Ending the stigma

Published 12:58 am Saturday, September 2, 2017

National Recovery Month celebrates recovering from addiction

Addiction never affects just one person, but multiple people. Families, friends, coworkers — when one person struggles it has a ripple effect in the people surrounding them.

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September is National Recovery Month — a month in which the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration works to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrates the people who recover. The annual theme is “Join the voices for recovery: Strengthen families and communities.”

According to SAMHSA, over 21 million people in the United States age 12 or older needed substance use treatment, and only 2.3 million — roughly 10.8 percent — received treatment in 2016.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses have quadrupled in the U.S. since 2000, which is largely driven by increases in the number of opioid overdoses.

‘This life is so much better’

Byron Jensen got into drinking and smoking marijuana when he was 15 years old. He then gradually got into LSD, cocaine and speed, or “white crosses” as he called them.

“We partied an awful lot,” Jensen said. “It was the ’70s. Do I remember a lot? No.”

Jensen, a lifelong Albert Lea resident, was first arrested in 1975 for selling LSD and hashish. His parents put up their house for sale to bond their son out of jail, and Jensen then served one year of prison time in Stillwater, during which time he missed the birth of his son. In his early 20s at the time, Jensen said treatment programs were just starting to take form in prisons. One meeting he attended was led by a man who was obviously drinking, so for Jensen it didn’t stick.

Once back in Albert Lea, he went back to his old ways.

“I don’t think I was back six hours before I was selling again,” Jensen said.

Jensen said he returned home from his prison sentence after deciding to stay away from “the hard stuff” and thought he would just smoke pot. He was drinking and smoking, and gradually got back into speed or crystal — what used to refer to methamphetamine, according to Jensen. From then on, meth was his drug of choice, as he liked how much energy it gave him. He was in and out of selling and using.

At the age of 49, Jensen was arrested once again after a K-9 unit sniffed out the meth he had hidden in his tackle box on a fishing trip to South Dakota. Having been arrested on a Friday night, Jensen said he sat in jail the entire weekend until his wife and friend could get him out.

Over the next six months, Jensen made routine trips to South Dakota to appear in court for his meth possession charge, which he could have possibly gotten 10 years of prison time for. During that time, around December 2002, Jensen entered himself into an outpatient treatment program. The judge in South Dakota also told him he could have people who knew him write letters of recommendation on his behalf. While the judge said most usually get one or two letters from family members, 35 people had written the court on behalf of the high regard they had for Jensen. Not knowing what to expect and facing the possibility of being sentenced to 10 years in prison, Jensen tried to prepare himself. He called his daughter, who was supposed to be married that year, and told her he might not be able to walk her down the aisle. While Jensen didn’t consider himself much of a parent, and said he was usually more of a friend to his children, that didn’t sit well with him.

“That just ate me up,” he said.

At the time, Jensen said he had the mindset of “fake it till you make it.” He and his wife both drank at that time, and she had previously tried going to recovery meetings in the past without Jensen backing her. He said then his only friends were people who used.

He relapsed in January 2003 while on a fishing trip up north with friends, but said he immediately felt terrible after doing one line of meth. It was then that he understood what the treatment program and the meetings meant by finding serenity.

In April 2003, he was sentenced to probation as opposed to prison time.

During his sentencing, Jensen said the judge told him they had seen how much Jensen had changed in the span of time he had been coming to South Dakota for his court appearances. While he didn’t understand it at the time, Jensen said he now knows what the judge meant.

Pulling out his old driver’s license from the time he was arrested, Jensen’s picture shows a man with long, stringy hair and a dazed, faraway look on his face. His face has no color and his cheeks look hollowed out in the old photo. It’s a stark contrast to what Jensen looks like today at 64, with his face full and healthy, his hair cut and the faraway look gone from his eyes. He still carries that old license in his wallet as what he calls a reminder.

“I never want to forget where I was,” he said.

Jensen has been clean since Jan. 17, 2003.

Over time he has settled into recovery, with him and his wife of 40-plus years both taking part in meetings. Jensen has been a treasurer for Narcotics Anonymous, president and vice president of the Alano Society and goes to about six meetings a week. He’s currently working to help fix up parts of the AA Club in Albert Lea. He has worked with people of all ages through recovery programs, including children at Winnebago Treatment Center and through organizing New Year’s Eve and spring fling sober events at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds.

At the age of 57 he went to college, getting an Associate of Arts and Associate of Science from Riverland Community College before getting his bachelor’s from Mankato State University to become a licensed drug and alcohol counselor. While he didn’t end up getting a job in that field, he said it has helped him and others in recovery.

“I like helping other people get away from problems I had,” Jensen said. “That’s what keeps me clean.”

Jensen said recovery has become his life, the AA Club is like his home and it’s where he gets his religion.

“I can’t believe where my life’s at today,” he said. “This life is so much better.”

‘Addiction is a family disease’

Amanda Lynch was 10 or 11 the first time she had an alcoholic drink. Her mother was in a band at the time, so Lynch’s parents would be gone most weekends, leaving Lynch and her sister the run of the house — and the liquor cabinet.

Lynch, now 37, said she has had abandonment issues most of her life, possibly stemming from the fact that she was adopted. Her adoptive mother had promised to share the information she had to help Lynch track down her biological parents when she turned 18. However, Lynch’s adoptive mom died from cancer when Lynch was just 15. At the time, Lynch said her adoptive father “checked out” and fell into a total state of depression.

During that time, Lynch said she started hanging out with the wrong crowd — drinking and smoking pot regularly. She ended up pregnant at 16. Eventually her father ended up remarrying, but due to family conflicts would end up moving out, leaving Lynch and her sister in their Redding, Iowa, home by themselves with Lynch’s infant daughter.

Despite being a teenage mom on her own, Lynch graduated high school one year early and enrolled in nursing school. She flunked out her first semester due to drinking and partying too much, and decided to take the next semester off to get it out of her system. After eventually going back and graduating from nursing school, Lynch was able to get the information on her biological parents from her adoptive father. Having just their names and the hospital she was born in, Lynch said she sent out about 85 letters to all Iowans with matching names. Eventually she got a response back from her biological mother, followed by one from her paternal grandmother. Her grandmother had sent the letter on behalf of Lynch’s biological father, who at the time was in prison on drug charges.

Lynch decided to move down to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to be closer to her newfound family. While dating a man from the area, she started doing meth, and eventually her biological father would become her dealer. After she broke up with her boyfriend, Lynch looked to get away from Cedar Rapids. She ended up dating another man who she drank heavily with, before she became pregnant. She quit drinking during her pregnancy, during which time her boyfriend left her and moved to Minnesota. They’d eventually get back together, bringing Lynch to Minnesota as well. They started drinking together again and eventually Lynch had the couple’s second child together, before kicking her boyfriend out when their second child was about 3 months old. Even though Lynch said she had been the one to end the relationship, she fell into a bout of depression. She was working toward her nursing master’s degree and working nights at the time, all the while trying to raise a teenager, toddler and infant.

She eventually took a leave of absence from work and school during her bout with depression, all while self-medicating with alcohol and sometimes meth. Lynch said getting high became a Christmas tradition with her biological dad.

In April 2011, Lynch shattered her leg after rolling her ankle while drunk. She said her prescription pain medication didn’t help, but meth did — so she sold her pain meds in order to buy meth. Eventually she had to start selling meth to support her addiction, as well.

“When I started selling, my addiction got really out of control,” Lynch said.

Lynch said that over her time selling drugs, she experienced everything from guns and knives in her face to being robbed and kidnapped.

“None of it bothered me … none of it phased me,” she said.

Lynch said she didn’t want her children around drugs so she was never home, leaving her oldest daughter to care for the two youngest children.

In March 2013, Lynch’s boyfriend at the time was arrested on drug charges and Lynch’s house was raided. She wasn’t home at the time, but her children were, and were subsequently taken by Child Protective Services.

Lynch said she got clean on her own and was working with the court’s case plan while her children were moved to their dads’ houses. For months, Lynch said she tried to make progress toward getting her children back but felt stuck.

“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.

She went to her supplier and got high, and decided she’d start to sell meth again to pay for an attorney in order to bring her children home.

“I started out selling to support my addiction, but then I was selling to get my kids, too,” she said. “In my mind, that’s how I was justifying it.”

Two months after she had last seen any of her children, police knocked Lynch’s door down again in December 2013 and arrested her for first-degree drug possession. She was so high at the time, she doesn’t remember much of the raid and still can’t remember her first five days in jail, Lynch said.

Eventually Lynch was transferred to Faribault, and somewhere in that time, “the fog lifted,” she said. Having seen how little treatment did for her biological father during and after his prison time, Lynch didn’t think much of the option. She went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings in jail at the suggestion of a friend. Eventually, she started going to Bible studies, anger management and other 12-step programs as well.

Lynch would eventually file a total of five Rule 25 assessments — a chemical use assessment for when a person is seeking chemical dependency treatment and needs public funding to pay for the treatment — before being able to go to Recovery Plus in St. Cloud.

Around that time, Lynch thought it was in their best interest to sign over custody — but not parental rights — of her two youngest children to their father. For her oldest daughter, Lynch left the choice up to her. Lynch said her oldest daughter hated her at the time because of her addiction, and asked Lynch to terminate her parental rights, which Lynch did.

In April 2014 Lynch went to St. Cloud for treatment. Over the next few months she would be in and out of court and jail to appear on warrants or to check her treatment status in both Nicollet and Albert Lea. Lynch stayed clean, finishing inpatient and outpatient treatments and helping to start a church in St. Cloud. She would eventually be sentenced to 30 years of probation in Albert Lea, where she returned in 2015, despite the unpleasant memories she had from living there as an addict.

Lynch said she was scared to come back as she didn’t yet have a support network or clean friends in the area. At first she clung to recovery group meetings and eventually started going to Hope Church, where she said she finally felt like she belonged. She routinely goes to recovery meetings all over the southern region, and has sponsored multiple women going through programs.

“I felt like it was my family,” she said.

Throughout Lynch’s jail time and time in treatment, she tried to keep in touch with her children by phone. She said the father of her two youngest children made things difficult, not letting her talk to them or telling them their mother had abandoned them. Her children were supposed to be attending family therapy, which their father wasn’t keeping to, she said, and she still has concerns about abuse they’re facing at home, not to mention the trauma they’ve been through by being removed from Lynch.

“Addiction is a family disease, and my kids haven’t been given a chance to heal,” she said. “Not allowing them to heal sets them on course to become addicts or struggle with mental health or God knows what.”

Lynch has gone down to Iowa where her two youngest children are to have them for overnight visits at the hotel she stays at when down there. She’s in the process of attempting to work with attorneys in both Minnesota and Iowa, as well as Department of Human Services in both locations to bring her children home, as the things she has heard of their home life with their father are extremely concerning, Lynch said.

Lynch’s clean date is Dec. 3, 2013, and she said she has never relapsed since. But, she said, she believes she is unfairly judged by some because of her past, and thinks there’s stigma around those in recovery from addiction.

“I don’t know what to do to bring awareness to this town,” she said. “There’s such a stigma about addiction… that’s not who I am today.”

While Lynch works through the process of trying to bring her two youngest children back home, she and her oldest daughter have repaired their relationship and now live together in Clarks Grove. Currently working at Holiday Inn, Lynch is also working on getting her nursing license up to date. While she deals with the trauma her children are going through, she said the local recovery community is what helps get her through it. Lynch said that knowing her story helps others and that people count on her is what keeps her going.

“There’s no happy ending in my story yet, but nothing is bad enough to use these days,” she said. “My worst day clean doesn’t even compare to my best day using.”

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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