Needed More Than Ever

By Brad McEwen

Back in 2008, when then University of Georgia senior Ryan Layfield has his first brush with prescription painkillers he couldn’t have fathomed that the encounter would ultimately take him on a nearly decade-long odyssey of pain and sadness that would see the child of a middle class family go from walking the halls of academia to sleeping under bridges and living in alleys—surviving by panhandling for enough money to get his next fix.

“I come from a good family,” Ryan told me recently. “Never in a million years, even back when I was in high school, or even at the University of Georgia, would anybody have thought that I would be a heroin addict. That wasn’t part of the plan.”

But like many of the men and women suffering under the yoke of addiction, Ryan simply had no idea that a seemingly harmless pill—that doctors have been prescribing to patients for any number of ailments like a toothaches and menstrual cramps for years—would almost instantly thrust him into the darkest corners of drug dependency.

“I became addicted pretty much instantly,” he added. “And it just snowballed from there.”

It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t felt the crush of dope sickness (what addicts call the early stages of physical withdrawal)—the anguished mental obsession, the nausea, the uncontrollable leg twitches, the incessantly running nose, the body racking chills that give way to braining-boiling hot flashes, the skin so sensitive that putting on a cotton tee feels like being drug across a hot gulf coast beach—to fully understand how a smart, successful man, with the world at his fingertips, could end up on the streets.

But that’s the reality for millions of people across the country, Southwest Georgia included.

“People who haven’t been down that road just don’t understand,” said Ryan. “I mean my family had no idea what was happening to me. They couldn’t understand it. They couldn’t even fathom it. They didn’t know what to do.”

And that’s part of what makes the opioid situation so desperate. Many people simply don’t know where to turn for help and many more are unable to find it until it’s too late.

And increasingly “too late” means death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which keeps annual statistics on U.S. overdose deaths, reported that a staggering 70,000-plus died from drug overdoses in 2017, with more than half of those deaths attributed to opioids (a blanket term that covers certain prescription pain relievers like Oxycontin, heroin and other synthetic narcotics such as fentanyl).

And even more frightening, those numbers represent a nearly double the numbers reported just 10 years prior, when there were only 36,010 overdose deaths reported, with half of those attributed to opioid use. And the numbers continue to rise.

In fact, it’s estimated that currently more than 130 Americans die daily due to illicit opioid use.

Fortunately, in the face of such sobering statistics, help is available.

While Ryan certainly didn’t know those early days of getting high—before the drug took complete control of mind, body and soul—would lead to homelessness and abandonment, he had even less of an inkling that his fateful decision would ultimately land him in a small town in rural Southwest Georgia.

“Never in a million years would I have thought I’d end up here,” he said. “Seriously. But thank God I did. I mean it’s scary to think about what would have happened to me, and my family, if I hadn’t found the help I needed.”

Help Ryan was able to find right here in Albany.

“Going to the Anchorage saved my life; it’s that simple;” Ryan said matter-of-factly. “Even though I’ve been in Albany a few years now, the truth is, I didn’t even know where Albany was before I got here. So I never would have thought that I’d end up living here and become part of the community.

“But I’m here today, talking to you, because of the Anchorage—because of God and the love and generosity He inspired in people who were basically complete strangers to me.”

It’s in large part because of that incredible kindness that Ryan is not only sober today, but is also working hard to make sure the Christian treatment center is ready to help the next man who gets snared in the vicious web of opioids.

“When I was asked if I wanted to join the Anchorage board it was, first off, humbling, but it was really a no-brainer for me,” the fellow Anchorage advisory board member and program graduate explained to me. “I just want to give back, do what I can to make sure the family of the next kid that decides to try a pain pill has a place to send him where that kid be welcomed and loved.”

Although the mission of the Anchorage has remained a mystery to many in this area (I certainly didn’t know about the decades-old facility until I needed to know about, despite having lived less than five miles from it for most of my life), it seems the organization’s profile continues to rise, a fact I can’t help but think is directly related to the growing tide of opiate use.

As more and more people (especially folks from a certain socioeconomic level that heretofore has been relatively untouched by addiction) are impacted by the opioid epidemic, the organization is increasingly fielding inquiries from more and more people desperately looking for treatment. Additionally those inquiries are coming from an ever-widening array of ages, education levels and socioeconomic backgrounds—illustrating the way drug abuse seems to have permeated every corner of our society.

But thankfully the Anchorage’s faith-based approach—which tackles the root causes of addiction through helping its clients build a relationship with Christ—can work regardless of a person’s drug of choice, a fact that resonates with the frightened families of the addicts.

“While there have always been families around here dealing with the devastation of drug and alcohol abuse, the growing opioid crisis—which really has become a national emergency—has completely changed things,” said Anchorage Executive Director Bob Lynch. “People who might not have been exposed to things like addiction are suddenly coming face to face with the terror of addiction.

“Families are losing loved ones at a frightening pace, and many of those individuals have absolutely no idea where to turn to find help for their fathers, sons, brothers, friends and colleagues. That’s why I believe the mission of the Anchorage is so important right now, maybe more important than it’s ever been.”

Founded by the men of the Hudson Malone Sunday School class at Albany’s First United Methodist Church in 1953, the ministry was formed in response to a fellow congregant’s struggles with alcohol. And since that time, the Anchorage has continually sought to offer a respite where alcoholics and drug addicts can begin to recover from the ravages of addiction through the healing power of Jesus Christ.

And for more than 65 years that’s exactly what the ministry has been doing.

“The Anchorage story is really special,” Bob said. “The whole thing started when men saw a need in their community and rather than look to others to take care of the problem, God inspired them to do something about it. And from those humble beginnings, literally thousands of lives have been impacted by Christ’s love for them.”

It’s estimated that since the Anchorage welcomed its first eight alcoholics to the facility’s original home across from the airport, some 17,000 lives have been touched by God through the ministry. And that doesn’t even take into account all the family members of addicts and alcoholics who have been positively impacted as well.

But there is still work to be done.

Today the ministry operates much as it did in the early days, relying solely on the support and generosity of area churches, businesses and patrons to provide treatment to its clients. Where other drug and alcohol treatment centers are reliant on government funding to keep the doors open, the Anchorage has been sustained solely through donations, which allows the ministry to remain just that—a ministry.

And true to its Christian principles, the Anchorage only charges a nominal fee (less than $75) for the initial, four-month, live-in treatment program.

The clients’ living expenses—such as room and board, transportation and GED classes if needed—are covered strictly through donations and are provided to the clients free of cost, something that allows the organization to often help individuals who have no other place to turn.

“A lot of the guys who come here have nowhere left to go,” Bob explained. “They’ve been to jail, they’ve been to other rehabs and for a lot of them, their families have had enough and aren’t willing to support them anymore.

“Addicts talk about hitting rock bottom, and for a lot of our clients it’s that bottom that brings them to us. Quite simply they can’t afford to go anywhere else and for a good many of them, this is sort of their last chance.”

I don’t know for sure if I was down to my last chance when my wife dropped me off at the Anchorage nearly seven years ago, but I do know I had exhausted all of my other resources. There was no more money to borrow, no family members to con, and no more time off from work to stave off the sickness.

But much like Ryan, God placed angels in my life who were able to rescue me from my despair, and I was able to scrape up a few bucks to enter treatment as 36 years old. And having tried unsuccessfully to tackle the pain killer addiction that started years earlier following a back injury on my own, I can say with absolute certainty that it was what I was given at the Anchorage that has ultimately saved my family and my life.

“What we’re offering at the Anchorage is a program that’s very different than what you might find at other treatment facilities,” said Bob. “And we’re okay with that. In fact, it’s what we truly believe will work.”

But to ensure that the Anchorage program is there for the next poor soul spiraling down the drain of drug addiction, the generous support that the organization has long been blessed to receive must continue.

As frightening as my arrival to the Anchorage was, and for as painful as my recovery was during those early days (it’s not easy having to examine the very nature of your soul), I’m proud to say that it was equally uplifting when, just a month or so after graduating the program and returning home to my loving family, I was able to play in the ministry’s annual spring fundraiser golf tournament.

While it was a personal milestone to be back on the golf course after years of funneling my hobby money and then some into the procurement of pain pills, my involvement that year was truly special because it was the first time I had an opportunity to lend my support to the ministry that had such a profound impact on my life.

Since that first tournament, I’ve taken part every year since. And now, like Ryan, I have an opportunity to do even more. As a member of the ministry’s advisory board I now have an opportunity to help spread the word about the incredible work being done in our community and encourage others to lend their support to the cause.

I honestly can’t put into words how much it means to me to be in a position to help the next man who will benefit from the money raised at the Anchorage’s most important fundraiser.

“I can’t tell you how important the donations we receive from this community are to the Anchorage,” Bob said. “We don’t get a nickel from the government. We’re 100 percent funded by the generosity of our donors. And in that we are truly blessed.”

“The annual golf tournament is by far our biggest fundraiser each year,” Bob continued. “We do a couple of other things like the Pheasant Hunt and the Anchor Fest, which we actually didn’t do this year, but the golf tournament has the most impact. That’s why we’re hoping for another great turnout this year.”

So when area golfers and supporters tee it up at Doublegate Country Club in just a few short weeks, it’s important for them to know that they will be doing more than enjoying a fun round of golf with friends at Albany’s premier golf course.

Those golfers, and the other individuals, businesses and organizations who are providing sponsorships for the event will be supporting what I believe is one of the Albany area’s most important organizations.

Slated for Monday, April 29th, this year’s Golf Fore Recovery event is again a three-man scramble and we will be offering both morning and afternoon flights to accommodate more golfers again this year.

Prizes will be given for first, second and third place in both flights, and there will also be giveaways and a raffle, all organized to help support the Anchorage.

To learn more about the event or about becoming an important event sponsor, please contact the Anchorage at 229.435.5902, or reach out to me directly at 229.405.7212 or via email at brad.mcewen@abtgold.com.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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