He was a good Mormon, Rod said as he studied his cheesy quesadilla and poked his fork around the rice and beans. He was a returned missionary with a temple recommend, a devoted husband and father with a thriving dental practice.
He was also addicted to painkillers.
"I was a bum. What else do you call a person who totally abandons his family for personal reasons?" he said. "I was taking 40 to 50 Lortab, four or five Xanax and one or two Soma per day. I should be dead."
Seated in a booth at a Mexican restaurant, Rod paused to observe a cornfield through the window. He smiled.
"I've been clean since April 15, 2003. My last drug was an Oxycontin," said the 45-year-old. "Now I live one day at a time and appreciate the small blessings in life."
Rod's remarkable journey back from addiction and excommunication began in jail with brutal honesty, prayer and the Book of Mormon. Eventually he found the LDS Church's Addiction Recovery Program (ARP) and discovered the healing power of the Savior's Atonement.
ARP, sponsored by LDS Family Services, offers hope and support to anyone struggling with addiction. Benjamin Erwin, an LDS Family Services counseling program manager, says the process is inspiring.
"To watch someone in the depths of pain and the chaos of addiction, who has lost their family, job, maybe freedom, and see them change, to watch them be free from the addiction, to partake of the power of the Atonement, to be healed by the Savior, that is so miraculous," Erwin said.
Rod Gardner took his first painkillers — Percodan — after suffering a football injury in high school in 1983. The pills made him feel euphoric and he knew he should avoid them in the future.
About 10 years later he was immersed in dental school and began using Xanax and Lortab in small doses to quell anxiety and stress.
When his family went on a vacation in 1998, Gardner packed a bottle of Lortab. His justification was, "it's OK while on vacation, but not at home."
By 1999 the Tremonton dentist was taking 10 pills a day, and employees and family members were starting to notice. His wife persuaded him to check into a treatment center. He confessed his problem to the dental board.
But just as he was making progress, his mother died unexpectedly. It was easy to fall back into drugs.
"It was a good excuse," he said. "I told myself if there was ever a time I needed drugs, it was then."
By 2001, Gardner was overwhelmed by his drug addiction. He wrote fraudulent prescriptions to a few close friends and gave them cash to buy pills for him. At one point he was consuming more than 40 pills a day. When his wife realized what he was doing, she took him to a hospital for five days of detoxification lockdown, followed by rehabilitation. His dental practice began to self-destruct. The dentist wasn't there, and townspeople figured out what was happening.
Gardner got a shot in Cache County Drug Court, but failed miserably. He was eventually sent to jail for more than a year on charges of uttering false prescriptions and possession of a controlled substance. He was also excommunicated from the LDS Church.
He hit rock bottom during a three-month stint at the Utah State Penitentiary.
"I got to the point where I felt like my life was over," Gardner said. "I was facing the loss of my practice, my dental license and my family. My wife filled out divorce papers. I prayed a lot."
While in the depths of despair, Gardner prayed for divine help like never before. His pleas were answered with some powerful spiritual experiences. With prayer and increased scripture study, Gardner was filled with renewed hope in the Savior's Atonement.
Shortly after getting out of prison he learned about the LDS Addiction Recovery Program and began to attend Wednesday evening meetings in the Bear River High LDS Seminary building.
It was the medicine his soul needed.
There are close to 1,300 LDS Addiction Recovery Support Groups held in Mormon meetinghouses, prisons and jails around the world, according to the LDS Family Services website. The majority are located in the United States and Canada, but there are also programs in Australia, Norway, Finland, England, Korea and Mexico, to name a few.
The most common meeting is for general addictions, including alcohol, drugs, gambling and eating disorders. The second most common meeting is for pornography addiction. The least common gathering is a family support meeting, which focuses on helping the addict's family members.
The program is based on the gospel of Jesus Christ and its purpose is to help people overcome their addictive behaviors. Anyone is invited and meetings are free. Only first names are used, interrupting others is not allowed and everything is confidential.
The meetings are officiated by part-time LDS Church service missionaries, typically older couples. Another key person at the meeting is the facilitator, a person who has overcome addiction through the 12 steps. Having dealt with similar problems, the facilitator offers experience, insight and understanding to recovering addicts.
According to Erwin, if someone is struggling with addiction and they go talk to someone who doesn't understand what they are going through, they might be told, "Well you can go get clean" or "Why don't you stop that?" However, when the addict hears another addict — someone who knows what they are going through — say, "You can overcome this," it can be very empowering, Erwin said.
With permission from Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., LDS Family Services put the original 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous into a framework of the doctrines, principles and beliefs of the LDS Church.
ARP meetings open with a prayer and announcements, one of which reminds participants that everything is confidential. The meeting usually lasts more than an hour. Participants review the LDS 12 steps, share their stories and testimonies of the gospel, and offer each other support.
Many attend the first time feeling shame or unworthiness. To figure out whether or not these meetings will help, Erwin encourages them to attend at least two meetings.
"The environment at these meetings is unlike anywhere else," Erwin said. "Almost every time someone has gone to a meeting, they continue with the program because it's nothing like they thought. It's almost as if the Savior himself opens up his arms and gives them a big hug. They feel welcome and safe there."
Gardner says the program works because it requires honesty and effort.
"Some come and expect a miracle, but you have to keep coming back," he said. "You have to be in a place to allow the miracle to happen. Miracles don't happen sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself or running around town chasing your drug dealer.
"It works if you work it. The meetings have become my temple away from the temple."
In addition to the meetings, LDS Family Services has published a workbook, translated into 23 different languages, for people who don't currently have meetings in their area. An individual can go through the program with his or her bishop. For program contact information, the workbook or to find out where meetings are being held, visit www.providentliving.org
The voice of experience
Rod Hunt has served as an LDS service missionary and facilitator for 11 years. He has been clean and sober for 12.
His problems began at age 6 when his father, a war veteran, committed suicide at home. Feelings of abandonment, fear, guilt, hurt and embarrassment traumatized him. He fell in with a rough crowd where he was introduced to alcohol, tobacco and other substances.
"Ultimately, I was running from my emotions," Hunt said. "I became a liar and a thief."
Over a 15-year period, Hunt flunked out of school, ruined relationships, floundered opportunities and became "SMEPF." That's Hunt's acronym for "Spiritually, Mentally, Emotionally, Physically and Financially Bankrupt."
"Life had become about drugs of choice and doing what I had to do to get drugs of choice," Hunt said. "SMEPF is how I sum it up for people. Addicts nod and say, 'I hear you.'"
Fighting off thoughts of suicide at age 27, he finally admitted he had a problem. That decision led him to detox, rehab, group therapy and the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
For more than two months he fought his inner demons and struggled to believe in a higher power. On the 63rd night of full-time rehab, he said he was crying, begging, pleading and groveling for the Lord's help when he had a powerful spiritual experience.
"In the middle of that prayer, the Spirit entered the room and filled a giant void that then lifted that burden from my shoulders," Hunt said. "It was so pronounced that I quit crying and started smiling. I felt 6-foot-3 again."
The message remained with him: "Continue to do these things and all will be well."
When he walked into his counselor's office the next morning, she knew he was different before a word was even spoken.
"She looked up and said, 'It's over, isn't it?' I asked her how she knew. She replied, 'I felt it before you came in the room."
Both Rod Hunt and Rod Gardner agree that a spiritual component is essential for recovery.
"I have never known anyone who has had a long-term recovery without a strong spiritual component," Hunt said. "There is no such thing as neutral. If you are not continuing the 12 steps and moving up that hill, you are automatically in reverse. I've seen people get complacent and they are right back into it. You've got to keep the spiritual component in your life."
Hunt feels a deep and sacred obligation to share his story whenever it's appropriate.
"It's the sermon of my life," he said. "And the opportunity to serve in so many walks of life is amazing.
"It's amazing when a 6-foot-5 guy covered in tattoos comes up to give me a hug and say thank you. How does it get any better than that?"
Hope for happiness
Back at the Mexican restaurant, Rod Gardner smiled as he finished off the last bite of his quesadilla. He has much to be thankful for.
He regrets putting his family through everything that happened, but each has felt blessed as a result. His wife didn't leave him. He was rebaptized and regained his priesthood blessings in 2006. Three years later he entered the Logan Temple with his family to be sealed to a daughter who was born during his years of addiction.
He was able to retain his dental license and has a new practice in Tremonton. True friends surround him on every side.
"I met some of my best friends through the addiction recovery program," he said.
Almost a decade since taking his last pill, Gardner still attends weekly ARP meetings. Like Hunt, he looks for opportunities to share his story because he wants to help others. It reminds him of experiences he never wants to forget.
"The program has shown me a better way to live," Gardner said. "I was a broken man before I ever got addicted to drugs and that's why I got addicted. My confidence wasn't where a lot of people thought it was, and drugs fixed that, or I thought they did."
He's grateful for his experiences that brought him to "the great doctor, the Savior."
The 12 steps of the LDS Addiction Recovery Program
1. Admit that you, of yourself, are powerless to overcome your addictions and that your life has become unmanageable.
2. Come to believe that the power of God can restore you to complete spiritual health.
3. Decide to turn your will and your life over to the care of God the Eternal Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.
4. Make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of yourself.
5. Admit to yourself, to your Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ, to proper priesthood authority, and to another person the exact nature of your wrongs.
6. Become entirely ready to have God remove all your character weaknesses.
7. Humbly ask Heavenly Father to remove your shortcomings.
8. Make a written list of all persons you have harmed and become willing to make restitution to them.
9. Wherever possible, make direct restitution to all persons you have harmed.
10. Continue to take personal inventory, and when you are wrong promptly admit it.
11. Seek through prayer and meditation to know the Lord's will and to have the power to carry it out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, share this message with others and practice these principles in all you do.
Source: LDS Family Services Resources
Scriptures to help one learn more about avoiding and overcoming addiction:
2 Samuel 11
Matthew 5:8, 28; 23:26-28
2 Nephi 1:13; 9:15-16, 39, 45; 28:21
Jacob 2; 3:11
Mosiah 3:19; 4:29-30; 5:2
Alma 26:13-14; 36:13-14, 17-20
Doctrine and Covenants 43:11; 58:43; 133:5
Source: LDS.org suggestions
After 23 years of experience, Rod Hunt has seen many people overcome addictions through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and become productive members of society. These are nine suggestions he likes to share with recovering addicts:
1. Figure out what is more important than your drug of choice, then seek after those things.
2. Everyone needs a spiritual component in their daily life.
3. Work the 12-step program forever. "No complacency, baby."
4. Always be honest, open and willing.
5. Change your lifestyle by finding good friends, those who really want the best for you, and leave behind those who don't.
6. Change your body chemistry by changing your eating and exercise habits.
7. Look to grow spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically and financially (SMEPF).
8. Remember you have value, unique talents and abilities, and use them for good.
9. You have been helped, now reach out and help someone else.
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