One step at a time: Former drug user becomes counselor

Image from Steps House

One in 10. That’s the number of individuals who successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program without relapse. But that single digit is more than just a number. It is a role model, an educator, a counselor and a friend. A person, Zach Newton.

His day begins like many citizens of Knoxville, Tennessee. Traveling to work on congested highways, sometimes stopping at the nearest gas station for an energy drink to start the day.

Pulling into the parking lot, Newton is met with a rare feeling.

“I feel a sense of home when I come to work,” Newton said. “That’s not something everyone can say.”

Zach Newton is a drug rehabilitation counselor with the Steps House program in Knoxville. The program is designed to provide services to those struggling with addiction and homelessness.

Newton has spent the last three-and-a-half years helping everyone he meets with the goal of recovery.

For a counselor, a typical day might consist of group therapy, one-on-one sessions, job searching or legal help. However, for Newton, the role is much more.

“I relate with them [clients] on their level,” Newton said. “I try to show them the love that they haven’t seen in a long time.”

That relationship is something that seems to come natural for Newton. He credits this success as a counselor to “experience on the other side.”

Newton is a former drug addict.

“This place was once my literal home,” Newton said. “Now I’m five years in recovery.”

Typically, an individual will describe their addiction treatment as the process of going through recovery. However, Newton’s recovery extends much further. It is a constant reminder of the progress and the drive to continue in a positive direction.

“For me, recovery doesn’t end when you complete the program,” Newton said. “It’s a mental state and a lifelong process.”

Life prior to entering Steps House paved a difficult path. A family disconnect and moving from his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, to Knoxville, left Newton feeding more into his addiction.

Finally, a turning point came with blue light and handcuffs, as Newton was arrested for illegal drug possession.

“It was eye opening,” Newton said. “I knew that it was not the place I wanted to be and never wanted to go back.”

Following his time in jail, Newton entered the drug rehabilitation program through Steps House. Like many addicts, Newton succumbed to relapse and did not complete the program. However, the old habits never felt the same.

“I relapsed,” Newton said. “But the time I was with Steps House stuck with me. It made me want to go back.”

Steps House again welcomed Newton for a second time. He spent 10 months as a client to successfully graduate the program. After graduation, he was met with a job offer.

Now, five years later, it’s time to give back.

“I almost feel like it’s [counseling] a calling,” Newton said. “I do it because someone did if for me.”

As Newton continues to move forward in his recovery, every day he faces a new challenge as counselor. As more methamphetamine related arrests happen in Knoxville, more individuals seek rehabilitation. However, success is never guaranteed.

“Methamphetamine addicts coming into our program are steadily rising,” Newton said. “It’s frustrating to see these individuals getting arrested over and over again after leaving our program.”

But that frustration is easily replaced with what Newton describes as the reason he is proud to be a part of this program.

“Just seeing one person make it through like I did makes it all worth it,” Newton said. “It’s why I do what I do.”

Today, Newton reflects on his past, describing the difference between now and then as the difference between night and day. He has mended the relationship with his family and developed a solid support group to thanks to the Steps House.

“Part of recovery is having like-minded people in your life” Newton said. “I’ve seen tremendous growth in my life, but I still try to stay humble.”

Newton carries this mindset with him throughout his duties as a counselor. Aside from daily programs within Steps House, clients are treated to outside activities, like bowling, where they can freely interact with one another.

As the days progress into weeks, months and years, Newton no longer sees his life as a countdown, but a single step forward. Through the challenges he has faced, two words solidify where and who he is today.

“I’m happy.”