The life story of Jonette Wall sounds like the kind destined for a tragic ending.
Sexually abused in her youth. Arrested at least a dozen times. A heavy user of alcohol and drugs for three decades. Like so many other individuals who go through similar experiences, the 56-year-old ultimately found herself in an emergency room.
But not as a patient. Rather, Wall today works in administration at Cartersville Medical Center, serving as an ER patient registrar.
“I should never be where I am now,” Wall said with a laugh. “I was a hairdresser for 30 years — I had gone back to school at Kennesaw State and knew that I wanted to do something different.”
Wall describes the position at the local hospital as a challenge, a joy and, in many respects, a ministry of her own.
“That’s my God job,” she said, “I know that God sent me there.”
The specter of substance abuse looms large over the local emergency department. Drug overdoses and other drug-related hospitalizations, Wall said, aren’t just routine, they’re an everyday occurrence.
“There’s some loss of compassion to the substance use disorder people,” she said. “I think people have gotten jaded because it is so overwhelming.”
In some ways, Wall considered the ER a “revolving door” for individuals with substance abuse issues in the community.
“They stay for ‘x’ amount of days, they get placed, or they don’t,” she said. “And then we see them again.”
Nor is it out of the norm to witness overdose victims being dropped off at the ambulance bay or in the hospital parking lot.
“We see quite a bit of the Good Samaritan Law, I didn’t even know that was in place until I came to work there,” Wall said, referencing a 2014 Georgia law that provides legal amnesty to individuals who seek medical assistance for people experiencing potentially fatally reactions to drugs or alcohol.
“They’re doing compressions all the way down the hall, rushing these people in — that’s not uncommon.”
Over the years, she recalled seeing several patients literally being resurrected from the dead via administration of Naloxone — a drug commonly used to combat narcotic overdoses.
“I’ve witnessed them get up and walk out of there within an hour,” she said. “They’ve walked out in their paper clothes, because their clothes had been cut off of them because they were flatlining.”
As someone who has been through the throes of substance abuse herself, Wall said she can’t help but feel a kinship with many of the people passing through the local emergency room.
Wall recounted being especially moved by a young man — whose spouse was an acquaintance — who had been brought back from the brink of death following an overdose.
“His whole body was trembling,” Wall said. “I just hugged him and said ‘The Lord let you live today.’”
THE BATTLE BEGINS
Wall said the “preface” of her own battle with substance abuse stemmed from childhood abuse. She began drinking heavily when she was just 13.
“I was a blackout drinker since I very first started,” she said. “For me, I think it started with just wanting to change the way I feel, because I was just confused and fearful.”
From there, she moved on to marijuana and cocaine.
“At 19 years old, I got in with a group of people that were using the needle,” Wall recollected, “and I did that for about a year and a half.”
By the time she was 23, Wall already had three driving under the influence arrests. Declared a habitual violator, her license was ultimately suspended for five years and she had to undergo 90 days of house arrest.
Her 30s represented a time of relative stability and tranquility. She was sober for almost nine years, before another traumatic experience led her to a relapse.
“I became an IV drug user, went back to jail, became a convicted felon,” Wall summarized the next 10 years of her life. “It took me to places I never dreamed I would go.”
Many of those years were spent with a group Wall referred to as bona fide “outlaws.” At one point, she recounted having a shotgun pulled on her.
“I could remember some moments of clarity,” she said. “My hangovers and my coming downs were just so emotional and just so shameful and just so fearful … I know I’m going to end up either dead or in prison.”
Wall’s breaking point came while she was in the mountains of north Georgia. She recalled stepping onto a porch during the middle of a snowstorm.
“I cried out to God in a way that I had never cried out to God before,” she said. “I was able to get out of there and I called my mom one more time and she said ‘I won’t send you money, but I’ll come and meet you.'”
Wall pulled into a grocery store parking lot in Ellijay and waited two hours for her mother to arrive.
“I knew I had warrants, I said I’ll do whatever it takes,” she said. “I turned myself in the next day — I had MRSA on and off for about a year and a half, and I had to go to the hospital and get medical clearance before they would even accept me at the jail.”
In hindsight, Wall said that was the start of her “journey to surrendering.”
“It felt like intentional people being placed in my path, and for me, somedays all I could do is just follow through with one thing," she recalled. "I was 48, I was like, 'Oh my God, what have I done?'"
Wall spent about a year and four months, in and out, at the Cobb County Detention Center. It was there that she heard other inmates speaking about a service in Rome called the Women’s Outreach Center, operated by Highland Rivers Health.
“My mom was willing to pay big bucks to send me away to some big addiction place,” she recounted. “I remember walking up on the front steps of this big place and seeing all these baby seats and car seats. I was the oldest person there … I was the only person there who wasn’t a mother.”
Wall spent the next year of her life at the facility.
“My best friend got murdered, my first year of recovery, the person I was in a relationship with for eight and a half years shot and killed himself in a blackout,” she recollected. “I had nothing else to lose.”
Each week, her friends and family would visit her in Floyd County.
“At 48 years old, I felt like I had gone to college for the first time,” she said. “As a matter of fact, my parents drove me up there and let me out, took all of my things, and dropped me off the day I went up there — it was such an education.”
Especially profound for Wall, she said, was a 12-week-plus trauma management course.
“I needed structure,” she said. “It was just like a big community, and I just started learning so much.”
The class certainly reopened old emotional wounds for Wall. But in the process, it led her to understand the roots of her substance dependency issues.
“That sexual abuse and confusion and anger about things in my home and the way that all played out, that fueled my addiction,” she said.
January will mark Wall’s ninth year of sobriety.
“I just see myself continuing to work with those who are afflicted and those who love,” she said. “I have a big, big passion for the family, and the families of those who love the afflicted.”
WATCHING AND WAITING
Wall said her experiences at the local ER indicate the drugs aren’t just easy to get in Bartow, “It’s so easy that people can’t even grasp it.”
“There’s always a part of me that has a heightened awareness,” she said. “I was sitting at work, registering someone, and I’m overhearing a conversation and the guy’s making a drug deal right there on the phone.”
Just a few years ago, Wall said if Bartow residents sought high-powered narcotics, they’d have to venture into “The Bluff” — a section of downtown Atlanta notorious for its drug market.
Today, Wall said that no longer seems to be the case.
“Used to, you would have to go places to get some things, especially the stuff like heroin,” she said. “Bartow County, I think it’s a hub … and if it’s not right here, it’s not far from here.”
And it’s a crisis, she said, that doesn’t discriminate along racial, socioeconomic or demographical lines.
“It’s across the board,” she said. “It reaches far, it reaches deep, I call it ‘generational’ — as time goes on, we see more and more grandmas and grandfathers addicted, that have been in a cycle since they were young.”
Wall said she’s troubled by a lack of information and education in the local community pertaining to substance abuse resources.
“The biggest gap is the facilitation of how do we get to that person and that family?” she said. “And at least just offer them something.”
In that, she said the first step in addressing the community’s drug use problem could be something as simple as public information sessions.
“That could create some new influx of people to start getting plugged in,” she said. “Long-term, I would just love to see a stabilization facility, residential facilities, [sober-living] housing, transitional housing — we’ve got 20 men at Walker State Prison getting ready to come home, and they don’t have anywhere to come home to.”
She said her dream is to see a treatment center — serving both mental health and substance abuse needs — come to the Bartow community.
“My heart is to see it connected to Cartersville Medical Center,” she said. “I just want a place where all recovery can occur.”
Her daily ER experiences, Wall said, certainly indicate a strong demand for such services locally.
“They just a need a chance,” she said. “Some won’t accept it, but a lot will.”
Community Torn is a five-week series exploring the many ways substance abuse impacts Bartow, with an emphasis on the voices of those most impacted by the community's drug crisis. Using a multidisciplinary approach encompassing public policy specialists, health care providers, law enforcement officials and judicial system representatives, the series seeks to demonstrate the true toll of substance dependency throughout the county.