Road to Recovery

0012As an unprecedented heat wave strikes Minnesota, Tiffany Hunsley checks on the children playfully bobbing up and down in their backyard pool. The air conditioner is broken but the house is bustling with life.

    Tiffany’s partner, Bill, daughter Amberly (24), sons Harley (9) and Ryder (8), granddaughter Angela (4) and two friends recovering from substance addiction all share a home in southeast Rochester.

    More friends join the scene on Saturday nights for a backyard bonfire and “clean” party. Life is good now.  

The day everything changed

It’s been seven years, but the jolt of being woken by a SWAT team on July 27, 2004 remains seared in her memory. “GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR!” are the words Tiffany heard during the fifth and final raid, the day that Child Protection Services took Harley and Ryder and placed them in foster care.

    Tiffany and Bill had lived in Wabasha County for only 28 days when they were charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, placed in jail and sentenced to prison. She now shares openly and honestly about her life as an addict and her road to recovery so that others may also be saved. 

The magnetism of meth

Methamphetamine is a powerfully addictive substance that causes dramatic changes in the brain and affects the central nervous system. It raises the level of dopamine—the brain chemical that allows us to feel pleasure from activities like eating and having sex—to more than 10 times the amount caused by natural pleasures.

    “It seemed like the perfect drug,” says Tiffany, recalling her introduction to meth. “The immediate feeling was empowering and energizing. I could waitress three jobs in Rochester and also take care of my two kids. I believed I could accomplish things and I wasn’t ever tired. Instead of sleeping, I stayed up all night to clean the house.”  

    This intense rush of pleasure that first-time users experience is the reason behind the addiction. Within six months, weekend use turned into everyday use. “I was introduced to a whole underground world in Rochester that many don’t even know exists. We met people who were making meth in apartments, hotels and even in cars going down the highway.”

    This new world’s charm was short-lived as Tiffany battled with her maternal instinct.
“I realized that I didn’t want to do this anymore when I found out I was pregnant. But it was too late.”

Devastating dependence

As addiction gripped her life, Tiffany lost 30 pounds and found that she was no longer hungry or thirsty. “I lost an awareness of time. I thought it had been an hour when really it had been a day.” Sleep deprivation led to a combination of hallucinations and paranoia known as meth-induced psychosis. “I heard voices and saw scary things that weren’t actually there.”

    Bill, who had been using meth for 10 years prior to meeting Tiffany, began making the drug at a friend’s farm and bringing it home to sell.

    “Money became the addiction, too,” says Tiffany. “Meth sells itself. People would be waiting at our door saying, ‘Is it done yet?’”     

    When users run out of meth, they experience a crash with severe fatigue, anxiety, depression and confusion. The craving is intense and life can feel hopeless, which leads addicts to do almost anything for more of the drug.

    Amberly, then 14, began to question why her mom had quit all of her jobs. She suspected something and approached her maternal grandmother for help.

    “My mom tried to reach out to me but I lied and manipulated her, just like I had done to my parents since high school when I used to sneak out to go drinking,” says Tiffany, who has suffered from addiction since her first drink at age 12 but now has an open, loving relationship with her parents. “They always had my best interest in mind and did everything they could for me.”

A mother’s heartbreak

It was an all-time low the day Tiffany’s youngest son was born, testing positive for methamphetamine. She and the baby were sent home with an assigned social worker, but the addiction remained too powerful.

    “Any woman who has reached the point of using when she is pregnant is beyond a social worker’s help,” says Tiffany. “I lied and I manipulated the system.”

    The lies came crashing down on Tiffany’s family. Investigators had been tracking Bill and Tiffany for two years. In the first four raids, they never found enough to charge them with anything more than fifth-degree controlled substance, which meant finding a straw with residual film. Bill would sometimes serve 30 to 60 days for a warrant. It was the fifth raid that revealed meth, anhydrous ammonia and a box in the shed with jars, generators and tools to make it.

    “It’s the worst for the children,” Tiffany laments as she describes the day of the arrest. “I was delusional when it happened, almost like I was looking down on somebody else’s life. Amberly was with my sister and my other son Cody, age 12, was with his dad, who had already taken custody away from me. Harley and Ryder, one and two at the time, were the only ones home with us.”

    For most of the next 40 days, Tiffany crashed in jail. Bill was transported from jail to the emergency room three times due to drug-induced comas. They had no contact with each other. Tiffany faced a prison sentence of 89 months, Bill 110 months.

Glimmer of hope

In January of 2005, Wabasha County launched a new program called Drug Court. It was a life-saving blessing for Tiffany as she slowly began to reclaim her life.

    Drug Court is a two-year reform program that strives to maintain sobriety in drug and alcohol addicts who have committed non-violent crimes. A team of criminal justice officials meets with the offender frequently to measure goals, check drug tests and provide incentives. Goals may include going to school, keeping a job, and keeping a home that is suitable for children. Ultimately, Drug Court aims to keep participants out of prison and contributing to society.

    “The team did not see me as a bad person trying to be good, but rather, a sick person trying to get well,” says Tiffany. “Without Drug Court, my life today would not have been possible. I’d still be in prison like so many others, my children left to grow up in foster homes.”

    Drug Court for Tiffany started with five months in jail, one month in-patient treatment and two months at a recovery home. “I learned during this time that authorities were not my enemies as I had thought. These people were extremely dedicated to help me recover. They were available to help me and my family at all times and always held me accountable for
my actions.”

    Roxanne Bartsh from Zumbrota served as a probation officer and member of Tiffany’s Drug Court team. With a big smile, Tiffany remembers meeting Roxanne. “She laid out the facts and told me that if I was going to succeed, these were the things I needed to do. Roxanne encouraged me to go to school. She believed in me when I was unable to believe in myself.”

    To Roxanne, Tiffany is a perfect example of why we should never give up on people. “She had so many obstacles and it would have been easy for her to throw in the towel,” says Roxanne. “She was headed to prison and would have lost her kids, but look at how she’s now giving back to society.”

    Tiffany began attending a 12-step program in 2006 and it was crucial in helping her to break free from her old life. “I realized I could have this new life they were talking about,” she says. “I decided that I’m worthy of this. I’m good enough. I began to have a sense of being part of something that didn’t include drugs and alcohol.”

    The 12-step program is where Tiffany found new friends and became a believer in God. “She had a support system that held her up,” says Roxanne. “Now she’s the one helping to hold others up. Life is not black and white. Like many of the offenders I worked with, if you took away the addiction you wouldn’t have a criminal. They still need to be held responsible for their actions but punishment alone will not help them fight the real issue, their addiction.”

A new life

One of the many requirements placed on Tiffany in Drug Court was that she must find and hold employment. “This was not an easy task for someone now convicted of a first-degree drug felony,” says Tiffany. “Weeks went by with me being unsuccessful in my attempts to find work. Judge Walters and the Drug Court Team then suggested that perhaps I should look into furthering
my education.”

    On May 6, 2011, Tiffany graduated with honors from Winona State University Rochester with a degree in social work.
She returned in August to complete her LADC (Licensed Alcohol & Drug Counselor) certification in hopes of helping others who suffer from addiction. She was chosen to be the parent representative on the State of Minnesota’s Children’s Justice Initiative and has served six years as a volunteer, sharing her story with legislators on why funds are needed.

    Tiffany created an event called “Recovery is Happening” to support National Recovery Month and bring awareness and resources to those still suffering. One day, she hopes to have her own recovery home where parents can be reunified with their children. “That was the hardest part—not knowing where my children were. The Drug Court team helped in getting our children back,” says Tiffany.

    Above all, Tiffany wants the world to know that recovery exists. “Today, I am a good mother, daughter, wife, student, employee and friend,” says Tiffany with a smile. “I replaced the craving with God and the obsession has been removed. I start my day on my knees and ask Him to help me to be willing to do His will. I end the day by thanking Him. I’m helping others now and paying it forward.”

Amy Brase is a local writer who believes there are few stories more gratifying to share than those that point to God.