Kaylyn Collett and Charly Niesen stood before the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners to let the board know exactly what addiction looked like-themselves.
"We talk about how it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a community to help an addict recover," Collett said at the Tuesday, April 23, meeting as she wiped tears from her eyes. "Those dollars aren't wasted on people like myself because when people like myself-who have found recovery and that purpose to live and that drive-all we want to do is turn around and help others who are still struggling."
Commissioner Paul Koering was absent from the meeting due to a previously scheduled engagement. His public comments last month about letting drug addicts die from overdoses outraged many and prompted a Brainerd Dispatch editorial admonishing the elected official.
"I would like to start out by saying thank you to all the individuals who have reached out to me and shared their stories these last few weeks in regards to how addiction has affected their lives," Commissioner Bill Brekken said before open forum began. "Every one of these lives matter, and I urge this county board to keep this conversation going in the hopes of improving and even saving precious lives."
Supporters of Koering appeared at the April 9 open forum following his statements at the March 19 committee of the whole meeting about the county's drug problem. His defenders said the former Minnesota state senator's remarks were blown out of proportion.
"There have been comments from this board table that have attracted a lot of attention regarding addiction issues in our community," Brekken said about the meeting concerning methamphetamine and what the county was doing about the controlled substance. "Whether you agree or disagree with these comments and the issues that addiction poses for our community, it offers a perfect platform from which to have deeper, more meaningful conversations on this topic."
A licensed alcohol and drug counselor for the county recently gave a science-based presentation about addiction to the board. Richard Grundtner, a social worker and recovering addict, spoke at the April 16 committee of the whole meeting about the role of trauma.
On Tuesday, Collett and Niesen shared their own stories.
"But alcohol and drug addiction go back so far in my family, and something that goes along with it is mental illness and trauma," said Collett, a Brainerd resident who works at Northern Pines Mental Health Center. "I struggled for a lot of years in this community. ... I ended up in the jail a lot, and a lot of county money was used to help me get into treatment and to help me get housing ... and there's no possible way I'd be standing here today without that help."
Suicide and opioid overdose deaths rose in the state in 2017, continuing a trend started in 2000 and reaching record levels, according to data released last month by the Minnesota Department of Health.
"I believe that a part of our solution is going to be using those people in recovery to help those of us that are in the jails still or that are just flooding our emergency rooms," said Collett, who was incarcerated almost five years ago.
Niesen is a Baxter resident who has been clean and sober for more than a dozen years, but she said it was not easy.
"From age 16, I was in and out of treatments, lock-ups and by the time I was 18, I had a felony, I went to jail and I had my first child. I'm very proud I didn't use during my pregnancy, but soon after I was introduced to meth," Niesen told the commissioners.
Last year, more than 2,000 grams of meth were seized in the county compared to 17 grams of cocaine and no heroin. A pound of meth equals about 450 grams. A heavy drug user could possibly use between 1.5 and 2 grams a day, according to officials from the sheriff's office.
"My ex told me that if I used I would be able to lose the (pregnancy) weight and have all this energy and I did. I lost the weight, I lost my house, I lost my will to live. I gave up everything," Niesen said. "I found myself homeless and got myself in a really unhealthy relationship."
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of deaths due to overdose in the U.S. has been on the rise since 2002, from more than 20,000 to more than 50,000 in 2015.
"I ended up losing my parental rights because I did not stay sober," Niesen said. "I ended up going back to using, and I didn't care if I lived or died. I was homeless, I used to steal. I was not somebody that you'd want in the community."
The average number of children last year in the county in out-of-home placement per month was about 180, and the expenditures for out-of-home placement rose from about $2.5 million in 2014 to almost $5.5 million last year in correlation with parental meth use.
"Thankfully, there were people in this community that believed that addicts could recover, and they've seen the work that (my husband) Brandon and I put forth, and they've seen what amazing parents we could be," said Niesen, who also works at Northern Pines.
"When I was using, I would put paper all over the mirror because I couldn't stand the person that was staring back. Today, I proudly stand here and I'm proud of who I am, and I'm thankful for all the people that have been in my life, who've helped me."
Niesen told the board she felt compelled to speak up at the open forum about addiction, or speak out against Koering's sentiments about addicts, because of the articles she read in the Brainerd Dispatch about the county and drugs.
"Usually, I stand back and I'm doing my work behind the scenes," Niesen said. "But I wanted to put a face to addiction. I wanted to show that recovery is possible. ... I want to thank everyone that was in my corner that did invest that money that I could go to treatment."
The five-year county trends for the number of arrested or charged for drug-related offenses, the amount of grams of meth seized, the number of search warrants executed and the number of cases worked are all on the rise since 2014.
"Mental health and addiction go hand in hand. ... Addiction is a mental health problem, and it's a problem because so many of our kids are being born into families who don't exactly know the skills to help live a successful and productive life," Collett said. "I really, really appreciate the time that we're all taking to keep this discussion moving and to keep the ball rolling because there is so much we can do, there's so much we can do, but we have to do it together."