and child, a home in foreclosure, and the loss of electricity and water. 

“It was the middle of summer in South Carolina. I had no air conditioning, no food in the house. I sat in a corner in a fetal position all day feeling like demons were taking over my mind. I was pulling out my hair, cutting myself. I heard the enemy say to me, ‘Just do it. No one loves you.’ I was so close to ending my life. I was in extreme bondage, chains, shackles, darkness. Then I saw my son’s face. What would he think of me if I took my life? That pulled me out of that very low moment.”

Yet, Burnett was not ready to leave the addiction road. “Paul teaches us in Romans 7, ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.’”

He did check himself into a hospital seeking help. There, however, a physician prescribed the maximum dosages of two anti-depressants. “‘Take the max,’ the doctor told me, a drug addict, ‘it’s like speed.’” Burnett said he realized right then that some doctors need to be educated from an addict’s point of view. He left the hospital and spiraled further out of control, even cashing in a 401K to purchase more drugs. 

Then in 2011, after his uncle died, his aunt decided to move to Franklin. He decided he would move there as well to “help her” because she battled diabetes. That August he had already taken a load of items to Franklin and was on his way back to South Carolina when the police officer stopped and arrested him. 

‘Keep Going, or Go Another Way’ 

For King and Country, a Christian band featured Aug. 9th at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, performed their hit, “Joy.” In it the Australian brother duet laments the “blues” in the nightly news and sing: “The time has come to make a choice.”

The lyrics could be describing Burnett’s personal turnaround epiphany. Prior to his arrest, he experienced what is commonly referred to as “rock bottom.” He was a statistic. But he decided to share the raw details of his life as a drug addict because it has a happy ending. 

“And the best thing is hope,” he said. 

The night before his arrest – unbeknownst to him – his mother prayed: “Do whatever it takes, Lord.” Finn said, “The best thing that ever happened to him is that he was arrested.” 

A few days into what became a four-month jail stint, he called his ex-wife, who immediately said he had to explain to his then 10-year-old son where he was and why he was there. “Here I was in jail, chained to a wall, having to find the words,” said Burnett. 

The charges stacked against him, including trafficking across state lines, distribution, possession, speeding, and more, carried an average sentence of 30 years. He talked to a bondsperson who gave him a lifeline. 

“She told me she would help me if I agreed to go into a program,” he said. “I had already picked up a Gideon Bible that they handed out in the jail and was reading the Psalms. One day I heard God say to me that I could keep going the way I had been going or go another way. It was in these days that I fully surrendered my old life. I told the bondswoman that I was tired of living as an addict.” 

Until an addict truly admits and knows he or she has a problem, there is no help that will stick, pointed out Burnett.  

He was given the phone number of Damascus Road Recovery, based in Covington, Ga. It was his responsibility – to show true commitment – to make the initial call and then to call back at an exact time and on an exact date. 

“They wanted to see if I was serious.” 

He spoke to John “Butch” Scruggs, founder, and his wife, Joan. Burnett’s father, Jim, who resides in Arizona, paid for the program and his mother paid the bond amount. 

“Once I surrendered my life to Him, everything just fell into place.”

Damascus Road Recovery is a 501©(3) ministry requiring a minimum two-year commitment “to provide recovery to men suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction who desire to receive counsel and work a program of recovery in a residential recovery residence.” The program is multifaceted, including everything from spirituality – based on The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren – to life skills, denial management, relapse prevention, recreation and work activities, and family life skills and counseling.

Damascus Road is a reference to the Apostle Paul’s experience of being struck blind for persecuting Christians while he journeyed on the road to Damascus. When Paul allowed himself to be filled with the Holy Spirit, his eyes were opened to the reality of Jesus. Burnett’s middle name is Paul. 

“I never connected how he was in darkness – and so was I.   

“It was hard … so hard,” he added. “Very intense emotionally, educationally, spiritually, physically. But the growth kept coming.” Although the Damascus Road Recovery requires completion of a rehabilitation program and a commitment of a minimum of six months in its Transition House, Burnett stayed for 33 months. When he got out, he had to return to court to face charges. 

Charges were knocked down. Miraculously, said Burnett, “the Lord had favor on me.” He received three years probation and fees and fines instead of 30 years.

Even after gaining independence, he still returns to Damascus Road to speak and visit. 

“I’m not angry like I used to be. And when I’ve applied for jobs, I just tell them up front what I’m about. These last seven years have been an amazing journey. The Lord has blessed me in ways I don’t deserve, but I understand I have a purpose and that He has always known what’s best for me.”

Education is a significant part of the recovery process, said Burnett. 

“You can’t just rely on that mountain top experience to carry through. Where I’m at today and what helped me get to where I am today has to do with the program. I had to learn how to deal with emotions. One of the reasons for addiction is not knowing how to deal with emotions, stress, anger, and rejection. I used to hold onto things for months at a time … now I let it go.” 

He also credits The Life Recovery Bible for helping him remain steadfast. It includes Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) steps as well as 12 spiritual steps in scripture – plus many other affirming strategies. 

He believes that to continue to be successful and not lapse back into addiction, recovered addicts must be involved in the community and fellowship. He visits men in the programs at Men’s Teen Challenge in Franklin and back at Damascus Road in Covington, Ga., and he attends bi-monthly meetings of Franklin’s SOS (Share Our Stories), which is for anyone personally struggling or knows someone struggling with life issues. 

“People use different things in their life to fill a void … which they become addicted to. Going through Damascus Road helped me to see that. I learned what I had done to myself and to my brain. It’s about doing away with the old self and putting on the new. I had to lay down my willpower and let Him do His will.” 

Burnett said that everything he used to do, he had to learn to do differently. 

“Until you face yourself, you’re not going to change. The whole process requires much humility – laying down pride.” He recently came across an acrostic for the word JOY that sums up “order of importance”: Jesus, Others, Yourself. 

When he was first released, he admitted it was a day by day, minute by minute struggle. But the more repetitive his intentions, the stronger he has gotten. 

“Struggles will come,” he said. “But all life’s problems have answers in scripture, and I know a lot of people don’t understand that or accept that but they’re there. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

Burnett realizes now that he is on the other side of addiction just how excruciating his addictive years were for family members.

 “We’re liars, cheats, and thieves. We burn bridges. We say sorry, but we don’t mean it. It becomes just a word. One of the worst things you can do for an addict is enable them.”

“You hate the sin, but love the child,” said Finn about her son. She acknowledged that there was the constant fear of getting “the” phone call that her son was dead. “But my son is alive. He’s been saved in all ways possible. He’s wonderful and I couldn’t be more proud of him. Damascus Road was heaven sent … they taught him so much. Now Brian’s actually an encouraging force in my life, and I think he will be a help to others who are where he used to be.” 

Brian’s father has similar sentiments. Jim Burnett, who resides in Arizona, said he had gotten to a point in his son’s addiction journey when the “lies, same story, bad choices” caused him to “turn it loose.” He said, “I wanted to save him, but I couldn’t save him.”

He is grateful to Damascus Road and proud of his son’s hard work and commitment to seeking a new life. “He stuck it out and became a changed person. He hardly ever talked before, but now we talk every two to three weeks and Brian shares a lot. His attitude is always good … positive. He’s a totally different person … night and day. Not only has he turned his life around, but he’s focused on staying that way and on helping others.” 

One of the most poignant moments in Burnett’s life was being allowed to telephone, while he was at Damascus Road, his faithful grandmother who never stopped reminding him, no matter how bad off he was, to “Keep your trust in Jesus.” Even though she was suffering from Alzheimer’s during that phone conversation, he said, “She had a moment of clarity, and it ended up being the last time I talked to her, but she said it to me again – and this time it really meant something. She never gave up on me.” 

Mending fences with family is a significant part of the recovery process, said Burnett. He sometimes speaks to those who graduate from a program. He advises them to have a “safety net” and shares practical truths he has gleaned, including: 

– Establish an after-care plan with the program for a time period. 

– Get involved in the community.

– Participate in a support group.

– Work; have a plan for each day. 

– Be a peer support or mentor to others.

– Don’t be afraid to continue to get help.

– Live transparently; be honest. 

– Find opportunities to share with others – especially children; addiction stories can teach others about what not to do. 

“Most importantly, realize it’s not an easy process,” he said, adding, “The more repetitive you do things, it becomes ingrained. [Recovering addicts] don’t need to get out [of a program] and look for that quick fix for their lives. It will come … but gradually. One of the hardest words is ‘change.’ At first it’s try/fail, try/fail, try/fail. It’s exhausting. But then the light comes on and you begin to change. The light gets brighter and brighter. It’s common to say this, but if you fail, you have to pick yourself back up. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have cravings for substances. But if I start thinking I don’t need help, that I can do it on my own, I’m in trouble.”

Reflecting Back

Burnett has printouts of his arrest photos – another reminder. He also kept handouts and notes from the Damascus Road Recovery program. His wallet bulges with encouraging sayings, but also his arrest charges. One of his main Bibles holds clippings and study notes. He kept the letters from loved ones who wrote to him in jail, including ones from his son, mother, and grandmother. 

“Daddy when you get out of jail, make sure you get that drug test. … I love you.” Prayer words from family members include Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you; plans to give you a hope and a future, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.” His mother wrote, “God knows what He is doing; believe Him.” 

“I was in tears when these first came to me,” said Burnett, “but at that time it was more from shame. When I was going through all these again recently, there were tears of joy. I’ve filled the void in my life with joy and peace.”

He maintains, “My past is my strength. I don’t want to go back to it. This is my new story.”

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