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The addict who became mayor

May 15, 2014
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Those in recovery from addiction know that it’s crucial to balance their recovery among the other aspects of life – work, family, recreation, etc. Paul Bartley, who not only serves as the Director of Operations at Recovery Works (Ridge Spring, S.C.) but also as the mayor of the community where the program is located, says his recovery always comes first and all other tasks get worked around that.

Bartley grew up close to Ridge Spring in Saluda, S.C., and had what he calls a “normal” childhood. When he was introduced to drugs and alcohol as a teenager, he immediately became hooked, he says. While the substances allowed him to escape reality temporarily, he continued moving forward in school.

After graduating from high school and attending college, Bartley saw his alcohol and drug use progress to the point where he would be forced to drop out of college after a few years.

Although some might have characterized his situation at that time as “hitting bottom,” Bartley didn’t look at it this way. He says he was always “skimming” and was able to get his life back on track and be successful for periods of time. However, shortly after he left college, he was in an accident at work that caused him to have his right leg amputated at age 22.

“That was probably my introduction to the worst part of my addiction – narcotic pain medications,” explains Bartley, 55. At this point, his life featured a series of failed relationships but he still continued “skimming” the bottom.

Hitting bottom, finding recovery

About three years ago, he experienced what he believes was hitting rock bottom in his life. He lost almost everything including his marriage, his job and his vehicles.

Bartley then was given the opportunity to go through the six-month program at Recovery Works, which allowed him to focus on developing a foundation for his recovery. Although he had briefly attended a treatment program in the 1990s, he didn’t have a sponsor or work the Steps after discharge, and immediately quit attending meetings once out of the program. This time was different.

After completing the program, Recovery Works founder and director Flint Thomas offered Bartley a job as the resident manager. Instead of going back to a place where there might be a possibility of relapse, he accepted the job in August 2011.

Throughout the next few years, he spent time getting to know the people in Ridge Spring and helping them to understand the work being done in the treatment program. The mayor of the city at the time approached him to ask if he would consider running for mayor. He took some time to think about the idea and was encouraged by members of the community that it would be a good move. Because he had spent much of his life in the area and the community members had watched him go through recovery and openly discuss it, they were supportive of him and his potential role as mayor. Ultimately, Bartley says he made the decision to run for mayor because “recovery teaches us about giving back, not only to the program, but in any way we may be of service.”

Serving as mayor

Bartley became mayor of Ridge Spring – a rural community of about 750 people – in September 2013. Since the town is small, there is no town administrator to oversee day-to-day operations, so much of that has to be done by Bartley or be delegated by him to others. His duties include everything from making sure bills are paid to fielding complaints and requests from the community.

Although challenging at times, the role has been assisting him in his recovery. “The biggest part of recovery for me has been being of service to people here in the community,” he says.

Recently, Bartley was asked to serve on a council on prescription drug abuse and prevention that was formed by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Since most of the individuals on the council are looking at the issues from a regulatory side, Bartley says he will bring an important recovery perspective. The main focus of the council is to find and examine “prescription mills,” develop regulations, and to look for alternatives to narcotic pain medications.

Although the idea is to crack down on some who prescribe excessively, Bartley recognizes the potential effects on users as well. It is common to see people begin using street drugs, such as heroin, once their avenue to obtaining prescription medication closes, he says.

He believes he will bring a different perspective to the council by sharing, “Let’s provide some viable options for people rather than just cutting people off and sending them to the street. Let’s offer them some different alternatives to avoid that.”

Between his duties at Recovery Works, his role as mayor, and his recovery, Bartley has a full plate. He has spent a great deal of time reorganizing his schedule in order to fit his tasks in but also to set aside time for recovery work. He attends three to five 12-Step meetings each week.

He notes that it is about setting boundaries and keeping true to the plans made to attend to recovery. “One of the things that I know is that if I don’t maintain and do the things necessary for me to maintain my recovery, then everything else I’m doing is going to be gone,” Bartley says.