Originally Published: April 10, 2016 6:04 a.m.
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series to cover all sides of the issues of drug addiction and the recovery industry in Prescott.
PRESCOTT — As Yavapai County’s chief probation officer, John Morris sees people every day whose lives are in turmoil because of addiction.
In his role, Morris is expected to ensure enforcement of legal consequences to protect public safety. At the same time, he and his staff strive to help men and women released from prison connect with the mental health and substance abuse treatment resources able to help them forge a new path.
A sign over his desk reads: “Always Be Kind, Have a Good Attitude, Never Give Up.”
Morris’ compassion for these troubled men and women comes not just from a 20-year career in the field but from wrestling with his own secret life of addiction. He never ended up in jail, but his disease still left him broken and lost. He ended up divorced, temporarily separated from his two young daughters, shunned by friends and family, unable to continue his career as an ordained Southern Baptist minister.
“I lost it all,” said the 61-year-old county court official who in 2013 earned the honor of Supervisor of the Year by the Arizona Chief Probation Officers Association.
His disease was rooted in heredity: his mother, Fran, was addicted to a narcotic painkiller and died at age 40 and his maternal grandmother committed suicide. His father, Lloyd, was an abusive man with addiction issue who “lived in despair and died in despair,” the son of an alcoholic.
The one bright spot in Morris’ family was his paternal grandmother, Ida Lee Morris, a practical woman who lived through the Great Depression and ended up divorced when that was not socially acceptable. She was an amazing craftswoman and cook, someone Morris said who make some something “out of anything.”
“She was my hero,” Morris said.
For the early part of his adult life, Morris said he was able to mask his disease that manifested itself in secret binge drinking. He said his first wife never suspected he was an alcoholic.
After high school, Morris pursued an undergraduate degree in religion from Mercer College in Macon, Georgia followed by a Master’s of Divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
His early professional career included hospital chaplaincy and serving as a therapist for children from broken homes. In Nashville, Tennessee, Morris entered church ministry, working as an associate pastor.
“I was a minister, but I was living a double life,” Morris said. “I felt a lot of shame … As much as I wanted to be good, I couldn’t be good enough.”
After a time, Morris said his disease became harder to hide. The pending loss of his marriage and family put him in a life-altering tailspin.
In 1990, Morris went to a residential treatment center in Tucson. Afterward, he returned to Nashville, but quickly found that it was not the place he needed to be. He returned to Arizona and a therapist from the Tucson center recommended he attend extended care at Prescott House.
“And I fell in love with Prescott,” Morris said.
He attended that program for five months, which included attending 12-step meeting and mandatory volunteer service. He connected with the Yavapai County Big Brother/Big Sister program.
“I don’t know how much I helped them, but they sure helped me,” Morris said of the nonprofit organization.
Prescott House infused Morris with the tools he needed, and the hope he required, to pursue true recovery. Upon completion of the program, Morris sought out support, and a sponsor. He stayed busy working three part-time jobs before Prescott House hired him for a time as an outpatient therapist.
He started to reclaim his life.
In 1997, Morris was hired for an opening in the Adult Probation office. To his surprise, he admits, he “fell in love with this work.”
In the course of his probation career, Morris has climbed from an entry level position to treatment coordinator and department supervisor. In 2014, he was selected to take over the top job.
This past weekend, Morris served as a panelist for the Surrender to Win Film festival that was all about exploring the issues of addiction, treatment and recovery in this community.
Festival organizer Jeffrey Grubert describes Morris as a man with a “big heart for service who deeply cares about people suffering from addiction.”
“His passion for people goes beyond his role as chief of probation at Yavapai County,” said Grubert, also a recovering substance abuser. “He has been part of a bigger conversation about the importance of people in long term recovery showing up in the community to make a difference at every level. He is dedicated to the mission of cultivating wholeness and healing for Prescott in his profession and his avocation.”
MatForce Executive Director Merilee Fowler said the community is fortunate to have the “gift” of someone like Morris in such a leadership role. Morris is a member of the MatForce Board of Directors.
“The thing that is so special about John is he looks at the problem and struggles of people through a totally different lens,” Fowler said. “He knows there has to be consequences … but he is always looking at ways to help people. His heart is so much in that.”
As he considers where he’s been and where he is today, Morris counts himself “blessed every day.”
And he strives to help others find their blessings.
“I can only brighten the corner where I am,” Morris concluded.