Jared Hoffman will not be home for Christmas this year.
Instead of spending the holidays with his mother, father and older sisters in Cartersville, he’ll be miles and miles away in a state prison, where he’s serving out a three-year incarceration sentence.
“I feel like this year’s going to be different, because we’re not wondering if he’s going to show up,” said his oldest sister, 39-year-old Alicia Turner.
His mother, 68-year-old Barbara Hoffman, said this time of year has been difficult for many years.
If she wasn’t worrying herself over whether her son, now in his mid-30s, would show up, she was worrying herself over what condition she would find him in if he did arrive.
“It’s got to be so hard for the ones struggling with addiction to be around the family at a holiday, where you’re supposed to be happy and joyful and everything is good,” she said. “You’re just trying to survive it.”
For more than 15 years, the family has waged a largely secret battle — one that could be described as physical, emotional and even spiritual.
The trials and tribulations began in the early 2000s, when one of Jared’s closest friends committed suicide.
“For me, personally, I was so busy comforting his parents and helping with the funeral and doing all the details that are wrapped up with a suicide, that we just kind of sucked it up and did what needed to be done,” Barbara recounts. “I don’t know that we ever really properly grieved as a family, and most especially with Jared.”
She said her son was using beer and cigarettes at 13 or 14 — “I think we figured it was a typical teenage experiment” — but after his friend’s death, Jared turned to something far more potent: prescription painkillers, in particular, Oxycontin.
Sibling Chelsea Medford, 37, said her brother’s disposition abruptly changed. She recalled him having a great sense of humor — and then he just stopped laughing.
“The joy he found in life before, he just wasn’t finding it anymore,” she said.
Jared had his fair share of school suspensions. At one point, his mother said he was involved in the juvenile justice system. At that time, his father said the prevailing attitudes towards substance use disorder was that all his child required was “discipline and tough love” to get him on the right track.
“We were convinced that if we didn’t get him help right now,” Barbara recounted, “we feared that if we didn’t take drastic action that his life was over, he’d be damaged forever.”
So they sent him to a boot camp program in Florida. Barbara recalled visiting her son for Thanksgiving and being shocked by the sight of her teenage son in full military fatigues.
The circumstances were unclear, but apparently her son severely injured his knees. The Hoffmans pulled him out of the program and began looking for more “traditional” rehabilitation programs.
They tried at least half a dozen different programs — most of which failed miserably.
“Let’s just say there’s a lot of greed in the rehab industry,” Barbara said.
Some, like the medically-based treatment program in Florida that cost $20,000 a month, were successful. But the bulk of the programs Jared went to — virtually all of which touted “Christianity-based” recovery — were ineffective, inadequate, and as his family alleges, in some cases, potentially illegal.
His mother recalled one program Jared went to in Alabama.
“Within a week to 10 days, the guy that owned the rehab also had a remodeling company, a construction company,” she said. “They had Jared working full-time painting … but no pay.”
Jared’s drug use continued throughout his adulthood.
His mother brings up all of the old “recovery” buzzwords of the timeframe — detachment, enabling, letting them hit rock bottom.
“Hitting rock bottom?” she said. “Rock bottom today can be death, and it is too often.”
She recalls hearing about Jared’s friend living in a storage building. And the time she found her son — in 20-degree weather — sleeping by the creek near her home.
“How do I detach from my son?” she said. “When Jared’s knocking on my window at three o’clock in the morning, bloodied, by not letting him come in, and me not cleaning up his broken nose?”
While her son had several stays in jail, Jared had never been to prison before.
That changed earlier this year, when he pled guilty to counts of financial transaction card fraud, identity fraud and exploiting an elderly adult.
The maximum sentence for the combined charges was 61 years. Cherokee Judicial Circuit Judge David K. Smith ultimately sentenced him to 12 years for the offense — with the first three to serve in prison and the rest on probation.
His mother said he turned down an opportunity to go into a residential substance abuse treatment program. “The wait to get in was going to be five to nine months, plus the nine-month program itself, minimum,” she said. “He felt like he would be better off just pleading guilty and going the prison route.”
His father said he felt painfully mixed emotions about his son’s incarceration.
“You come to the point as a parent that, sometimes, it’s not that you want him in jail, but when they finally get arrested, it’s like, ‘He’s safe. He’s got that roof over his head and he’s got food and we're not so much worried about him like when we know he’s just out on the street at night,’” Jeff said before taking a labored pause.
“We like to believe so.”
AN UNSEEN PRESENCE
For Turner, there’s a bizarre sense of reassurance knowing her brother is behind bars. Anytime he went missing for long periods of time, she said the same horrific thought crept into her head.
It just seemed inevitable — one day, she was going to get that phone call that her brother was dead.
“Knowing that he’s not overdosed or killed somewhere in a crackhouse or on the side of the road or in a gutter somewhere, there’s a sense of relief knowing 'OK, well, at least we know where he’s at and he’s not on the verge of dying at any moment,’” she said.
Medford said she also feels that “weird, morbid sense of peace” regarding Jared’s incarceration.
“It’s always feeling like, are you saying your last words every time you talk?” she said.
But having her brother so far away — for so long — also makes her feel powerless.
“There’s literally nothing you can do to help him,” she said. “And at times, it feels like the only way I can deal with that feeling of helplessness is to just forget about him, because if I think about him, it’s almost too much.”
That’s when the guilt sets in.
“Your brain cannot wrap around not being able to see them,” she said. “You can do nothing except take a phone call, put some money on the books and pray,” she said. “That’s where I’m just like, ‘Lord, I just have to trust You, that You are going to take care of him and sustain him and protect him.”
But prison is still prison. Gangs, drugs, suicide, inmate rape — Barbara said she’s not naive about what goes on inside Georgia’s correctional facilities.
“He usually calls us once or twice a week, and when he doesn’t call, we know something’s up,” she said.
She recounted not hearing from her son for several weeks, only to receive a telephone call out of the blue.
“I said ‘Jared, are you OK?’” Barbara recounted. Her son responded by saying that he was “just dealing with some stuff” — an inmate killing himself, a small-scale gang war, his scant belongings being stolen.
“Mom, I just want to let you know that if you don’t hear from me in the next couple of months,” he told her, “I’m in the hole.”
His parents have visited him in prison twice.
Barbara said her 6’1 son has beefed up from a lanky 150 pounds to well over 200. And his skin is the clearest she’s recalled in at least a decade.
“Right now, he’s looking better than he has in years,” she said. “Using meth, his skin would get sores. So it was really good seeing him just looking really good.”
Jeff said he cherishes those visits.
“You can’t talk about a lot of real deep things there, because they’re very guarded,” he said. “But when I get to see him, I get to be a dad, and I get to feed him.”
His voice cracks as he recounts handing his child a smorgasbord of snacks and soft drinks.
“I get to go to the vending machine and fill him up with food,” he said, “and it’s just a wonderful thing.”
Barbara says she sends her son books all the time. She tries to prod him into intellectual conversations, and asks him how he’s doing on his reading. Sometimes he’ll ask about how his nephews are doing and the progress his mom and dad are making on renovations to their home.
His whole life, Jeff has been the family breadwinner. One of the hardest things he said he’s ever had to face was acknowledging that he simply could not “fix” his son.
“I had to take the burden off my shoulders and give it to God,” he said, “and say ‘Lord, You’re in charge, I’m going to love the boy.’”
Barbara recalled seeing signs all over the prison reading “Sexual assault is not a part of your sentence.” She knows her son is in “survival mode,” trying to remain “neutral” in an environment where violence just isn’t commonplace, it’s practically expected.
When she visits Jared, she’s allowed to hug him when she first sees him and before she leaves. The prison administrators won’t even let her lean forward when she’s talking to her son — “You have to sit apart,” she said.
Jeff said he doubts incarceration is doing much to address his son’s substance use disorder issues. And he has a suspicion that he’s not the only person who feels that way.
“The whole legal/justice system, I think that many of the people who work in it — even judges, prosecutors — they know that what is happening and how the laws are written today are just not just for the situation,” he said. “And that there literally needs to be 180-degree change in how we handle people with addictions.”
Pending Jared serves a full three-year sentence, he will be released in early 2022.
“Just the fact that he has a place that he can call home when he comes here is probably so much more than what 90% of the people [have] that are coming out of incarceration,” his father said. “They have nothing. He’s got a home.”
ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD
When Jared returns home, he has multiple fines and fees to pay off, along with 160 hours of community service to perform.
He’ll be practically penniless and, effectively, starting from scratch.
“He knows about as much as you can know about addiction, not only from all the treatment centers he’s been in, but the lived experience,” his mother said. “He just needs to have a family, a community of people, to come around him and support him, whether it’s a 12-Step program or any other group of people in recovery supporting each other.”
For the better part of two decades, the Hoffmans kept their son’s substance use disorder struggles hidden. It wasn’t until a Rotary Club meeting last year that Barbara went public with her family’s challenges.
“We were already going through a hard enough time without facing the judgement,” she recounted.
In hindsight, Turner said the family never should have concealed itself under the “veil of shame” — rather, she said they should have been “pouring light on the darkness” all along.
“I’m talking about the families of the people suffering from addiction and the addicts themselves, where they are no more ashamed to go and ask for help than a diabetic struggling to keep their blood sugar under control, or somebody whose depression meds need an adjustment,” she said. “They just need to not be afraid that they’re going to be rejected and stigmatized by their community when they want help and when they’re suffering and they’re struggling — they need to feel safe asking for help.”
Medford likewise said doing away with that stigma could help so many families — and potentially save lives.
“As long as we’re so worried about what other people think, I don’t think you’re going to move forward,” she said. “When there’s humility and there’s vulnerability and there’s truthfulness, you start to see how many other people are just going through the exact same thing.”
Barbara said she’s reminded of the Biblical verse Romans 8:28 — “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose.”
Throughout her family’s ordeals, Barbara said her heart has been broken over and over again. And for that, she’s grateful.
“Because I find that it’s just easier for me to love unconditionally,” she said. “It’s almost paradoxical. I feel like my heart is softer and more broken than it’s ever been, I can cry at the slightest thing, and yet at the same time, I feel like I’ve never been stronger in my life. And I’ve never been more passionate about fighting, not only for Jared, but for all of these other families and their loved ones out there going through the same thing.”
For Barbara, the Recovery Bartow endeavor puts all of the heartaches and hardships her family has experienced in a new light. In some ways, she said she can’t help but view them as “training” for something destined to serve the greater good.
“I know that everything this family has been through and will continue to go through, other people are, too,” she said. “And we can help them — other people need our support.”
The family, Jeff said, has come a long way in the last 17 years. What he knows about substance use disorder now, he said, could benefit scores of families throughout Bartow going through similar situations.
“In the short time that this group has existed, we have come to know many folks, young and older, that have lived through and survived and are in good states of recovery,” he said. “And they are passionate about helping other people that are in the same spot they’ve been.”
And there’s not just a big demand for RCO services in Bartow, he added. There’s also a big supply of individuals within Bartow who would love to assist with the project.
“There are people who are willing to get the additional training they need to be peer recovery counselors,” he said, “and have a place where people with addictions that want to change their lives can go and trust somebody that’s going to help them and walk the path that they’re on.”
The Hoffmans do have other goals when it comes to addressing Bartow’s substance abuse epidemic — and that includes both policy shifts and efforts to bring additional resources to the county.
“We need to start talking about harm reduction and getting Narcan out into our community," Barbara said. “And we need infrastructure. Rome has a crisis stabilization center, Polk County has one — we’re bigger than both of them and we’ve got a bigger problem
, and we don’t have one.”
THERE’S ALWAYS HOPE
In William Peter Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist,” there’s a scene where a younger priest asks an elder why a young girl would be possessed by the foulest of demons.
The older priest replies that the demon’s target isn’t the afflicted, but the observers — "Every person in this house.”
“I think the point is to make us despair, to reject our own humanity,” he tells the younger priest. “To see ourselves as ultimately bestial, as ultimately vile and putrescent, without dignity, ugly, unworthy.”
The parallels may be striking for any family that has experienced a loved one going through the throes of addiction. And for the Hoffmans, their experiences with Jared have taught them — simply put — how to love again.
“As an adult child, you don’t fully understand or appreciate the sacrifice of a parent’s love until you go through the mud and you see your parents do everything they can to pull you out,” Medford said. “When you are most unlovable and people love you, that’s what pulls you back. It’s not the tough love, it’s someone loving you when you feel like you don’t deserve to be loved.”
Turner recounted seeing a homeless man sleeping in the lobby of her place of work.
“He had Jared’s build, he had the same hair color, he looked to be about the same age,” she recounted. “When I saw that man, I knew at that moment I was never going to be able to look at people like that again the same way.”
She offered him water and watched him get escorted off the premises. It was so emotional, she had to take the rest of the day off.
Turner recalled circling the parking lot, desperately trying to find the man who could’ve just as easily been her own flesh and blood. He was gone.
“I always wondered who he was and what his story was,” Turner tearfully recounted. “That person that you’re looking at who smells terrible and doesn’t have a place to stay and in tattered clothes could be someone you love.”
The family agrees that their struggles with Jared have taught them to view their fellow man quite differently. No longer is their default position “judgment,” Barbara said, but compassion, empathy and a yearning to know what one’s individual circumstances are.
Her brother may be confined behind bars, but in the process, Medford said the struggle has freed her heart.
“I’ve been able to love him in a way that I haven’t been able to in a very long time,” she said. “I was just going to love him, no matter what he did.”
Seven days before Christmas, there was much weeping in the Hoffman household.
There were the painful memories of the time Jared was brutally attacked in an Alabama jail while the rest of the family was at a wedding in Florida. His bouts of paranoia as a teenager, when he thought the neighbors were spying on him. Then there’s all of the untold trauma he’s been through that may never be fully revealed.
Turner recounted walking with her brother along the cul-de-sac outside their parents’ home. “There are things that have happened that I will never tell you about,” he told his eldest sibling.
But the tears only fall for so long in the Hoffman household.
There are just too many happy memories of Jared playing basketball and baseball, tinkering with VCRs and radios and chasing chickens around the family farm.
His sisters recount all those times he sent his Ninja Turtle action figures to rescue their Barbie dolls — and all those times they made him play dress-up — and the entire family erupts into laughter.
And not just any laughter. The kind of laughter that makes you double over and hold your stomach — not from pain, but sheer joy.
Despite their hardships, it’s evident there’s still a lot of love and warmth and mirth shared by the family.
Jeff recounts the time his son put on a football helmet — or was it a baseball helmet? — and got into a headbutting contest with the pet goat.
There’s another uproarious burst of laughter, another explosion of glee. It becomes almost impossible to determine whose voice is whose. Instead, the guffaws just meld into this enormous, echoing belly laugh that lingers underneath the downstairs bungalow ceiling.
And as they chuckle and cut up, it becomes clear that there’s something else abundant in the Hoffman household.
There’s most certainly hope for tomorrow.
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.