The hand-painted, primitively lettered signs scattered along the highways and back roads of Duplin County reveal themselves slowly to travelers—in a field beside a school, along a ditch bank next to an abandoned car lot. Stationed like timeworn sentinels, they offer warning to the lost and the vulnerable: Meth Kills; Meth – Stop B4U Start; Mess With Meth, End With Death.
Duplin County resident Shane Kennedy failed to heed the messages found on those signs and, for a time, lost everything most precious in his life as a result.
Though he survived and has set himself on a dramatically different path, the years he spent under the sway of drugs are still evident in his voice as he describes his decade and a half of addiction and his current efforts to assist those faced with similar struggles.
At first glance, there’s little to mark Kennedy as a former meth user, no sunken cheeks or scabbed flesh, no “meth mouth” filled with rotted gums and missing teeth. Relaxing in his office at Cedar Fork Baptist Church, where he serves as pastor, Kennedy could easily be mistaken for any successful young person in the prime of their life.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, addiction doesn’t discriminate,” explains Kennedy, a native of the Fountaintown area who began using drugs while still a student at East Duplin High School. After graduating in 1995, Kennedy’s meth use increased throughout his college years. Though he received a forestry degree from Wayne Community College and took a job with Tri-State Lumber Company, Kennedy was already well on his way towards debilitating drug dependence.
“It was a snowball effect,” he recalls. “I was a functioning addict; I could hold down a job. I bought and sold timber and I did that right up until the last few years of my addiction when everything was crumbling.”
Kennedy doesn’t mince words when asked why he chose to use drugs initially.
“It was fun. There’s no beating around the bush about it; it was fun in the beginning. Methamphetamine was my drug of choice; that was the thing that I did.”
Kennedy admits there were also deeper reasons for his decision. “We all want to be accepted, and I don’t care who you are, every human being is going to find that somewhere. Unfortunately for me, using meth filled that need.”
The drug initially provided Kennedy with a new sense of self-confidence, he remembers.
“Everybody wants to be in control and that’s a drug that, when you first begin to use it, you feel like you’re in control. That was a drug where you could go to a party and drink a half a case or 18 beers and be good. It just made you feel like you were in control of all things.”
During the years he was using meth, Kennedy believed he was able to keep his addiction a secret from friends and family members.
“I thought I did a really good job of hiding it for a long time,” he recalls. “I lived that lifestyle until I was 29 years old, so I was in the grips of that addiction for about 15 years. In the end I was on prescription pills and I was buying those and taking things to help me go to sleep at night because I couldn’t sleep. But I thought everything was fine, I thought I was keeping it together.”
The logic of addiction
Despite his increasingly erratic lifestyle, Kennedy says his actions appeared perfectly normal from inside the drug cocoon he inhabited.
“Looking back now I can see how crazy I was. But while I was in active addiction, everything I did made complete sense to me; everybody else was crazy. I thought if they’d just leave me alone, everything would work out.”
Having worked his way up to a $500 a week meth habit, Kennedy’s finances were in shambles.
“The money situation began to crumble. I had other bills and it got to the point where I wasn’t going to be able to pay them.”
Kennedy’s relationship with his family and his girlfriend, Megan, also began to suffer.
“What methamphetamine does is it takes everything that you love and it takes it away from you while you’re not looking. My relationships had crumbled with my family, with my girlfriend at the time. It had stolen all of that.”
Kennedy says he only began to see the true extent of the damage he had caused during the last few years of his addiction.
“It was bad; everything that I touched turned upside down. My girlfriend knew what I was doing; she was beginning to talk to my parents and they knew something was wrong with me but they couldn’t put a finger on it.”
Though he made numerous attempts to put an end to his drug use, Kennedy said he lacked the will power to kick meth for good.
“I wanted to quit, but I just did not have the ability to do that. There were a lot of Sundays where I would throw a bag of dope out the window in all hopes of coming out from under that bondage I was in. I was done; I was going to quit. But within 24 hours I was back in that place combing the ground trying to find it.”
During the final year of his addiction, Kennedy was virtually alone. “My girlfriend left me. That was the darkest time in my life. If there was one thing that kind of pushed me over, it was the relationship that was gone that I desperately needed.”
After years of drug use, Kennedy says he finally understood that he was powerless to kick meth on his own. In February of 2006, he agreed to enter a rehab facility. By that time, the drug had taken a dramatic physical toll as well.
“I’ve always been a big guy but the day I went into rehab I weighed 170 pounds, and you’re talking about a 225-230 pound guy. I lost a bunch of weight. In rehab I gained 30 pounds in 30 days; my body was starved for nutrition.”
While in rehab, Kennedy says he experienced severe physical and mental withdrawal symptoms.
“I thought I would go in there and sleep, but that didn’t happen for me. I could lay down and think I was going to sleep and be comfortable for about 2-3 minutes and then my whole body would have the budges; it was like it couldn’t stay there. So I stayed up for about five days while I was there and just couldn’t rest. That first week off meth, I had overwhelming thoughts of using again.”
During his 30-day rehab stint, Kennedy began to find solace in the religion that had formed an important part of his early life, a religion he had largely rejected.
“I was raised in the church; my mother has played the piano at Cedar Fork Baptist for over 40 years, so I knew all about religion, but I didn’t know Jesus Christ. Through drugs and getting to that bottom, that place where the only way I could look was up, that’s where I found Christ.”
Once his rehab stay was completed, Kennedy attended regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings and began going to church services. He admits that the transition back into normal life after years of addiction was often disorienting.
“When I came out I’ll say it was six months before I could say ‘That was a good thought,’ before I had a clear thought that made perfect sense,” he recalls.
As he began to get some “clean time” under his belt, Kennedy’s thoughts turned to those who were still struggling with addiction.
“My heart broke for people who were still in active addiction, because I know what it does. In Duplin County we’re just infested (with meth), it’s an epidemic. So I began to see that I wanted to do something. I felt like God could use me in helping people.”
While attending services at Cedar Fork Baptist, Kennedy met the church’s pastor, Mitch Smith, who encouraged him to offer testimony about his experiences before the congregation.
Though he was increasingly drawn to the church, Kennedy says he was still not fully committed.
“I was working in the timber business and I loved what I did; I thought that was what I would do for the rest of my life. As I got more into ministry, God changed my heart. It was scary at the time.”
Kennedy was eventually licensed to preach at Cedar Fork Baptist.
“The first time I had a chance to preach, I was able to see that I wasn’t just somebody who had used drugs, that God could use me for more.”
With the church beginning to grow, Kennedy made the decision to quit his job with Tri-State Lumber and accepted a position as associate pastor at Cedar Fork Baptist, serving for a year in that capacity. During that time, he began conceiving plans for a recovery ministry.
“When I got out of rehab they said make 90 meetings in 90 days and I did that; I needed it. We need more of that so that when people make the decision that ‘Hey, I want to get clean,’ there can be a place for them to have the tools they need to do that.”
Kennedy says he was also moved by the reactions of others he’d seen come out of the throes of drug addiction.
“I’ve picked people up from rehab and we’ll be riding home and they’ll see a guy mowing their yard and they’ll go ‘Hey man, that guys mowing his yard; that’s cool.’ Just normal everyday things that they’d forgotten about. Meth just robs you of life; it’s a terrible drug.”
After Pastor Smith was called to serve at a church in Elkin, near Winston-Salem, Kennedy took over as the senior pastor of Cedar Fork Baptist in December 2013. With the new position came the opportunity to put his plans for a recovery ministry into action.
According to Kennedy, Celebrate Recovery is modeled on Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California.
Kennedy says the ministry is based on eight Biblical principals found in the Sermon on the Mount and is linked to the 12-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs.
“After worship the large majority of the people who are in the church who are not struggling with addiction will leave,” says Kennedy, “and we’ll break into men’s and women’s groups and that will be the group discussion time like you have in AA, just a time to share what you’re struggling with that day.
“It’s one addict helping another addict stay clean,” explains Kennedy. “Celebrate Recovery is a place to find that support that’s so critical.”
Turning his attention to helping others has given Kennedy a chance to reflect on the changes he’s seen in his own life. He realizes he’s one of the lucky few that have not had any lasting damage from meth use.
“Praise God I don’t have any kind of physical things happening now from that. I’m a different person now. The best way to describe it is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The thoughts I would think, just the way I looked at life in general was just so different when I was using meth.”
Kennedy’s decision to kick meth has brought other blessings as well: In 2007 he married Megan, the woman he once drove away during the darkest days of drug abuse. They now have three sons.
“So here I am with a beautiful wife and three boys that came from a relationship that I thought was completely gone. It’s incredible,” he says.
To those still suffering under the grip of addiction and considering seeking help, Kennedy offers the following advice: “I would say to those folks ‘Don’t care what it may cost you.’ I had those thoughts — ‘I can’t leave my job for 30 days. I can’t go to them and say ‘I’m on dope. I’m in bad shape.’ I knew I was going to lose my job, but that wasn’t the case. What I found out was there were a lot of people who already knew where I was at and they were standing there ready to help me but they didn’t know how to. They couldn’t until I got to that place where I said ‘I surrender.’”
Kennedy remembers all too clearly his own struggles to get clean.
“I needed 30 days away from all kinds of reality, from people calling me on the telephone telling me that my truck payment was due. I needed that time to sit back and get some good thoughts, some clarity of mind. There’s no shame in that.”
Kennedy says there was a time when he could never have imagined living sober, without the crutches of meth, alcohol, and other drugs.
“In the beginning of addiction, my frame of mind was ‘This is who I am.’ I could never see myself not drinking a beer at night, not smoking a joint at night. I could never see myself not doing those things,” Kennedy admits. “But as it gripped my life and stole everything away from me, that changed. I wanted out but I had no clue how to get out. I think there’s a lot of people in that same place today.”
Through the Celebrate Recovery Ministry, Kennedy plans to use the insight he gained from years in the meth wilderness to shed light on the problem of addiction and help those, like himself, who once believed they were lost.
“There is no better recovery process than one addict helping another addict through the pain. Whenever you can sit down in a group setting and just share what you’re going through, sometimes that makes all the difference in the world.”