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On the other side of tragedy: Joy, recovery and peace
sydney hardee
Sydney Hardee with son Rivers, 4. Hardee says it was her son that inspired her to push through her own recovery and she now uses that experience to help others. - photo by Scott Bryant

“I wasn’t sure if I was capable of sharing my experience.” 

Sydney Hardee was crippled by self-doubt in the months following her graduation from treatment. After all, it wasn’t the first, second, or even third attempt at kicking her addiction to drugs and alcohol. 

Over the span of a decade, Hardee faced more than her fair share of suffering and loss at the hands of a vicious and cyclical disease. It was during that time when she realized that she had a difficult choice to make. 

“I hit rock bottom,” she said. “I was going to die if I didn’t do something differently.”

While waiting tables at a local diner, Hardee became acquainted with frequent guest Bo Fordham. At the time, Fordham served as director of Freedom Through Recovery, a community-focused recovery organization with the mission of promoting and supporting long-term recovery in Statesboro. 

“He came in almost every day and I would serve him lunch,” Hardee recalled. 

After learning of her story, Fordham began recruiting Hardee to join the FTR staff as a recovery coach. 

“There was a lot of fear in that,” she said. “All I had ever known was the restaurant industry. I wasn’t sure if I was up to the challenge.”

Despite her insecurity, Hardee mustered the courage to step into the unknown. She has since blossomed into a selfless leader whose encouragement and support is changing lives throughout the community. Recently selected for a coveted spot in the Statesboro Herald’s Top 20 under 40, Hardee is making her mark by connecting with others facing down the hopelessness of addiction.

“Connection is the opposite of addiction,” she says, “and every single person deserves the chance to recover. When I live my recovery out loud, it gives others the chance to speak up.”

Hardee serves as the vice executive director of Freedom Through Recovery, alongside Catherine Tootle, and continues her work as a certified addiction recovery specialist.  

“Every day, I get to share my experience and strength in the hopes that I can help others find their path to recovery,” she says. “I get to look people in the eye while they’re hopeless and desperate and say, ‘I get it. I know. But there’s a different way.’ ”

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Hardee was exposed to substance abuse from a very early age. 

“I come from a long line of alcoholics and addicts,” she says. “It’s literally in my blood.” 

Hardee recalls being around 11 years old the first time she experimented with drugs. 

“I remember always feeling inadequate, like I didn’t fit in,” she says. “When I got high for the first time, all of that suddenly disappeared. I was funny, I was smart, I was pretty. I wanted to feel like that all day, every day.”

As her drug abuse progressed, Hardee found it difficult to maintain the facade of a studious high schooler. By her senior year, she had already been arrested several times. Before she could graduate, the honor roll student dropped out of school and left home in pursuit of more freedom. What she found, however, was immersion into a toxic environment riddled with prolific drug use.

“I got scared, went home, and told my mom I needed help,” she says. 

At the tender age of 18, Hardee experienced her first admission into an inpatient treatment program. She decided, afterwards, to move into a transitional facility in Delray Beach, Florida, which is often referred to as the Recovery Capital of the United States — and also an epicenter of the opioid addiction crisis.

During her time in Florida, Hardee became introduced to intravenous drug use and what she calls “doctor shopping” to obtain large amounts of prescription opioids. After almost a year of abstinence, Hardee relapsed alongside her boyfriend. Unemployed and homeless, she relocated to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to live with her father. Over the next several years, Hardee developed a toxic relationship with her dad, consisting mainly of them abusing drugs and alcohol together.

“In the beginning, we just smoked marijuana. By the end, we were both shooting up opioids together,” she says. 

After developing pancreatitis, Hardee’s father stopped drinking but continued abusing prescription drugs. Following a nearly-lifelong battle with substance abuse, he ended his own life in 2020. 

“He just couldn’t see another way out,” she recalled with a sigh.

While living in Myrtle Beach, Hardee began dating Corey, who would eventually become her husband. 

“We met at a bar one night,” she reminisced, glancing back at a faded photo on her office wall. “I had a little ‘liquid courage’ so I walked up and I kissed him,” she quipped. “We were inseparable after that.”

The two married less than a year later on May 15, 2012. Just as she had with her father, Hardee watched Corey cycle through overuse of and withdrawal from opioids. Soon after, she began using the pills to cope with her emotions as well as the physical pain from her demanding job. 

“At that time, I knew that I would give anything and everything for the feeling I got from the drugs,” she says. Soon after, she did just that.

Hardee lost her job and subsequently began her own cycle of opioid abuse. 

“I would take all of the pills within two weeks and then be sick for the rest of the month,” she says. Before long, Hardee began using cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to ease the withdrawal symptoms. “That took us to a place where we never had any food. We never had any water. We never had electricity.”

During this time, she suffered two miscarriages as a result of her habitual substance use. 

“All I ever wanted was to be a mother,” she said with misty eyes. “My mom was my best friend when I was growing up. I wanted to experience that for myself.” 

Throughout both unsuccessful pregnancies, Hardee made plans to stop using drugs. However, the loss she experienced served only to fuel her addiction. 

“That’s when things got really dark,” she says.

Hardee’s relationship with Corey was less than ideal. Despite their love for one another, both struggled daily to navigate their ongoing battles with addiction and grief. Physical and emotional abuse became commonplace, and multiple separations and failed attempts at sobriety led them further down a path towards destruction. 

“I was addicted to the chaos just as much as I was addicted to the drugs and alcohol,” she says. “We really wanted to stop living the way we were living, but we just didn’t know how.”

In late 2017, while Corey was incarcerated for domestic violence, Hardee discovered that she was pregnant for the third time. Not wanting to risk the loss of another child, she returned home to live with her mother in Virginia. When attempts to mask her ongoing addiction proved unfruitful, Hardee’s family hired an interventionist who encouraged her to seek a long-term recovery solution. 

“I didn’t want to recover,” she says. “I just really didn’t want to die.” 

An unplanned series of events eventually led Hardee to Willingway in Statesboro. At the encouragement of her caregivers, she agreed to remain in treatment following the birth of her son, Rivers. 

“It was hell. I hated treatment,” she recalled with a laugh. 

Hardee’s rebellious behavior led to consequences throughout her time in extended residential treatment. After about six months, however, she began to find purpose in her suffering.

“I remember the first time someone told me that I had helped them,” she says. “That was my final epiphany. I knew that was how I was going to live my life in recovery.” 

In contrast to the superficial euphoria she experienced by using drugs, she longed for the deeper feeling of contentment she attained by helping others. 

“I started to feel really good about who I was becoming,” she says. “It was my new high.”

Days prior to graduating from her treatment program, Hardee learned that her husband passed away from an overdose just one week before their seventh wedding anniversary. 

“I was angry about it,” she recalled. “I was angry at him, I was angry at God. He never got to meet his son.” 

Just three years later, in May of 2022, Hardee’s stepson Riley also died from an overdose. For most, this devastating trilogy of deaths would have been unbearable. But Hardee chose to use the principles she learned in treatment and ultimately found purpose through tragedy.

Amid her grief, Hardee received a bit of advice that continues to influence her work today. 

“They told me, ‘I know you don’t want to hear it now, but one day you are going to be able to help someone else with this,’ and I clung to that,” she said. 

Within months, she found herself connecting with a fellow recovering addict who had lost her husband. 

“I felt like God allowed me to go through that tragedy so that I could help other people,” she said. “That’s when I truly realized my purpose.”

With nearly five years of sobriety under her belt, Hardee is finally enjoying a life of happiness and fulfillment. Phone calls with her mother consist of happy sentiments instead of existential fear. Despite a historically strained relationship with her twin sisters, Hardee continues to work toward building better relationships with them. And then, of course, there’s Rivers.

In spite of the circumstances surrounding his birth, Rivers lives the life of a typical 4-year-old. Described by his mom as a “blonde-haired, green-eyed firecracker,” Rivers loves dinosaurs and trucks. Hinting at his stubborn-yet-compassionate nature, Hardee says Rivers encapsulates the best qualities of herself and her late husband. 

“It could have been so different, and I’m so grateful that my recovery journey allows me to provide a better life for him. He truly saved my life,” she said. 

As a working single mother, Hardee still manages to find time for the small things that bring her joy. When she’s not reading, listening to music, or tending to her beautiful orchids, she often enjoys running in the historic neighborhood surrounding FTR’s office on South Zetterower Avenue. She also loves spending time with her partner, Kyle, whom she began dating in 2019.

“We’re both very competitive, physically and intellectually,” she says. “We enjoy our time together.”

Hardee attributes her success to her faith in God, which she practices regularly through attendance at Believers Church in Statesboro. 

“My faith is the core of who I am,” she says. 

Together with the FTR team, she hopes to continue building a network of resources in Statesboro to bridge the gap between treatment and what comes next for individuals seeking long-term recovery. Her goal is to nurture existing relationships with agencies like the Department of Family and Children Services and the Ogeechee Circuit Drug Court in order to better assist clients in their efforts to break the cycle of addiction. She also hopes to build future relationships with correctional institutes that will help incarcerated addicts seeking to begin their recovery journeys.

By overcoming immense personal tragedy and choosing to break away from generational addiction, Hardee has dedicated her life to ending the stigma surrounding addiction and fostering a safe space for people seeking to follow a similar path. With frequent reminders of what her life could have been, she takes pride in the work she’s doing and embraces her responsibility to use her own experience to improve the lives of others. 

With each passing day, Sydney makes her mark by creating a legacy that will likely inspire the recovering community in Statesboro for many years to come. With strength and determination, she stares down her personal demons and transforms her struggles into strategies to help others live a life free from the grasp of addiction. She’s a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend… and by all counts, a true overcomer.