By John L. Byrwa
Chances are you’ve stood in line behind them at a grocery store in Grayson, or idled next to them at a traffic light in Lilburn.
Perhaps you’ve given them a polite hello nod as you passed them in the parking lot of your child’s day care center in Duluth, or left them a nice tip at a restaurant in Norcross.
Maybe you handed them a deposit at a bank in Buford, or sat next to them in a church in Sugar Hill. You might have paid them to cut your grass and prune your bushes in Lawrenceville, or signed their school report card in Snellville.
You might have even mourned at one of their heartbreaking funerals in any one of Gwinnett County’s 16 municipalities.
They’re Gwinnett’s drug addicts and alcoholics, and their life-ravaging ranks are growing at an alarming – and largely unnoticed – rate.
The numbers are nothing less that staggering.
According to recent published reports citing figures released by the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s Office, 2015 will easily go down as the most deadly in county history in terms of drug-related deaths. In 2014, GCMEO statistics showed that 131 people in Gwinnett lost their lives to drugs such as heroin, methamphetamines and Fentanyl. In the first 11 months of 2015, the published reports said, that number was already at 152 (figures for December were unavailable due to pending toxicology reports).
In the state of Georgia, through November only the more populous Fulton County reported more drug-related deaths than did Gwinnett.
“Like most people we had no idea of what a problem it is in Gwinnett County,” said Susan Barge, who, along with her husband, Farley, live in Dacula and know too well the people, the statistics and the unspeakable pain and suffering associated with drug addiction and alcoholism.
“I mean, I would drive down our street and see this beautiful, suburban golf community and underneath it all was the belly of this beast.”
Former addicts themselves who between them count 40 blessed years of sobriety, Susan Farley says with both pride and appreciation, the Farley’s in the spring of 2015 founded Navigate Recovery Gwinnett, a not-for-profit organization that works to provide resources, guidance, support and, most of all, hope to those Gwinnettians caught in the throes of addiction.
According to its web site – navigaterecoverygwinnett.org -- Navigate Recovery Gwinnett’s mission is “to serve individuals and families suffering from addiction by connecting them to the support they need and removing barriers that prevent them from getting well.” They accomplish this by acting as “an advocate for change in the community to move the model of addiction treatment from acute care to chronic care;” facilitating “improved outcomes for addiction sufferers by providing services that increase recovery capital, the essential resources necessary to begin and maintain recovery from substance use, abuse and dependence;” “connecting our community’s talented people and organizations in new ways to solve the problem of addiction;” and “awakening hope for a suffering family or showing our community that real change can be accomplished together.”
“Our goal is to save a parent who is in this crazy crisis from having to figure it out all on their own,” Susan Barge said. “You have just a short window of opportunity after somebody says they want help, and if they can’t get the help quick enough, they usually have no choice but to go back to what they know.
“It’s the most heartbreaking thing in the world.”
The Barges know this heartbreak better than most: Their daughter very nearly became one of the sad statistics mentioned above.
“The thing that really brought us to our knees was our daughter’s addiction,” Susan Barge said. “She is 26 now and we are so grateful that she’s now at 20 months of recovery. But like many others, she began experimenting with drugs around the age of 14. Then she witnessed a gang-related shooting at Mill Creek High School, and the trauma of seeing that event sent her spiraling down a deep, dark hole.
“That really opened our eyes to some of the issues in Gwinnett County.”
Like many others saddled with addiction, the Barge’s daughter completed one stint at a treatment center but soon relapsed. “She met a guy and fell back in,” Susan Barge said. “We learned more and more about what was going on in Gwinnett County.
“In Buford, she was literally living on the streets. People actually walk up to your car and say, ‘Hey man, whatcha want?’ It’s literally a drive-by drug community, with prostitutes being offered and murders and missing people in the area. No one’s really talking about it in the news.
“Honestly, within a stone’s thrown of Buford High School – and I mean a stone’s throw -- I can show you three drug dealers’ houses,” Barge added. “You don’t know what you don’t know. Unless you’re in it, you have no idea.”
Luckily for the Barges, their daughter refused to succumb to her addiction and finally received the help she needed to kick her habit. Susan Barge said her daughter has been clean for nearly two years now, but throughout the entire painful process she and her husband saw things that their eyes and minds will never un-see.
“We’ve been to several funerals of kids who have died,” Susan Barge said.
Through their tireless work at Navigate Recovery Gwinnett, the Barges strive to bring hope, healing and a helping hand to every person battling addiction, as well as to their families. They also have scheduled meetings with certain sectors of the Gwinnett community to increase awareness of the problem and help find solutions, and in February they have an event scheduled with 300 Gwinnett church pastors at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth.
“What we saw as we were dealing with this as parents was that there is this huge gap between what to do and how do you get the help you need,” Susan Barge said. “When you’re in this crisis, you don’t know what to do, where to go, how to pay for it. There is just this knowledge gap of how to find the resources you need to get the help you need.
“But we want people to know that we are that hope. We have been in longtime recovery, and we want them to know that healing is possible. There is a solution.”
If you or anyone you know is battling an addiction of any kind, Susan Barge urges you to contact Navigate Recovery Gwinnett through its website, which includes a Google voice phone number to call, www.navigaterecoverygwinnett.org.