LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KATV) — Jeff Collins was dead.
After more than 20 years of using methamphetamine and other hard drugs, Collins and his heart had had enough. His main artery was completely blocked and the others were 75 percent blocked.
According to Collins, a heart surgeon tried to revive him with a defibrillator four times. For 6 minutes and 21 seconds—all of which, Collins said, he spent at the gates of hell—he was clinically dead.
Then the surgeon tried one more time. And, to his surprise, Collins woke up.
“Nobody expected me to live,” Collins said.
Not only did Collins survive, he said that after he woke up and underwent heart surgery, he no longer remembered what it felt like to be an addict. And, since that night in 2009, Collins said he has not relapsed.
He and his family consider every part of his recovery a miracle: Unlike previous health-scares (a frequent byproduct of his drug use), Collins’ wife didn’t just tell him to go back to bed. The doctor who revived him was only there because he responded to a false alarm earlier in the night. He also decided to defibrillate one more time, even though the doctor was ready to “cash his chips in.”
“The doctor said, ‘You’re a lucky man,’” Collins said. “But this can’t be luck. This is a god thing.”
After 10 years of sobriety, Collins is still in Augusta. But he’s come a long way. The once “no good meth-head” has gone from life on the fringes of his small hometown to the mayor’s office. He was elected in January.
Now, thanks to what he considers divine intervention and a supportive—if often skeptical—community, a former meth addict may be the one to put Augusta back on the map.
Using to work
There is a picture of Collins and his sister from about 20 years ago hanging on his brother-in-law’s refrigerator.
When the photo was taken, Collins said, he was “stoned out of his mind.”
“Inside that picture is a man who is screaming out for help that never asked for it,” Collins said.
Collins started using marijuana in high school and started using harder drugs in his late twenties after returning from the army. By age 30, Collins said, he was addicted to anything he could get his hands on. As a truck driver, he was introduced to crystal meth, a longtime scourge in Arkansas that became his drug of choice. It allowed him to stay awake for long periods, which made him better at his job.
“I went from using for work to working to use,” Collins said.
He bounced between jobs that allowed him to cheat on drug tests to jobs that did not drug test at all.
His youngest daughter Nikki, 19, said that when he did come home from work, he was still mentally gone. But thanks to her mother, Nikki and her siblings were always taken care of. Collins’ oldest daughter Kamie, 32, said she bore the burden of sheltering her younger siblings. But despite the skeletons in Collins’ closet, she said, he was a good dad and one of her best friends.
“I just kind of looked past the addiction. He was just always my dad,” she said.
Collins comes from a big, close-knit family in Augusta. His wife, three grown children, grandchildren, sister and parents enjoy potlucks together and always have. His brother-in-law Terry Shadwick said that they knew “things had gotten bad” when Collins, an otherwise family-oriented man, started leaving family gatherings quickly.
“He came to eat, not to talk,” Shadwick said. “He didn’t think he had a problem. Jeff was Jeff and we had the problem. You get to the point where you give up and let him live his own life.”
Shadwick said that the whole family knew he had a problem for a long time, and they continued to pray. But back then, Shadwick said, he wouldn’t bet two cents that Collins would be anything but a drug addict.
Collins said he couldn’t stand to be around his family because he felt guilty. He said he always felt like he was being judged, he was always looking over his shoulder.
The gates of hell
Collins’ wife Leslie regularly attended the First Baptist Church in town, while Collins laughed at churchgoers.
He was enjoying his lifestyle of drugs, cheating and lying. It that behavior would send him to hell, he didn’t want to go anywhere else.
But Collins experienced a different hell in the minutes after his heart attack. He recalled smelling burning flesh and hearing people crying for help — maybe his old friends — as the doctor tried to revive him.
Once awake, he asked for a sign from god. He didn’t understand why he’d seen good people in his life die and how he, a “terrible man,” was still alive. Then, two of the “most godly men” he knew showed up at his bedside. It was Shadwick and the preacher at First Baptist Church. None of the people he thought were his friends, the ones who were using with him, came to visit.
“The people that I shunned and wanted to stay away from sent the prayers that brought me back,” Collins said.
Collins found supporters in his church, family and fellow addicts in recovery. One of them was Mike Tubbs, whose addiction had cost him custody of kids.
Tubbs and Collins had worked together for years. Tubbs was an assistant manager at a grain elevator while Collins was working as a truck driver. They began exchanging drugs for work.
“If he needed something hauled we’d use dope,” Tubbs said. “If I needed hauling, we used dope. We were working together but all we really were doing was lying from each other and stealing from each other.”
Their working relationship looks different now. Over the years, Collins and Tubbs have visited more than 70 churches, prison systems and rehabilitation centers to tell their stories.
“We worked together then and we work together now,” Tubbs said. “We lift each other up and make sure we stay there.”
They are more effective at speaking to addicts about rehabilitation because they understand, Tubbs said. And when speaking at rehabilitation centers, “you have a captive audience.”
“I see myself in the men we speak to,” Collins said. “That’s me. I know where you are at. God didn’t bring me back to be ashamed of my past.”
Tubbs is now a pastor, has repaired his marriage and has full custody of his children. The two said that when speaking with addicts, especially mothers, it often takes talking about their children to break through. Collins said there is one question that sticks with people the most: Who is brushing your daughter’s hair?
“I had somebody at home brushing my daughter’s hair,” Collins said. “But a lot of the people [in rehab] don’t know who is.”
When Nikki was 12 years old she stood up at a revival service and read a letter out loud about what it was like being the daughter of an addict.
“[Jeff] couldn’t even speak,” Tubbs said. “And he usually doesn’t shut up.”
Both of his daughters said that Collins’ experience has deterred them from trying hard drugs. They’re inspired by their dad’s rehabilitation.
And most recently, his run for mayor.