BY LEANN DILBECK –
Substance abuse is highly misunderstood and, many times, unfortunately carries a stigma with it… when it is, however, a complex disease. Drugs and other illicit substances change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to. It does take a strong will and discipline but a rock solid strong support system to serve as a lifeline is also crucial to heal and make a full recovery. For Steven Free, Substance Abuse Counselor for the 18th West Judicial Court, being that ever important lifeline is much more than a job or profession, it’s a calling.
Steven grew up in California but with family connections in Eastern Oklahoma, he relocated to the Plunkettville area in the 6th grade. A stark contrast to the California neighborhood where he had grown up, Steven said he had access to over 1,500 acres of wide-open countryside in which to roam and explore. Eyeing college opportunities, his family would eventually move back to California, where he graduated from Hilltop High School in Chula Vista.
Steven attended Northeastern State University in Oklahoma his first year before transferring to San Diego State University for his second year. His family relocated to the Houston area so Steven then transferred to the University of Houston where he would later graduate with his baccalaureate degree in psychology. He was hired in as a counselor for Universal Technical Institute and what he encountered was that the primary problem facing his patients was substance abuse… and many times, more than one substance. Steven returned to school and earned his LCDC [Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor] from the University of Houston to better equip him to counsel those suffering from this ever growing epidemic.
His family would eventually make their way to Mena and Steven followed. His first job was a grant writer for the Polk County Developmental Center and then he learned that Arkansas was beginning to establish ‘drug courts’ so he applied for Polk County and received the job. That was 13 years ago. Arkansas now has 39 drug courts.
“I love the work that I do. God’s blessed me that way. I’m single… have always been single but twenty-eight years ago, I dedicated my life to God, and said, ‘I’m going to do your will.’ And, look where he’s led me. I’ve gotten more out of it than I’ve ever given. He’s led me to help others. And I am just blessed… every time I hear someone’s story, I’m amazed at their willingness to share with me and to say ‘this is what it is and this is what’s going on.’ Despite all life’s circumstances and everything’s that’s been thrown at them, they still have hope. They begin thinking, ‘maybe there is help out there and something can come out of the tragedies that I’ve incurred’…. It humbles me.”
Steven explained that the drug courts serve as a way to rehabilitate a drug offender. Whenever someone is arrested for paraphernalia or possession, they appear before the court and may receive a referral from the Prosecuting Attorney that will allow them the opportunity to go through a 14 month, five phase program to aid them in the addiction recovery process. “Recovery is about progress not perfection,” said Steven who said that he walks with each person individually and through group therapy as they fight to emerge clean and a productive member of society.
He explained that when they first enter the program, there is an ‘external motivation’ to enter the program in order to avoid jail time, however, as they begin taking those necessary steps to beat their addictions, they begin to feel better, receive positive reinforcement, and it evolves into an ‘internal motivator.’
Many feel defeated when they first enter the program but Steven said he always tells them, “If you don’t believe, believe that I believe,” because he said he’s seen the program change the lives of so many through his years of service to them. “I’ve seen parents back with their kids and lives changed dramatically… recovery is possible.”
Steven shared a very personal story of one reaching out to him by phone for encouragement to ‘not do it.’ “I simply said ‘don’t do it,’ and she said, ‘that’s all I needed to hear.’” Steven is obviously a lifeline for people in the battle for their lives.
Steven’s ‘lifeline’ is his faith and his church at Faith Missionary Baptist Church, where he teaches a senior adult class that has boomed in attendance over the last few years, from 5-7 people to 25 people. “We’re blessed in America to have the opportunity to have freedom of religion and sometimes I think we take that for granted.” Steven extended an open invitation to anyone to worship and learn with them. “They [the church] are my life lifeline. When someone’s been clean for two months and then they test positive, it affects me but when I go into service, get encouraging smiles, and hear prayer requests and see people’s commitment to God, I know that we are here for a high purpose and a higher calling.”