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From jailbird to counselor

by Larry S. Chowning

Third in a series on local efforts to treat drug and alcohol abuse.

“I was treated like a human being, and eventually that made me think that I needed to care of myself. It gave me hope.”
—Kennedy Wise

For 13 years Kennedy Wise of King and Queen County “lost his soul” to drugs and alcohol. Throughout those dark years, Wise was in and out of the Middle Peninsula Regional Security Center in Saluda so much he acquired the jail nickname of “Otis” after the well-known inmate on the Andy Griffith Show.

On the TV show, Otis had access to his own key to the jail. “I didn’t have my own key, but I was in here enough to call Mr. Harmon ‘Daddy Harmon’ and Mrs. Elam, ‘Momma Linda,’ ” said Wise.

Kennedy Wise
David Harmon is the superintendent of the regional jail, and Linda Elam is the jail division coordinator for the Middle Peninsula Northern Neck Community Services Board (CSB).

Today, Wise is a part-time substance abuse counselor for the CSB. He is married, owns his own grass cutting business, and lives a relatively normal life. 

He attributes his recovery from drug and alcohol abuse to the caring attitude of a few people inside the regional jail system.

Wise graduated with honors from King and Queen High School in 1983, and was a football and track star for the Royal Tigers. He also began abusing marijuana and alcohol during high school. 

After graduation, he joined the Army where he received top honors in basic training. 

“When I joined the military, I knew it meant ‘being all you can be,’ but I didn’t know it also meant being all you can drink,” he said. “It got so where I was doing more drinking, more drugs and more partying than I was actually being a soldier.”

Partly because of his problems with alcohol and drugs, Wise received a less-than-honorable discharge in 1986—just two weeks before he was to complete his stint. “I was lucky I didn’t get a dishonorable discharge,” he said.

When Wise returned home from the Army, the drinking and drugs escalated and he could not hold a job. He was without a legitimate job from 1989 to 1998.

“I had under-the-table jobs,” he said. “I hustled, sold some drugs, and stole things. I just lived the lifestyle—drinking and drugging—mostly drinking. A judge once told me I had the second highest arrest record in the state for being drunk in public.

“Many people tried to help, but I finally stopped drinking and drugging when I woke up and realized that I was just finished with it,” said Wise.

“I’ve been in lots of jails, and there are good people in some of them too, but they wanted to be in complete control of me and didn’t offer any hope. Here (Middle Peninsula Regional Jail) I was treated like a human being, and eventually that made me think that I needed to care of myself. It gave me hope,” he said.

“Little things helped me along the way. One time I almost died from alcohol poisoning. They took me to Walter Reed Hospital. There was a jail person with me and she asked me, ‘Why are you trying to kill yourself?’

“I asked her real mean-like, ‘Why do you care?’

“She said, ‘We all care about you.’

“Over time I realized some people were sincere and did care whether or not I would get better,” said Wise.

“I remember Momma Linda [Elam] writing down her home phone number so I could call her night or day when I was getting the feeling I needed a drink,” he said. 

“It’s important that people care about you for who you are—the good and the bad. I always say the ‘good and the bad’ because I’m just Kennedy Wise—that’s it.  I make mistakes and sometimes it’s okay to make mistakes. 

“I didn’t always understand that,” Wise continued. “Sometimes people have you on a pedestal and you have to prove something. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. All I have to do is be the best Kennedy I can be. I finally realized that drinking and drugging weren’t part of Kennedy being his best. I had to want to make it work.

“All the in-house jail programs gave me an understanding that I wasn’t the only one in the world with a drinking and alcohol problem, but what saved me was that I realized there were people who cared more about me than I did about myself.”

Wise came from a background where alcohol and drugs were commonplace. “Most all the people I knew drank . . . family members, even my pastor drank,” he said.

“People would say to me, ‘I don’t drink.’

“I’d say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Everybody drinks.’

“When I realized they weren’t kidding, I’d say to myself, ‘Maybe I can stop drinking and drugging.’ ”

When Wise began to talk about his father, his tone changed. His father recently died of cancer. “My father,” said Wise, who then paused to gather himself and continue. “My father and my mother never gave up on me. When you are drinking and drugging, you don’t care about anything, not the people who love you, not anything.”

Wise is a part-time counselor for the Northern Neck-Middle Peninsula Community Services Board (CSB). The organization hires several types of counselors. Wise was hired for his experiences with drugs and alcohol and the lifestyle that accompanies these experiences.

“We bring Kennedy in when we see a person who needs to hear from someone who has lived it—what alcohol and drug abuse can do to your life,” said Jayme Campagnola, mental health coordinator for the CSB. 

posted 07.02.2009

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