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Jeff Ackerman: Picking up the pieces in drug court

Jeff Ackerman

I didn’t have to wait for Oprah Winfrey to show me where to find “A Million Little Pieces.” I found them at the Nevada County Courthouse in Nevada City. They were crammed into the small, fourth-floor courtroom of Judge John Darlington’s drug court.

If you haven’t read John Frey’s controversial book, “A Million Little Pieces,” I recommend you do. Not because Oprah blessed it (though she has since unblessed it after Frey admitted that he made much of it up and that it should have been written as a work of fiction). Read it because it is as close an inside look at the addicted mind most of us will ever see.

“‘A Million Little Pieces’ is about my memories of my time in a drug and alcohol treatment center,” wrote Frey in a new author’s note released last week. “As has been accurately revealed by two journalists at an Internet Web site, and subsequently acknowledged by me, during the process of writing the book I embellished many details about my past experiences and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book. I sincerely apologize to those readers who have been disappointed by my actions.”

Lost amid the media howling that followed the Frey “outing” and subsequent smudge on Oprah’s book list (there are millions of Americans who wait for Oprah to tell them what to read next) is the fact that Frey’s book might have saved thousands of lives and given hope to thousands of previously hopeless others.

And hope is really all you need sometimes. Hope that there is a better life. Hope that someone cares enough to notice. Hope that there are others who know how you feel … deep down where nobody else can see.

Churches are filled with people searching for hope. Many, for example, believe that Christ is their savior and that through Him they will be saved and will find the straight and narrow path to righteousness, however righteousness is defined these days.

And if that’s what it takes to provide someone with a hope strong enough to overcome whatever life’s latest challenge might be, who cares whether Jesus actually walked this planet?

I was up at the courthouse Monday looking to help a friend put her million pieces together again. Her name is Natalie, and I met her and wrote about her a few months back. Her perfect life was derailed for a bit when she met pain pills and then methamphetamine. She hit bottom and found herself homeless, jobless and in deep trouble with the law. A million little pieces of Natalie were strewn throughout our fair community.

Over the past few months, Natalie has put most of the big pieces back together. The biggest piece was hope, something she’d lost along the way. She was in court not to deny her wrongs, but to help make them right. She was prepared to pay for her crimes, but she also wanted to let Judge Darlington know that she would be more productive outside a jail cell than inside one.

Waiting for Natalie’s turn, I watched in fascination and appreciation and … yes … a bit of disgust … as the parade of troubled souls made its way through the busy court calendar.

Before Darlington entered the courtroom, it was filled with prosecutors, public defenders, court clerks and drug offenders. Seven handcuffed prisoners in orange jumpsuits were paraded into the jury box and sat vying for the attention of their respective public defenders.

There was no sign of a calendar, but I imagine that Darlington’s hearing schedule would choke even the best-made Palm Pilot. Most of the hearings that preceded Natalie’s were continued to another day for various reasons.

A large fellow in the back started gagging, and from the sound of it, barely made it out the door before losing whatever he had for lunch. It turned out he was on some medication for gout and it wasn’t agreeing with him. Darlington thought it best to delay the hearing until the man’s doctor had a chance to see him.

Another young man told the judge that he missed his probation meeting because his house burned down. He pleaded (successfully) for Darlington to give him a second chance.

Another fellow said he missed a court date because of a paperwork glitch. “My paperwork is in my truck somewhere and the date is wrong,” he said. Darlington gave him a few days to prove it.

There were maybe 20 separate stories that afternoon, each one of them a collection of tiny pieces that, for one reason or another, had come unraveled. Most of the unraveling was accelerated by an addiction to drugs.

When it was Natalie’s turn, the judge reminded her that the 120 days in jail she was facing were a far cry from the nine months she could have received for her crimes. Natalie has been living in a halfway house operated by the Community Recovery Resources center for the past three months.

A man named Angel approached the bench and asked the judge to consider the fact that Natalie has been working very hard to pick up the pieces.

“I have watched her grow,” he said. “I have seen her commitment to turning her life around.”

When my turn came, I simply echoed Angel and reminded the judge that wars are won one battle at a time and that Natalie ought to be considered a victory in this so-called war on drugs. Darlington doesn’t really need a reminder. He’s been on the front lines of that war for more than two decades.

He gave Natalie a chance to serve her time in the halfway house.

In the end, it matters little to me how much of Frey’s story really happened. One thing that hasn’t been challenged is his addiction and subsequent treatment. And I know there are at least a million little pieces, because I’ve seen them with my own eyes.

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears every Tuesday.


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