Conni Cotten stood in front of friends, family and peers with smiles and tears, a changed woman who changed her place, her things and her friends and found new ones in her effort to beat addiction.
Just 18 months ago, Cotten was jailed on drug charges and had hit the bottom of her life with a premature end in sight. But on Thursday, the 22-year-old was celebrated as the 400th graduate of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Adult Drug Treatment Court alternative justice program.
It wasn’t easy.
“I was in a deep, dark and terrible place. I wasn’t planning on living too much longer,” she told the audience sitting in the Albemarle County Office Building auditorium.
“But I lived past my 21st birthday and realized I had a whole new life ahead. Before, I couldn’t imagine my life changing. I lived every day in misery and started using [drugs] to ease that misery, but that just added to it,” she said.
“My family has been such a huge help. Just having them in my life makes a difference. Two years ago, I didn’t have them,” she recalled. “My relationship with my mother had gotten to the point where I’d get a text from her now and then asking me to respond. When I called her and told her I was in jail, she said ‘thank God!’ She was so glad that I was still alive.”
Cotten was talking to people who understood. In the audience to celebrate her graduation and 11 months of being clean were family members, drug court officials, mental health professionals and fellow program participants and graduates.
Many had worked with her during her time in the program. Others were peers who had offered their support and relied on hers as they worked through the drug treatment and intensive supervision the program requires.
They had become, she told them, a part of her new life and helped her to leave the old one behind.
“They say change your people, place and things but they don’t say get rid of them,” Cotten said. “I had to find other people, other places and other things to replace the old ones. You helped me to do that. You have made all the difference.”
Cotten credited Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore, who oversees the program, with helping her succeed through his support.
“It was different than the other relationships I had with judges. I got the sense that you really cared about me and wanted the best for me,” Cotten said, causing Moore to blush a bit. “I felt like you cared about me even when you sent me to jail, and maybe especially then.”
The drug court program began in 1997 as an alternative to jail for non-violent drug offenders and drug-related felony larceny offenders. The idea was to enhance public safety by helping those addicted to get treatment and put together new lives.
“Deciding to join the program wasn’t hard for me at all; I was in jail!” Cotten said. “I wanted out. I figured I’d go through the program and return to doing what I was doing, but my life changed when my attitude began to change. It changed because I started listening and learning from everyone who was trying to help me along the way.”
Again, it wasn’t easy. The program uses intensive community supervision, ongoing drug testing, intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment and frequent status hearings in front of Moore.
The program utilizes immediate sanctions, which may include jail time, for program violations combined with incentives for successes. Participants must have jobs and perform community service.
The courts, commonwealth’s attorneys, public defenders, Office of Offender Aid and Restoration Jefferson Area, probation and parole officials and Region Ten mental health collaborate to provide services.
Participants must be drug- and alcohol-free for at least seven months in order to graduate from the program.
For Cotten, help came from her family, who offered to let her come home during her time in the program. Her mother made sure she made it to the myriad meetings and appointments that the court required.
At first it was a burden for everyone.
“I had to get up early and I had to take her to a meeting and I had to pick her and I had to take her to a drug test,” recalled Sherri Cotten. “I was whining to my brother on the phone and he suggested I change ‘I have to’ to ‘I get to.’ That made me think of all things I ‘get to’ do with my daughter. It made me rethink everything.”
Sherri Cotten recommended other drug court participants and family members rephrase the way they think about the program.
“Look at all the things you get to do. You get to be in drug court. You get to go to a pee test. You get to be in a program. You get to have accountability. You get to have people who care about you and want you to succeed,” she said. “What could we do in life if we simply changed how we look at it?”
Even with her family’s help, Conni Cotten said shaking the addiction and getting through the program wasn’t easy. She recalled a relapse that required her to serve an extra six months in the program.
“It shocked and amazed me how quickly it goes back to where it was and how quickly it gets worse,” she said. “We go back out. It happens. You look past that and go forward.”
Cotten said she plans to be involved with the court to help others.
“Drug court doesn’t fix us. It makes us stay clean, but it doesn’t make us recover. It just gives us the tools and the opportunity and with it, we can build a real life,” she said.
“This program saved my life and I have a real life now,” she said. “I am more of my genuine self now than I have been since I was six years old.”