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Fighting for control

September is National Recovery month. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it’s meant to educate that substance use treatment and mental health services can enable others to live healthy and rewarding lives. - Photo illustration by Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

September is National Recovery month. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it’s meant to educate that substance use treatment and mental health services can enable others to live healthy and rewarding lives. – Photo illustration by Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Environments, family history lead some toward addiction

 

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on addiction and recovery.

 

Memory loss. Paranoia. Aggressive or violent behavior. Cancer. The list goes on.

All of these are possible side effects of long-term methamphetamine or alcohol abuse. They’re the effects of addiction.

“The way to think about addiction is that it is a disease,” said Michael Brunner, a licensed psychologist and the clinical director of Fountain Centers in Albert Lea. “It’s when problems begin to take over a person’s life that you begin moving away from substance use as recreation, to substance use as a problem, to addiction.”

Brunner said that addiction qualifies as a disease in that it affects an organ, there’s a defect or damage to that organ, and there are symptoms.

“With addiction we have all three of those, and the organ that is affected is the brain,” he said.

According to Brunner, there are four Cs to addiction: craving, continued use in spite of consequences, loss of control and compulsive use of a drug.

“There’s so many people out there in our communities — Albert Lea and the surrounding areas included — that do have addiction who are not receiving treatment,” he said. “The number of people with addiction compared to those with treatment — there’s just a vast gulf there.”

He noted not everyone who has an addiction necessarily needs to be in treatment. There are those who can find recovery through groups, families and other supportive sources, but there are also those who absolutely need to be in treatment to find a way to recovery.

 

Nature vs. nurture

In Brunner’s 20-plus years of experience as a psychologist in the recovery field, he has come to the conclusion that when it comes to addiction either being a predisposed condition or a product of someone’s environment, the answer is that it can often be — and usually is — both.

“When people are exposed to certain experiences in their life — particularly if they’re stressful, if they hurt the person, if they damage the person in some way — it actually changes the expression of their genes,” he said. “Some of the things that they say and do are affected and are very different than if they’d never been exposed to those negative things in their lives at all.

“If you are the type of person who responds impulsively, who is likely to do things without thinking … that’s one of those genetic characteristics that predisposes somebody to addiction.”

Brunner said adolescence can be an especially vulnerable time for someone who may be dealing with addiction or coming close to it.

“The earlier that you expose that brain to those toxins, the greater your risk for having an addiction later in life,” he said. “Put off the use of alcohol and other drugs for as long as possible until we can get your brain to that point where it’s pretty much developed, and generally speaking we’re talking about young adulthood. … We used to think that the brain stopped developing maybe in the teenage years, and now neuroscience is telling us that it’s young adulthood — middle 20s.”

 

An escape

For Rochelle Kirsch, an addiction to meth meant a loss of her identity — both as a mother and as a nurse.

Kirsch, a 41-year-old resident of Albert Lea, said she grew up with divorced parents. Her father wasn’t in her life throughout most of her childhood due to his own addictions. Instead, Kirsch lived with her mother and stepfather, who she said started to sexually abuse her when she was 9.

“I was born to an alcoholic father, a narcissistic mother and a pedophile. Those are my parents,” she said. “I was destined for this.”

Kirsch was a sophomore in high school when she said she finally came out to her mother and the local authorities about the abuse she had been suffering. Her mother told her if it went to trial, Kirsch would be breaking up the family, and that she’d be making front page news. Asking her what her friends might think about the situation, Kirsch’s mother scared the teenager into lying and covering up the whole ordeal.

“Right there set me up for, ‘Ask for help, and you’ll get worse.’ Right there set me up for, ‘I am responsible for other people’s actions,’” she said. “I didn’t matter. I was not loved, I was not cared for, I was not protected, I was not… anything.”

Due to no self worth or self esteem, Kirsch said she went to nursing school to become a registered nurse, but that she still made bad decision after bad decision.

“I was an addict way before I even picked up,” she said.

At 36, Kirsch was married with three children and was an RN in the trauma intensive care unit at Mayo Clinic.

“I floated always to trauma and always to chaos,” she said. “I didn’t know any better.”

Essentially, Kirsch said she had been hanging on to a horrible marriage but was still devastated when it ended in divorce.

“All I could think was, ‘I’m a failure, I didn’t make this work,’” she said. “Everyone’s going to think there’s something wrong with me.”

She called her divorce process “messy and nasty,” and said she didn’t receive any support from her family. Kirsch said her ex-husband would take off with their children for days at a time to exert control over her, leaving her feeling lost and alone. She said she didn’t know what to do with herself if she couldn’t be a mother.

“I decided to do the wrong thing,” she said. “To escape.”

She started to tell herself that — since she had never been much of a partier in her 20s due to being a young mother and being in school — that it was her time to let loose and have some fun.

“I thought it was going to be like ‘Sex and the City’ in Albert Lea,” she said. “It so was not.”

For about a year, Kirsch said she dabbled off an on with various vices, but that her mainstays were meth and alcohol.

“I started drinking heavily, and one thing led to another,” she said. “I was a 36-year-old meth addict.”

Kirsch said she lived like that for about three years, and that no one knew about her addiction at first. She said she would even arrange her work shifts around her addiction, to the point that she was using every day. She’d call in with different excuses constantly, from her children being sick to her car breaking down.

Later on, when others became aware of her drug use, Kirsch said she was often asked why she didn’t just simply quit.

“It’s not that easy,” she said. “When you are so full of emotional pain and shame, and all those awful feelings — you don’t think you have a choice. Your choice is to numb and not have to deal with it.”

 

Something was missing

For Ric Staloch, there was no trauma that preceded his years of addiction, but there was a family history. His mother was a recovering alcoholic, and he said that a number of his siblings have had their own struggles with addiction, as well. Staloch’s own bout with the disease began at a young age.

“By the time I was a junior in high school, I would do any drug I could get my hands on, and I don’t know why,” he said. “There was a lot of love in my family and we had what we needed. … We weren’t abused, we weren’t neglected.”

Staloch, now 59 and living in Wells, said he first started drinking with friends before school dances and other events.

“I just always wanted more,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that there’s just something in the brain of an addict that’s different. Something was missing, and I used drugs to try and fill that piece that was missing.”

Staloch said that as a junior in high school he was shooting drugs, and eventually contracted hepatitis from using unsanitary needles.

“None of that really seemed to make any difference to me,” he said.

At the age of 27, after getting married and having children, Staloch was arrested for selling drugs to support his own habits. He said his wife went to his mother for help with bail money.

“(My mother) said, ‘That’s just where he needs to be,’” recalled Staloch.

At the time of his arrest, Staloch said he knew he was in trouble and went into treatment as a part of his sentencing.

“I didn’t want to be sober,” he said. “But I didn’t want the consequences of not being sober, either.”

He said he was sober for about 90 days total during his first treatment experience. He could’ve been sentenced to five years in prison for selling drugs, but his sentence was stayed due to how well he did in treatment.

When he left his treatment program, Staloch said he made no effort to change his friends or his habits, and things eventually slipped back to normal. The only way Staloch felt he could afford to keep using the way he wanted was to start selling drugs again.

“Part of the insanity that I see of my addiction is that the judge told me if I so much as got caught jaywalking I was going to be doing my time, which would be at least three years in prison,” he said. “Within two months after the judge told me that I was back to selling drugs again to support my habit. It just gradually got worse and worse.”

 

All in the family

Sandy Roe’s childhood was spent growing up with an alcoholic family, she just didn’t know it at the time.

“I thought it was normal for parents to party all the time,” said the 51-year-old Albert Lea resident. “It’s definitely a family disease as far as addictive behaviors. I believe that. You go from one addiction to another.”

Roe’s parents were both alcoholics, and Roe and her two brothers have all had their own struggles with addiction.

Roe was 13 when she started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Through the rest of her teenage years, she said her drug use expanded to cocaine, acid, hash and street speed.

At 16, she was arrested for illegal consumption, and also became pregnant with a daughter she put up for adoption.

“I always knew I was missing something, and I always thought that was a man,” she said. “I thought if you had sex with men then they’d love you, and if they’d love me then I’d love myself.”

Roe’s parents both got sober in 1985, after her mother went through treatment. When they found out their daughter was using coke, Roe said they staged an intervention for her in 1987. She went to treatment, and ended up marrying a man she met there less than a year later — something she said treatment professionals adamantly advise against.

“You need to work on you any time you’re in recovery,” she said. “When you’re in a relationship, you don’t concentrate on you, you concentrate on that other person.”

Following treatment, Roe said she and her husband stayed sober for about 1 1/2 years. They didn’t go to meetings and neither of them got a sponsor through their respective programs. Over the years they both began drinking again, having children in the meantime, as well. Roe said she went into treatment a second time in 2008 in an attempt to save the unhealthy marriage. Around that time her daughter, who was then 15, moved in with Roe’s father to get away from her parents’ drinking.

Through Roe’s second treatment she said she stayed sober for about six months, during which time she moved out of the home she shared with her husband and began living with her teenage daughter again. Again, Roe didn’t get a sponsor after treatment, and the few meetings she attended dwindled down into not attending any.

Eventually old habits returned, and Roe said she’d always try to rationalize them. She wouldn’t drink, she’d just smoke weed. She wouldn’t drink hard alcohol, just beer.

“I could never accept that I was an alcoholic,” she said. “I could admit it, but I could never accept it. I thought I could control it.”

 

Just having fun

Albert Lean Matthew Peterson, now 36, was 17 when he had his first drink. It was the Fourth of July.

“That was really the time that opened the doors. … The first time I drank, I loved it,” he said. “After that first time, I wanted to be drunk. I was never one that just wanted to carry a buzz, so to speak.”

While Peterson said he didn’t initially start drinking heavily right away, he said it steadily increased over the years. He said he used street speed, but that alcohol was always front and center.

Peterson’s addiction really grew legs in 2003, when he said he was activated in the Army for one year as part of the National Guard. During that time, he said his drinking became an everyday habit while he was stationed in Fort Carson in Colorado.

Peterson said he idolized the wrong people — people like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe — people he refers to as “intellectual idiots.”

“I emulated the wrong people and just wanted to keep the party going,” he said. “I just thought I was having fun.”

Peterson said he never had any run-ins or incidences while on the job — both with the National Guard and now at Minnesota Corrugated Box — but he feels his higher-ups in the Army probably had an idea of what was going on.

“I was the typical working alcoholic where — on the job — I did very good, but would get carried away on my free time and that spilled over,” he said. “I think in the end I got what I deserved out of it. I didn’t try to re-enlist, and they didn’t try to keep me, either.”

Once he was back in Albert Lea working at MCB, he said he never felt right when he wasn’t drinking and that he’d get the shakes after going too long without alcohol.

“I never drank on the job, but I was about going crazy inside my head,” he said. “My wheels were just spinning like crazy. It wasn’t calmed until I would get home and have a drink.”

 

Trying to be normal

Thirty-six-year-old Rey Reyna first started drinking at the age of 11, when he said he was hanging out with older guys and felt like he had something to prove.

He said most of his drug experimentation was with marijuana, but that he also used coke, meth and LSD as well, before going through outpatient treatment as a teenager for drugs.

“After that I thought, ‘Alcohol is legal, and I don’t have a problem with it,’” he said. “I thought it was normal.”

For years the Albert Lea resident said he’d watch other people drink “normally,” who were able to stop after only a few drinks, and kept thinking he could do the same.

“We see people do that, and to me it’s like, ‘I can do that too,’ and then continually trying and trying over and over again and failing every time — that’s where the term of denial comes in,” he said. “I didn’t understand that addiction was a disease. … Something happens to me when I take that first drink.”

Reyna said he was in jail at one point due to getting in a car crash while driving drunk. He lost his license for three years, and people both inside of his vehicle and others outside of it were hurt.

“Emotionally, I think that affected me quite a bit, because you know you’re not supposed to be doing something like drinking and driving,” he said. “But for some reason, the consequences just don’t seem real when you’re in the middle of it.”

He said a number of his friends never considered his drinking to be that serious, but Reyna also felt that he really didn’t hang out with people who didn’t do the same things he was doing at the time. He didn’t realize what he was doing to himself and to others in his life, and the realization of how he can and has affected others is something that has come with time.

“It’s a family disease. One person has the addiction and the whole family suffers, everybody around them suffers,” he said. “It’s frustrating to watch somebody you love wreck themselves, and it’s hard to understand why they keep doing it.”

 

An all-consuming power

Jayne Stout of Hollandale started drinking and smoking pot with her friends when she was 14 and continued to experiment as a teenager.

Her honor-roll grades, participation in sports and other activities dwindled and dissipated due to her newfound habits. She said she’d stay up all night partying and would then skip school the next day.

When Stout was 19, she tried crystal meth for the first time — the drug that would turn into an almost 20-year habit.

“I knew absolutely that I wanted to do it again,” said Stout, now 41. “I’ve found over the years that very few people who try meth say ‘I never want to do it again.’ That’s how powerful the drug is.”

Stout has had a total of seven drug felonies, and has spent a total of six years — non-consecutively — in jail or prison stemming from her possession charges.

Stout said one side of her family has a history with alcoholism, but the other side has no known history of addiction at all. She said she believes some people are prone to addictive behavior because of their physiology.

“I tell my own kids, ‘You can’t try drugs, not even once,’” she said. “Because their parents — my kids’ parents, myself and their father — are both addicts.”

The effect her struggles may have had on her children is something Stout often thinks about.

“I think my kids always knew that we didn’t live like other people. They knew that their mother’s behavior wasn’t always consistent with the way they saw other people act,” she said. “I was very good at protecting them from what drugs looked like or the paraphernalia that goes along with it, but I had people coming in and out of my house and we’d go in the basement and get high together. What other households do you know where, when the parents’ friends come over, they go hide somewhere?”

Growing up, Stout said she thinks the time period — the ’70s and ’80s — wasn’t known for being open or nonjudgmental about any form of abuse or addiction. She thinks that’s something that has changed with time and that society today is more pro-empowerment.

“Meth is nondiscriminatory. It doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, if you’re pretty or ugly, if you’re fat or thin, or smart or challenged. Meth will take ahold of you and it doesn’t care,” she said. “I tend to look at meth more like a demon. It consumes you totally.”

 

Look to Monday’s Tribune for more on Kirsch, Staloch, Roe, Peterson, Reyna and Stout; their transitions into treatment and other voices involved in recovery.

 

Read part two here.

Read part three here.

See video from the series here.

About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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