DANVILLE — Looking across the softball diamonds outside the Danville Madison Community Center Friday morning, it was nearly impossible to distinguish who on the fields were people in recovery and who were courthouse employees, day report center staffers and police officers.
Some, actually, were both. But at the Southwestern Day Report Center’s annual softball tournament on Friday, it really didn’t matter.
“We’re all on equal footing here. It doesn’t matter what team you’re on or what you do; three strikes and you’re out, you’re tagged and you’re out,” said Boone County Circuit Court Judge Will Thompson. “Even if you don’t win, we’re here to have fun and remind everyone what they can have, who they can be when they’re in recovery. We all bleed red, and there’s really, when it comes down to it, no difference between the probation officers and police out here and anyone else. We’re all human, all of us.”
Each year, the tournament features a handful of teams from Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Mingo counties. Teams are composed of everyone from judges and sheriffs to day report center clients and drug court participants.
When the tournament started eight years ago, it was an effort to break down barriers between those in recovery for addiction and the people responsible with helping them through the process, said Michelle Akers, executive director of the day report center.
While it’s only one small portion of the services provided by the day report center, the softball tournament is a highlight for the people who participate each year. It gives an opportunity for those in Southern West Virginia’s recovery community to catch up, check in on each other and work on destigmatizing addiction — one of the most important steps that needs to be taken if communities want to make progress fighting against the drug epidemic, Thompson said.
‘They didn’t give up on me’
While Chapmanville native Barry Hensley spent Friday afternoon playing second base for the Hustlers, he usually spends his weekdays working with his brother-in-law at their coal truck company.
Before managing the company, Hensley spent more than a year walking up and down U.S. 119 — from Chapmanville to Madison and back — to attend Thompson’s drug court at the Boone County Circuit Court.
“I hated it and I hated Judge Thompson. I thought he was out to get me and the whole thing was a waste of time,” Hensley said. “I kept messing up, once, twice, again, but they didn’t give up on me, they kept trying to help. They sent me to rehab for a bit and that bit of sobriety — clarity — it was a big change.”
Hensley has been in recovery for 18 months now, and on Wednesday, he will graduate from the Boone County Drug Court program.
He started using drugs when he was 15 years old — first marijuana, he said, then eventually he was injecting meth. Today, he looks back to who he was just two years ago and has one piece of advice.
“Just stop what you’re doing. Try to get up, give it a chance,” he said.
In the year-and-a-half since becoming clean, Hensley has become his own boss, managing the coal truck company owned by his brother-in-law.
He is happily married, and his kids — a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old — are “just tickled” to have their father back, he said.
“I went from having nothing, from caring about nothing, from looking death in the face each day, to being my own boss,” Hensley said. “I’m supporting my family now, I’m healthy, I’m proud.”
On Wednesday, when Hensley gets to stand on stage and be rewarded for completing the drug court program, he said he’ll feel accomplished. For him, it’s an acknowledgement of the hardest thing he’s ever done, and he’s thankful to those who got him there — many of whom were playing against him at Friday’s softball tournament.
“Judge Thompson, all of them, they don’t need to do a ceremony for us, but they do. They care; they helped. It makes you feel like they’re proud of you, too, and that ... it’s not something you can explain to people who’ve never been addicted,” Hensley said. “I worked harder for this than I’ve worked for anything. It’s the hardest struggle I’ve ever had, but damn, I’m feeling OK today.”
‘You’re constantly trudging down this road’
For Elly Donahue, July will mark the sixth anniversary of her graduation from the Boone County Drug Court.
The Hamlin native has been playing in the softball tournament since its inception, and while she was once in active addiction, Donahue has been clean and sober since before her first time participating.
“It sounds like a long time ago, but that time, it’s never far from your mind,” Donahue said. “It’s something you keep in the forefront, always, to remember how far you’ve come and remind yourself where you don’t want to go back to.”
For the past six years, Donahue has worked at the day report center as a recovery coach. She works with others in recovery regularly, but she’s also taken it on herself to help educate people on the struggle of addiction and what it feels like.
“I tell them, ‘Try not to breathe. Hold your breath, hold it tight, and do not breathe.’ They can’t do it. It’s what your body does, and you can’t help it. That’s what active addiction is like,” Donahue said. “You try with all your might to not want something, not do it, but it’s so easy and you have to.”
She said the analogy usually helps to get people to understand the struggle, but it’s almost impossible unless they’ve been in addiction themselves.
Today, as she played second base for her team, the Breaking Bats, she looked around at the other players on the field and saw some who were just starting their journey to recovery, and others, like her, who have been on the path for a while.
Saving her own life is the hardest thing she’s ever had to do, she said.
She recognizes, she said, that she’s no different than the clients she works with. She remembers what it felt like to be looked down upon for her addiction, and sometimes she still feels that way, she said.
“Here, surrounded by these people, whether they’ve experienced addiction or are just trying to understand it and help those who have, you feel like you belong. For some in recovery — for many — that’s a rare feeling,” Donahue said. “You don’t have people cheering for you often, or hugging you and laughing along with you. These are the people that make it worth it when it gets the hardest.”
Donahue said she wishes others could understand that recovery — and the path to it — is different for every person. She said there has to be an effort to be open-minded and embrace those who’ve struggled.
“You’re constantly trudging down this road, and it’s a road you build yourself, with logs and potholes and mud and all these other things that can make it hard, but you don’t stop,” Donahue said. “Part of what keeps me sober is helping others down that road and sharing what I’ve learned with them. Watching that change in someone else, that change is absolutely miraculous.”
‘I had a change in life’
Last year’s softball tournament marked 400 days of sobriety for Mingo County native Jessie Spaulding. This year’s marked 764 days.
“In the last year, since the last time we were here, I can’t believe where I’ve gone and what I’ve done,” Spaulding said.
After graduating from drug court in August, and since earning his credentials as a peer recovery coach, Spaulding decided to lead a new program, Fresh Start, for the Mingo County Day Report Center. The program helps those in recovery through gardening and craftsmanship, and Spaulding spent four months volunteering eight hours a day to the program before being hired on full time.
Now, he said, he works right near the deputies who took him in when he was in active addiction. They wave to each other on the street and in halls — they’re nothing but friendly.
“I’m out here, in 2019, and I’m Facebook friends with police officers,” Spaulding said. “I never thought that’d be something I was doing, that this was where I’d be.”
Spaulding said he’s taken up running and other exercise in the past year, too — a painful but worthwhile endeavor for him, as he’s had more than 12 surgeries for knee problems. When he runs now, though, he feels joy, like a release, he said.
Running isn’t the only thing to bring him joy, either. He’s gotten involved in a number of agencies and organizations throughout Mingo County, including the farmers market and the family resource center.
“There is not a door in all of Mingo County I will not knock on,” he joked.
Through these new experiences, Spaulding takes the opportunity to share his story of addiction and his path to recovery with anyone who’ll listen. Through that, he said, he hopes to help save some lives — like his was — and get other people as engaged as he is in the community.
“We have to care about each other enough to get a little uncomfortable and have these discussions,” Spaulding said. “We can’t be ashamed; we have to hold our heads high and fight for things to get better, for all of our well-beings.”