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Meet CJ: Ember Recovery Alumni Spotlight

CJ Christiansen didn’t recognize who he was anymore.

After the death of his father and grandmother at a young age, he began using. First, he was introduced to smoking. Next, he had his first drink as a sixth grader.

“I was so depressed. I was so … lost,” CJ says. “As soon as I drank for the first time I was addicted right after that. I drank all the time. I started getting into a lot of trouble at school.”

Finally, he started experimenting with pills in eighth grade: “The thing I was most addicted to was opioids.”

He was spiraling.

“I was using pills really heavily and drinking all the time,” CJ says. “I was a different person – I wasn’t myself at all.

He finally hit rock bottom when he overdosed by accident. But accidental was riding a fine line with intentional.

“At the time I didn’t care whether I passed away at all,” CJ says. “There were a lot of times I would use and pray that I wouldn’t wake up because I was so messed up in the head and so addicted to the things I was doing. Whenever I didn’t have those things, I was so depressed.”

He went to a pair of rehab clinics. He relapsed after release from the first. Of the second clinic he says: “I actually was using while I was in there.”

Eventually he was kicked out. Then he relapsed again. Then he overdosed again.

Back to rehab. Only this time, in fall 2020, CJ entered YSS’s Residential Addiction Treatment program, Ember Recovery, in Ames. Unlike his previous centers, the Ember Recovery treatment program is located in a residential house, creating a safe and homelike atmosphere. CJ had a bedroom, household chores, and an opportunity to focus on his wellbeing.

“The first day that I got there it felt so different than any other place I’d ever been to,” CJ says of Ember Recovery. “It was much more of a home environment. I felt like I could be myself more. It wasn’t like an institution and that’s what I really enjoyed about it.”

He began to see himself again. Slowly, at first. He would talk, but wasn’t ready to listen. He was present physically, but wandering emotionally. But he was ready to try — and he began to remember feeling emotion again. He opened up about his mental health. He began to see light where previously it was dark.

“We actually got to go out in the community and do things,” CJ says of his five-month stay. “We got to go out and play basketball. Sometimes we could go skateboarding or longboarding. We could go on walks in town. It felt like a lot more freedom, but not in a bad way.”

CJ graduated from Ember Recovery in December 2020. Now 18, CJ has a 3-month-old baby boy with his girlfriend, Zoey. He works at the Hy-Vee warehouse in Cherokee. He has his own apartment. He was honored with a Youth Achievement Award at the YSS McCay Awards in July. And most importantly, in September he will celebrate two years of sobriety.

“I think there’s times that CJ doesn’t realize how far he’s come,” says Zoey, pointing out the Midwestern modesty of her boyfriend. “Since I first met him, even when he just got out of Ember, he was kind of closed off. Kind of quiet. Since then he’s come out of his shell. He opens up. He talks. He’s a lot kinder. He can separate his feelings from being frustrated and upset to being understanding, like ‘I understand why I’m upset I can tell you what I’m feeling and let’s figure out a way to fix it.’ ”

CJ doesn’t shy away from his past. Using it not to regret, but to reflect.

“No matter what, you keep on finding something to fight for,” CJ says. “You really can get through anything. You have to remember that feelings do pass. Things may not be healed from your past … but it will always get better if you put in that effort.”

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