From Meth To Mayor: The Transformation Of A Small-Town Drug Addict In Arkansas

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.

An old photo of Jeff and his sister hanging on Shadwick’s refrigerator. (Photo Courtesy: Jeff Collins & KATV)

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.

Jeff with his wife, children, and grandchildren. (Photo Courtesy: Jeff Collins & KATV)

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.”

eff Collins (Left) and Mike Tubbs (Right). (Photo Courtesy: KATV)

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.

An unlikely leader

In 2015, Collins ran for Augusta City Council.

He said he wanted to push himself and see if people could trust him again. They did.

“When you have 20 years of not being trusted for anything, it’s like building credit back,” Collins said. “It takes steps.”

After serving on the city council, where he helped turn two abandoned factories into business complexes, Collins wanted to push further. In 2018, he won the mayoral election in a landslide with almost twice as many votes as his opponent.

“I wanted to give back to the community that I took so much from,” Collins said. “I prospered from this town. It has provided a place for my family to live and make a living. I want that for future generations to come.”

Shadwick was hesitant about Collins’ “miraculous” recovery from the beginning. He said he gave him two weeks to “fall off the wagon,” and so did the rest of Augusta. But now he thinks Collins makes a great mayor.

“It used to be, ‘Jeff’s always going to be a drughead, Jeff can’t do anything.’ And today it’s, ‘Jeff is doing a really good job.’ I hear that from a lot of people,” Shadwick said. “If he can change their mind, he’s got to be doing something right.”

During his campaign, he said he heard people were talking about his past. But since he has never tried to hide it, Collins said, it didn’t come up in debates.

In a city with a population just under 2,000, most Augusta residents know Collins’ story. They also know, he said, that “no matter where you have been, or what you are going through, I am going to sit down and talk to you, help you out.”

eff Collins in the Augusta Mayor’s office. (Photo Courtesy: KATV)

Collins said that because of Augusta’s location on the east bank of the White River and its historical significance during the Civil War, he has plans to make Augusta a tourist destination. He wants to restore historic houses and buildings and promote outdoor activities, like watersports and duck hunting.

On Friday, Collins celebrated 10 years of sobriety.

“It took me 20-something years, and 10 years of being clean, to be in this position,” Collins said. “But I was that addict that you’re praying for. Don’t give up on them … if you’re the one struggling, anything is possible. Come talk to me.”

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