The Renaissance Crossroads intervention and rehabilitation program gave Andy Donkel a second chance at life.
Without the program his alcohol-fueled and drug-induced lifestyle was headed toward self-destruction.
“It changed my life,” Donkel, who lives in Lebanon, said of the highly successful Lebanon-based treatment program for non-violent male offenders. “I’m eternally grateful for that program.”
Donkel’s life story isn’t pretty, but is one worth telling.
As a young boy, he harbored thoughts of insecurity and feelings of self-doubt, making him unable to see his true value.
“When I was in grade school, I didn’t fit in, I didn’t belong,” Donkel said. “There was always a struggle inside my head. I felt like, ‘Why am I different? Why don’t people like me?’ That was the story that played in my head. It wasn’t necessarily true, but I made it true and I fed it energy.”
When he started experimenting with alcohol at 15 and added marijuana shortly thereafter, he began to believe a different kind of lie.
“It made me feel like I could fit in, felt confident that’s what was missing my whole life.” Donkel said. “That gave me the green light to come and go as I pleased, do what I wanted to do. I didn’t have that restriction, that fear anymore.”
Believing he finally had self-worth, Donkel became the life of a never-ending party, and, in his mind, a drug- and alcohol-enabled extrovert. But the initial highs brought on by that first drink or first toke didn’t last.
He began to experiment with harder substances: cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin.
During his two decades of partying, Donkel told lies to his family and friends to cover his chemical dependency, which only fractured and shattered those relationships the further he ventured down the rabbit hole. He couldn’t hold steady employment, either — getting fired or quitting job after job.
Even the relationship Donkel had with the mother of his two girls, now 7 and 9, began at a party he hosted at his home. Their common denominators? Drugs and alcohol.
“While we had moments where we tried to slow down, keep it together and try to figure things out, it [the relationship] never progressed and kept getting worse and worse,” Donkel said. “Even when bits and pieces of life would shine through, it didn’t last very long.”
The harder the drugs got, the harder it was for them to keep it together.
“Later in our relationship we started to use harder and more addictive substances and that’s when things got much harder, much quicker,” Donkel said. “She was in and out of emergency rooms and eventually took her life.”
There were still other consequences that resulted from years of an alcohol- and drug-indulgent lifestyle. Her parents filed for custody of his children and he ran into trouble with the long arm of the law, not once, not twice, but three times.
At 24, Donkel had his first DUI, his second at 27 and third at 35, some 20 years after his first beer. During those two decades, Donkel did try 30-day rehab programs, but never with much success.
For some in recovery, 30 days is just not enough time.
“Studies have shown that 30 days is a drop in the bucket when it comes to addiction treatment,” said Mandy Newmaster, facility director at Pennsylvania Counseling Services, which administers the Renaissance Crossroads program on behalf of Lebanon County Adult Probation Services.
After his third DUI, Donkel was given a choice: face one to five years doing time in a state prison or agree to enter the Renaissance Crossroads program.
“My lawyer talked to the judge and some other people and asked if treatment was an option and Crossroads was that option,” Donkel said. “I was really apprehensive at first because I wanted the quickest way home. My lawyer thought, you’re not going to learn anything in jail, this will keep you local, and you’ll learn something about yourself.”
Now in its 19th year, the grant-funded Renaissance Crossroads has been an unmitigated success for the 165 who have graduated from the rigorous 34-month program. (A shorter-track program, consisting of 120 days, was added about six years ago for parole violators.)
“I can’t say there is a secret sauce to our success,” Newmaster said. “I’d have to say, though, that it’s the length of the program. The fact that we got almost three years to work with someone is our biggest asset. These men have been using for so long and at such a quantity that it takes three to four months just for their heads to clear. They need that amount of time before they can start to look at the bigger picture.”
Created in 2001 by then-President Judge Robert J. Eby, in cooperation with the district attorney’s office and the county’s adult probation department, Renaissance Crossroads is an alternative to jail that, in some ways, can be harder than serving time.
“Entrance into the program comes with a 34-month sentence and the way the program looks is different for each client,” Newmaster said. “There is extensive inpatient treatment, patients are under constant supervision and live at the VA Hospital 24/7. Their days are very structured and the rules are very strict.”
Before acceptance into the program, an offender must have pled guilty to the charges and then face a rigorous vetting process to determine whether or not they are ready to change his life.
“I often tell people, when I do their evaluation, this is not easier than jail,” Newmaster said. “If you think you are coming to Crossroads to avoid jail, this is not easier. The food is better, the beds are better, but the emotional work we’re going to ask you to do is 100 times harder than jail.”
Donkel knows exactly how hard, how rigorous, how emotionally draining the program is. It took over a year of counseling to peel back the layers of shame he felt he brought his family, and to extract deeply entrenched feelings he had buried concerning his relationship with his children’s mother.
“It was only after I was in Crossroads for about a year where I started to let go and started to open my eyes and realize there were possibilities beyond my imagination,” Donkel said. “That first year contained a lot of fear and a lot of pride to hide the best I could. That first year, I wanted a drink, to smoke a joint or do a line of coke to bury the pain of the shame and guilt I was feeling.”
Peeling back those layers opened Donkel up to new emotions.
“As I let go of bits and pieces, I was able to talk about my kids’ mother, my childhood experiences in school, and some things I did I am ashamed of and things that I did that I am not proud of,” Donkel said. “To feel I could be a part of something without drinking was a real breakthrough. Once I started to discuss those things, the fear came down and I realized the more vulnerable I got, the more confident I got about the possibility of change. And I started to want it.”
Unlike Donkel, not everyone wants to change. Of the 248 men to enter the program, 83 have failed to graduate.
“Most of our program failures are people who walk out the front door AMA (against medical advice),” Newmaster said. “These are people who have behavioral issues, so we expect challenges. They’ve been in the criminal justice system for a very long time, used to acting up and being aggressive. But after a while, you are either going to work on your problems or you aren’t.”
A much smaller percentage don’t make measurable progress and those individuals, just like those who leave AMA, end up doing their time. About 99 percent of those who quit the program are sent to state prison to do their time, Newmaster added.
At Renaissance Crossroads, there are no take backs, no second chances for absconders and those who can’t accept the kind of change that brings them from the darkness into the light.
“The bottom line for anyone who has substance abuse and addiction issues is that they must want to have internal change,” Newmaster said. “And sometimes people are just not ready. We can have all the tricks at our disposal, all of the book knowledge at our disposal, and a great staff like we do at Crossroads. But like the old adage says, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.’”
Because Donkel learned there is a high cost to low living, he’s now living his best life he can, albeit, one day at a time — a necessity for addicts, since the demons are always lurking, always waiting to pull you back into the abyss.
“The struggle is real, the thoughts still do come up,” Donkel says. “Commercials on TV, they get me flashing back to when I enjoyed drinking. I’ll hear a side conversation of someone talking about a drug they did and I’ll get a flash that gets me excited.”
Those old feelings, however, are no match for Donkel’s support network, which includes his sponsor and his 12-step program, the support of his family, friends and Crossroads staff, and, most importantly, the love he has for — and gets from — his daughters.
Having graduated from Renaissance Crossroads in late January of this year, Donkel’s been clean and sober since May 3, 2018, his first day in the program. He also now has a career as an IT Specialist at Zeigler’s Distributors in Lebanon.
A full-time job, a requirement to graduate from Renaissance Crossroads, also means he has money in the bank and financial security, something alcohol and drugs robbed him of when he was younger.
“I wouldn’t trade what I have now for any of those experiences ever again,” Donkel said. “I have respect. I have my children in my life, and they are happy. One of the things I am most grateful for, above everything else, is that I keep the promises that I make to my kids.”
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