After years of alcoholism that began at age 12, Zack Hamrick ended the misery.
After exhausting every friend, family member, and resource in efforts to get alcohol and drugs, at age 21, he began the fight to overcome the demons. Fifteen months later, he was the very first to graduate from the Damascus House, a Christian-based rehabilitation facility in Statesboro.
Only 23, Hamrick began drinking at a very young age, having stolen his first sip of alcohol from an unattended glass at a party."It was horrible," he told guests at the graduation ceremony held Friday at the Warehouse on East Cherry Street. "But I liked it."
He faced a room filled with family members - people he had hurt during the throes of his addiction. He stood before a dozen or more fellow "Men of Damascus," ranging from mere days of sobriety to as much as 19 months. He told his story, difficult as it was for him to share.
"My name is Zack, and I am an alcoholic," he said.
He talked about how he "played the game" as a teenage alcoholic, learning to fool people and cover his addiction. He talked about hating himself and failing at school, at rehabilitation efforts, at life, until a last-ditch effort brought him to Damascus House.
Still, he didn't want to cooperate. The structure and discipline was too much, and he asked his father to take him to another rehab facility in North Georgia.
"It looked just like my apartment when I left for Damascus, and it smelled like feet," he said. ‘I freaked out. I got this feeling of nope, nope, I made a mistake. I have to get back."
His father was confused when Hamrick asked to return to Statesboro, but "Something hit me and it was like God was doing what I couldn't," he said.
Hamrick shared how he was bullied as a young child and upon changing schools, started choosing the meanest, roughest kids to befriend. "I wanted everyone to like me and I put on any mask I could in order to fit in. I wore masks with everybody so I never had to be alone with me."
That behavior led to a childhood of seeking a salve for his damaged emotions. "There was this hole inside me, spiritually and emotionally, that I had to fix."
Hamrick tried fixing the hole with alcohol and drugs. By age 12, he was drinking at parties. The athletic scholarships and senior superlative awards he received in high school waned in importance as he moved into college life, tossing grades and classes aside for partying and drinking. He failed - and failed again.
"I was like, to heck with sports," he said. "You can't stay out all night and go run at five in the morning."
The more he failed, the worse he felt. The worse he felt, the more he drank. "You want relief from something that makes you hate yourself," and you drink more in an attempt to find happiness, he said. It never came.
At 21, he found himself in terrible shape, with a liver so poisoned he would likely not live long if he continued his path of alcoholism and addiction. He stole and broke the law just to get his fix - and it was killing him, he said.
"I hated myself. I didn't know how to feel better. Nothing was working, and my life was a hole. I wanted to die."
A family in despair, tired of Hamrick's behavior, wounded beyond belief, still did not give up. And when he found Damascus, Hamrick said it ended up being his salvation.
Damascus House was founded by Vern Howard and Tim Strickland, two men with substance abuse history and experience in recovery counseling. After the dream was realized, two houses opened under the name Damascus Rehab, named for the Biblical story of Paul's journey on the road to Damascus.
"We liked the analogy as we prayed for guidance and inspiration to help men of this tine to receive the miracle of spiritual healing,." Howard said.
The two men developed the program with "emphasis on recovery through the twelve steps where the goal is to find a relationship with a Higher Power who can accomplish all things," he said.
Hamrick said God, and faith in God, had everything to do with his recovery. He also gave credit to the other men in the program who embraced him, encouraged him, and put him in his place when he tried to take the wrong path.
"I would have left 100 times... (but) I stayed, and it was the guys who did it," he said. "I love y'all for real and I couldn't do it without you."
As he shared his story, the other Men of Damascus stood and listened intently. A myriad of emotions floated across each face as they listened, shaking their heads in agreement and smiling when Hamrick cracked a joke.
Over a dozen family members attended Hamrick's graduation. His parents were emotional as they expressed gratitude for their son's recovery, and his uncle, Jack Hamrick, drew laughter as he talked about his nephew.
Amid the humor, however, he brought sincerity. "If Zack had graduated from any Ivy League school in this country, it would not have been as important as this graduation," he said.
He, too, is a recovering alcohol addict. "My life definitely began when I got saved a few years ago. I didn't know how good it could be."
As the first Damascus House graduate, Zack Hamrick received a silver bracelet with the Damascus camel logo and his sobriety date engraved upon it. He also received a plaque and another plaque will be placed in the house, with his name listed as the first graduate.
"To be here, graduating numero uno, blows my mind," he said. "I don't know, man, stuff just started happening. I was at peace. I was OK. It wasn't easy, but somewhere along the way, you find the solution. It's a simple program for complicated people."
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.