Second chances: ‘Everything happens for a reason’
Zanna Gray is the office manager Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project and uses her work and her history of addiction to help impact others.
BRAINERD — April 22 is a special day for Zanna Gray.
It’s Earth Day. It’s the birthday of her fiance's late grandma, which will be shared with the baby boy Gray will have via cesarean section this year. And it marks three years of her sobriety.
“That’s definitely a sign that everything happens for a reason,” the Brainerd woman said Monday, April 18. “... I don’t really know how to explain it fully, but I just feel like the past somehow has an impact on the future.”
The past Gray spoke of is a difficult one. Born to teenage parents and the oldest of four kids, Gray’s childhood wasn’t necessarily easy.
“They did the best they could obviously, but being so young, there’s a lot of struggle that comes with that,” she said. “We were definitely raised at the poverty line, and there was some addiction on the sidelines, but as kids we didn’t really notice.”
At age 13, Gray tried marijuana and alcohol for the first time. She didn’t use again for another two years, but middle school proved to be challenging. It was a time when Gray started to “follow the crowd,” not having her own individual style, and when she started struggling with mental health issues.
Increased hormones, paired with parents who fought a lot and complex emotions led to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
By the time she was 15, Gray started smoking a lot of marijuana and drinking only on occasion, but always to the point of drunkenness.
Just before high school graduation, at the age of 17 with seemingly no direction in life, she discovered methamphetamine.
Fentanyl and other drugs came a little later.
“That whole summer I basically partied. I used every drug imaginable except for heroin,” she said.
While she doesn’t feel she got addicted to anything during that summer — except perhaps for marijuana — her struggles were not over.
Soon after, she discovered she was pregnant with her daughter. She kept using pot but put away the hard drugs during pregnancy.
The same series of events happened later with her oldest son.
When her younger son came along a few years later, Gray was completely drug- and alcohol-free until six months postpartum.
“I started smoking pot again and then started using pills,” she said. “And the pills that I was using, every single time I would use — it wasn’t an all-the-time thing — but every time I did it, it would make me basically delusional, like very delusional thoughts, basically drug-induced psychosis.”
In and out of the emergency room, psychiatric wards and ultimately the Grace Unit, Gray eventually lost custody of her children. Knowing she needed to get them back made getting clean easy. But staying sober was another story.
“When I got them back, I was very happy about it, but I was also under a lot of pressure because I was a single mom at the time, and all of a sudden I had all the kids back, but my support was kind of gone,” she said. “And 10 days after my 29th birthday, I decided to use meth again.”
While Gray’s first experience with methamphetamine at age 17 wasn’t enough to get her addicted, the second time more than a decade later was.
Although she made sure her kids were fed and clothed, Gray lost 30 pounds from the drug use and described herself as an absent mother. She tried to get clean a few times but always turned back to her old ways, again using a lot of marijuana and taking the pills that made her feel crazy.
Her children were again removed.
“A couple weeks of not having the kids, I did try to get them back at first but then kind of let the shame and the guilt get to me and thought, basically, ‘How did I let this happen again? I don’t deserve my kids. I don’t deserve to be a mom,’” she said. “Not only did I lose them once, I lost them twice.”
On top of that, Gray was in an abusive relationship then. Physical, emotional and psychological abuse threw her down a spiraling path of drug use and led to a suicide attempt.
That experience served as a wakeup call, so she checked herself into treatment but soon learned she wasn’t going to get her kids back because she hadn’t complied with the courts for the previous three months. Her parental rights were involuntarily terminated.
Feeling like there was no point to continue with treatment if her kids weren’t coming home, Gray spiraled into addiction once again and landed herself in jail for the fifth time.
After that last stint, she entered drug court, which was the start of her new life.
Drug tests several times a week and unannounced home visits from law enforcement officers were a godsend.
While in drug court, Gray added as many positive things to her life as possible, exploring her spirituality and attending meetings. And with about six months of the program left, she met her now-fiance, who is also in recovery.
Relationships with two people battling addiction isn’t always easy or advised, but Gray and fiance Tyler Addison made it work.
“We’ve kind of helped each other grow and learn a lot,” she said. “We’ve been together for over a year now, and there’s been a lot of change within both of us.”
Couples counseling, regular chiropractic visits, healthy eating and regular exercise help the couple focus on their mental and physical health and continue to stay clean.
Now three years sober — and nearly two for Addison — Gray works as the part-time office manager at Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project in Brainerd, is expanding her family with a new baby and hopes to soon have a house of her own.
She stays in contact with her other children — who live with grandparents — as much as possible. While she gets to see the two oldest kids a couple times a month, Gray hasn’t seen her younger son in four years. He lives with a different set of grandparents than his older siblings, who he sees on occasion. But after everything that has happened, Gray’s attempts at communication have gone unanswered.
But it’s something she’s not going to let get her down.
“All I can do is pray about the situation. I know that he’s in good hands — loved and cared for and all that, and in some way a cycle is being broken.
“So hopefully someday I’ll be able to see him again or something, but at the same time, I have to just kind of put that in God’s hands and not worry about it too much. Like, I think about him — I think about all my kids — all the time, but at the same time, I know that they’re loved and cared for.”
Today, Gray has her new baby, her fiance and his daughter, and herself to focus on. The latter is of utter importance, and something she learned about while in in-patient treatment.
“I’m 30-something years old and still learning that you have to put self-care at the top of your list because if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to help anybody else fully,” she said.
For those looking to begin their own journey toward recovery, Gray said treatment is a good place to start. And Brainerd’s recovery community is a good resource as well, with a whole network of people welcoming newcomers and trying to fight the stigma of addiction.
“Just because you’re an addict doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” she said. “Nobody wakes up and decides, ‘Hey, I think I’m gonna be an addict today and possibly die of an overdose later in life.’”
That’s why Gray shares her story — to show other addicts that people care about them and recovery is possible.
Through her work at Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project, Gray visits middle and high schools in the area to share her story in hopes of finding someone who needs to hear it.
And for those who do need a message of hope to get them through whatever challenges they have — addiction, self-worth or other inner turmoil — she has a simple one: “You’re worth it.”