Marlina McHenry's rap sheet is long but ended on a high note in October when she graduated from Clayton County DUI Court.
McHenry, 30, shared her story of struggle and survival with nine members of the court's 20th graduating class Thursday. She said her past is behind her.
"I refuse to live an addict's life," she said. "It's gonna be a challenge every day. It is still a challenge every day but I have a sponsor and support. Take whatever you can from my story for your own day to day living. You did the hard work now take it and use it."
The court, part of the county's Accountability Courts program, is overseen by State Court Judge Linda Cowen. However, Cowen said the court's success isn't all her doing.
"This is the result of a true team effort," she said. "This is a team that wants you to succeed. You wanted it for yourself, you wanted it for your family and we're extremely happy you succeeded. We put you through quite an obstacle course."
McHenry cleared those obstacles, despite early and frequent resistance to the program. Many addicts take their first hit of drugs or swig of alcohol with peers but McHenry didn't have to go far for her initiation to near-destruction. Her mother, who was 12 when she gave birth to McHenry, made those introductions.
"We grew up together," she said. "She was the first person I drank with, the first person I did drugs with and she introduced me to men. I was using cocaine really bad and drinking really bad."
History repeated itself when McHenry became a mother at 12. Years later, she married a man who was a good financial provider, allowing her to have all the material things she never had growing up. She let her mother to move in with them.
The money also supported her drug and alcohol habit.
"I could buy all the weed I wanted, I could buy all the alcohol I wanted," said McHenry. "I started to self-destruct fast. I let my mom stay with me but at some point I felt like I was losing everything so I sent her back to Cleveland."
Those early days are remembered through a thick haze of pot-filled smoke and blurred by alcohol.
"I got high and drank every day," she said. "I started using pills. I started looking in other people's cabinets to get them. I had bags of drugs in my car, pills in non-prescription containers. I was a slave to my own addiction."
McHenry said she takes responsibility for her own actions but her husband enabled her bad behavior simply by having the financial means to bail her out of jail every time she was arrested.
"I never learned my lesson, I never sat in jail, he'd come get me," she said.
She ended up in Cowen's court and was introduced to accountability but even that first exposure had little effect on the spoiled addict with attitude.
"I was told to report to Associated Counseling when I got out of jail," said McHenry. "I was like, 'Whatever, I'm still gonna be my diva. This is not gonna run my way, I'm my own boss. I'm gonna make sure I can be on my stuff.'"
She learned new terminology in DUI Court. Having her "letter" come up meant McHenry had to undergo random drug testing. McHenry and other participants talked of going out of the courtroom by way of "door No. 1," which leads to the jail, or "door No. 2," which leads to freedom for another day. When a participant was called during court "to the box," what meant either jail or some other punishment for infractions.
McHenry said her first exposure to marijuana after enrolling in the program landed her in jail.
"My sister came down for a visit, we went to a party and I smelled weed," she said. "I knew I needed to leave, I didn't need to be there. My sister blew smoke in my face and I sucked in every bit of it. My letter got called the next day and the court locked me up. They kept me another week."
Her first attempt at holding a job failed when she missed time because of meetings associated with the court program. However, her second try has been successful for three years.
"I got a job at Waffle House, it's flexible and open 24 hours," she said. "I'm still there three years later. I love it."
Not surprisingly, McHenry also resisted efforts to pair her with a sponsor.
"I didn't want to trust another addict," she said. "But I got a sponsor and she helped and saved me. She was someone to speak for me when I couldn't speak for myself."
The team to which Cowen referred consists of experts with Associated Counseling and Evaluation Services, Dr. Richard Highland and Susan Straus; probation officer Nikki James; case manager Sacha Green; Accountability Courts coordinator Andrea Saxon and the rest of the judges in State Court, Chief Judge John Carbo and judges Aaron B. Mason, Morris B. Braswell and Michael T. Garrett.
The graduates honored Thursday were Gary Barnes, Rickey Cummings, Xavier Gray, Jamal Handy, Keith Humphrey, Oscar Jackson, Lafayette Mills, Antoine Riley and Maurice Styles. Cowen praised the men for their success.
"It's impossible through words to really get to the heart of what you've accomplished," she said. "It's an amazing, magnificent accomplishment. Congratulations."
After the ceremony, Cowen said the graduations and success stories make the grueling program worthwhile.
"It's the best thing I do," she said.
Originally published by the Clayton Daily News, April 5, 2013. Authored by Kathy Jefcoats. Used with Permission.