The message of recovery is that an addict, any addict, can stop using, lose the desire to use and find a new way to live.
At Cornerstone of Recovery, we see it every day in the patients who come to us broken and leave as different individuals, buoyed by the prospect of long-term sobriety thanks to the journey of discovery they undertake while in our care.
We also see it in our staff members, many of whom are in recovery themselves. While they’ve made recovery their vocation, they’ve also continued their own journey, working to improve and change their lives so that they may bring their experiences to bear in their work.
Last weekend, Pam Spindel — a counselor in our Intensive Outpatient Program — was honored for a personal milestone that wouldn’t have been possible 12 years ago. Although her resume is distinguished — she spent several years in Cornerstone’s Assessment and Orientation unit before earning her LADAC (Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor) certification and has worked in the recovery programs for both English Mountain, a substance abuse treatment center in Sevier County, Tenn., and at the Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg, Tenn. — it always came with a footnote: a 2002 felony charge for forgery.
The charge affected her ability to obtain certain jobs, but as of last month, it’s been expunged from her record. Outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a pardon for Spindel after a unanimous recommendation by the Tennessee Board of Parole, and as of Jan. 18, her criminal record has been wiped clean. It is, Spindel says, nothing short of a miracle.
Today, her pardon — which details both her crime and the work she’s done in the years since to change her life and the lives of others — hangs in her office on the Cornerstone of Recovery campus. It’s proof that recovery can work for anyone: After all, she was arrested 19 times while in active addiction, so often that the other female inmates at the Blount County Jail in Maryville, Tenn., would roll their eyes when they saw her walk back through the door.
“I was happy in jail, because in there, I knew I didn’t have to use,” she says.
In 2007, she went to jail for a final time after tearfully begging law enforcement officers to take her in. From that point forward, she threw herself into both recovery and spirituality, using the two as a lifeline to crawl out of the darkness in which she had existed for so long.
Five years prior, she had been charged with that felony: forging a check for $75 at a gas station. However, the pardon that sat in a place of honor during her celebratory reception praises her rehabilitation as well: “Since that time, she has helped similarly situated persons with recovery and, in 2016, became a licensed alcohol counselor and a nationally certified addiction counselor … numerous public officials and counselors attest to her personal transformation, community contributions, and dedication to others battling addiction.”
The wording, which notes the unanimous nomination for a full pardon by the Tennessee Board of Parole, is remarkable in its wording, according to Blount County General Sessions Court Judge Robert Headrick, who was in attendance on behalf of a judiciary that had worked to punish Spindel for her crimes and help her with the pardon after she proved herself worthy.
“On behalf of the entire Blount County Judiciary, we feel that no one is more deserving of this honor, and no one has worked harder for it,” he said. “She deserves our congratulations and best wishes.”
But while her story may seem unique, it doesn’t have to be, Headrick added.
“Anyone can do it; they need to do the hard work,” he said. “There are plenty of resources available, and Pam is an example of an individual who took advantage of those resources, got on the other side and completely changed her life.”
Those changes, Spindel says, came via the 12 Steps of recovery, something she preaches to the patients she counsels but works in her own life. In particular, Step 9 — “making direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others” — was life-changing. She began by apologizing to Judge William Brewer in his Blount County courtroom, withholding $4 of the fines she owed just so she could make them in front of the bench. She also fought hard to get back into the Blount County Jail, this time as a messenger of recovery. She continues to return as a volunteer chaplain at the facility, her passion for recovery unabated by time.
“I still go in there, even though I feel like I made my amends to Blount County,” she says. “I do it because I love those girls, and because when I needed it most, people like Gail (Taggart, the chaplain at the Blount County Jail when Spindel was a frequent inmate) were there to carry it to me. That’s how it works.”
And that’s the message of her pardon: It does work, and it can work for anyone. All that’s required is some willingness and some faith. Where one ends, the other has to begin, she points out.
“I knew I had done the work, and the rest was up to God,” she says.
Even then, she had her moments of doubt — until she received a phone call, one hour before she was to lead an IOP group here at Cornerstone. Given that she’s a valuable part of the Cornerstone family, it couldn’t have occurred at more serendipitous location.
“Just as recovery has changed my life, it can change anybody else’s too,” she says. “It takes work, but if you’re willing to do it, your life can get better.”