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Aug. 31, 2017 Set for International Overdose Prevention Day Vigil, An Interview with James (Bubba)

by Steve Wildsmith

August 21, 2017

Around the hallways and treatment rooms out at Cornerstone of Recovery, he’s known as “Bubba.”

James Graczyk isn’t as big as he was before gastric bypass surgery in 2016 helped him lose more than 300 pounds, but he carries himself with a sense of grace, humility and spirituality that’s 10 times bigger than he ever was at his heaviest. Sitting down over lunch to discuss the Third Annual International Overdose Awareness Day — scheduled for 5 p.m. Aug. 31 at Volunteer Landing off of Neyland Drive in downtown Knoxville — he endures a barrage of text messages, emails and greetings from Cornerstone clients who sit around us, seemingly drawn into Bubba’s orbit by the sheer magnitude of his own recovery.

In January, he’ll mark 9 years clean. Like everyone who finds recovery, he’s a walking miracle; like his peers and predecessors, he gives all glory to a program he lives and a Higher Power he believes in. His own accomplishments are not the topic of discussion, anyway; he’d much rather focus on the efforts of the Tennessee Overdose Prevention network, “a grassroots organization comprised of parents, healthcare professionals, harm reduction advocates and friends of those who have lost loved ones to accidental drug overdose.” Thanks to its efforts, a 2015 law was passed in the state of Tennessee that provides immunity from arrest and prosecution for anyone providing first aid, medical assistance or help in obtaining those two things for someone experiencing an overdose.

In other words, if an addict overdoses, and his or her peers call emergency personnel to save that addict’s life, those peers cannot be arrested and/or charged with a crime. Recently, the network has taken up the cause of Naloxone, an overdose reversal drug that’s been credited with keeping a large number of individuals who overdose from dying. Of course, critics complain of costs, and the stigma of addiction still looms large in the public consciousness; many individuals don’t understand why so much effort is made to save those who seem irredeemable. But that’s where Bubba’s story is relevant.

Both of his parents were addicts, he tells me; when he was small, his grandparents took him out of his Pennsylvania home and brought him to Florida, hoping that the disease hadn’t sunk its hooks into their grandson. While in his freshman year of high school, Bubba’s father, who was in and out of his life during childhood, told him that his mother had died two months earlier. By that point, he was on his way down his own path of destruction.

About a decade ago, he moved to East Tennessee; he had an uncle in Tellico Plains and a childhood best friend who had already moved here, and he was in a bad way down in the Sunshine State. Words of wisdom from his dad, however, rang true: “No matter where a tree is rooted, it will always find water.” it wasn’t long before his addiction caught up to him here, and in early 2009, he found himself in jail, going through withdrawal, hopeless and alone.

“I knew how to do time; time doesn’t work,” he said. “I was just a mess. A guard brought me a Bible, and I read the book of Job, and I went, ‘This is it.’ From that point, I never questioned it. I literally felt the presence of my grandmother, holding me and saying, ‘Baby, it’s going to be OK.’”

He was remanded to Centerpointe, a treatment facility run by Helen Ross McNabb, before returning to jail and then to the E.M. Jellinek Center, a halfway house in Downtown North Knoxville, where he lived for 18 months and slowly discovered and embraced a new way of life. He got off of parole, he got his driver’s license back, he got a vehicle and in February 2012, he got a job at Cornerstone in Louisville. Over the next couple of years, he completed the requirements to become a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. He likes to point out to Cornerstone’s clients that the letters after his name are followed by a set of numbers as well.

“The same state that convicted me, licensed me,” he said.

He got involved with Tennessee Overdose Prevention through the organization’s founder, Nancy Carter Daniels; Daniels started the organization when a friend of her daughter — a bright, energetic young girl active in gymnastics, with no telltale signs of a drug problem — overdosed and died. Since then, she’s fought long and hard for overdose prevention aids and efforts, and she’s been a voice of reason and hope for family members of addicts across East Tennessee. The first year’s local observance of International Overdose Awareness Day took place at the Fountain City Duck Pond; last year, more than 100 people came out to Volunteer Landing to light candles, remember those who have died and hear messages of hope.

Because despite the darkness, despite the specter of addiction, there is hope. Like it says on the Tennessee Overdose Prevention website — — “If they’re still alive, there’s hope.”

They can get help, and they can turn their lives around. Bubba and so many others like him are living proof.

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