DORA – For as long as Hollie Gunter can remember, she has raised a hand to her face each time she smiled. As a child, Gunter had a bad fever that damaged the enamel on her permanent teeth. Her dental problems went beyond self-esteem issues. She experienced severe pain which eventually led to opioid addiction and homelessness.
Gunter’s family, who lived in Oak Grove, was like many families in rural Alabama. They didn’t have insurance or the money required to fix the young woman’s teeth, so she lived with the pain.
She dropped out of high school to have the first of her three children.
Later, Gunter got hooked on opiates but managed to keep the addiction a secret from her family for a while. She was a functioning addict. She had a steady job and managed to care for her three children.
Things went south about four years ago when an abscessed tooth broke. The infection went to her brainstem and her heart. She was in the hospital for two months and almost died.
While in intensive care, doctors gave her morphine and Dilaudid (a powerful opioid) every four hours. “For a while, I didn’t have any pain,” Gunter said. “That is what started my venture into deeper drugs.”
A few years after that, someone called the Department of Human Resources, and they came out to do a home inspection, according to Gunter.
“My house was clean, my kids were fed, I had a full-time job, but they found traces of marijuana in my system because unfortunately, I’d been to a party that weekend,” she said. DHR took her kids away.
DHR granted custody of the children to Gunter’s mother. This meant that Gunter could no longer live with her children.
“The day I signed over the rights to my children is the day my addiction got much worse,” she said.
“I found a place out in the woods, built a tent and lived pretty much off the land,” she remembered. “Thank God I was a country girl that knew how to hunt and fish.” She survived, but migrated to her drug of choice, which was methamphetamines. Meth kept her from getting hungry. She was homeless for three years.
During this time, Gunter felt lost without her kids, and her dad was dying of stage four brain cancer, and she couldn’t be around him.
“It seemed like everywhere I turned life hit me harder and harder,” she said. “The harder it hit, the deeper I spiraled.”
According to Gunter, being in the woods wasn’t easy for her, but being alone was.
“I didn’t have anybody to rely on, and I didn’t have anybody to let me down,” she said. “I didn’t come out of the woods unless it was to get drugs.” Then she went back to the safety of her tent.
She wasn’t someone who did breaking and entering to get money, but she did other things to support her habit.
Gunter learned during this period of her life that she was not alone. Many addicts she met started taking drugs because of their bad teeth.
She got to a point where she didn’t want to die, but she didn’t want to live either. “I didn’t want to take my life because even at the lowest point in my addiction, I was still a firm believer in Jesus, and despite what I was doing, He was still there with me," she said. "There were times on the street when I should have died.”
Gunter feels she was using to cover up the pain of losing everything, so at first, she embraced the numbness. But when she reached her lowest point, she began to question why she continued the addiction. After feeling numb for so long, she began to understand that being numb was overrated.
She walked all day and into the night and begged her mother to help her get into rehab somewhere.
DHR wouldn’t allow her to stay with her mother and her children, but a Christian friend Justin Gannon invited her to stay with him. “Justin poured God and scriptures into me,” she remembered. She said that Justin saw past who she was, and knew she could become a better person.
“Words cannot explain what he did for me,” she said. Until that point in her life, Gannon was the only person who had ever convinced her that she could be better.
A week later, her mom reached out with news that she’d found a place where she could go to rehab. Gunter’s mother agreed to let her stay until she reported to rehab, but again someone reported her to DHR. Rather than escape into the streets where she knew she would start using again, she retreated to the bathroom and slit her wrists.
First responders rushed her to UAB West, where they gave her a shot. Things got fuzzy there. She ended up at Walker Baptist Medical Center.
After she recovered, and the release date loomed, she told them she had no place to go. She said, “I can’t go back out on the street – I’ll use, I’ll use!”
Then they told her about the women’s program at the City of Lights (COL) in Dora. “When they told me about the City of Lights, something nudged me saying – go there,” Gunter said.
When she arrived at COL, she knew she’d found the place she needed to be. “God told me that something good would come out of this, and it did,” she said. “This place has changed my life.” That was October 2019.
While working through the steps at the COL women’s program, she was still plagued by dental problems. When Jane Mitchell, one of the teachers at the program, realized the difficulties that Gunter was having with her teeth, she contacted a dentist in Gardendale.
After hearing Gunter’s story, the dentist agreed to do the dental work at no cost. Mitchell set up a page on Facebook to ask for donations for the little stuff that she needed to get her new teeth. “From there, it exploded with people who wanted to help,” Gunter said. “Nobody else could have done it but God,” she said. This was the first week of June.
The approach that COL women’s program takes has been life-changing, according to Gunter.
What’s next for Gunter, COL is helping her prepare for independent living, which she can go to after 10 months. She will continue working the program, but she can get an apartment, a car and begin her new life.
She plans to approach COL director Jamie Massey and see if she can intern at the COL to give back.
The opportunities seem endless, according to Gunter. She can get a good job, go to college, and begin to get her life back. She smiled without covering her face and said, “There’s so much that has opened up for me that I don’t even know where to start, but I’m excited.”