White Bear mother and meth addict recounts drug-use hell

Published 5:26 am Sunday, November 11, 2012

By Mary Divine

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — On her worst day as a meth addict — on that very worst day — one of Betsey DeGree’s young sons tried to hang himself.

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During a knock-down, drag-out fight between his strung-out parents, the boy freaked. He ran to his basement bedroom, locked the door and fashioned a noose out of a belt in his closet.

The date was Aug. 26, 2010.

“I got woken up right then. That was it for me,” DeGree said. “It was horrible, and I feel terrible. To this day, it chokes me up every time I talk about it.

“I was going to call 911, but I was too scared. I was too afraid to bring him into the hospital because I had so many scabs on my skin, I was sure the doctors would know, and I would lose my kids.”

The next day, DeGree stopped using methamphetamine, she said. She’s been sober ever since.

The road to recovery hasn’t been easy. First, she had to kick her husband, Bob, out of the house. When he was in the house, he was using meth, she said, and she couldn’t stand the temptation.

“That summer was awful,” DeGree said. “It was explosive around here. I kicked him out every other day. I kept trying to get him to quit. I finally told him, ‘This is the last of it for me. I can’t put my kids through this for one more second.’ “

Now DeGree, who lives in White Bear Township, is sharing her story through her blog — momoffmeth.com — and national TV appearances.

DeGree, 42, started sharing her story in June when she appeared on ABC News’ “Nightline.”

“I went back and forth on it,” she said during an interview Thursday in her suburban home. “I talked to Bob. I didn’t want to come out to everybody about my drug use. I didn’t want to hurt my kids.”

But DeGree, who is attending Metropolitan State University to become a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, said talking about addiction “in an honest way … helps to break the stigma of it.”

“If you remove the shame and stigma of addiction, people start to see it as a disease,” DeGree said. “My whole goal is to be open and honest — to be really honest — in case anyone else is going through the same thing. Drug addicts aren’t bad people; they just have a bad disease.”

The reaction to her appearance on “Nightline” was mostly positive.

“I got emails, phone calls, messages saying, ‘You’re very brave. We’re really proud of you,’” she said. “But some people in my immediate family asked, ‘Why would you say that?’ I just told them: ‘Because it’s the truth, and I don’t want to be ashamed of it. It’s what happened to me.’”

DeGree’s blond hair is stylishly cut. Her face isn’t pockmarked. Her teeth are in full working order.

But in 2009 and 2010, DeGree didn’t look good.

“I picked my skin. I had scabs everywhere. I still have some scars on my arms you can see,” she said, pulling up the sleeve of her shirt and pointing to the tiny white marks on her right arm. “I have scars on my face. I wear a lot of makeup.”

Meth made DeGree think she had “ingrown hairs and pimples on my face that weren’t there, and I would just pick the heck out of them,” she said. “That summer of 2010, I remember I had to wear makeup on my skin and long sleeves. I never went outside. I didn’t want anyone to see. I hid out a lot.”

DeGree grew up in Maplewood and White Bear Lake. Her parents, Tom and Beverly Berry, owned Selby Ornamental Iron in St. Paul, a wrought-iron fence company.

“It was a pretty normal childhood,” DeGree said. “My dad worked a lot. My mom stayed home and did the books (for the business) from home.”

DeGree said she started smoking pot and drinking when she was in eighth grade — “a bad year for me.”

“I had a group of friends and that’s sort of the way that they went,” she said. “And I just went with them.”

Her drinking and drug use grew worse after her mother died of cancer at the age of 46.

“The day she died I went to a party — it was a Saturday — and I just got wasted,” DeGree said.

DeGree continued drinking heavily through high school and while taking classes at Lakewood Community College in White Bear Lake. “I was voted ‘Biggest Partier’ of my class,” she said. “So was Bob.”

She married Bob DeGree, a high school classmate, when she was 21. He was in the Marines and stationed in California. She moved to Twentynine Palms, Calif., to be with him.

“We were just madly in love, and we didn’t want to be apart,” she said. “It actually saved me — getting married. I was in such a tailspin, and I had been since I was 16. I had no place. Getting married gave me a place.”

The couple would binge drink together on the weekends. “He was always my partner. Always,” she said. “He would never be sober, if not for me.”

DeGree said she started using speed while working for a car rental agency in Palm Springs.

“My boss one day asked me if I’d like to try it, and I didn’t even know what she was talking about,” DeGree said. “There was a line in the bathroom.”

The drug was meth — “they called it crank, but it’s the same thing” — and then, “for the rest of the time that I lived there, I was chasing meth,” she said. “Every penny went to that.”

When the couple moved back to Minnesota in 1993, DeGree stopped using drugs but continued drinking.

“My friends had all gone to college and were all starting to be professional people, and I was trying to not be that (drug-using) person around them,” she said. “Although they drank a lot, it was never a drug thing for them.”

DeGree returned to school — this time to the University of Minnesota — and came close to finishing a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She and her husband went to work for her father at Selby Ornamental Iron.

Daughter Millie was born in 1998. Son Gus came in 2001. After he was born, DeGree said, she started using diet pills to lose the baby weight.

“I got down to a size 6,” she said. “I was on the prescription phentermine. I got it from a weight-loss doctor. I thought I’d hit the jackpot. I thought, this can’t be real. It was the greatest thing. I had all this energy. It was great.”

She stopped taking the pills when she became pregnant with twins Frank and Charlie, who were born in 2003.

When the twins were just a year old, she got a part-time job as a bartender at Wildwood Bowl in Mahtomedi. “That was the worst decision I ever made,” she said. “I was feeling suffocated and terrified. … So getting the job at the bar was just sort of an escape.”

It took 2 1/2 years, but DeGree finally sought treatment for her meth and cocaine habit in the summer of 2007. “Every penny we had was going to cocaine,” she said. “Our financial situation was dire, and I was concerned about losing the house.”

Her sobriety lasted until she and her husband went out to celebrate her birthday at a show by comedian Lewis Black. “We said, ‘Well, we’ll just do it this one time,’ “ she said.

DeGree spiraled out of control until she finally checked into Hazelden for the second time that year, on Dec. 27. “I was there for 28 days, and I loved every second of it,” she said. “It was a wonderful place. I learned that addiction is a disease, and I learned that I had to take it very seriously, and I couldn’t put anything in front of my recovery.”

Sobriety lasted a year.

When her daughter and husband were diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Adderall, DeGree couldn’t resist.

“I knew it was a stimulant that people abused, and that’s all I needed to know,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to try one. Millie’s not going to need to take them on the weekend, so I can just take her weekend ones.’ It quickly got out of control.”

From Adderall, DeGree and her husband returned to cocaine.

But years of abuse had left a hole in DeGree’s nasal septum, so snorting coke was no longer an option. “It hurt really bad,” she said. “I tried to smoke it, but it’s tricky, so then the guy we got it from suggested we try meth.”

During their worst days, the couple was smoking meth every day — a $400-a-week habit. Their house went into foreclosure, and they declared bankruptcy.

And then that very worst day happened.

DeGree, who has a 12-step support group, was able to lean on them during her recovery. Her husband went into treatment at the VA Medical Center at St. Cloud, then moved back home with her and their kids.

On her way to school, DeGree sometimes passes the road that leads to her former dealer’s house.

“I honestly have to pay attention so that my car doesn’t suddenly turn in that direction,” DeGree wrote in a blog post dated Oct. 15. “It’s like there is a monster living inside of me that will take over if I am not totally on guard and careful. It is that crazy in my head.”

DeGree said she is open with her kids about her disease.

“Addiction is hereditary, so I talk with the kids about it,” she said. “That they need to be aware of that, and they need to be careful.”

But, she said, watching someone go through recovery can be powerful too.

“I’m really banking on that,” she said. “I just want to be an example that this life is better. And if they don’t (abstain), well, at least they’ll know that there is a way out.”

DeGree has this advice for addicts: “It doesn’t matter how far down you go, there’s always hope. It sounds so corny, but it’s true. … To deal with life sober is way easier than trying to deal with it and also juggle your addiction. It’s so hard to see that at the beginning because your immediate response to any stress is to use. But when your head clears, you get to see that it’s definitely easier this way.”

Looking back, she said, she wishes she had made better choices.

“I wish I had done things the way I had planned on doing things in my life, especially as a parent,” she said. “I’m definitely not the mom that I set out to be.

“Every day gets better though, at least for me. I still have my moments, and I still freak out and yell and all that stuff …”

“But not like you used to,” Millie interjected.

“We’re trying, man,” DeGree responded. “We’re trying.”