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The Path to Recovery

Gina remembers the day she learned her 14-year-old son, CJ, was addicted to nicotine, alcohol, and opioids.

On a Monday morning in May 2019, she received a call from CJ’s school that he had overdosed on pills and needed immediate medical attention. At the emergency room, she learned just how serious the situation was.

“I thought, ‘How did I miss this? Was I too busy? Was I not paying attention?’” Gina says. “He was doing this stuff in his bedroom and I had no clue. It was devastating.”

CJ had a rough start to life. Both of his biological parents—and both sets of grandparents—struggled with addiction. As a young child, his mom abandoned him and his dad lost custody. That’s when Gina and her husband, Cam, became his foster parents. “We fell in love with the kid immediately,” Gina says.

From age four, CJ lived with Gina, Cam, and their three other sons in the small town of Marcus, Iowa, while visiting his dad on the weekends when his health permitted. Years of drug use had left his dad with emphysema and cancer, and he passed away when CJ was 10. “I feel like I had to grow up really quick,” CJ explains. “I didn’t have the experience of a normal childhood without worries.”

CJ says his father’s death created a domino effect. He suffered from depression and started acting rebellious. A new friend introduced CJ to vaping and smoking, and he had his first drink in sixth grade.

“Drinking gave me a way to escape things,” CJ says. “That’s when it all started falling apart. My friend and I weren’t good for each other, and I started to spiral out of control.” Gina attributed his changes in behavior to depression and enrolled him in counseling. No one suspected he was using substances.

The weekend CJ overdosed, the family was celebrating the graduation of CJ’s older twin brothers. While everyone else was busy, CJ snuck into a friend’s bathroom and took several doses of ADHD medication he found. By Monday morning at school, he was hallucinating and thought he was having a heart attack. He went to the guidance counselor, who called Gina.

Gina and Cam took CJ from the emergency room to a stabilization unit in Sioux City to a residential treatment center in South Dakota. When he returned home, CJ seemed okay—until the pandemic hit. Schools shut down and within two weeks, he was sneaking out of the house and using again.

Back to the ER. Back to the stabilization unit. Another adolescent treatment facility. Three days before he was supposed to complete the program, CJ was kicked out for fighting. He came home and immediately relapsed. One night, he snuck into his grandpa’s house and took a whole bottle of pills.

“We were scared for his life,” Gina says.

Finally, they found YSS. In fall 2020, CJ entered YSS’s Residential Addiction Treatment program in Ames. Unlike his previous centers, the YSS 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.

“YSS was different,” CJ says. “I liked the environment; it felt comfortable and homey. The staff showed interest in my hobbies, and I felt like each person really cared about me.”

His parents immediately liked YSS as well. The staff were in constant communication, and Gina was able to visit and bring CJ lunch. “Honestly, it was the best facility by far he was at,” she says. “YSS did a great job of preparing him to return to normal life.”

Gina learned to overcome her guilt by leaning on friends and going to therapy. As a mom, she felt like it was her job to protect him. But CJ once told her, “Mom, if I wanted to use, there is nothing you could have done to stop me.”

“It’s important for parents of addicts to know that it’s not their fault,” Gina says. “I’ve realized that no matter what I did, CJ had to be the one to fix it, not me. You can’t do the work for them.”

CJ graduated from YSS in December 2020. Now a senior in high school, CJ works part-time at the local nursing home and stays in contact with his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. He gets good grades and made the honor roll this semester.

Recently, CJ told his mom he wishes he had found this peace earlier.

“But that’s not his story,” Gina says. “His story is he’s overcoming and applying himself now. And I’m so proud.”

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