As a counselor in recovery, Seth Charles knows all too well the depths to which addiction can take someone.
At his worst, he was living in a foreclosed home with his 4-year-old daughter and her mother, running an extension cord from his car to provide enough power for a fan and a TV, stealing cable from the neighbors and eating Ramen noodles, if he even ate at all.
Today, he’s a counselor with the Young Adult Program at the East Tennessee-based drug and alcohol treatment center Cornerstone of Recovery, as well as the ministry leader of the Celebrate Recovery program at Fountain City United Methodist Church in Knoxville. The life he has today – a wife and four children, a job that allows him to be a mentor and a ministry that gives him a chance to shepherd those who suffer toward Christ – is one he never could have imagined and never thought he deserved.
“People always ask, what would you say to a newcomer (to the recovery process)? And I would definitely say that recovery is a journey,” Seth said. “I think one of the most important things is to stay in the moment and do it one day at a time. That’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten, and it’s not always easy to do.”
What it was like …
As a counselor in recovery, Seth knows how important it is to stay in touch with the full measure of his own addiction. It started out innocently enough: He began smoking weed in seventh grade, he said, a 12-year-old just trying to fit in with peers and find a way to calm the gnawing voice of discontent in his head.
“The first time I got high, I remember feeling like, ‘This is how I’m supposed to feel. This is what normal feels like,'” he said. “That was the moment, and at the time, I thought it was a miracle that made the voice in my head shut up. I know now that was an illusion.”
As a student at Central High School, he smoked weed daily, he said, and drank regularly, but nothing sank its fangs in like prescription pills did. After high school, he enrolled in the culinary arts program at Walters State Community College, but by the time he was 21, the drinking was on the verge of becoming a serious opioid addiction.
“That was when it was off to the races,” he said. “That hooked me quick. I smoked every day, and I drank all the way through college pretty heavily, but there was no flirting around with pills.”
There rarely ever is, at least for a great many individuals with genetic or environmental predispositions toward addiction. Over the past two decades, opioid abuse has grown into an epidemic that continues to claim lives across large swaths of America with little end in sight:
- According to the Centers for Disease Control , “nearly 70% of the 67,367 (overdose) deaths in 2018 involved an opioid.”
- The CDC also reports that “1999-2018, almost 450,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids.”
And it’s important to distinguish that opioid addiction isn’t just the territory of stereotypical heroin addicts. Opioid addiction starts in home medicine cabinets, in pharmacies, in pills shared between friends … often with tragic, life-altering consequences, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)  points out:
- Roughly one quarter of patients prescribed prescription opioids for chronic pain misuse them.
- Between 8 and 12 percent develop an addiction to them.
- It’s estimated that between 4 and 6 percent of those who misuse prescription opioids will transition to heroin.
For Seth, opioids became a fast-track to absolute misery. He went to treatment once, back in 2012, when he wound up at a local hospital and spent time in the psychiatric unit because he was suicidal. But fast-forward to squatting in that foreclosed house, with several legal problems hanging over his head, and he was forced to face up to the full measure of his own desperation.
“It was two things that did it,” he said. “The first was my daughter – looking in her eyes and saying, ‘You deserve better than this.’ And then my mom said to me, the final thing that made me agree to go to treatment, was, ‘Seth, do you love yourself?’ And I’d never even thought about that question.”
He pauses, the emotion of that moment just beneath the surface.
“I remember where I was standing when she asked it, and that was the question that broke me,” he added. “She was basically asking how I could love my daughter if I didn’t love myself, and that’s when I realized, I didn’t love myself. And she told me to think about it over the weekend, because after that, I was either going to treatment or hitting the road.”
What happened …
The following Monday, he was on his way to Cornerstone of Recovery, where he walked through the door feeling torn between two extremes: that he was either walking into a trap, or walking toward freedom.
“And I was leaning toward trap!” he said with a laugh. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought, but it was scary, because I knew when I walked through that door, my exit plan was gone. I couldn’t manipulate anyone anymore.”
What he learned – from many of his predecessors who, like himself, were addiction counselors in recovery – was that the he didn’t need drugs and alcohol to quiet the inner rumblings of self-doubt and self-loathing.
“If we go back to that voice in my head from when I first used drugs, and how it finally shut up, Cornerstone helped me realize that voice was lying to me,” he said. “That voice wasn’t real, and they taught me that I could shut it up without using drugs. And so that began the process of me having internal peace and being OK with who I am.”
More than that, it helped him define and rely on a relationship with a Higher Power. Spirituality in addiction recovery became a vital part of his journey, and what he discovered was that the things to which he’d previously only paid lip service were very real indeed.
“For the first 28 years of my life, I had not had a relationship with a Higher Power,” he said. “I said I did. I went through confirmation and did all the things I was supposed to do, but really, when I had nothing left, that’s when I found what I needed.”
After he completed residential inpatient treatment, he enrolled in Cornerstone’s Intensive Outpatient Program, spending a total of 90 days learning how to live, clean and sober. Afterward, a job at Lowe’s Home Improvement practically fell into his lap, even though he wasn’t looking for it, and for the next five years, he worked in management at the company. He got married to his wife, Joy, and became a father to her two children, and together they added a fourth child to the family.
“But then I started thinking I could drink alcohol successfully, and I relapsed,” he said. “Another turning point was looking at her and looking at my family, and that’s when I said, ‘I’m not going to break those five hearts anymore.'”
What it’s like now: a counselor in recovery
Dusting himself off, he began leaning into a 12 Step program in ways he hadn’t before. He started attending recovery meetings again, and he found a sponsor to help guide him through the process. He also began attending Celebrate Recovery, a Christian-based recovery program that strengthened his relationship with God.
“For me, at that point in my life with the marriage and the kids and the family, my relationship with God became the No. 1 thing,” he said. “It’s the thing that brought me to where I am today.”
As he began searching for a new job, he discovered that Cornerstone was hiring a counselor for the Newcomer’s Program.
“Ever since I left Cornerstone in 2012, I always felt like there was some kind of calling for me to help people,” he said. “Cornerstone was just a huge part of my life, and recovery and addiction kept turning back up. That’s when I thought, ‘God, you’re telling me something here.'”
He got the job, started work in April 2018, and a year later, moved over to a position in the Young Adult Program. He also transitioned from being a member of Celebrate Recovery to being its director, another step along the path that’s grown more spiritually rich with each passing day.
“If you’d asked me in May 2019, the YA Program might have been the last position on the list that I’d have wanted to work in, but now, I don’t think I’d ever leave it,” he said. “People told me before I started that when a young adult gets it and it clicks, when their miracle happens, it’s something you can’t put into words, and that’s true.
“When one of these guys, at that age, gets the wake-up call and the spiritual realization that they can change … man. There’s nothing like it.”
Because Seth is living proof of that change. As a counselor in recovery, he can relate to their struggles and provide a blueprint for what comes afterward, if they can summon the willingness he once did to silence the voices that call out for their destruction.
“I can role model to them what a man in recovery is supposed to look like,” he said. “That’s something I never got or sought, but I can be that guy, which I think might be the most important thing I do in my job – to role model to them what a man can be like. Not what a man should be like, because I’m by no means picture perfect, but what a man can be like.”