When two local drug court workers applaud new program graduates today, they know personally what it took for the men and women to make it through their addictions.
The paths that led John Cooper and Crystal Couch to Hamilton County Drug Court began in seemingly different worlds, but both wound through years of devastating drug abuse, denial and then help from the very court where each now works.
Cooper, 35, lived in foster and group homes from age 14 until he became an adult. He fathered a daughter at age 16, only to see her die of a form of blood cancer three years later, one of many tragic episodes he believes triggered his drug use and, later, methamphetamine addiction.
Couch, 24, was a good student at Dade County High School, had both parents at home for most of her childhood and played softball before drinking alcohol led to pills, then cocaine, and later daily crack smoking.
Cooper spent a decade using, cooking and selling meth until he ended up living in his car and fishing for his dinner in small ponds in the woods.
"From 20 to 30 I was engrossed in some form of meth, whether it was using or selling or cooking," Cooper said.
Couch's addiction trajectory rose and fell rapidly. Through her teen years she added more drugs to the mix until a year of crack use erased most of her memories of life before the drug.
"Until I got sober I never really realized how high I was all of the time," Couch said. "I can't remember huge sections of my life except from pictures."
Those ruinous journeys and a series of nonviolent drug-related arrests took each of them in and out of jail and eventually offered them a choice -- prison or drug court.
Elaine Kelly, who coordinates the drug court, worked as Couch's case manager and oversaw Cooper's progress through the program nearly five years ago.
"[Couch] was one of those people, when [I'd] see her I'd roll my eyes because I had to deal with her again," Kelly said of her now co-worker's demeanor as a drug court client.
Couch, then just 19, didn't believe rehabilitation would work for her, and Kelly said the young woman was determined to prove it.
"In my mind I knew that I was never going to stop using crack. I was going to die like this; it was going to kill me," Couch said.
Cooper was different.
"John came in ready for change, and you don't see that very often," Kelly said.
Cooper had major motivation to alter his life. With drug possession and other charges, he faced nearly 20 years in prison between cases in Tennessee and Georgia.
But Couch had just six months ahead of her if she simply pleaded to the charges against her. Even attorneys representing her questioned why she wanted to do the yearlong program, she said.
She saw a new route for her life, even if she denied it to others.
"I knew I used to do stuff other than get high but I didn't really know what that was," she said. She recalls thinking, "If I'm ever going to have a life, this is the only way I'm going to have it."
Couch graduated from the program after a few stumbles, which is common, Kelly said.
Cooper stayed in the program until Kelly and others were able to show Georgia courts his progress so they would eliminate the charges he faced there.
For years after each graduated, both kept coming back to say hello or help out with the graduations.
When openings became available, Cooper applied and took over a case manager position. Couch tried for her administrative spot but had to wait until the person hired later left the position.
Cooper spent most of his working life in construction until taking the court job. He's still amazed at how things happened.
"To be a convicted meth cook and show up to work at the courthouse ... if that's not a miracle then I don't know what is," he said.
Since graduating from the program, Couch has obtained her associate degree and Cooper is taking college classes part time. Both made the National Honor Society for their high grade-point averages.
Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern, who oversees drug court, said hiring the pair was an easy decision. She had seen in each of them a greater awareness of their own problems, and their personal knowledge of addiction makes them invaluable to the work the court does, she said.
Current client Brandon Allen, 27, is scheduled to graduate later this year. He said Cooper's foster home experience closely mirrors his own.
"He understands where I'm coming from," Allen said. "You can redeem yourself from all of that and be something great -- he's living proof."
Fellow case worker Jeff Hill said he constantly learns from both Cooper and Couch about the motivations of some of his clients and how better to help them.
The mix of case management, administrative work and just helping fellow staff members is an ongoing effort, but Kelly said the group of four, which includes her, keep it going well.
"We keep each other in check," she said. "We are our own dysfunctional family."
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...