Chris Zollman’s road to recovery started with a swift act of mercy, continued through a treatment program in Sandy Springs, and ended with him quitting drugs. Now the Dunwoody resident devotes his life to helping others walk down the same path — a path that for many is often muddied by shady operators, controversial treatments, and pricey therapies.

Six years ago, Zollman was consuming $100 worth of opioids a day and sold even more to support his habit. He’d survived eight overdoses — the last time, paramedics found him passed out behind the wheel of his car near Bobby Dodd Stadium. The streak would soon be broken: His drug charges carried a maximum sentence of 75 years in prison.

“I was either going to get clean or kill myself,” Zollman thought.

Chris Zollman visits a sober living residence he operates in Chamblee. (Max Blau)

But a Fulton County judge offered Zollman probation as a first-time offender. “You’re very lucky to be alive,” the judge said.

It came with a condition: finish treatment. He was sent up to a rehab center in north Georgia. That was followed by a stay at LifeLine Atlanta, a sober living residence founded by Trey Miller, a Sandy Springs resident who was also in active recovery. Zollman stayed there for six months as he strung together drug-free days earning minimum wage at a local Jimmy John’s.

For two more years, Zollman worked at LifeLine, helping out with the new clients. Inspired by LifeLine’s mission, he started thinking about starting his own facility. He got his chance in early 2015 after LifeLine closed following Miller’s relapse.

Zollman, with two drug-free years under his belt, opened Stepping Stones in the likeness of LifeLine. Since then, Zollman has overseen three six-person residences in north DeKalb County. The scruffy 27-year-old spends his days visiting each facility to collect mandatory drug tests and offers counsel to residents if they’re struggling. It’s for a simple goal: survival.

On a recent evening in one of Stepping Stones’ facilities, a 21-year-old aspiring photographer played chess to take his mind off of cravings for heroin, which recently landed him in trouble with the law.

“A lot of places sell you this hope and dream,” the resident said. “Here, it’s all about the people in this program that charges a fair price.”

Entering the treatment minefield
Only 10 percent of the estimated 2.2 million Americans who need opioid-use disorder treatment actually get it, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Surgeon General. The kind of treatment available across metro Atlanta varies greatly, from five-figure inpatient programs that resemble summer camps to doctors offering $1,000 monthly injections to block opioids from interacting with the brain. But the struggles faced by America’s addiction industry — from the high price tag and scarcity of evidence-based treatments — means that finding treatment that works is about as easy as walking through a minefield.

Growing numbers of drug users flock to sober living residences — paying a few hundred dollars to $1,500 a month — that are quietly located in houses or apartments in Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. This model of housing offers people in recovery a drug-free place to live accompanied by access to the 12-step programs, a strict curfew, and work or treatment obligations.

Zollman embodies one of the biggest draws of these facilities: Operators are often recovering users with success stories from the very same programs. But some critics also see it a weakness. The operators aren’t usually trained medical professionals, and such facilities sometimes embrace treatment programs based on anecdotes rather than scientific evidence. Sometimes the medicine shown to be most effective in reducing the risk of relapse is banned outright from facilities like Stepping Stones.

But Zollman swears by Stepping Stones’ hardline approach. “You’re buying time until you have a moment of clarity,” he said. After all, it worked for him.

The first time Zollman tried opioids, he was a 15-year-old student at Chattahoochee High School. A doctor prescribed an opioid painkiller called Lortab after a car accident. By the time he enrolled at Georgia State, he advanced from taking pills to selling thousands each month. He graduated with a business degree even though he transitioned from pills to heroin.

A 21-year-old Stepping Stones resident, who asked not to be named, plays chess to take his mind off of cravings for heroin. (Max Blau)

Three years ago, taking advantage of his second chance, Zollman rented a house from a man who lost his son to an overdose. He converted the house into a sober living residence. One residence led to two more — all within a short drive from where Zollman lives in Dunwoody. He now works with 18 men who found the program by court referrals, online searches and word of mouth. They typically pay around $800 a month. The monthly rent for one of his residences — a three-bedroom apartment in a Chamblee complex — runs about $1,400, according to the management group’s website.

Zollman said he has experienced some neighbors who were irritated that a sober living residence was on the block. But he believes “we’re some of the best neighbors to have.” He says that’s because of the program’s rules, which include a 10:30 p.m. curfew, mandatory drug testing, and a requirement to either get treatment or a job.

Local cities loosely regulate sober living residences, if they do at all. To get his launched, all Zollman had to do was obtain business permits and work within the codes already on the books. That still wasn’t always easy: some cities prevent more than three people who aren’t blood-related from living in the same unit. But he found a loophole: If his clients perform some sort of “staff role” — from doing chores to admitting new patients — they don’t count against that three-person limit. As it is, many sober living residences already dole out housekeeping responsibilities to help clients readjust to society.

“Zoning has always been an issue, and is still an issue [in some cities],” he says. “I think they should be more welcoming. If we had a house full of cancer patients, this conversation would be totally different.”

Shady operators
For every above-board provider of addiction care — whether it’s an inpatient or outpatient program — stories of shady facilities are not hard to find. Zollman’s heard of facilities that charge people “relapse fees” to stay after a major program violation. One of his clients, who asked not to be identified, said he once attended a treatment program where drug dealers moved in across the street to lure former users back to using heroin.

Even providers with medical credentials can pose hazards to the clients. Dr. Michael Fishman, one of the top addiction doctors at Talbott Recovery — which has several metro locations, including an outpatient program in Dunwoody — had his medical license suspended after being charged with the illegal possession of dozens of oxycodone pills in 2017. State Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford) has received reports of some Georgia facilities paying a referral fee to a headhunter to get patients into their facilities — in hopes of overcharging their insurers.

“People are taking advantage of people struggling with addiction,” said state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Republican representing Marietta and Sandy Springs, who has co-sponsored Unterman’s bill to clamp down on the practice of patient brokering. “It’s a matter of finding addicts and offering them services that aren’t really services at all.”

The model embraced by most sober living residences — no use of medication that includes opioids — has drawn criticism from many doctors. Scores of studies have found that opioid-based medicines such as buprenorphine, best known by the brand name Suboxone, can reduce the likelihood of relapse better than other methods of treatment. Yet Dr. Stuart Gitlow, former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, says many sober living residency operators like Zollman ban their clients from taking buprenorphine because of the longstanding misconception that those treatments “substitute one drug for another.”

“If they’re taking buprenorphine as prescribed, they’re not using it for addictive reasons, so it should be fine to take there,” Gitlow says. “Instead, folks in those facilities are not allowed to take the treatment that’s most likely to lead to long-term recovery.”

Zollman cites stories of potential abuse — not science — as grounds for banning these treatments at his residences. If the 12-step program worked in his experience, it can work for his clients, he figures. Despite his confidence in his methods, he says long-term recordkeeping about relapse rates is difficult in part because some clients fall out of contact. “A year out, a majority of my clients graduate,” he said. “After that, it’s hard to keep track.”

It’s been six years since Zollman got his shot to turn his life around. He stayed clean. He’s engaged to someone he met in recovery. He now wants to expand the number people he’s helping. To do so, and to avoid zoning restrictions of DeKalb cities, he’s moving his residences to Cobb County. He believes the higher concentration of treatment options there — as documented in the latest season of the popular TV show “Intervention” — will best serve his clients as they try to improve their lives.

“I see people going through living hell,” he says. “Everyone deserves a shot.”

Coping with a Crisis: Opioid addiction in the suburbs

The combination of prescription painkillers, heroin and synthetic opioids is killing people around the nation, including within Reporter Newspapers communities. In this exclusive four-part series, we will look at how local families, nurses, prosecutors, recovering addicts and others are responding to a growing epidemic that already kills more people than cars, guns or breast cancer each year. For the first story, about families using obituaries to tell the harsh truth of loved ones’ overdose deaths, click here. For a local emergency department doctor’s overview of the opioid crisis, click here. To share your thoughts and stories, email editor@reporternewspapers.net.

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