Photo of various pills and a syringe
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“I started to experiment with drugs and alcohol very young. I think I was 14-years-old when I had my first drink, when I started smoking pot, and when I actually tried meth for the first time.” This is how Jane’s struggles with addiction began.

Jane, a 32-year-old mother of two, asked that her identity remain anonymous due to ongoing investigations into her case by the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS).  Jane still lives in the Iowa town where she was raised. She said she is working on her sobriety to prove to Iowa’s DHS investigators she deserves to get full custody of her children. Jane said she wants to control of her addiction so she can provide a good childhood for her children. She knows what it’s like growing up in a difficult family situation.

Jane said she grew up in a broken home with divorced parents. Her mother was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. Her father was an alcoholic. Jane turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. She began using drugs and alcohol when she was 14-years-old. She started with alcohol and marijuana. Soon she began experimenting with methamphetamine (meth). “The first time I used meth, I knew I was going to use it again,” Jane said. “After the second time, I knew I was addicted.” She used meth for almost two years before she was charged with driving under the influence at age 15. Jane went into drug treatment where she said she got clean and sober. It was the first of many times Jane would struggle with drug addiction, the law, and sobriety. Jane described it as a “merry-go-round” cycle of sobriety and relapse.

Jane is not alone in her addiction struggle. According to The Recovery Village, a nationwide addiction treatment facility that conducts addiction research, there are approximately 28,500 people who receive treatment for drug and alcohol addictions every year in Iowa. The statistic only includes people who sought treatment. Drug treatment officials say it probably leaves out thousands of other drug addicts who don’t seek help. “Addiction impacts the entire state in small and large ways,” mental health therapist and certified drug and alcohol counselor Christine Blackburn said. “I don’t know that there is any family that isn’t touched in some fashion by addiction.”

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Christine Blackburn, LMHC, photo courtesy of Blackburn

The hardships Jane faced as a child are classified as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. An ACEs study by Gabor Maté in the Journal of Restorative Medicine found that people who experience five or more ACEs are seven to ten times more likely to struggle with substance abuse. Jane experienced six ACEs as a child. It made her more susceptible to addiction. Jane understands this. She does not want her children to be hurt because of the way they were raised, which is why she said she is determined to stay sober this time.

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Three types of adversity that make for a tough childhood

Jane noted that the many treatment centers she has entered were helpful, but said it was hard to commit to getting clean when she was forced into treatment. Blackburn agrees with Jane. The drug counselor said treatment facilities do a good job, but often lack manpower and other support to help drug abusers in treatment. “The facilities are overwhelmed, it seems like we just don’t have enough,” Blackburn said.

Jane said when she went into drug treatment as a 15-year-old she took it seriously. She stayed clean and sober for three years. But then she said she went through a bad breakup and began drinking again. Relapses like this are common. According to a study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse, “Half of youths are likely to relapse within three months of treatment, and two-thirds of youths relapse within six months.” Jane worked to stay sober, but when she faced adversity, she said she fell back into drug abuse as a way of coping.

At age 20, Jane learned she was pregnant. She stopped drinking and got sober for a second time. When she gave birth by C-section she soon became addicted again to the prescribed pain medications. Dr. Leah Johnson, a family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology specialist, said new mothers commonly become addicted to the pain medications prescribed after C-sections due to the major life changes they may undergo; extreme lack of rest, prolonged recovery time, the responsibility of a new life and hormonal changes. Johnson said these elements can create a perfect environment for mothers to become addicted.

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Photo of Dr. Leah Johnson, courtesy of Siouxland Medical Education Foundation

Jane’s drug addiction escalated and continued through her second pregnancy. Eventually, she used meth again. She said it was easier to obtain. Soon Jane ran into financial troubles and began selling drugs. “It was an addiction in itself,” said Jane. “It was a rush; it took me out of everything. It kept me from thinking about things in my life that I didn’t want to face.”  Jane continued to deal meth until Iowa DHS became part of her life for the first time.

The DHS investigation found that Jane and her children’s father were drug abusers. DHS took Jane’s children into protective custody. Devastated, Jane returned to treatment and sobriety again. After two years, she got her children back. Then she relapsed and DHS removed her children again. Today, Jane has yet to regain full custody of her children.

Jane believes DHS has been unfair to her and made it harder for her to succeed. “I think that it’s black or white for them [DHS], and I think that my DHS worker is easily influenced by other people’s opinions,” said Jane. Blackburn explained that the job of DHS is clear. “DHS is there to protect kids. That is what they do. They are not there to be on the parents’ side.” Blackburn said DHS does help and advocate for families, but if parents aren’t working on their issues “it is hard for them to keep fighting for the parents to get their children back,” Blackburn said

Blackburn admitted drug and alcohol addictions are one of the hardest things many people experience. Vicious cycles of sobriety and relapses can be difficult to break. “There is a huge stigma with getting help and treatment,” Blackburn said. “There are a host of judgments that go along with that [treatment], and people are really quick to judge.”

Jane said she has experienced some of these societal judgments. She has been arrested on drug-related charges. Each time she was arrested, a social media page published her mugshot and the charges she faced for anyone to see and leave hurtful comments on. “It’s just absolutely degrading and humiliating,” Jane said. She added that this type of unwanted attention addicts receive make it harder for them to stay sober and do better for themselves.

Blackburn would like people to end the stigma directed at drug and alcohol addicts. She believes a public education campaign on the issue would help more addicts get the help that they need. Jane said she feels like she’s fighting the addiction battle alone. “I have to choose not to care about what they think or I’m going to lose myself.”