By Keith Davis
For Civitas Media
WILLIAMSON, W.Va. – “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome,” Booker T. Washington once wrote. For the new clinical director at Logan Mingo Area Mental Health (LMAMH), Durand Warren, the long road to finding his calling, and achieving success in his field, was not an easy one.
Warren had been an exemplary student, excelling in football and being involved in a variety of extracurricular activities, while managing to maintain a high grade point average at Williamson High. Well-liked by his peers, he was even named class president his senior year. He was a bright, talented young man with a positive outlook, seemingly destined for a bright future—yet, due to making some bad choices and having to suffer the consequences of those decisions, the future quickly turned extremely dark for Warren.
“I was the kind of kid who didn’t give the teachers any problems; and I honestly believed I had a positive future ahead. At the close of high school, I enrolled at Marshall University,” Warren recalled. Marshall seemed only logical, since his father lived in Huntington. As a youngster, he often stayed with him, so he knew the area well; and he had developed several long-term friendships with others in the neighborhood.
“When I first started at Marshall, my girlfriend and I got an apartment in the ‘hood.’ Originally, she worked while I went to school; but, later she was in a car accident and broke her back. She had two small children when we got together; and I was just 18 years old, but I immediately felt a great responsibility as a man to carry the load. I needed to come up with a quick way to provide an income—but I made a terrible life-altering decision, which I obviously know now was wrong: I turned to selling drugs. At first, I started out small, selling a few drugs here and there,” Warren explained. Before long, his list of clientele was growing daily, and sales began to escalate. Without even realizing, he was building a criminal network.
“I would often be sitting in class and my pager would go off,” Warren remembered, explaining individuals wanting to score typically would contact him in this manner, “but if I wasn’t able to respond immediately, I would feel like I was missing financial opportunities. Being just 18-years-old, I guess I just wasn’t thinking straight — I could easily justify my behavior. I wasn’t thinking long-term; instead, I just wanted immediate gratification,” he added. A lot of money started coming in quickly. Almost simultaneously, however, things started spiraling out of control. His grades plummeted, while his drug sales sky-rocketed.
“I decided to drop out of college because, I rationalized that I could make more money this way. I have to say that at the time I had a completely distorted thought process. I was thinking that it would all last forever, because it all came so easily—well, until I had to pay the piper,” Warren said.
By 1995, Warren left Huntington and moved back to Williamson, while continuing to deal drugs and enjoying a rather affluent lifestyle. Then one day it all came to a screeching halt. “Federal agents issued a warrant for my arrest for drug activities, as well as warrants for several family members,” Warren stated, recalling those life-changing minutes when he was taken from his home in steel handcuffs. The arrests quickly made major headlines in newspapers and on television newscasts across West Virginia.
“I guess that’s when it hit me! Suddenly I was overwhelmed with extreme embarrassment, guilt, shame, and anger with myself as I was being escorted from my home,” Warren recounted, adding that he can still remember dropping his head while being led to the cruiser. The neat little fantasy world he had created for himself abruptly came crashing down around him, and he was immediately jarred back into reality. In hindsight, however, Warren realized he began to experience hints of shame earlier, as on occasion his conscience started to bother him. “I can remember times, when I was engaging in criminal activity, that I began to question what I was doing—thinking to myself, I am better than this!”
Warren said he can clearly recall moments when he looked in the mirror and did not like the person he saw. “Although I didn’t like what I was doing, I felt trapped; I couldn’t figure a way to pull myself out of the lifestyle. Many times I would say, ‘All right, Durand, this is the LAST time!’ … but, as soon as I sold all the drugs I had, I would go right back to my supplier wanting more—it was a vicious cycle!”
As Warren discovered, even though a person who is caught up in such drug-selling activity may not be abusing the drugs personally, that person is still addicted—addicted to the criminal process. Warren was not a drug abuser, but he was hooked to a lifestyle and all that it provided. After the public arrest and the high profile court case, especially for such a little town as Williamson, Warren was eventually sentenced, in 1996, to 87 months—seven years and three months—in federal prison. He carried out the first half of his sentence in Lexington, Ky., and the remainder in the federal correctional institution in Morgantown, W.Va. His relationship with his girlfriend also ended during this period.
“It so happened that while in Morgantown, I went through a court-ordered intensive nine month substance abuse program—very much like we now provide at LMAMH. I lived in a dorm with other guys who were taking the program. The program was very extreme, employing the use of cognitive behavioral therapy—the way one thinks; and it was very effective. It took my going to prison to finally realize and accept that I was indeed better than this—better than one living an addictive and criminal lifestyle.”
Warren decided he wouldn’t be one to just lie around and bide his time in prison, or even spend a lot of time lifting weights; he set his mind to making the best out of his situation. He spent countless hours reading and educating himself, while applying himself to a variety of endeavors; he even earned a barber’s license. Yet, after he was released from the penitentiary, he still had a long journey before him.
“My son was six months old when I went into prison; he was over seven years old when I got out. I was nearly 30 years old by that time. Fortunately, I was hired to work after my release as a cook at a local restaurant in Williamson for some good people, Darrell and Goldie Stevens. I labored for them for about a year; and then, I decided to move to Atlanta with my cousin. ”
Although he had been doing well financially before the arrest, Warren was now a convicted felon trying to start over with few opportunities. He hoped for better opportunities in Atlanta.
A series of serendipitous factors were coming together at that time, unbeknownst to Warren. One major player was a friend who was an attorney, who continually pled with him to go back to school to get his degree. Deep down, he was concerned than Warren would fall back into the old trap again of criminal involvement.
For whatever reason, he eventually chose to accept his friend’s advice, and he moved back to the Mountain State. “Initially I started working for Colin Berry at his barbershop in Williamson,” he said. “Before long, my lovely new wife, Kelly, and I were eventually able to buy out the shop; we operated it for several years before finally closing its doors altogether. I discovered that it wasn’t easy to rebound—to find public support and keep the business operating—since so much dirt was known and discussed about my criminal past, and that of my family. It’s always an uphill battle for a convicted felon to succeed. It’s hard for a community to forgive, too—although I sure understand that.”
During this period, Warren also enrolled at Southern West Virginian Community and Technical College; his immediate intention was to complete his Associates degree, with the ultimate goal of becoming a nurse, since he believed he could make a good living as a nurse. On one occasion, a college advisor suggested that, since he seemed to be so easy to talk to, Warren might consider counseling instead; yet he held firm to his dream to be a nurse. He took the entrance exam into the nursing program and was accepted.
“I am finally on my way, I thought. But soon afterwards, a conflict arose with entering nursing: my application was flagged because I had undergone the nine month substance abuse program while in the penitentiary. On the application, I was asked if I had ever taken illegal drugs—and I answered honestly, no.” However a background check indicated he had taken the court-ordered substance abuse program.
“I tried to explain my unusual situation to the nursing program advisor: I never took drugs; but because I sold drugs, I was ordered to take the substance abuse program. Yet, she said she must go by the documentation and the rules. The advisor actually began to cry as she explained how she didn’t want to remove me from the program—but had to.”
Even though he was momentarily crushed, Warren offered comfort to his advisor: “Don’t cry—I am certain this is God’s way of slamming the door on nursing because He has other plans for me.”
(Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a 2-part series on Durand Warren and how he overcame tremendous obstacles to become a counselor.)