DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — For more than a year, Clay Johnson drove by the flashing sign on U.S. Highway 84.
Day after day the sign grabbed his attention as it flashed the words “Celebrate Recovery.”
More than a year later, Johnson realized the flashing sign served as God’s way of getting his attention. But it took more than a flashing sign for Johnson to change.
“It came to a point in my using . I was in my bedroom one day with drugs, maybe even high, and I heard God say that was enough,” Johnson recalled. “I knew I needed to get clean, and I needed God.”
A 14-year addiction to drugs spanning half his life had already sidelined aspirations of earning a college degree and then led to the word divorce surfacing in the relationship with his wife.
About 14 months ago when he and his wife, Tiffany, walked through the doors of a local Christ-centered recovery program he knew they were in the right place.
Johnson and his wife started attending Celebrate Recovery at Covenant United Methodist Church once a week. But the couple didn’t stop there. They attend and are also involved in Celebrate Recovery programs three nights a week.
Getting involved in Celebrate Recovery has left a multi-faceted impact on Johnson’s life, which includes reshaping his career path, deepening his faith in God, saving his marriage and providing guidance for keeping him clean and sober.
“It’s like Christian spiritual living for dummies,” Johnson said. “It’s all about how to live a Godly lifestyle.”
Sherry Koogler, the coordinator for Celebrate Recovery at Covenant United Methodist Church, described the program as a Christian-based 12-step program designed to help people through various life issues.
The program is also based on eight Biblical principles founded in the Beatitudes from when Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount.
“People are hurting and struggling and they’re lost as to where they can turn for help with the issues in their life,” Koogler said. “One of the biggest benefits of Celebrate Recovery is having someone to walk through those dark times with you and maybe reestablish some hope to be able to deal with the things life throws at us on a daily basis.”
One of the first of the eight principles based on the Beatitudes is that you have to admit you’re not God, and that you need help.
“The truth of the matter is we rarely get well alone,” Koogler said. “We need people to walk through it with us.”
Everyone involved in Celebrate Recovery has already been through the program, including Koogler.
“If you will work the program you can come out a changed person,” Koogler said. “It’s not easy. It is hard work. You have to want to change. You have to want to find a new peace and joy for your life.”
After growing up in a home of alcoholic parents, Koogler found herself carrying many of the character defects of being a child of an alcoholic through adulthood.
“You take on the personality of being codependent, and I became a people pleaser,” Koogler said. “I’ve kind of learned over the years the only person I can fix is me.”
Celebrate Recovery has helped Koogler through 20 years of struggling with depression.
“It’s helped me to take the mask and let people see the real me,” Koogler said. “It’s hard for me take that mask off and realize sharing my own struggles in life might help somebody else, and that is what CR is all about.”
The typical Celebrate Recovery program starts off with a free meal to help people relax and usually winds down after about two hours.
What follows the meal is what Koogler said sets them apart from other secular recovery programs, which is the incorporation of a time of praise and worship.
“It frees us up to focus on God,” Koogler said of the praise and worship time.
Typically a testimony from someone in the program or a guest speaker follows worship or some type of lesson is provided by a volunteer in the program.
Then people break up into gender specific small groups to address life issues including death, depression, divorce, domestic violence, chemical abuse, gambling, financial recovery, love relationships, sexual addiction (including pornography), racism, shame, abortion, anxiety among others.
“CR addresses all types of hurts, habits and hang-ups,” Koogler said. “It’s not just for chemical addictions. In fact only about 10 percent of those coming to CR have a chemical addiction.”
Koogler called confidentiality and the safety of those who attend Celebrate Recovery another one of the key aspects of the program.
“Who you see, or what you hear, stays at Celebrate Recovery,” Koogler said.
Celebrate Recovery stresses the importance of setting up sponsors and accountability partners for people.
“As you go through the program we encourage each person to seek out accountability partners. I sponsor four to five women right now, and one of them I’ve met once a week for the past nine months,” Koogler said. “It’s that day-to-day accountability knowing that you have someone who cares about your recovery.”
Koogler said Celebrate Recovery is offered at several different churches across the Wiregrass, including four in Dothan, along with one Enterprise, Ozark and Abbeville.
Celebrate Recovery is offered on Thursday at Covenant United Methodist Church and Friday at Harvest Church along with Mt. Gilead Baptist Church and Harbor Church all located in Dothan.
“We work together as churches, and each one of us meets on different nights purposely so that people have a different place every night when they’re seeking recovery. We all have the same basic principles but with a different flavor,” Koogler said. “It reaches across denomination lines. We’re trying to reach people for recovery and reach out for God, not necessarily a reach for our church.”
Koogler said the Covenant pastor and about a dozen leaders from the Covenant Celebrate Recovery team recently went to Saddleback Church in California where Celebrate Recovery started 20 years ago under Pastor Rick Warren.
Both Covenant United Methodist Church and Harvest Church held showings of the film Homerun, which specifically featured Celebrate Recovery principles. The film showings coincided with National Recovery Month in September.
Jesse Lee, a ministry leader at Mt. Gilead Baptist Church, said the program has helped him realize he’s not alone in the world. It also taught him the importance of a male bonding relationship.
“I thought I was alone. Celebrate Recovery teaches us two heads are better than one,” Lee said. “I had had a faith in Christ since I was 12, but I had a lot of unresolved issues.”
Clay Johnson started using at the age of 14, but was exposed to marijuana and alcohol as a youth.
“I started at 14 smoking pot heavily, and by the time I was 16 I was using ecstasy and methamphetamine,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have a drug of choice. I just didn’t like to be sober. I had a lot of issues, and I dealt with them by using.”
Johnson started a rehabilitation program in 2005 and started a degree studying Christian counseling at the Baptist College of Florida after feeling led to the ministry career field.
“I felt God wanted me to use my path to help others,” Johnson said.
While studying at the Baptist College he met his wife, who changed her major at the college to Christian counseling so they could share the same classes together.
“I was not ready to be out on my own and quickly found my old ways again,” Johnson said. “I married in 2006, and I was using the entire time. I felt helpless.”
Tiffany went on to graduate from the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, Fla., with the degree in Christian counseling.
But Clay left school and went to work full-time for what he said was only a means to feed his drug habit.
Tiffany Johnson had already researched the Celebrate Recovery program before the couple had a fight where the word divorce surfaced for the first time. A short while later Tiffany Johnson attended the program on her own.
Clay Johnson easily recalled the date of July 19, 2012, when he and his wife attended Celebrate Recovery together for the first time.
“Eleven days before that I actually flushed my drugs down the toilet,” Clay Johnson said. “I had been clean about a week, and I was to the point where I knew I needed some accountability and needed to be around people who also wanted to get better.”
But for Clay Johnson, Celebrate Recovery not only helped him through his struggle with drug addiction, but also with his relationship with his wife. The program also served as helpful and free marriage counseling.
“We were on the verge of divorce. I think that was part of the process of God breaking me,” Johnson said. “It saved our marriage. In my opinion it’s probably the best marriage counseling out there, and it’s free.”
For Johnson, Celebrate Recovery has also deepened his faith in God and Christ.
The program has taught him how to live out Biblical spiritual principles on a daily basis.
“This gives us a place to be real. Here you can come and be honest,” Johnson said. “When someone asks how you are doing, you don’t have to just say fine.”
Going through the program also led Johnson back to continue his education. He changed his major from Christian counseling to psychology with a focus in addictions and recovery.
After completing an internship through working with the Celebrate Recovery program at Covenant United Methodist Church, Johnson will graduate in December from Liberty University with a degree in psychology. He hopes to work in a prison or at some of the substance abuse programs in the area after graduation.
Johnson also called giving back the pinnacle of the program. He now serves as one of the leaders in the program.
“It provides a safe environment. We’ve been just about every Thursday since last July,” Johnson said. “We’re pretty much at CR three nights a week. We not only feel at home there, but we’ve got involved in the other ones in the area too.”
Tiffany Johnson said they looked into the program for Clay’s drug addiction, but found it not only helped them in that area, but helped her through many unresolved issues of her past.
Tiffany Johnson recently started leading a women’s group dealing with relationship issues and sexuality.
“I’ve gone from walking in a place of darkness to walking in the light,” Tiffany Johnson said.
Eric and Sharon Davis were both already involved in a secular recovery program before helping start the Celebrate Recovery program at Covenant United Methodist Church.
“When you get into recovery it’s all about giving back,” Sharon Davis said. “You’re either growing or going back to your old hurts, habits and hang ups.”
Eric Davis said one of the main differences between the secular recovery programs and Celebrate Recovery program is that in Celebrate Recovery it’s not just a higher power that’s talked about, but Jesus Christ.
“It’s about grace,” Eric Davis said. “We have to accept everybody. You can’t win over people by beating them over the head with your beliefs.”
Eric Davis said the single most important thing about recovery is getting to the point where you can openly share one on one with another person.
‘It’s sharing your experience, strength and hope with them,” Davis said.
Both Eric and Sharon Davis now volunteer as leaders within the Celebrate Recovery program. Eric plans to teach a lesson about relapsing.
Attending Celebrate Recovery has helped him grow and go deeper in Jesus Christ. The big difference for Eric Davis after he transitioned from a secular recovery program several years ago to Celebrate Recovery was the incorporation of daily prayer.
Eric Davis helps lead a group for men who’ve struggled with chemical addiction, while his wife, Sharon, leads a similar one for women.
“We started this program dating, and we got married working this program together,” Eric Davis said of his time with Sharon in Celebrate Recovery.
Fourteen months ago, Jeff McDaniel walked through the doors of Celebrate Recovery.
“I struggle with a sexual addiction,” McDaniel said. “When Carrie and I got married she didn’t know I had this addiction. I had kept it at bay for a long time and it came back seven fold.”
Six years into their marriage his sexual addiction resurfaced. But the sexual addiction wasn’t a new battle for McDaniel. As a 50-year-old man he’s wrestled with the issue of sexual addiction for more than 38 years.
“It’s a daily process,” McDaniel said. “There’s going to be temptations Satan puts in my life, but I know there’s a way out. I can reach out to my sponsor or accountability partner.”
McDaniel said going through Celebrate Recovery has helped recognize the triggers to his sexual addictions and how to head them off before it becomes an issue. For example, he’s learned the importance of changing the television channel if something comes up that’s not good for him.
McDaniel and his wife were already members of Covenant United Methodist Church in Dothan, and had sought help through a church pastor who suggested checking out Celebrate Recovery.
Through regular attendance at Celebrate Recovery, McDaniel said he been able to strengthen and rebuild his marital relationship with his wife, especially through regular prayer and Bible study time together.
McDaniel also said Celebrate Recovery has helped him focus on his faith.
“After being here the first night I knew I was in the right place,” McDaniel said. “For the 14 months since coming to CR I’ve not struggled with my addiction.”
For Carrie McDaniel going through Celebrate Recovery helped her realize there have been a lot of people who have hurt her throughout her life. She said the program can help people through a number of other life issues, such as low self-esteem and self-worth.
“I had to learn to love myself before I could love others,” Carrie McDaniel said. “Society places this Hollywood image on women. It’s a lot, to live up to society’s standards. When you put society aside and God first, you can start helping others.”
Both Jeff and Carrie McDaniel agreed going through Celebrate Recovery has helped them learn the importance of giving back and serving others.
“We’ve got a saying at CR ‘don’t quit before the miracle happens,’” Jeff McDaniel said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Jeff McDaniel said Celebrate Recovery has helped give him a purpose in life.
“I have a purpose now, and I have a story to tell,” McDaniel said. “Now I know I’m here to help others.”