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MEET THE CORNERSTONE FAMILY: Nathan Blanton, Director of Nursing

Cornerstone family

EDITOR'S NOTE: A few months ago, Cornerstone of Recovery CEO Steve McGrew asked for some thoughts on giving everyone an opportunity to know the organization a little better — specifically, the people. When a company offers a commodity as nebulous as hope and a new way to live, the most valuable resource we have to produce that are the people. These are the profiles of individuals who care for, shepherd, encourage and love those who struggle with alcoholism and addiction.

Nathan BlantonIt was a come-to-Jesus moment for Nathan Blanton, the first of many in the weeks, months and years to come, and it’s still burned into his brain.

His nursing career was gone, his license revoked after he had been caught, twice, chipping morphine on the job. He was barely hanging on as a timeshare salesman in Gatlinburg, drugs sending him from one of the resort’s top sellers down into the bottom ranks of the guys who knew how to put numbers on the board.

And he’d just bailed himself out of jail on a credit card that morning, after he’d rear-ended a car the night before on state Highway 66, moments after shooting up in the welcome center the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When the cops searched his car, they found needles, a spoon and alcohol swabs, and he spent the night behind bars.

“That was God doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself,” he says, sitting in the soft morning light filtering through the side windows of the Polly Bales Building on the campus of Cornerstone of Recovery, where he works today as the Director of Nursing. “I went back to work the next day, on a Saturday, and got as high as I could get. I went in on Sunday and got as high as I could get. When I got home, my wife asked me if I wanted to take the dogs for a walk, and by the time we got back, my parents were in the parking lot.

“My wife had called them. That was in April ’08, and we had just had a baby in February. That was the reckoning, because I had always hid it and was scared to death of anybody finding out. That was the day I had feared forever — my parents really finding out what was going on. And I remember it clearly, standing over my daughter in her crib and my dad saying, ‘Roll your sleeves up. I’ve never seen the arms of a drug addict before.’”

No one was more surprised than Blanton himself, who a few years earlier had gotten out of Harlan, Kentucky, on a basketball scholarship to Tennessee Wesleyan University. As the valedictorian of his high school and a basketball standout, he practically wrote his ticket — he scored 2,000 points during his college career, was named an All American as a senior and was recently inducted into the Tennessee Wesleyan sports hall of fame. Needless to say, college was a good time to be Nathan Blanton.

“I spent my first night of college drunk and passed out, and some guys from Harlan carried me from the house to the dorm that very first night,” he said. “I spent the rest of those four years playing basketball and partying heavily. I fashioned myself as a basketball playing hippie pothead, and I even followed Phish around one summer.”

Set on self-destruction

Nathan Blanton with his daughters.

He worked toward a double major in English and biology but had no clear idea of a future career until a public health course taken during his senior year, ostensibly to get an easy A, led to a discovery of his aptitude. His instructor was the dean of the Fort Sanders School of Nursing, which was on track to merge with Tennessee Wesleyan, and she offered Blanton a scholarship.

“I said OK, because to me, it sounded like two more years of not having to make a decision about what I was going to do,” he said. “I graduated in 2000, got married in the summer of 2001, graduated nursing school in 2002 and went straight into the Intensive Care Unit at Fort Sanders right out of school.”

He fell in with a group of hardworking, hard-partying medical personnel who worked the night shift, drank when they got off in the mornings, went home for a few hours of sleep, then got up to do it all over again. As a neuro-intensive care nurse, he worked on a number of traumatic brain injury cases, and he eventually grew curious about the morphine being dispensed.

“I remember looking on the vial at the hospital and reading the warning: ‘May be habit-forming,’ and I thought, ‘Nah. I’ll be alright,’” he said. “So I did 10mg of morphine and stuck it right in my arm one night at work. I went back to work the next night and did it twice, and I spent the next nine months going to work and getting high.”

By the end of 2004, however, the jig was up: They asked him to take a drug test, and after a good cry on the steps outside Fort Sanders, he left without doing it and got work as a contract nurse, first at the now-closed Baptist Hospital in South Knoxville. On the next 13-week stint, however, he got busted again, and this time, the Tennessee Board of Nursing opened an investigation. They recommended a drug and alcohol evaluation, and John West — a familiar name in the East Tennessee recovery community — suggested that Blanton give intensive outpatient treatment a try.

Blanton, however, had other plans. In April 2005, he began selling timeshares for Westgate Resorts and Hotels in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and by the time his license hearing came up before the nursing board, a year had passed. The board told him that to keep it, he’d have to go to residential addiction treatment; by that point, he was in the Top 10 out of 180 timeshare salesmen and said no thanks. In June 2006, his license was revoked.

“I was smoking pot and drinking then, but nothing out of the ordinary, and by May 2007, I got promoted,” Blanton said. “By July ’07, I had gotten demoted, because somebody had given me 10 10mg hydrocodone, and I had all 10 of them in my hand and ate them all at once. That person said, ‘Whoa, whoa!’ And I just said, ‘I’ll be alright.’ And I was right back off to the races, eventually back on the needling, shooting up seven or eight 80mg Oxycontin a day, spending $400, $500, $600, $700 a day.”

The end of the road

Nathan Blanton crosses the finish line of the 7 Bridges Marathon in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2015.

Westgate let him go in December of 2007, but the next month, he talked his way back onto the payroll, so that his wife was able to give birth on his insurance plan. Fast-forward to April, and after his parents were called in, they took him back home to Kentucky, where he landed in a state-funded treatment facility called Crossroads after detoxing in Corbin. Except, he’d loaded up on a stash of Suboxone, so the detox meds did nothing, and he ended up going into withdrawal at Crossroads.

“I had no way of getting out of there, so I spent two or three nights in one of the nastiest, most awful bathrooms ever created,” he said. “I can vividly recall that being one of my a-ha moments. I had to have a couple, because I originally thought I was going to stay there 30 days, get out, go back to selling timeshares and come home and save the day.”

At 30 days, however, his family showed up and strong-armed him into staying longer. He laughs at the memory: He had been reading Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” which details the author’s 40-day spiritual transformation: “So I told them, ‘If God did all these great things for him in 40 days, I’ll stay 40,” he said. “Looking back, it was one of the most egotistical, delusional things in the world to think I could do 40 days and be done with it.”

Slowly, however, the fog began to lift. A friend of his father, affiliated with the Kentucky recovery community, came to see Blanton and gave him a name and a phone number and said, “This is the guy who’s going to be your sponsor.” Blanton cold-called him, and the two have maintained that relationship ever since. Returning to Sevierville for his court date related to his arrest, he was told he needed to do six months of treatment, so he reluctantly agreed to stay at Crossroads. As part of the Sober Living community, he needed to get a job in order to get a weekend pass to return home to visit his wife and daughter, so he took the first one available: McDonald’s.

“I had to work 4 a.m. to noon, and when the (treatment center) bus came to pick me up from McDonald’s on my first day and bring me back, one of the ladies said I was the tiredest, sickest, loneliest looking person getting off that van,” he said. “I did that for the next three years, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

After more than seven months of treatment, he returned to East Tennessee, transferring to McDonald’s. Say what you will about the Golden Arches, but Blanton will always have a soft spot in his heart for the franchise. For one thing, the meager pay meant that he got a bigger tax return, which in turn meant he could pay the IRS back for the taxes he never paid while selling timeshares. For another, the schedule allowed him to attend 12 Step meetings every day for the first three years of his recovery. And when the State of Tennessee told him the steps he needed to undertake to get his license back, it was the place he needed to be in order to do the work to make that happen.

“I had to call a number every day for two years, I had to have two years of documented sobriety, and after that, I had to sign a contract with TnPAP (the Tennessee Professional Assistance Program) for another three years,” he said. “I was pretty much unemployable.”

A new way to live

By 2011, he went to work for Team Health as a phone representative, the idea being that if he did well, he could go to work for the company as a nurse. He didn’t do well, he added with a laugh: Following a script and sticking to a methodical list of rules clashed against the salesman in him that was more concerned with speed and putting points on the board, so he manned the phones during the entirety of his Team Health career. He did, however find a part-time nursing opening at Cornerstone of Recovery.

That eventually led to a full-time position in 2015, during which time he worked full-time for Team Health as well. And trained for a marathon. And became a father again. It was one of those periods of recovery, he pointed out, that was almost as crazy as his days of getting high. Except the rewards were tangible, his spirit was full (albeit exhausted) and every day was a celebration of what he came to the rooms of recovery to obtain: a new way to live.

“I try to live by the motto my sponsor told me: Every day is a holiday, and every meal is a banquet,” he said. “Some of my days are very chaotic, when we’re short-staffed or whatever the case may be, or my girls are wild at home, and all of these things need to be done. But even in that chaos of life, it’s never as bad or as chaotic as it was when I was shooting dope. That was pure insanity and chaos.”

And after being promoted to assistant director of Nursing at Cornerstone to the director’s position, he now has an opportunity to help clones of his addicted self see that their lives, too, can be just as fulfilling.

“I’m forever grateful for Cornerstone,” he said. “They took a chance on me when I was unemployable in the nursing field pretty much, due to my history, and I’m able to get to come to work to hopefully make a difference in people trying to get better — and that’s the golden ticket for me. That I can somewhat feel like I have an impact on a couple of people, or maybe more, and allowing them to feel like people care about them again, maybe for the first time in a long time, that’s what it’s all about.

“I don’t always do that perfect, but I think I would be safe in saying that when people leave here, they know that me and now my staff cared about them and tried to help them get better so they could start their journey of recovery. That, to me, is the hardest part: You’ve got to stay sober long enough to get the serenity, and then you’ve got to work a program long enough to get the grace.”

Five questions …

I ask five questions, with no premeditation or forethought put into what they’ll be. Nathan answers in the same manner.

Q: “What was the toughest mile in the marathon that you ran?” A: “Mile 24. I fell and had to make a decision about whether I was going to get up or not!”

Q: “Favorite flavor of ice cream?” A: “I don’t eat it much … I can’t remember what it’s called. It’s a sherbet. Let me check my phone." After looking it up: “Ummmm … Daiquiri Ice. Lime with a splash of rum flavoring. I don’t know if we should put that down or not.”

Q: “Sweetest thing your daughters have ever done for you?” A: “I came home on one of my sober anniversaries, and they had decorated the house with a big sign. Zoë was 4 or 5 at the time and made this big banner that said, ‘Happy No D Day’ with a picture of a cigarette with a line through it.”

Q: “Most comfortable pair of shoes you own for the job?” A: “Whatever I can afford.”

Q: “What was the last good movie you saw?” A: “‘Toy Story 4.’ I’m only allowed to see animated movies anymore.”