ONEIDA, Tenn. — For those struggling with addiction, the holidays can be the toughest time of the year. Recovery can change that for the better.
We spoke with 10 people from East Tennessee about how recovery has changed their lives and what they're thankful for this year.
Here are their stories.
Randall Scott Byrge
Randall Scott Byrge is thankful to have recovery resources available in his hometown of Oneida, Tenn.
He's been sober for 10 years and works with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse as a life liner.
"It means I can be a present father to take care of my best friend and give back to my community," he said. "We work to reduce the stigma around addiction."
He's shared his story of recovery with about 100 churches in the area and helped dozens of people find sobriety.
He's most proud of being a father to 6-year-old Addie Byrge.
"When I feel like I'm alone, I have Addie," Byrge said. "She gives me a purpose. She's my best friend. She's my sunshine."
Katelyn Burchfield is thankful to be in her kids' lives. She started struggling with addiction right out of high school.
At first, she drank heavily to cope with being a single mom unable to provide the life she wanted to provide for her daughter.
Then, she was prescribed pain pills after a 2011 car accident.
"There was a lot that took place and I was damaged not only physically, but mentally and emotionally," Burchfield said. "It just spiraled into my meth addiction."
She hit rock bottom in July 2020 and reached out to her friend Randall Byrge, who she knew had found recovery. She spent nine months in a treatment center in Corpus Christi and returned home to her family.
"I'm finally the mom to my daughter that she's always needed," Burchfield said. "It's a completely different story than what I was living two years ago."
Burchfield works as a quality engineer in Scott County and is looking to purchase her first home. She said it's a complete change from two years ago when she was living in her car.
"It's amazing what two years can do," she said. "[Recovery] is great. I love it."
Her daughter, Maleia Sexton, 16, is thankful her mom is home for the second holiday season straight.
"She used to be angry," Sexton said. "Now, she's... I don't want to say normal, but that's how she is."
Sexton said she's grateful she gets to have that relationship with her mom again.
"It's just so much better," she said. "We're like best friends."
Michael Schrock is thankful for his family, job and recovery community.
He began struggling with an alcohol addiction in 2007, before trying methamphetamines and opiates. He said recovery court saved his life in 2019.
"It's given me a new outlook on life," Schrock said. "It's given me a chance to be a father again."
He said he's held a job for almost four years straight. He's grateful for that opportunity and his family.
"We do recover — don't give up," Schrock said. "There's always hope. Reaching out is a form of courage."
Stephanie Greer is thankful she has her family back. She said she and her kids couldn't be closer.
"My kids are my everything," she said. "We're like best friends."
She began struggling with addiction in 2013 and sought help in 2019.
"I just got tired of the lifestyle and how much I had hurt my kids," Greer said. "I just got to where I couldn't do it anymore."
She's grateful she found sobriety so she can be there for her kids. She hopes others can do the same.
"There is help out there," Greer said. "I know it's hard to walk up to somebody and say you need help, but there's a lot of us willing to help."
Anthony Russell is thankful for his family and a stronger relationship with God.
He said he'd always felt like the odd one out. He decided to experiment with drugs to see if it would help him fit in shortly after high school.
"I thought the drugs would help me out with that. It did, for a while," Russell said. "Then, it took me down a dark road and I lost a lot of things."
He said a lot of those things have been restored this Thanksgiving.
"I've got my family back. My family trusts me. My church trusts me," Russell said. "We've been separate for the last year or two... but [my kids] have all come back home."
He encouraged people to reach out to their church if they're still battling addiction.
"It's life-changing. I'm not afraid," he said. "If I stand out in front of folks, I try to be me and I'm happy doing it."
Wesley Smith is thankful for second chances this Thanksgiving.
He said he was a star football player in high school, who started drinking and then tried marijuana. It transitioned to pain pills and a 14-year addiction.
Smith's wife gave him an ultimatum — get help or lose contact with his family.
That choice saved his life.
"I still have struggles, but I have other ways of dealing with things now, "Smith said. "I'm thankful for another chance."
He enjoys spending time with his family and helping them through life.
"It's the best life I've ever had," he said. "I get to come home and I have three little boys that absolutely run to me as soon as I open the door."
He hopes other people will seek out help too.
"There's no shame in reaching out for help," he said. "Reach out because it's a whole lot better."
Rusty Ellis is thankful for his family. He said he's a happy person again, who is constantly smiling and laughing.
His struggle with addiction began at 35 when he was prescribed pain pills for kidney stones. It took him 20 years to find recovery.
"It was a long road. My family refused to give up on me and I finally hit a wall," he said. "I never imagined that I could be me again."
His family called Randall Byrge to come and counsel him. Ellis thought it would be a waste of time. Instead, it turned out to be a second chance.
"I had given up hope... I got my family back. I got my life back," he said. "I never dreamed I could live like this again"
He hopes other people will reach out for help like his family did for him.
"If we can help one person, it'll be worth it," he said.
Rebekah Ross is thankful for her kids being home and the opportunity to get together with her family without arguing over addiction.
"It's changed my life a lot. I'm not sleeping in the cars and out looking for another high," Ross said. "I'm just able to be a mom and go to ball games."
Her daughters, 7-year-old Brooklynn and 8-year-old Bailee, said they love getting to play with their mother on the trampoline.
"She's the best mom," Brooklynn said. "[I'm thankful for] my mom being home."
Her sister said it's the small things that matter most to them.
"She lets us have food in the house and buys us clothes and shoes," Bailee said. "I'm thankful for my mom and my family and my friends."
Keesha Blevins is thankful to celebrate her first Thanksgiving with her kids in three years. She said she got custody back in August.
"We get to go back to being a family and being the mommy that I've worked so hard to become," Blevins said. "I had to do it for myself so I could be a better person, a better mother for them."
She said the past few months have been a blessing as she gets to spend time with her kids again.
"Life has been so great. Recovery has been amazing to me," she said. "It's not even the food. It's just being with them, watching the smiles and watching the memories."
Her 8-year-old daughter, Journey, is thrilled to be back with her mom.
"It's amazing and I love it," she said. "I get to be home and everything is back to normal."
Blevins hopes others aren't scared to ask for help, especially when they're at their lowest.
"Don't be ashamed of what you're doing because we've all been down that road," she said. "There's a whole recovery family out there that's ready to take you in."
Amelia Burke is thankful for having a relationship with her kids again.
She began struggling with addiction at 15 and has been in and out of recovery ever since. This Thanksgiving, she's celebrating nine months clean.
"It's life-changing. I have hope again," she said. "You're so hopeless and feel like life isn't worth living, so I'm thankful that I have hope today."
She hopes others can find that hope too through sobriety.
"Don't give up," Burke said. "Just keep putting one foot in the front of the other and persevere."