By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneNovember 6, 2009
Tracy Swint is the complete package -- a well-dressed professional, an educated and accomplished physicist, a deeply religious woman, and a confident and happy person who believes in facing the world with her own direct brand of honesty.
And yet, she is also the face of addiction.
Swint suffered through years of drug and alcohol abuse that started with prescribed medications as a college student. Her addiction was fueled by her memories of growing up in a troubled family, and an unquenchable need to hide her pain and sorrow from herself and those around her.
"People confuse addiction with someone who lives under a bridge," Swint told a small group of Redstone Arsenal employees who attended the Red Ribbon drug and alcohol abuse prevention event Oct. 26 at Heiser Hall.
"But when I was using, I would go to lunch at 11 and then not show up until two days later. What do you do with an employee like me' I can bring so much productivity to the workplace and I can bring so much pain."
The pain in Swint's life stemmed from her years growing up with a father who drank and often became violent. Her first drug of choice was food, something she still struggles with.
"I came from a family with troubled origins," Swint said.
"My father was a preacher. But he was also a hitter. I was not introduced to a God I could have a relationship with. I was introduced to a dictator. My father was volatile, and I learned the better I looked, the more he stayed out of my face. I made good grades and I was productive. But inside was a child full of fear and insecurity. And I became overweight."
At 18, she walked out of her home with a plan to attend college and a "boat load of scholarships." Her college career took her to California for an internship. But a sinus infection landed her in the hospital, where she received her first shot of morphine and prescription medications.
The buzz she got from those drugs made her want more. She started using all types of medications, getting prescriptions from various doctors and, once back in Alabama, taking her sister's migraine medication. Yet, in 1993, she tried to change her life for the better.
"I had put down the drugs and rededicated my life to God," she said. "Then I got my job here (as a health physicist in TMDE's Radiation Standards Laboratory). I was doing well for a while ... But then I started working the system. I was Tracy Swint the addict. I was Tracy Swint the productive employee."
For several years, Swint was a successful Army employee who managed her addictions to prescription medications and alcohol well enough to continue her career. But, in 2004, with her absences from work growing more and more frequent, her excuses running thin - grandmother died, car wouldn't start, sick from a cold or flu - and her substance abuse and binging taking her closer and closer to death, Swint realized she had to face her addiction.
"I called my mom and told her 'I'm in trouble.' She said 'We know.' I told her 'I'm sorry I've gotten in trouble. I did not intend to become this person.' My mom said they had planned an intervention for the next week. I told her 'I'm messed up and I know I am messed up,'" Swint said.
By the time she got to the hospital, her blood pressure was spiraling out of control. Swint was in the hospital for two or three days. But when she was released she went back to drug and alcohol binging.
"This time I can't blame anyone but myself," she said. "I'm 34 years old. I'm not a child. I can't blame my father. I'm hurting myself and it's my fault.
"One night, I spent 10 hours trying to get to that place (with drugs and alcohol) where I felt right. I couldn't get there. At 7 a.m., I began to cry because I was defeated. For the first time, the little girl who had a plan didn't have a plan. I had no more options. I went to recovery because I had no more options."
On Aug. 15, 2004, Swint finally started to get the treatment she needed. She spent three weeks in treatment and then had three weeks for rehabilitation, but she returned to work before the rehabilitation was complete.
"I knew in my heart that if I don't start owning up to what I've done, then I'm through," she said. "I had to come back because I had to start being accountable."
Coming back to work also meant attending counseling sessions both at Bradford Health Services
and with Ruby Turner, the Garrison's alcohol and drug control officer. Through treatment, she learned a lot about herself, including that "a power greater than myself was needed to restore me and that power was the grace of God," she said.
"Then I had to do an inventory of myself. I realized that I wasn't as good as I thought I was. I wasn't a victim. I had created victims. I had to ask people to forgive me ... I had to ask forgiveness for stealing government time, for lying, for not being productive. I want to live my life in such a way that I don't hurt anyone again. Every day I want to make an effort to relate to my higher power before I relate to others, so that I can be of service."
Swint worked again to win the trust of her employer, to become a valuable employee, to be looked to for guidance when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse awareness programs. She is now a program support specialist for TMDE.
"We do get better. Give us an opportunity," she said of addicts.
Swint wasn't the only one to share a story of addiction at the Red Ribbon event. So, too, did Cynthia Shanklin, now a counselor working with drug and alcohol addicts, and Mark Fuqua, who works for the Program Executive Officer for Aviation.
Fuqua's addiction began after a split from his abusive partner of 11 years and a move-in with a roommate who was addicted to crack in late January 2007. It ended four months later with Fuqua in jail facing several charges related to his drug use, fleeing police and a car accident.
"I was so ashamed. I could hardly lift my head up," Fuqua said of his time in jail. "I just looked at the floor. They asked me where I work and I thought 'My life is over.'"
On May 11, 2007, the 26th anniversary of his employment with the Army, Fuqua checked himself into Bradford, a local treatment facility.
"Between the first of January and the second of July 2007, I only worked 24 days. I don't know what happened that made my supervisor go to Ruby (Turner). But if he hadn't, I would be dead now," Fuqua said.
When he returned to work, Fuqua had lost all his supervisory duties and his clearance was taken away. He was assigned to special projects, and spent months working to get his life back together both professionally and personally.
"I've been promoted," he said. "I'm a valuable employee again."