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The Choice
DUI court program celebrates first class of graduates
Putting your mind to it: Dickson, a skilled cross-stitcher, holds up an intricate cross-stitch portrait of a restored, covered bridge representing his journey. He had hoped to present as a gift to the program. Dickson freely admited with a laugh that cross stitching wasn't the most macho hobby, but it was something he had picked up from his mother, who was a seamstress. - photo by Michelle Kim


Every morning when Michael Dickson wakes up, he has a choice to make: whether to take just a sip of the alcohol his body craves, the alcohol that was ever-present in his bloodstream from his college days until his 40s, the alcohol that lost him too many jobs, friends, relationships, dollars and opportunities to count and that landed him in the slammer with two DUI convictions in five years. Or he can choose sobriety, life, family, friends and an unflinching, but ultimately rewarding, honesty with himself and his disease.

For nearly two years, Dickson has chosen the latter.

It started with one decision. "I had enough," he said. "I was tired, broken down. I loved my wife dearly, loved my family. You burn a lot of bridges when you’re under the throe of addiction. You get tired of lying."

The process was not an easy one. He had tried to quit before and knew he couldn’t do it on his own.

With the help of a new drug court program, an option he took as an alternative to jail time, he took his addiction head-on in a way he didn’t realize he would when he first started the program.

Dickson was part of the inaugural class of the Rockdale County DUI Court, which recently celebrated the graduation of first five members on Aug. 5.

Dickson attended a rigorous schedule of addiction treatment, which he paid for out of his own pocket, and checked in frequently with the court and probation officers. He took on a second job waiting tables at Pizza Hut, in addition to working at Kroger, to pay for the program. The second job, ironically, had him occasionally serving alcohol to patrons. Something he doesn't mind joking about now.

The program, which began in June 2007 with the efforts of Judge Nancy Bills and a team of counselors, attorneys, officers, deputies, and state and county administrators, takes on repeat DUI offenders who are serious about changing their lifestyle.

From her experience as an attorney and judge, Bills could see that just giving jail time to repeat DUI offenders had little effect. "The traditional way of dealing with people with addictions was not working," she said. "The DUI court model had proven to be very successful. So it was time to try something different, so see if we couldn’t reduce recidivism with that population."

"They’re problem-solving courts. In terms of DUI court, they’re accountability court. My program is voluntary, but once you’re in it, it’s coerced treatment."

In exchange for reduced jail time, the participants attend a rigorous therapy and addiction treatment program, which they pay for, in addition to checking in with probation officers twice a week, attending drug court twice a month and being subjected to random drug and alcohol tests and visits by officers.

The program, about $93,000 altogether, is funded by a combination of grants from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and the Administrative Office of the Courts and some matching funds from the County. It began with just a few participants and has grown to about 27.

Dickson had his case transferred from Cobb County and had a rough start in the program when he went drinking the day before a drug court appearance and failed a breath analysis.

"You’re held accountable for any poor decisions you make," he said. "The court is harsh. They went out and let you be free. If you put yourself into it with the right idea as I’m going to use this as tool to help me change."

"It is not impossible I could have quit cold turkey and stayed that way. But it is less likely, because I would not have all the information that I gained from the therapy program," he said. "With the knowledge you have, it makes it easier. I react differently to the Heineken billboard than you do, but I know what to expect and how to process my thoughts."

Does he still think about drinking?

"You learn to get over the hump," he said. "I can’t say I don’t think about it. Do I salivate? Not any more. The ability to get through that is a learned behavior. Do I avoid the beer aisle? Not if it’s the fastest way to get from point A to point B."

"Once you learn about your disease, then you say I can not-drink."

At the graduation, each of the graduates spoke before their program peers, administrators and family members. One graduate said he was brought to the program by his wife and thanked her and their daughters.

Bills said to the participants, "I can’t tell you how much this graduation has meant to me," said Bills. "I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown a lot."

Even though Dickson is proud of completing the program, proud of his classmates, and grateful to his wife Lisa and family, who stuck with him through the program, he said the graduation was, in a way, for the families and the program employees.

"It’s simply a nice page to turn in my walk with sobriety," he explained. But, he pointed out, after he graduates, he still has to wake up the next morning and make that choice all over again.