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Chris Bunnis, right, with his fiancée Jennifer Benzick and their 1-year-old son, Jackson. The Detroit Lakes native credits drug court with helping him get a second chance at life. Vicki Gerdes/DL NEWSPAPERS

Sober and loving it

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Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

When Chris Bunnis’s car was pulled over by a Becker County squad car for a traffic stop outside Audubon in April 2011, he knew he was in trouble.

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Not only was he driving without a valid driver’s license, but there was a glass pipe — of the kind commonly used to smoke methamphetamine — lying on the floor of the vehicle.

That pipe was lying in plain sight, which gave the two deputies on the scene cause to search the car — and unfortunately for Bunnis, the search was a fruitful one.

“They found about 6 grams of meth in the car,” he said.

Bunnis was arrested, and charged with second-degree drug possession, a felony. Though it was undoubtedly one of the worst days of his life, his arrest would set him on a path that eventually led him to the Becker County Drug Court program — and a second chance.

Downward spiral

“If it wasn’t for drug court, I’d either be dead, or in prison right now,” Bunnis said. “That’s how bad off I was.

“I wasn’t healthy. I was skin and bones — drugs were all I cared about.”

Though his arrest that day was the first time he had faced felony drug charges, Bunnis had been on a downward spiral for about four years, since a move to Sioux Falls, S.D., had introduced him to a group of people who might politely be called “the wrong crowd.”

“I lost my job, so I moved back here (to Detroit Lakes, where he was born and raised) to get away from the drugs,” he said. “There was nothing there for me anymore, so I figured I’d get a fresh start.”

Unfortunately, the addiction had taken hold by that point, and even a solid job at Lakeshirts wasn’t enough to bring him back from the downward trajectory that he was on.

“I was still using while I was working there (at Lakeshirts),” Bunnis said. “I was there for about two years, and I was using the whole time. My attendance kept getting worse and worse. Eventually, it caught up to me, and they let me go.”

That was four years ago, and after losing his job, Bunnis sank deeper and deeper into the local drug culture.

“I was using meth, and selling, just to get by — supporting my habit,” he said. “I went about two years without employment.”

He also became increasingly estranged from his family.

“My brothers tried to help, but I pushed them away,” Bunnis said.

By the time he was arrested that day in Audubon, he was more than ready for a change, Bunnis admitted — but he also readily acknowledged that if he hadn’t been offered a chance at drug court, he probably would have gone right back to the drugs as soon as he was released from prison.

In fact, even after being bailed out on the drug charge, Bunnis soon found himself back behind bars after failing a random drug test.

Surprised by love

His bail was re-set, at a much higher rate, and “I had no way to post it. The only way I was getting released was to go into treatment — and I had to wait until they found me an opening.”

That opening finally came, and Bunnis was sent to Pine Manor in Nevis.

“I was in there for 48 days. That’s where I met her,” Bunnis said, pointing to his fiancé, Jennifer Benzick.

“I’m in recovery too,” Benzick admitted. “I’m a recovering alcoholic.”

She’s also the mother of Bunnis’s one-year-old son, Jackson — a blond-haired, blue-eyed cherub who is obviously the apple of his parents’ eyes.

But before Jackson was in the picture, Bunnis still had to get through recovery. After Pine Manor, he was sent to the Red River Recovery Center in Dilworth, the halfway house where he would spend the next three months.

“It was while I was there that I started drug court,” Bunnis said.

He knew that he was a potential candidate for the program the first time he went to court, and met Becker County District Court Judge Lisa Borgen (who stepped down from the bench on Nov. 1 to resume her career as a trial attorney).

“Judge Borgen brought it up, right after my arrest, that they would look into the possibility of accepting me into the program,” Bunnis said. “But I was not (formally) accepted until I completed treatment and went to the halfway house.”

After completing his three-month stay at the halfway house, Bunnis returned to Becker County, where he would serve out the 28 days that remained on his original jail term.

Working the program

He was approved for work release, and found himself back at work at Lakeshirts.

“I had a couple of former co-workers who went to bat for me,” Bunnis said, adding that he was also glad for the support of his supervisor, who was willing to give him a second chance.

“I’m a team leader now,” he said, adding that the promotion occurred about a year ago — shortly after Jackson was born.

After being released from jail, Bunnis continued to progress through the four phases of the drug court program.

During the early phases, he said, he had to appear before Judge Borgen and the drug court support team once a week. He was also subjected to random drug testing at least twice a week, as well as attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings twice a week.

In the third phase, he was only required to appear in court once every other week, and undergo drug testing once a week. By the time he entered the fourth phase, he only had to appear in court once a month.

“They give you a little more chain at that point,” Bunnis said, noting that while he still kept in touch with the agent who administered his drug tests with weekly phone calls, the actual testing was much more sporadic.

Altogether, he said, the entire process took “about a year and a half.”

In order to graduate from the drug court program and be released from probation, Bunnis had to meet certain requirements.

“You have to be clean for a year,” he said, adding that every time someone slips up, the clock is reset at day one.

“You have to do a volunteer project,” he said, adding that it required a minimum of 40 hours of community service.

If you don’t have your high school diploma or GED, earning that degree is also a requirement — but since Bunnis had already graduated from high school, he was exempt from that requirement.

“You also have to work on a sobriety plan — a plan to stay clean and sober,” he said, “and you have to write out your history, from your life before your arrest up through the drug court program, and how it has changed your life.”

Getting better

In Bunnis’s case, the changes encompassed every aspect of his life.

“He’s completely changed his way of thinking,” Benzick said, adding, “at first, he was doing everything just to appease whoever he needed to (in order to earn his release). But the more he got into it, and realized what addiction had done to his life, he gradually started changing.”

“It was very gradual,” Bunnis said with a little laugh. “When I was first going into the program, I thought I was just going to get through it and go back to my same old life.

“You think you’re going to work the program, the program ends up working you. They give you the tools to stay clean, to not want to use again.”

From his first 48-day stay in treatment, to the three-month stay at the halfway house, and another three months of relapse prevention treatment, the initial recovery process took about eight months.

“And I needed all of it,” Bunnis said. “When I was first in treatment, I was really ready to walk. But I stuck it out … and it completely changed my life.”    After successfully completing the drug court program, the felony charge against Bunnis was dismissed — but his real rewards were less tangible ones.

“When I was using, it was all about me,” he said. “Now, I’m a family man.”

He’s regained the trust of his family, and has begun the process of rebuilding his relationships with his mother, father, grandmother, and three older brothers, all of whom still live in the area.

He’s even managed to start repairing his relationship with his 11-year-old son Logan (the only child of a previous relationship).

“I share custody of him with his mom now,” Bunnis said, noting that while he was in the throes of his addiction, he lost pretty much all access to his oldest son.

“Going through treatment and drug court helped me gain that trust back,” he added.

‘I love my life now’

He’s also replaced his drug-using habits with much healthier ones.

“I like working out,” Bunnis said. “Ever since I quit using, the gym has been a tool for me. I started running a lot — I felt good about myself.

“I even quit smoking,” he added. “I quit it all.”

Come this January, he’ll celebrate his second year of being completely clean.

“I love my life now,” he said. “I’m happy. I look at a lot of things differently.”

“I’ve never known that part of him — the using part of him,” Benzick said. “It’s actually crazy for me to think of him that way.”

And when he’s not working or spending time with his family, he has started to coach boxing as well.

“It all stems from getting arrested that day,” he said, adding that he would like to say thanks, not only to the drug court team that supported him through his recovery and rehabilitation, but even the officers who arrested him and helped put him in jail.

“At the time, I hated it (being in jail),” he said. “I was sick of the lifestyle I was living, but I wouldn’t have gotten out of it if it weren’t for drug court.”

Even while he was sitting in jail, he was thinking about going right back to using when he got out.

But through the drug court process, he not only gained the tools to help him escape that lifestyle, but gained what he terms “a second family.”

“The people I was in drug court with, I went to their graduations, and stay in touch with them,” Bunnis said, adding that he also still keeps in touch with his probation officer and the others on his drug court support team, even though he’s no longer required to do so.

“It really does become a family,” Bunnis said. “It’s a great program, it really is. I know it’s helped a lot of people — people like me.”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

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