Photo by Moira Danielson
Solutions Recovery Club located in Oshkosh is one of the resources local residents use to fight their addictions.
For Olivia Werner it was the circumstances surrounding a friend’s suicide just a few months before high school graduation that triggered a rapid descent into alcoholism. Her once- or twice-a-week habit of drinking turned into a daily routine as she reacted to the trauma of her friend’s death and her own foolish decision to “celebrate” her friend’s memory by getting drunk.
John McHugh began using heroin at the age of 13. For 18 years he battled with himself to turn his life around after being disowned by his family, dropping out of college as a freshman and living couch to couch. His lowest point came after he introduced his girlfriend to heroin and she ended up dying from an overdose.
Both of these individuals saw the worst in life. They faced heartbreak, isolation and struggle after struggle, yet they managed to pull through to turn their life around. Werner and McHugh, both Oshkosh residents, represent a side of the nation’s addiction crisis that seldom gets attention--addicts who are now engaged in the long process of recovery.
Although such individuals seldom make the headlines, their numbers may be surprisingly high. A national survey released in 2012 by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services found that 10 percent of adults across the country reported being in recovery from substance abuse or addiction.
If those statistics hold in a community like Oshkosh, that would mean that the local recovery population numbers 5,000. Carol Morack, the Safe Streets Drug Court coordinator for Winnebago County, was unable to provide an estimate of how many individuals in Oshkosh are in recovery since such programs are based on anonymity. Even if the 5,000 figure is high, there is little question that Oshkosh has a significant number of residents working through recovery.
While recovery is an individual process and is often kept private, many addicts, including Werner and McHugh, want people on the outside looking in to understand the work that goes into getting sober. They view their addiction as a disease, just like cancer or diabetes, and they agreed to tell their stories, under their real names, to create greater public awareness of the situation they share with so many others.
It’s well-known that Wisconsin has a strong culture for drinking, Oshkosh plays well into that environment with a variety of different celebrations such as beer gardens and Pub Crawl. For Werner, the consumption of alcohol went further than just the average leisurely enjoyment, leading her to explore other drugs and begin a dependence on alcohol.
“I first started drinking when I was 14. I started going to college parties, and then Adderall and methamphetamine came along, which then I started doing,” Werner said. “The first time I did it [substance abuse] I would say I was a freshman in high school.”
Werner said the drugs weren’t a constant thing during her addiction, but the drinking was the one consistent behavior she kept up.
“It wasn’t like I was continuously using. It was kind of here and there because I didn’t really have money to keep doing it,” Werner said. “There was a couple of times where I did Molly [a party drug also known as ecstasy] and like a hit of meth. I had a couple of friends that did drink, and I wanted to be the rebel kid and go out to party and stuff.”
Werner said the beginning of her addiction stemmed from hanging out with her brother, but she found her own pathway to continuing when she broke off to join new friends in the party scene.
“My brother was kind of a big influence on my life at that time,” Werner said. “He was smoking weed, and we would go to parties. I just eventually veered off from him, and I just continued to do it on my own with other older people so it was always kind of the environment I was in that it took off from.”
Werner said being in recovery helped her realized that her addiction stemmed from issues of abandonment she felt when she was younger.
“In [Alcoholics Anonymous] I figured out abandonment was the biggest issue for me when I was growing up, which later on caused a lot of different things,” Werner said. “Also I didn’t really get a lot of affection from my parents, at least what I needed.”
Werner often felt she was alone, which helped her turned to drinking to subdue the feeling.
“It helped me fit in when I was growing up,” Werner said. “Alcohol and drugs while I was growing made me feel like I was important.”
Werner said the drinking helped ward off the loneliness she was experiencing and gave her a sense of belonging.
“Even though I was always surrounded by people, I always felt like I was alone,” Werner said. “Once I put alcohol into me, I felt like I was a part of something.”
In addition to the family issues, another reason for her turning to alcohol came from the trauma from two past incidents of sexual assault.
“I’m having this guilt and shame where I just hated myself. I felt dirty,” Werner said. “I turned to drugs and alcohol and started to become more promiscuous, which was stupid because I was feeling like shit for doing those things while I was drunk, but still drank to feel better.”
Werner said her addiction not only took a toll on her, but also her relationship with her brother. She said they had always had a good relationship until he tried stepping in to break her addiction cycle.
“He would try to stop me all the time and try to control my drinking for me,” Werner said. “I would always get pissed at him and eventually turned him away because I was like, ‘Well if he’s going to try and stop me from using and drinking, then I don’t need him in my life because I need this to be OK.’”
Werner said getting sober was so hard because she didn’t see her addiction as a super-serious problem.
“From 14 until 18 years old, I didn’t think I needed to get help,” Werner said. “My friend who had gone to rehab before was so for it and I went to meetings with her sometimes, but I wasn’t going for myself. I’m her support even though I was worse than her.”
Werner said addicts don’t really worry too much about what kind of consequences their addictions can bring on, which is what makes having an addiction that much more dangerous.
“Even with some addicts, it’s like they overdose once, and they say they’re never doing that again,” Werner said. “With me, it’s like I put alcohol into my body, and I physically cannot stop. Once it’s in me, everything lights up and explodes inside and I have this euphoric feeling that I can’t overcome.”
Werner said even being in recovery she still faces this internal battle of keeping the urge to start drinking again at bay.
“It’s not the act of doing the drug that makes us crazy--it’s the feelings and the actions that you have before it,” Werner said. ”I’ve been sober for almost a year and a half. I’m in the sober living house. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, I really need to get out of here, I need to be on my own,’ and sometimes I have thoughts like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to go back to drinking, maybe I’m not the real deal alcoholic, maybe I need more consequences and I need to drink more.’ And that’s so messed up.”
After losing her friend right before their high school graduation, Werner said the drinking problem became more frequent due to the regret she felt from not properly sending her best friend off. What began as a weekend treat became an everyday numbing agent to deal with the loss.
Werner said one of the turning points toward her becoming sober was a health scare she experienced in which she was diagnosed with gastritis.
“With my physical health, right around the time of my sober date, I had drank a whole bunch of vodka, and I was throwing up blood,” Werner said.
Werner said that still wasn’t enough to stop herself from completely giving up her drinking habit, and she still headed to a party where she ended up drinking through the pain.
“I went to a party and I told myself that I wasn’t going to drink, but later I ended up taking a shot,” Werner said. “I think looking back that just shows how powerless I was, as much as I didn’t want to and I know I couldn’t have because my stomach was all messed up, I still did it.”
Once Werner went to the hospital, she finally realized it was time to get some help.
“I went to the hospital and they told me I had gastritis and I asked the nurse, ‘So when can I drink again?’ She looked at me like I was stupid and said ‘Olivia, you can’t drink again,’” Werner said. “I think that situation with the gastritis, paired with being homeless, alcohol wasn’t as fun as it used to be.”
Werner said she began her recovery program here in Oshkosh before heading up to Appleton for the next phase of it.
“I went to treatment at the Nova Treatment Center on Jackson and I was there for 28 days, then I went to an extended treatment center in Appleton where I was there for about nine or 10 months,” Werner said. “I did a transitional living program there where I had an apartment.”
Werner said she then turned to a 12-step program to help get on the right path of becoming sober, which included getting her own sponsor to see her through the process.
“Keeping me sober today I would say is definitely going to meetings. I usually hit up about three a week depending on my work schedule,” Werner said.
Werner explained how the 12-step process works for addicts, beginning with owning the problem and coming to terms with who brought them to their addiction in the first place. She said Steps One through Three are all about surrendering to a higher power and coming to terms with who has wronged them in the past.
Werner said the next steps help addicts open up about their past choices and what they need to change while learning to give all of those to their higher power.
“Step Five is a super humbling experience because you go in front of your sponsor and read all this stuff that you’ve done,” Werner said. “It’s super emotional and freeing. Steps Six, Seven and Eight are listing your character defects and giving them up to God.”
Werner said the last of the 12-step process includes making amends to those they have hurt as well as helping others work through the steps with the knowledge and experience they’ve gathered through their journeys.
“Nine is making amends to people which is the biggest thing that has helped me in my recovery like going in front of my family and admitting to how I’ve treated them. Step 12 is I take other people through the steps now, and that’s the biggest thing that helps keep us sober today.”
Werner who is now 19 years old, currently works at Applebee’s in Oshkosh in addition to managing the sober living house she stays at. She is looking to helping out her recovery community more, especially those who have dealt with sexual assault.
Werner said her goal is to create a safe space for women who have been in similar situations during their addiction journeys.
“I would like to start up a support group for women in recovery who have been through it,” Werner said. “I just want them to have people they can relate with and not feel so alone. Like I said the shame and guilt is so strong.”
Werner said she wants the community looking at recovery from the outside could be more understanding of what kind of steps go into it.
“I wish normal people understood that we don’t know why we can’t stop,” Werner said. “I don’t think people realize what it’s like to be in recovery and how much goes into it. I just wish people were more educated about what goes into it.”
McHugh said he began his drug use by experimenting with several different drugs until he became focused on heroin.
“I guess I first started using any drug around 13, started drinking and smoking weed. Then I got into meth for a little while, for a year or so along with some other stuff. I found heroin at about 14 years old going into 15.
McHugh said his addiction stemmed partially from the environment he was growing up in.
“My childhood at that time, my living situation, my family dynamic, all those sorts of things were somewhat abnormal,” McHugh said. “I was going through my dad getting remarried when I was 13, and I was going through the whole teen angst thing already: ‘You’re not my mom’ and all that kind of stuff.”
McHugh said his father had high expectations and would forcefully express his disappointment.
“There was a lot of pressure from my father as far as things go with school,” McHugh said. “There were certain ways that he parented that wouldn’t really be acceptable nowadays. He was a really tough, overbearing, old-school father. There was hands-on physical discipline.”
McHugh said another reason he got into drugs was from feeling isolated from the rest of his peers while he was in school.
“I was pretty smart as a kid, always at the top of my class and that can be a point of ridicule amongst your peers,” McHugh said. “Drugs, as with anybody, is an escape from that. It lets you be OK with the world and lets you not have to deal with all those social pressures and anxiety.”
McHugh said although addiction comes from a place of feeling alone, it somehow never seems to miss the people who seem like they have it all as well.
“On the other hand, addiction is a funny thing because I’ve met the guys who were the quarterback of the football team that later down the road became as immersed in it as I was,” McHugh said. “There’s not a whole lot of rhyme or reason. I think if you got the bug, you got the bug.”
McHugh said he started to become more violent the longer his drug use continued, eventually putting his family at risk.
“I started getting incarcerated. I started having to be locked up for my safety and my family and people around me,” McHugh said. “I would become violent and aggressive toward my siblings and my father and stepmother.”
McHugh said the behavior toward his family caused them to basically disown him and leave him living out most of his adolescent years in the juvenile detention system.
“There was a lot of yelling and fighting and chaos in the home to the point where they had to send me away eventually for good,” McHugh said. “My dad relinquished custody of me to the state when I was 15, so then I spend the rest of those years between 15 and 18 between juvenile hall and group homes.”
McHugh said the people he met when he left his parents’ home were who helped keep his addiction fed.
“The people who kind of facilitated my addiction were people that I met on the streets when I’d run away from home,” McHugh said. “A lot of the people that were in my life at that time were a lot older than me because I had started so young.”
McHugh said it was easy to stay in that lifestyle because there was not much else outside of that for him to work toward such as a job or school since he dropped out of high school as a freshman.
“You just get wrapped up in that lifestyle. I had no work experience. I had never had a job,” McHugh said. “I got my first job when I was 23 years old, by that time I couldn’t really keep a job for more than a couple of months. My family had to abandon me at that point for their own sanity.”
McHugh said having his family turn their backs on him hurt at the time, but now he understands why they had to do it.
“At the time to me it felt like they were abandoning me, but later in recovery I learned that sometimes people have to do that for their own sake,” McHugh said. “I don’t really hold that against them anymore. It’s hard to deal with somebody like that.”
McHugh said with having a drug addiction, there are a lot of moments where you feel you’re the only one on your team rooting for you.
“There’s a general theme of loneliness that runs through the deeper levels of addiction,” McHugh said. “Generally there’s a me-against-the-world kind of feeling that brings the loneliness.”
McHugh said a reason many addicts find it hard to break out of the cycle is that they have family who mimic the same behaviors and feed into those negative choices.
“There’s a lot of people who are deep in the realm of addiction that also their parents are and also their siblings are,” McHugh said. “I was lucky in the respect that my mother was an addict and had been absent from my life for a lot of years, but my father was educated and did well for himself.”
McHugh said he had the support of his father to help get him out of the environment that was keeping his addiction alive in California.
“He was finally the one that, even after all those years later, after all that stuff, had told me to come up to Wisconsin to live with him,” McHugh said. “I still ended up messing up and going to prison when I came up here, but eventually there was some support.”
McHugh said although there were resources in places, there needed to be more set in place for him to get into recovery.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of fun in the drug use anymore,” McHugh said. “The desire to get clean is but one small part for an addict.”
McHugh, now 34 years old, said joining a 12-step program helped him get the help he truly needed after his 18 year addiction.
“Getting involved with a 12-step fellowship, having great sponsorship, the support I found is what helped me,” McHugh said. “Also the support of my family once they saw I was getting serious about getting better.”
McHugh doesn’t take his recovery lightly, knowing that many addicts can’t break free from the cycle.
“I think there’s a lot of luck,” McHugh said. “I think a lot of people deserve to be here a little more than I do, but for whatever reason the universe smiled its favor upon me.”
Right now McHugh works as a DJ in the area as well as managing the sober living house that he stays in. He doesn’t have any immediate future plans, but rather just looks to take things on day by day.
McHugh said the view of addiction has changed from what is was when he first began using, but he also believes that there is still more room for improvement.
“At that time society at large has this view of addiction as a criminal element or a moral deficiency,” McHugh said. “Nowadays the shift is starting to look at it as kind of a mental health issue and a sickness rather than something to be punished for.”
McHugh said people who haven’t been addicted to a substance should understand that the people who are struggling with it don’t want to be the way they are or just decide to get wrapped up with it.
“I wish people could know that we don’t want to be doing those things,” McHugh said. “There’s no part of me that ever wanted to be a heroin addict.”