At first glance, Bartow County natives Lauren Proctor and Jessica Gordon seem to be exact opposites.
Proctor grew up in a well-to-do family and spent her childhood in some of the community’s ritziest, upscale neighborhoods.
“Everything was handed to me on a silver platter,” she recollected. “I wanted for nothing, I needed for nothing, everything was always paid-for for me.”
Gordon, meanwhile, grew up in a trailer park off Mission Road. She spent most of her youth in a single-parent home — her father died when she was just 8.
“Nothing was ever handed to me,” she recalled.
Naturally, they attended rival schools. While Proctor was a proud Cartersville Purple Hurricane, Gordon was an equally proud Cass Colonel.
One thing they did have in common as teenagers, however, was a love of softball. While they were opponents on the rec league diamond, they soon became fast friends off the field.
By the time they were high school freshmen, Proctor and Gordon found something else to bond over — substance use.
Gordon said she started drinking when she was just 14. She became an intravenous drug user at 17.
Proctor described herself as a “garbage pail kid,” who used just about “anything and everything,” starting with cocaine. Marijuana, methamphetamine, acid, GHB and heroin use followed.
“I just thought it was fun, I had a blast,” she recollected. “I just enjoyed it. My motto was ‘You’ve got one life to live, live it up while you can.’”
And in the late 1990s in Bartow, they said getting their hands on drugs was hardly a hassle.
“Everybody had it when you were cruising through town,” Proctor said. “We had a bunch of rave days … I don’t know how we got away with the things that we did.”
TRAUMA AND TREATMENT
The “good” times, however, didn’t last for long.
Gordon wanted to join the Air Force after high school. Instead, she turned to hardcore drugs post-graduation.
Over the next 17 years, she was in and out of jail, prison and boot camps. She went to rehab four times.
“I never thought in a million years that I’d be clean,” she recalled.
Proctor’s drug use continued through college. In 2003, she was the victim of a sexual assault.
“While I was in Georgia State, I was raped,” she said. “They kind of brushed me to the side because I couldn’t identify my attackers. The one video they had from across the street, you couldn’t tell anything.”
To cope with the trauma of the crime, she turned to IV drug use. Proctor continued using the needle for the next 14 years.
Proctor tried to keep up the facade of “normalcy” throughout her active drug use. She worked at a finance company for six years, eventually working her way up to a finance manager position.
She never told her parents about the substance abuse, and it would be many years before she told them about being raped.
“It’s part of my life, it’s part of my story and it’s OK to talk about it,” Proctor said she now realizes. “Don’t be ashamed, don’t feel guilty, it is what it is.”
For Proctor, the nadir of her drug use also represented the beginning of her liberation from 22 years of substance dependency.
In April 2017, she was pulled over while driving through Cobb County. Police searched her vehicle and found methamphetamine.
“I lost custody of my older daughter, who is now 14, due to drugs,” she said. “I’m just now regaining my relationship back with her, and then I have two younger girls who are now 4 and 5 — and I lost them to DFCS (Division of Family and Children Services.)”
She went into an inpatient rehab program in Marietta, which included six months of aftercare follow-up. She also entered an 18-month family treatment court program in Cobb County.
It was around the 13th or 14th month of the program, Proctor said, that the “breakthrough” finally occurred.
“I was like ‘You know what, this is a life that I think I want to live,’" she said, "which is a sober life.”
Gordon’s turning point likewise came in 2017.
She described what made her last stint in rehab successful, whereas the previous attempts faltered.
“You can’t do it for somebody else, you have to do it for yourself,” she said. “I went in there for myself that time, I went in for me and I gave it 1,000%.”
Gordon found a sponsor, changed her phone number and deleted her social media accounts. It was then that she decided to leave the past in the past and start living life on her own terms.
“I went to meetings all the time, I worked with my sponsor, you know, figuring out who I was, outside of me being addicted and sticking a needle in my arm,” she said. “And I realized I really liked this person.”
ENDING THE SILENCE
Proctor described entering rehab for the first time.
“Honestly, I went in with a needle in my arm, I went in there high as a kite,” she recounted.
After detoxing for a few days, she realized she was surrounded by perfect strangers. And at that point, she decided to try something different.
“I was like, ‘You know, I don’t know these people, I’m actually going to be honest with everything,’” she said.
No longer feeling that she had to hide her substance use issues, Proctor said the last barrier to successful treatment was finally shattered.
“It’s been nice to be an open book and not have to cover up anything, and not have to hide behind closed doors,” she said. “When I was in rehab, people flocked to me for advice. Even in family treatment court, people were always calling on me, ‘Can you help this person, can you please sponsor this person?’”
That was something Proctor was more than happy to do.
“To watch them flourish into something that they’ve never been before, I kind of relived how it was for me,” she said. “And it was so exciting.”
Gordon said there’s certainly a stigma that prevents many Bartow County residents from even acknowledging they have substance use disorders, let alone seeking treatment.
“There’s a lot of judgment and judgmental people that frown upon drug addicts or mental health issues here in Bartow County,” she said.
Looking back on her blue-collar upbringing, Gordon said the biggest stumbling block was the normalization, so to speak, of such substance abuse behaviors.
“That’s the biggest problem, everybody is so quiet,” she said. “Being in the streets, they’re afraid of change, because that’s all they’ve known their whole lives.”
Growing up in the upper-class strata of Bartow, Proctor said the great barrier is pride — pure and simple.
“Even amongst each other, you don’t talk about stuff like that,” she said. “So nothing’s ever done to help these kids, nothing’s ever done to help anybody because it’s something you just don’t talk about … and what good does that do us?”
Drug use, she said, is just as prevalent in Bartow’s most lavish subdivisions as it is in the County’s poorest rural enclaves.
“Oh, it’s there,” she said. “You’ve got the preachers’ sons and daughters, you’ve got attorneys … and sometimes, I think it’s more through them than it is through the lower-class. It’s just kept hush-hush — they’ve got the money, they’ve got the strings.”
For many of Bartow’s elites, she said there are more concerns about protecting reputations than there is getting actual help for family members.
“Money talks,” she said, “and money hides.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF PEER PRESSURE
Gordon and Proctor — now ages 37 and 36, respectively — have remained close friends for more than two decades.
“In active addiction, we ran the streets pretty hard together,” Gordon said. “Even though most friends do have falling outs, we never had a falling out — we always knew we had each other no matter what.”
The same way her best friend was there for her during her drug use days, Proctor said Gordon has been pivotal in her journey to sobriety.
“We get together now and we talk about it if we’re going through a bad time,” she said. “We’re like ‘Well, we know which way we’re not going to go.’”
Gordon said their mutual recovery efforts have drawn them even closer together.
“Anytime I’m having a problem, still to this day, she’s my first thought, she’s who I call,” she said. “I can rely on her."
Each agreed that such strong peer supports are crucial in surmounting substance use disorders. Which is one reason why they’ve pushed forward with plans to bring a much-needed resource to the local community.
“I called Lauren, I was like ‘Look, I’ve got this bright idea, I don’t know how to do it or how we’re going to do it, but let’s do something, let’s start a sober living [center] in Bartow County,” Gordon said.
Proctor’s already filed the 501(c)3 paperwork for the proposed nonprofit, which she calls A New Life of Bartow County.
“I’ve got my business plan done and that’s actually something that me and Jessica are going in together,” she said. “The policies and procedures for the business are completely done, our only standstill is finding a place and getting money.”
The financial piece is still a work in progress, but Proctor said she expects fundraising for the project to begin by March.
“I think it’s a very big need and it would be in high demand,” she said. “I want to open one for the girls and I also want to open one for the guys.”
This time around, Proctor said she wants to pay her own way on the endeavor.
“I do come from the higher end of things, however, I haven’t asked my family for money,” she said, “because I want to show them that I can do this on my own.”
For the time being, Gordon and Proctor are taking it one day at a time. The fear of a relapse is always in the back of their heads, but as the “old-timers” at Gordon’s support group meetings are fond of saying, “It doesn’t matter how many times you fall, it’s how you pick yourself up.”
And both said that simply talking about their experiences — instead of keeping them hidden — have been healing.
“You know how they say closed mouths don’t get fed? You’ve got to talk about it, you’ve got to air it out,” Proctor said. “Don’t be ashamed of things you went through in your life. It’s part of your journey, it’s part of your story — it’s life."
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.