Support group a network for families living with autism
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
ALBERT LEA, Minnesota — A place to vent, share, laugh or cry; to celebrate triumphs and to understand setbacks. That is what a group of parents have found with the Albert Lea Area Autism Support Group.
The support group formed about three years ago. Its purpose?
“The support group started out of a desire to have a place parents could connect and support each other, as parenting a child with autism is very different than parenting a neurotypical child,” said Stacie Stensrud, an Albert Lea Area Schools special education teacher and facilitator of the family support group.
Stensrud is a teacher at Lakeview Elementary School, where she has led a self-contained classroom for students with autism for about 10 of the 28 years she has been teaching. She has her master’s degree in special education with a focus in autism, a degree she pursued after her own child was diagnosed at a young age.
Stensrud said the goal of the support group, which is partnered with The Arc of Freeborn County, is to provide support and information to parents and caregivers of individuals with autism. The group hosts speakers, holds discussions and shares information that pertains to families with individuals with autism. It also has a Facebook group to provide support and information in between meetings, as well as update those who can’t make it to the monthly meetings at Brookside Education Center.
Ryon McCamish and Michelle Knudson and Angela Braun and Steve Schaus are two couples who are part of the group. Both couples have two sons on the spectrum, and found out about the support group through fliers coming home from school. While there are some similarities in the ways their sons go about everyday life, there are many variables as well.
‘Did we do something wrong?’
For McCamish and Knudson, their two sons being diagnosed with autism came as a complete surprise.
Both Xander, now 6, and Cyrus, now 4, were diagnosed around the age of 3 years old, respectively.
Before Xander was diagnosed after being assessed, Knudson said they noticed he wasn’t hitting certain milestones as a toddler, wasn’t making much eye contact with others and was behind where most his age were when it came to speaking. With Cyrus, they knew more signs to watch for, and noticed he had more sensory issues.
The initial reaction to when Xander was first diagnosed was difficult, the couple said.
“Did we do something wrong?” McCamish said he wondered. “Who did it come from? Why is it happening?”
Knudson said there was a bit of a grieving process before accepting the diagnosis.
“OK, what now? What next,” she said of her eventual resolve. “We know what’s going on now. Now what do we do?”
McCamish was a bit more hesitant, as he said he wasn’t picking up on some of the warning signs Knudson and teachers saw.
“The word autism is thrown around these days like it’s nothing,” McCamish said. “Well, it wasn’t until I started asking questions, like ‘What is it exactly that you’re looking for, because I see nothing of what you guys are talking about.’ (The teacher) explained it very, very well. She goes, ‘For you, you don’t see any of the signs because he has a connection to you.’”
For Braun and Schaus, the initial diagnosis for their oldest son was difficult to understand at first, as well.
The couple also has two sons on the spectrum: Tovi, now 13, and Reuben, now 11.
Braun said that around 18 months old, Tovi seemed to plateau in his development. He was an early crawler and had seemed to be on pace with other children to that point. Then he started having difficulty in transitioning to solid foods, was later than most in starting to walk and regressed in his language skills — while his vocabulary grew, his sentence length started shortening. Teachers in Tovi’s classroom also noticed things weren’t quite where they should be and recommended the evaluation that led to Tovi’s autism diagnosis at the age of 3, as well as a speech delay and gross motor and fine motor issues diagnosis.
“We were completely shocked,” Braun said of their initial reaction to their son’s diagnosis. “He had been so advanced as a baby, always ahead — really happy and verbal. It was pretty much a surprise.”
“There was no family history,” Schaus said.
Reuben was diagnosed at about 2 1/2 years old. His parents also knew to watch for the signs, even more so since Braun said autism is more common for siblings, especially those close in age. The signs displayed for Reuben were his lack of making eye contact with others and his disinterest in interacting with other people all together.
‘Both ends of the spectrum’
A common saying in the support group is, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
The spectrum is so broad and ranges in the ways it can manifest in different people.
“The core areas that are affected in an individual with autism are the same, but how that looks in an individual is unique to each person,” Stensrud said.
The differences among those on the spectrum are evident for McCamish and Knudson, as well as for Braun and Schaus with their sons.
“Xander and Cyrus are complete opposites,” McCamish said. “Xander is always looking for sensory input, whereas Cyrus is getting too much. So, we literally have both ends of the spectrum.”
McCamish and Knudson have to evaluate each situation they put their family in, attempting to foresee what possible issues could arise for their sons.
Xander has issues with transitions, so when the family is looking to play at a park, when it’s time to leave they have to start a countdown to give Xander time to adjust to the fact they’re leaving. Sometimes, though, it still results in one of the parents carrying him to the car kicking and screaming. It makes it so Knudson doesn’t take her sons to parks on her own, and evaluates which ones let her park closer to the actual park equipment. The potential of having to carry a fighting 80-pound child 100 yards makes you notice your surroundings and know what your obstacles are, she said.
McCamish said there are certain places they have to avoid. If they’re not going to actually play at the splash pad, they can’t drive by it — even when it’s closed. Home Depot or Walmart can’t be mentioned in the house without both boys wanting to go. There have been times McCamish has had to “firemen carry” one boy out of a store while leading the other one along with his hand to get out of a situation and get them to de-escalate from a meltdown.
On a recent stay in Rochester, the family looked into going to a bounce house and trampoline place. They knew Xander would probably love it, but weren’t sure Cyrus could handle it. Knudson took Cyrus in by himself to check it out. He went into one bounce house for about five minutes, and then told his mom he was “all done” and ready to leave. While she said it was disappointing Xander didn’t get to experience it, they strive to find activities both boys will enjoy.
“We knew we couldn’t torture one to make the other happy,” Knudson said.
“Unfortunately, we’ve missed out on some fun things that the boys would enjoy.”
It comes down to whether Knudson and McCamish think both boys can handle the environment, if they’ll have an issue and if their parents have the energy to help them handle it. Certain events are skipped. Others are attempted with success, while some are attempted and don’t work out. McCamish said they tried taking the boys to a fair in Austin, where Xander wanted to go on a ride McCamish knew he wouldn’t be able to handle. It resulted in McCamish having to take Xander to the car with him fighting the whole way, with 100 to 150 people staring at them as they made the nearly 10-block walk to their car.
McCamish knows there are people who assume their children are “spoiled brats,” and mistake their sons’ meltdowns for tantrums.
“Meltdowns are much different compared to tantrums,” he said. “A meltdown occurs when your child cannot regulate their emotions at that time and they don’t know what’s going on.
“(Xander has looked) at me with this blank stare of, ‘Dad, help me. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ It is the most heartbreaking thing any parent could ever see, a child that does not understand, cannot control what is happening.”
The couple has gotten dirty looks and some snide comments when their sons have had meltdowns in public. To McCamish and Knudson, though, their first priority is their children.
“We do take other people’s considerations into account, but at the end of the day, I have to take care of my kid,” McCamish said.
“In order for the kids to be able to understand how to act in public, they have to be out in public,” Knudson said.
She said she hopes more people learn not to judge, especially when they don’t know the entire situation.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘You just need to spank them more,’” she said. “No, I’m not going to — you can’t spank the autism out of a child. It’s not ever going to happen.”
Differences in children on the spectrum manifest for Tovi and Reuben, as well.
Tovi is extremely social and will talk to anyone. He does have some issues with understanding the natural give and take of a conversation; he tends to interrupt or talk over people. While he’ll socialize with other children, Braun said her son prefers talking to adults.
“Everybody’s a potential friend to him,” she said.
This has a drawback, though, as Braun said it makes Tovi vulnerable — he has no concept of “stranger danger.”
Reuben, on the other hand, is more like what people probably assume with autism, she said. While sociable with children his own age as well as adults, Reuben is more introverted. He can get overwhelmed and exhausted by too much social time.
Both sons love to read — Reuben is more of a nonfiction reader, while Tovi is into anything fantastical or comprised of science-fiction.
Tovi has sensory processing disorder, meaning he can become either over- or under-stimulated more easily. He’s more sensitive to temperatures, and can’t eat certain foods or even watch others eat certain foods due to their texture. When he’s under-stimulated, he either swings or rocks in a rocking chair. To sleep at night, he wears a sleep mask, and sleeps in both a “mummy” sleeping bag and inside of a tent on his bed. Braun said this helps deprive her son of sensory input — like sleeping in a cocoon — so that he can sleep at night. Tovi also has a registered emotional support animal: a dog named Harvey. Harvey helps Tovi around the house and on long trips to the Cities for doctor’s appointments. Tovi can sit and pet Harvey, who helps him deregulate when he becomes overstimulated or overly upset. How? Because Harvey’s an “unconditional, all-accepting being,” Braun said.
Reuben is interested in areas such as ancient cultures and anything having to do with nature. He loves being outside, and consistently brings his parents sticks, leaves, rocks or other items he notices during his adventures. He loves music, but has to wear noise-reducing headphones so the volume doesn’t overload his senses. Tovi likes being outside as well, but can be more sensitive to the temperature or other aspects. Tovi also likes music — Braun said he has a beautiful singing voice and has experimented with different instruments. He also enjoys learning to cook different foods and reading recipes.
Both boys are extremely intelligent, ahead of their peers in reading level and very academic.
While her sons’ interests vary as well as overlap, Braun said there are no descriptors or labels that should automatically coincide with an autism diagnosis.
“There is no typical autistic person. That’s why it’s a spectrum, it’s so broad,” she said. “They’re so individual. Their challenges are unique, their gifts are unique.”
‘Happy, fulfilling lives’
While Xander and Cyrus are considered non-verbal by the medical community, McCamish and Knudson consider their sons to be low-verbal. Their sons also have echolalia, where they repeat back words said to them by someone else. It can make life difficult, especially when illness or injury come into play. Asking one child if they’re hurt can get a simple “Hurt” in response.
While communication can be a struggle, there are strides being made. The boys are starting to learn that while they may not be able to verbalize to others what they want, they can show them.
“‘Autism is a beautiful language that we all should understand,’” McCamish said a friend told him. “And it’s true, it really is. When you see the innocence of someone who is on the spectrum, even a kid … It really is its own language.”
The group has an end-of-the-school-year picnic each spring, where children of the parents involved have the opportunity to play together. McCamish and Knudson said seeing their sons interact with other children with autism has been enlightening.
“It’s really cool to see this subset of kids with their own little world and they all understand it,” McCamish said.
For Tovi and Reuben, Braun said the ideal is for her sons to be able to one day be independent, but that the family has to take it one day at a time.
“I don’t think any parent can know 100 percent — especially when you’ve got kids who have both the gifts and the barriers — how much they’re going to need,” she said. “Every year we know them a little bit better.”
Braun said their children have taught her and her husband to “be grateful for today,” not to always look toward tomorrow.
“How resilient they can be amazes me. They work really hard just to function and to get through what they need to get through in their school day and managing their emotions,” she said. “They’re exhausted from it at the end of the day and they just don’t give up. They’re tenacious and I really admire that about them.”
While Tovi will likely need some kind of guardian throughout his life, Braun has said he has expressed an interest is pursuing a career as a computer coder.
“You know, if I have to go with him to his classes every day at community college or college to help and be his para, and go sit there through every class, then that’s what I’m going to do,” she said. “I want them to do what they’re capable of doing and what they want to do, as much as it’s in my power to do so.
“What we wish for them is just happy, fulfilling lives — regardless of how independent they can be.”
Area domestic violence survivors discuss early signs of abuse
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on domestic violence awareness.
ALBERT LEA, Minnesota — Domestic violence is defined as the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically.
On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. During one year, that equals out to more than 10 million women and men.
While there are certainly instances of men being the victims of domestic violence, statistics overwhelming show that the majority of victims in domestic violence assaults and murders are women. According to the NCADV, 72 percent of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, and 94 percent of the victims in those murder-suicides are female.
Domestic violence crosses just about every socioeconomic barrier there is: age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion and nationality. Every situation is different, and it is not always easy to determine in the early stages of a relationship if one person will become abusive.
Multiple people affected by domestic violence in some way — whether personally or professionally — sat down with the Tribune to talk about what domestic violence is, how it affects everyone and what needs to change with how it’s handled and discussed.
‘I let him make a lot of my decisions’
When Stephani Adams was 15, she thought she had met the love of her life, and he seemed to feel the same way.
She was attending the Area Learning Center when it used to be located at the former Albert Lea High School site when she met him; he was the same age and was always hanging out in Central Park. Adams, now 33, said she was instantly attracted to him, and the two started hanging out, smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol together. Both growing up with abuse in their childhood homes, Adams said neither one of them really had any rules as teenagers. She said she fell in love with him almost immediately, and would spend nights at his house and skip school to be with him.
“He made it seem like I was the only one for him and he was the only one for me, right away, and that we were the best thing for each other,” she said.
At 16 Adams became pregnant — something she said neither of their sets of parents were happy about — but the situation left the young couple relatively unfazed. She eventually miscarried, and around that time she first took notice of the volatile nature of their relationship. Adams said she thinks the abuse initially revolved a lot around his level of alcohol consumption, but in hindsight realizes he had been controlling from the start of their relationship.
“I didn’t think a lot for myself. I let other people make decisions for me all the time, and I let him make a lot of my decisions,” she said. “Because I had a low self-esteem to begin with, he really took advantage of that. He made it seem like I was nothing — nothing — without him.”
The couple lived together and continued to abuse drugs and alcohol, Adams said, and at 18 she was pregnant again. Her pregnancy didn’t deter the abuse, she said, as she can remember getting into an argument at one point where she told him she wasn’t afraid to leave him. He responded by throwing her against a wall, punching her and then kicking her in the stomach when she fell to the ground, she said.
When Adams did have the baby, he was working odd jobs and she stayed at home with their son. The substance abuse continued for both of them, while she said his drug use seemed to be blamed on stress from them having a child — even though he tended to leave her alone for days at a time with the baby.
“That’s hard to talk about, because I didn’t make a lot of good choices either,” she said. “Because I wanted to continue to use and abuse alcohol and drugs, I stayed in that relationship.”
The most extreme bouts of violence or other abuse always seemed to happen when the two would be coming down off of a high, Adams said. They’d also spike when the couple would argue and she’d say she was done or that she didn’t want to be with him anymore.
“There were times when I would just lay on the floor — like after he would head butt me or punch me or throw me down — that I would act dead, because I was in pain and I didn’t want to feel that anymore, so I would pretend like I was knocked out,” she said. “Even then, he wouldn’t snap out of it.”
Adams said she called the police on him multiple times and eventually got an order for protection against him, which he would often violate when trying to talk her back into being with him. Eventually he went to jail for one of the OFP violations. While Adams said there was some relief from being free of the abuse, she continued her own substance abuse and said she didn’t try to better herself or her son’s life initially.
“It wasn’t forced, it was my choice,” she said. “I chose to keep making poor choices.”
When she finally hit her bottom, Adams said her family helped take care of her son, who was 3 or 4 by that time, while she finally started to focus on building her life back up. For the time being, her son’s father seemed to disappear.
‘I thought that I was special’
For safety reasons, one local domestic violence survivor cannot publish her entire full name. She will be referred to as Beth throughout the rest of this series.
Beth, now in her 30s, is originally from north of Albert Lea, and met the father of her child when she was 19. He was a year or two older than her and they worked together. She said she remembers thinking he was cute and they would spend time together every now and then, but there was nothing romantic between them at first.
Eventually she switched jobs and moved, and they lost touch for some time, before he made efforts to track her down. Beth said she remembers being in a bubble bath while living in her parents’ home, and her mother yelled to her that he was on the phone. By that point he had started to annoy her with how often he’d try to call her, and she frustratedly and sarcastically told her mother to tell him she was dead. Her mom admonished her and told her to take the call.
“I look back on it and think, ‘God I really wish someone had just told him I was dead,’ and he would’ve went away,” she said. “But he didn’t go away.”
In retrospect, Beth said that he was grooming her from the start to be under his control. They were friends again and were flirting, but nothing romantic had started quite yet. He had a girlfriend at the time, and would later go to prison for false imprisonment after abusing that girlfriend and barricading her in a room.
“I thought that I was special, and that that wasn’t going to happen to me,” Beth said. “It’s so hard to explain.”
Things started getting more romantic between the two, even though they were involved elsewhere. Beth helped him move at one point, into what was obviously another woman’s apartment. He explained it to her in a way that somehow made her accept it, she said, and she now knows the term for what he did is referred to as gas-lighting.
“It’s a person who deliberately says things to make another person think they’re crazy or wrong or lying when they’re telling the truth,” she said. “He always kept his hooks in me.”
When Beth broke up with the boyfriend she had at the time, she called him crying and he came right over. He never really left after that, she said. At the time, she said she felt loved and protected and thought he was her best friend, and she fell in love with him. It would be a few months later that he’d go to prison for assaulting his previous girlfriend.
“It was pretty incredible,” Beth said. “How can you fall in love with someone who’s on their way to prison for beating and tying up another woman?”
The two had known each other three or four years by that time, and the relationship gradually turned tumultuous and volatile. He’d show up to where Beth worked and stalk her — sit and watch her, leave notes on her car, get violent in the workplace and leave messages on the business’ answering machine calling her horrible names and using all sorts of profanity.
Beth said that at that time she was trying to move on from being with him, but he’d use different ways to bring her back, such as threatening suicide if she didn’t talk to him. She later learned that most perpetrators go after a woman’s place of work when they can’t get to her at home. She said they’ll do anything they can to ruin their chances of employment so that they’re financially dependent on them.
He was a frequent probation violator, so he was in and out of jail. Following one of the times he was released — about six years into them knowing each other — Beth got pregnant.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to have a baby,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want to have his baby. I knew eventually I was going to be on my own raising (my child).”
Beth’s parents weren’t thrilled, and her mother made a number of appointments for her at Planned Parenthood. Beth would tell him she wasn’t sure she wanted to have the baby and — while he wasn’t happy about the pregnancy, either, and hid it from his family — he’d scream at her and fight with her when she said it, once while throwing a soda in her face.
There was a lot of enabling in his family, according to Beth, and she said he had grown up watching his parents abuse each other — to the point that he eventually lived with his grandparents, and still stayed with them as an adult.
“I think there’s a lineage there of domestic violence and abuse,” she said.
Beth decided to keep the baby, and was living in a small apartment owned by what she called a “slumlord” during her pregnancy. The couple didn’t technically live together — his name was never on any lease — but he was usually there, she said. He’d frequently spend the rent money and when he’d disappear for days at a time and try to come back into the apartment, Beth said she remembers shutting off all the lights and hiding under her windows so he’d think she wasn’t home and would go away. She said there was one time where he broke one of her windows with his head while trying to break in while screaming at her, and his yelling eventually led to a fight with one of Beth’s neighbors.
Beth had a friend in another neighbor who shared her kitchen wall, and she said the two had a system: If Beth was ever in trouble or scared or needed help, she’d bang on the wall and her neighbor would call the police. Beth’s boyfriend eventually tried to break into that neighbor’s apartment. When the neighbor called the police on him, he was picked up but eventually released due to a lack of evidence. When he returned, Beth remembers him sitting in the bathroom in a rage, crying and holding a knife, just staring at her. She was about six or seven months pregnant at the time, and remembers waiting until he fell asleep that night so that she could sneak out to a park nearby, lay on a bench and look at the stars.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I was terrified and couldn’t sleep and didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t know.”
Eventually Beth gave birth to her daughter after moving into another apartment. There were still acts of violence and threats of violence, she said, even while she was pregnant, and even still after their baby was born. He would throw things at Beth and break her phone, and scare her by blocking the doorway or yanking her back into the apartment. There were times when he would snatch their daughter out of Beth’s arms, and there were times when he’d throw the baby to the couch, Beth said.
“I feel like on some level he loved her, but really it was just another way to control me, which is really sad because she just loves him so much,” she said. “In a way, I think he was showing me he could hurt her, too; he could get rid of her, too. That’s what that said to me.”
‘He’s talking about killing you’
Diane Lenway grew up in a home with domestic violence and was in a social work peer counseling group in high school. After an intervention for her parents when she was in high school, she thought that would be the last time she would ever have violence in her life.
When she was a senior she met her future husband, who was a few years older. The two dated for about 2 1/2 years, before getting married and moving in together. She noticed a change immediately.
“Within the first week he was a whole different person,” she said.
Lenway, now 53, said her husband would drink to excess and was into different kinds of drugs — something he had hidden very well from her before the couple started living together after getting married. Coming from a religious family that didn’t believe in divorce, Lenway decided she was going to make it work.
“I decided I was going to fix it, fix him,” she said. “The more I tried things that I thought would work, the more angry he would become with me.”
Initially, she said his anger toward her resonated in emotional and verbal abuse. She didn’t see it at the time, but he gradually isolated her from her friends and family — to the point that the only other people she had regular contact with were his friends, who he didn’t trust her with anyway. Within the couple’s first year of being married, Lenway became pregnant.
“I really naively thought that he wanted a child really badly and that it was going to turn things around … but it got worse,” she said. “During my pregnancy is when things started getting really physical.”
Lenway said she remembers him pushing her down a flight of stairs during an argument. The unfinished, wooden stairs scraped the skin off of her back and from her neck down to her knees. She laid at the bottom of the stairs until she was able to call her father, who took her to the hospital. She couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone but her dad what had happened.
“I still thought it was my fault because I wasn’t trying hard enough,” she said.
It became a routine of hers to try and gauge his mood when he’d come home, and she never brought up his drinking or drug use. Lenway said she just tried to survive her pregnancy, hoping that the birth of their baby would make everything better.
When she eventually had their child, her husband wasn’t present for the labor but made it to the emergency cesarean section. Lenway stayed in the hospital for seven days along with their newborn daughter, during which time her husband visited the baby once, but never saw Lenway. When it came time for the mother and baby to return home, he said he’d be there to pick them up but never showed. After sitting in the hospital entryway in a wheelchair with her baby for an hour and a half, Lenway called her dad and he took her home.
“I knew then that this was my baby to take care of,” she said. “The more attention I gave to her, the more angry he got with me, the more drinking and drugs — which thankfully he didn’t do any of that at home. It became a relief just to see him go.”
Her husband would disappear for hours and sometimes days at a time, and his friends — who Lenway said knew what he had been putting her through — would usually call her to let her know when he was on his way home.
Lenway said the emotional abuse, the brainwashing to the point of losing her sense of self, was worse than ever being hit. She felt that as long as she was the only one being hurt, she could fix everything. It was when things started to overflow onto her daughter that her mindset started to change.
Once she went back to work after giving birth, Lenway worked days while her husband was supposed to be home with the baby before working at night. She happened to come home for lunch one day to find her infant daughter at home alone, crying in a playpen with a dirty diaper.
“I don’t know how long she was there alone before that happened,” she said. “That was a real wake-up call to me.”
Lenway then called in to work to say she wouldn’t be coming back and waited for her husband to return. She had come home for lunch at noon, and he didn’t return until about 10 minutes to 3 p.m. — when Lenway normally returned home from work.
She eventually found out — due to being denied medical insurance during a doctor’s visit for her daughter — that her husband had been fired and had been unemployed for nearly two months, during which time he started using heroin. All the times he was supposedly at work those past months, he had really been out drinking and using drugs. People started coming around the house when Lenway’s husband wasn’t there because he either owed them money or he was selling them something. One time a man showed up at the door and threatened Lenway, telling her that if he didn’t get what he was supposed to, he’d be back to hurt her and her daughter. She waited, terrified, for her husband to return. By the time he did, she was furious and hysterical. She said he hit her in the head with a frying pan after she confronted him, said he was sick of dealing with her and all of her problems, and then he stormed out.
“I was terrified. I hadn’t really told anyone, so I really didn’t know what to do,” she said. “The minute he left, I just knew that if I didn’t leave before he got back, I felt I would die that night.”
Once her husband left, Lenway called the number of a victims crisis center she found in a phonebook. She told them what was going on, that she wanted someone to tell her what to do. Lenway said she felt ashamed and embarrassed, and was afraid no one would believe her. She hadn’t told her family or friends about what had been going on in the year and a half she had been married — who was going to all of a sudden believe her? The man Lenway talked to on the phone from the crisis center offered a rescue meet, telling her there was an anonymous women’s shelter at that point that he would take her to. Lenway said she became terrified all over again about what her husband would do if he knew she was making plans to leave, and quickly hung up. She would change her mind later that night.
“One of his friends called me and said, ‘You need to get out of the house now,’” she said. “‘Take the clothes on your back and get out. He’s strung out on heroin and he’s talking about killing you.’”
Survivors discuss the moment they had enough of domestic violence
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on domestic violence awareness.
Why didn’t she just leave?
It’s a question all too frequently asked of or about victims of domestic violence, and it is a question many advocates are trying to change.
“We tend to say, ‘Well, why did she stay?’ We don’t ask, ‘Why did he do that?’ We don’t ask why a human being treated another human being that way,” Albert Lean Tanya Fure said. “Instead of asking, ‘Why did she stay?’ ask ‘Why did they treat her like that? Why did that happen?’ Instead of saying, ‘Oh that boy pulled your hair because he likes you,’ we say ‘That’s not right, you need to tell him to stop.’”
Fure, 35, lost her younger sister, Trisha Nelson, earlier this year to domestic violence. Nelson, 28 at the time of her death, was a 2005 Alden-Conger High School graduate and had been with her boyfriend, Corey Perry, for six or seven years before Perry shot at her and then ran her down at a busy intersection in February in the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth. Police said at the time it was unclear whether Nelson had fled the vehicle or was pushed from it.
Fure said her sister and Perry had an on-again-off-again relationship for years, with Perry’s attempt to control and isolate Nelson evident to her family.
“I think everyone sensed something wasn’t right, but didn’t know to what degree,” Fure said. “Statistics out there state a woman will leave between five and six times before she’s actually ready to leave for good. So much of the time, those five to six times burnout so many friends and family because they’re so frustrated and they don’t understand.”
Since her sister’s untimely passing, Fure has become a strong advocate for domestic violence awareness, both locally and statewide.
“It’s my responsibility to tell her story, so hopefully somebody else can get a piece of her story and go ‘I don’t want to do that to my family. I’m not going to be next,’ and to make that her legacy,” she said. “If we continue to talk and continue to bring things up, in doing that we can reduce some of the stigma around domestic violence, as well.”
Domestic violence in Freeborn County
Domestic assault or domestic violence is the No. 1 violent crime in Freeborn County, according to Dwaine Winkels, director of public safety for Albert Lea Police Department.
“Over my career, I’ve seen how violent a person truly caught in a cycle of domestic violence can be. That person’s totally controlling another person,” Winkels said. “When you first come across that you realize just how much they’re like a prisoner. It’s just amazing how much that person is controlling another person, abusing them on a regular basis, and the conditioning that occurs with that.”
Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag said domestic violence calls are some of the most unpredictable incidences law enforcement can respond to. He said there are always numerous variables in each situation — from other individuals showing up at the scene to suspects using hidden weapons, or victims getting scared and starting to turn on law enforcement.
“When I say it’s unpredictable, it’s because we don’t know which way it’s ever going to go,” Freitag said. “It’s a volatile call for us to go on. It always is.”
According to Winkels, while efforts to bring awareness to domestic violence have come a long way, there’s still too much of a stigma surrounding the subject.
“There’s so much blaming on the victim that occurs,” he said. “I think there’s still some denial that exists out there. Even in today’s world people want to deny it. It cuts across all socioeconomic scales. It’s not limited to any population, culture or any particular group.”
Both Winkels and Freitag said on top of dealing with the stigma and denial, something law enforcement also deals with is the recidivism of domestic violence — repeat incidences between the same perpetrator and the same victim.
“For people that work in the system, there’s frustration at the number of times you get called there and nothing happens,” Winkels said. “You’ve just got to keep going and hope one of the times will break the cycle.”
“We try to keep in mind that there’s a reason this keeps happening, and a lot of time it happens the same way — very similarly — and we keep in mind that one day the victim’s going to have enough,” Freitag said.
‘I basically lived in survival mode’
About a year into her abusive marriage, Diane Lenway took her infant daughter and left their home in the middle of the night. It was the same night a friend of her husband’s had called her and told her to get out, that her husband was strung out on heroin and talking about killing her. Lenway met an advocate from a victims crisis center at a meeting place and followed him to a safe house.
“I remember getting there and thinking, ‘He’s going to find me. My car’s here. It’s right there in town,’” she said.
It took her husband three days to realize she wasn’t home. He started calling her friends and family, which Lenway found out about when she finally called her family to let them know she was OK.
“My dad told me to stay there, that he was looking for me. I still have this really horrible guilty feeling, because at that point my dad wanted to kill him,” she said. “I had a baby and I’m in this strange place with strange people. I felt like if I left that house I had nothing.”
Lenway remembers feeling she had messed up her entire life at the age of 22. The safe house she was living in eventually helped get her into counseling, find an apartment and get assistance to help with day care so she could go back to work. Within six months of Lenway being on her own, her husband found her, and had seemed to be trying to better himself. He cried and told her how he was sorry and begged her to come back, she said, and she had never seen him be sorry before.
The couple made an attempt to reconcile by going to marriage counseling, and their counselor told them they’d need to be living together if they wanted their relationship to really work.
“Strangely enough, the abuse was not a topic of our marriage counseling. I did sit there and let him say I was a bad wife, and I didn’t do this and did that and all of these things,” Lenway said. “I never said ‘He beats me, he hurts me, he scares me.’”
Lenway moved back in with her husband with both her daughter and a dog. Lenway said her husband wasn’t nice to the dog — a cocker spaniel — to begin with, but once he saw how much it meant to her, it was just another way to control her. Things came to a head when he slammed the dog against a wall while arguing with Lenway one day.
“I can still remember the sound of my dog hitting the wall, sliding down and just laying there whimpering, and I couldn’t move until (my husband) left,” Lenway said.
She called her dad, and within two days she had given the dog away because she knew she couldn’t protect it in that house.
“It’s an example of how you’re willing to give up everything in your life to protect it. You come to a point where it isn’t about you anymore. You’re already in survival mode,” she said. “Now it’s about protecting the people and things around you because you’re already damaged goods.”
Within a few months of Lenway moving back in with her husband, he was arrested and given the option of either jail or treatment for drug addiction. He chose treatment, and Lenway thought things finally might get better. Her husband had been in inpatient treatment for about one month when she came to see him for family week, during which time he told her that if she talked about anything that had happened in their home, he would kill her when he got out.
When her husband eventually got out of treatment and came home, Lenway said that within an hour he had called someone to take him out to buy drugs.
“It was like the minute he saw that I accepted that and didn’t leave, I was back under his control,” she said.
Lenway said many people then and in the years since have asked her why she went back — why she didn’t leave the first time he hit her.
“By the time that comes around, you’re already brainwashed. You’re already believing that everything that has happened is because of you. If you had only done something different or looked different or dressed different or not talked to this person, it wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “Once my daughter was born, it took on a whole new meaning to me. I basically lived in survival mode. I felt like I was all she had and my goal in life was to protect her. Every day was just another day that you tried to survive through.”
After her husband went back to his usual habits, Lenway did move out. Then started a long, painful divorce and custody battle that would go on for years.
‘I just felt so alone’
After having her baby, Beth felt like more of a prisoner than ever. She couldn’t leave her daughter for more than an hour or two since she needed to be breastfed, and whenever she’d try to pump milk to save for her daughter, her boyfriend would dump it out.
“I hear people talk about how it’s such a wonderful, loving, nurturing thing, but for me it was torture,” she said of trying to feed her daughter. “She lacked primal nurturing because I was trying to keep myself alive. It was really bad.”
When her daughter was about 3 months old, Beth tried to go back to work, but couldn’t hold down a job. She didn’t have a car, and her boyfriend would disappear for hours or days at a time when he was supposed to be watching their child. With no one to take care of her baby and no phone to call her places of employment, Beth said she lost at least three jobs because of her boyfriend’s control over her.
“I just felt so alone,” she said. “I was just completely beat down at that point. I was an emotional wreck, I was a financial wreck. It was just a nightmare.”
Not long after having her daughter, Beth became pregnant again. She terminated the pregnancy — something her boyfriend agreed to, but then never let her live down.
“There was no way I was raising two of that man’s infants, horrible as it sounds. I’d have never made it out,” she said. “The abortion was an alarming experience. I was alone. I had to take the bus. There were slip ups in the delivery room. I’ll never forget it. But apparently I’ll block it out as much as humanly possible.”
Beth said she remembers sitting in a rocking chair at one point, holding her infant daughter in her arms, and justifying suicide to just about every single person in her life. She said the only thing that kept her from killing herself was one of her friends — one who she knew would never accept her ending her own life. She decided she’d continue to survive.
After having long-running suspicions that her boyfriend had been cheating on her, Beth finally got her hands on the phone one day and found proof that he had been unfaithful to her. She confronted him.
“I don’t think there’s much in that house that he didn’t throw at me,” she said. “Playpens, chairs, books, big heavy (stuff).”
He started throwing all of her things outside, and Beth got her parents to come over and help her leave. When it came time for her to grab her daughter, her boyfriend wouldn’t let the baby go. The police were called and Beth was eventually able to take her daughter and go with her parents. While he had thrown all of Beth’s things outside, he refused to give her anything of the baby’s — no clothes, formula, diapers, toys or anything else.
“I knew that I was never going to let that happen again,” she said. “I was never going to put myself in that position again to have someone throw all of my (stuff) outside and kick me out.”
Beth then moved in with her sister for some time, and applied to a program specifically meant to help single mothers get through college. After being denied her first time applying, she moved into her parents’ home. After applying again to the college program and being accepted, Beth moved onto a college campus.
She still dealt with him, and he’d use her daughter to try and bring Beth back in and control her. He’d guilt her by talking about family loyalty and saying their daughter needed to see and know her family. He’d also let the air out of Beth’s tires and tell her not to go home because he’d be waiting for her. She said they’d go through their cycle of abuse — between their honeymoon period and bouts of violence — on a weekly and at times daily basis. Without knowing why, Beth said he always seemed to be worse during autumn; she could always feel them getting to that violent point then.
“When you get into an abusive situation, you start noticing — even if you don’t have words for it — you start noticing a spiral,” Beth said.
Things came to a head at one point on her daughter’s third birthday. The day started happily enough, with Beth waking up her daughter with a cinnamon roll, putting ribbons in her hair, wearing birthday hats and sending her daughter off with treats for her friends.
Later that night Beth hung out with her daughter’s father and at one point left their daughter with him and went home so they could spend time together. He came over later trying to drop their daughter off, when the two started arguing, prompting him to walk off with their daughter. Beth chased him outside and through a busy city street, with him yelling at her the entire time. At one point he shoved Beth, sending her to the ground and breaking her wrist. Being on a heavily-populated street and with people noticing what was going on, Beth told him to take their daughter and leave while she waited for an ambulance.
“If I went to the hospital and he went to jail, what was going to happen to (my daughter)? So I told him to just leave,” she said. “It’s hard because I still struggle with how much responsibility of that is mine. When you’re out of your mind, you’re just out of your mind. That’s not something I would ever do.”
Beth filed for her first order for protection about a year after the broken wrist incident. The incident is something Beth’s daughter still remembers and has talked about a number of times, among other things her father did.
“She remembers everything, and it’s scary how much she remembers,” Beth said.
Beth said while her daughter remembers a lot of traumatic instances from her childhood, she remembers things in a different way.
“(She) talks about her mommy ‘having naked sex’ with Daddy. I haven’t yet found a way to tell her that her dad raped Mom repeatedly in front of her,” Beth said. “I’m working on it. So far I’ve only been able to explain it as ‘Mommy didn’t want to do that and I’m sorry you saw that.’”
‘I knew he would kill me’
After a few years without hearing from her son’s father, Stephani Adams was getting her life back on track. She was clean and sober, and she and her son were living with her dad while she was going to college.
She still doesn’t know how he got her number, but one day her son’s father called her. He shared that he was now clean and sober and trying to be a better person. He said he was interested in seeing his son again. While hesitant, Adams said she trusted that he was trying to better himself, and she wanted him to see his son.
Seeing him again was like meeting an entirely different person, she said, and it was exciting for her to see him in a new light. Adams said they got along great and talked about their son’s future, and eventually they started dating again.
When their son was about 6 years old, Adams was pregnant, and the two decided to get married. They also moved from Iowa to Rochester. Adams had graduated from college by then, and she said it was her husband’s chance to now go to school. He went to school full time while she stayed home with their son and eventually their daughter, and Adams’ dad moved in with them at one point to help pay the bills. She said she thought at the time that everything would be OK, that they’d be clean and sober parents together.
Her husband relapsed before they had their daughter. Adams said she had a hard time asking for help and wanted to do everything herself. She was depressed her husband was using again, and that he always had excuses for why he was.
“I couldn’t keep him clean anymore. … So I started using, too,” she said.
Eventually Adams’ dad moved out, saying he wasn’t going to be there to pay their bills while they got high. The couples’ drinking and using made everything go to the extreme, she said. Child Protective Services was called on the couple when they’d get into screaming matches and when neighbors heard Adams scream for help. It left her feeling depressed and like she wanted to escape, so she would. She’d go out to bars to drink away her troubles while leaving her children at home with her husband.
“I felt like I was so stuck. I didn’t have anybody to help me out, I didn’t have anybody to help me move out, I didn’t have any ideas on where to go, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have money,” Adams said. “Looking back I wish I would’ve left when my dad did. I wish I would’ve left with my dad, because I put my kids through a lot more hell than they ever needed to be in.”
She said she tried to leave at times, only for her husband to either threaten to hurt her or say he’d get rid of all of her things.
“He held knives to my throat and told me he would kill me, so I had to play the game, too,” she said. “I had to pretend like I was going to stay and that I was going to make things better and that everything would be OK and that we were going to work things out — even though I knew it was never going to end.
“I know a lot of times the (Child Protective Services) worker tried to get me to leave and tell me that there was a way out and that she would help, and I believed her, but at the same time there was no telling what he was going to do. … There were times when I knew he would kill me. There were times when he would threaten suicide.”
Adams’ husband once went as far as slashing cuts into his arms and bleeding all over their home when Adams spent a weekend with her dad. Another time, the couple went out drinking together. After they went home to relieve their babysitter, they started to argue, when Adams told her husband she was going to leave because she didn’t want to fight anymore and didn’t want to wake up their children.
He wouldn’t let her.
When Adams tried to use a phone, her husband broke it. He blocked the door, telling her she wasn’t leaving.
“He made it seem so easy, like he would just kill me,” she said. “And I just wasn’t going to let that happen. I was not going to die. I wasn’t going to die like that.”
Adams said she took a run for the door at one point, throwing things behind her and knocking over chairs to try and block her husband’s path. She remembers the door being about 20 feet away, and felt that if she could just make it to the door she could get out and run. She eventually made it to a window and was able to crawl out and run away.
“And that’s when my whole world ended,” she said.
Survivors promote hope in domestic violence conversation
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
Editor’s note: This is the final chapter in a three-part series on domestic violence awareness.
Domestic violence affects everyone.
It’s a statement widely underestimated, according to many of those who have either survived domestic violence situations themselves or know someone who has.
Maureen Williams-Zelenak is the supervisor of Freeborn County’s Crime Victims Crisis Center and its children’s mental health unit, and has been a social worker for about 25 years. She said one of the societal practices keeping domestic violence stigmatized is people thinking it’s a private crime, and that it doesn’t affect everyone in every walk of life.
“Domestic abuse is real, and it occurs in all kinds of ways in our community,” she said. “I would say the biggest misconception is that they think it doesn’t affect anyone else.”
Williams-Zelenak has co-facilitated court-ordered men’s domestic abuse intervention programs for those convicted of fifth-degree domestic assault or higher. While the program is not still taking place in Freeborn County, Williams-Zelenak recalled having multiple repeat offenders coming through the program.
“We have this recidivism rate, which is why domestic violence, domestic abuse is an enhanceable crime,” she said. “Because we know that there’s a high recidivism rate — people do go back to those relationships — and yet we know the lethality keeps going up.”
Jeff Strom, a lieutenant with Albert Lea Police Department, said he, too, has dealt with repeat cases involving the same perpetrators and the same victims. He said there is a stigma that comes along with domestic violence, especially toward victims who have repeatedly been abused by a partner.
“Sometimes people question ‘Well, why didn’t the victim just leave?’ It’s not that easy,” he said. “How easy is it to up and quit a job and go to a new job? You don’t like your job, how easy is it to quit that job? Well now you’ve got financial issues involved, you’ve got children involved, you’ve got family and friends involved — it’s not that easy for that victim to pick up and leave all of that and go somewhere else.”
Domestic violence and its affects on children who witness it are also frequently underestimated, according to Chris Davis, supervisor of Freeborn County Department of Human Services’ child protection and child welfare unit. So far this year, Davis said there have been 506 child maltreatment reports that have come through her agency. Of those reports, 113 were opened for investigation and 84 of those cases are currently ongoing — serving 156 children and 155 adults. Twenty-four percent of those open cases have current or past history of domestic violence, she said.
“Children are the eyes and the ears of the walls in the home, and they see things and they take things in very very differently than adults do,” she said. “Domestic violence can have a significant impact on children because they look to their caregivers for their safety and security, and when something traumatic happens in their home, that really can cause a lack of security and affect their development.”
Dottie Honsey is living proof that childhood trauma stays with a person, even into adulthood. Honsey, a volunteer coordinator and advocate with the Crime Victims Crisis Center, grew up seeing her father abuse her mother.
“I can remember all of those kinds of things, because when you experience trauma it stays with you sometimes. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing yelling and screaming, fearful of what was going to happen,” she said. “(During school) I was afraid that maybe I’ll come home and my mom might be dead, because I could see that violence and I could see it escalate at times.”
Honsey left her childhood home when she 16, after taking some of the beatings herself when she’d try to intercede. She said her leaving seemed to be a wakeup call to her mom, who hadn’t realized how much the situation had affected her children.
“Many times, women that are in that situation don’t realize what’s happening to their kids or what’s happening to everybody else around them,” Honsey said.
For Kim Tiegs, an advocate with the Crime Victims Crisis Center, familial impact is something that needs to be noted more when dealing with domestic violence.
“You can’t predict how somebody’s going to treat you a year from the day you start a relationship with them, and by that time there might be children and there’s an investment and these little things start happening and it gets worse and worse. You can’t just walk out the door,” she said. “That’s probably one of my biggest frustrations, that there’s not a conversation about family-based violence in general.”
Andrea Hall, a probation officer with Freeborn County court services whose caseload specializes in domestic violence, said she has a number of men come through her office attributing their violent history to anger management. She said she has asked them if they’ve ever assaulted a police officer, an employer, a probation officer or anyone else other than their significant other, and the answer is almost always no. She said when anger management classes are assigned to perpetrators of domestic violence, they’re largely ineffective. She said the 48 hours of domestic violence education that are assigned in Minnesota aren’t enough to break the cycle of violence, either, especially since there aren’t always courses available.
“That’s just 48 hours to change a lifetime of learned behavior,” she said.
Hall also said she believes that when marriage counseling is assigned to a couple in a domestic violence relationship, it’s a horrific practice for victims.
“You’re basically ordering a victim to go to counseling with somebody looking at it like it’s an equal situation, and it’s not,” she said.
Another common frustration for those watching domestic violence situations handled legally is that many cases are pled down to disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct is not an enhanceable crime, whereas domestic assault is enhanceable. An enhanceable crime entails that charges may be increased based on past criminal convictions.
Assistant Freeborn County Attorney Paige Starkey said those kinds of charges get pled down when the prosecution feels there isn’t enough of a case to convict someone of domestic assault. She said this happens either due to a lack of evidence, or to a victim that won’t or can’t come forward. Getting a plea agreement using disorderly conduct will at least hold the perpetrator accountable to a probation officer to hold possible jail time over their heads, according to Starkey.
“I don’t know what we can do to help victims feel the desire to break out of an abusive relationship,” she said. “I have to be able to produce enough evidence that (perpetrators) are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and with an uncooperative victim that’s very difficult to do.”
Andrea Mauer, a social worker and advocate for the Crime Victims Crisis Center, said she herself has been frustrated with the system before, and said that frustration doesn’t help her advocate for survivors being revictimized by going through the legal process.
“Everyone’s frustrated by the system and everyone’s doing their part, but there has to be something that happens between the statutes, the prosecutorial approach and the plea bargains,” she said. “It’s very, very disparaging to everyone. I know one of the things people come in here for — thinking they will have personal justice as a result — a lot of the times it isn’t that and they have to find their justice in the fact that they prevailed as a person.”
Don’t give up
Something reiterated by those who advocate for domestic violence survivors is that victims — as well as their family and friends — should never give up. Victims need to keep reporting their perpetrators, and family and friends of victims need to stand by them. All too often, victims are cut off by loved ones due to the frustration of victims going back to their abusive partners, being trapped in a cycle of violence.
“That’s the worst thing you can do. Yes, you’re frustrated; yes, you’re angry; yes, they’re not doing what you want them to do, but what they need is one person besides him to always be there,” Hall said. “Because now, if you cut them off, you have just cemented what he’s told her.
“You walk away from them, and he won,” she said. “Don’t give up on them. They need you to be in their corner regardless of how frustrated you are.”
Mauer said lethality is typically highest when a victim attempts to separate from an abusive partner, making it even more difficult for some to get out of a domestic violence situation. She said victims need to be aware of the warning signs of escalating violence, and need to not discount or downgrade what is being done to them. Saying “choked” instead of “strangled” is an example of a victim generalizing or minimizing what has been done to them.
“With strangulation, he’s putting you on notice that he can kill you or not. He’s letting you know he’s capable of murdering you,” she said. “Never, never be afraid to call the police for help.”
Strom said when people take out orders for protection against their perpetrators, they don’t always understand that OFPs aren’t an end-all to the situation.
“You can get orders for protection, but in the end it’s only a piece of paper,” he said. “You have to be cognizant. The order gives us — law enforcement — something to work with, though.”
He echoed the sentiment of loved ones not giving up on those they care about who haven’t yet managed to get out of an unhealthy relationship.
“Understand what’s going on without judging or criticizing them,” he said. “Understand why the person’s there; how you can help that person and empower that person to feel like they can leave and everything will be OK, and that they don’t have to fear for their safety or someone else’s safety.”
Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag said it’s important for potential witnesses to be aware of what’s going on around them, as well, and need to realize that they can keep a domestic violence situation from turning deadly. He reminded potential witnesses that if they so choose, they can always remain anonymous when reporting domestic violence.
“There’s been plenty of times in the past where someone will witness to one degree or another — either they see it happening, they hear it happening … but they don’t do anything. Call us,” he said. “At the very least, we’ll come and stop the screaming — if that’s all it is, is them yelling at each other. But they could also save someone’s life, literally.”
As a prosecutor, Starkey said there have been times where they’ve had victims retract their statements or say they made them up. She generally assumes this is out of fear, or from not being able to break out of the domestic violence cycle just yet. While she works with people who try to help victims work through that fear and be able to take the stand, Starkey herself questions the process at times.
“It’s hard because I can’t help but feel oftentimes that when we do this, we’re sort of injecting ourselves into someone’s life — into an adult person’s life — and we’re telling them what’s best for them,” she said. “And that doesn’t sit particularly well with me, especially when we’re telling women what’s best for them, because that feels very patriarchal, that feels very paternalistic.”
Starkey added that with the worry of not having someone believe them, there’s hesitance from some victims coming forward. That can sometimes be the case in trials, and she said she has had instances where she felt jurors made unfair assumptions about victims.
“I usually start by telling them that I believe them. I’ve told a lot of victims that, and every once in awhile I’ll see the relief wash over,” she said. “There are people that aren’t going to believe them, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about that. Because that’s probably a societal thing, that’s where we live and when we live.”
‘I don’t have to be a victim anymore’
After Diane Lenway moved out of the home she shared with her husband for the second and final time, she embarked on a long and arduous process to divorce him.
He did not make the process easy for her.
Lenway said he would come into her workplace, shouting at her and causing a scene. Her boss at the time was friends with him, and would call Lenway into his office after her husband would leave and would blame the work disturbances on her.
She was living with her parents at first, before getting an apartment of her own for her and her daughter. She said she was terrified to be by herself, that her husband would stalk her and show up at her home unannounced.
There was one time that he hid in the bushes, dressed as a burglar in a mask, and forced her into her home when she came home with her daughter one night. Not knowing who he was, Lenway was even more terrified and said she kept screaming at him to just let her put her baby to bed. He ended up taking off the mask, laughing. Lenway started yelling at him once she realized who he was, and he took her and threw her down the stairs, hurting her ankle enough that she couldn’t get up. The attorney representing her in the divorce was the one who drove Lenway to the emergency room.
Even though Lenway had a restraining order against her estranged husband at the time, when she reported the altercation to authorities they said there was nothing they could do since the two were still technically married. At a hearing for the restraining order violation, Lenway said her husband’s attorney actually stood up and said to the judge, “Your honor, if you were married to her you’d want to beat her, too.”
At times feeling suicidal, Lenway said she eventually joined a battered women’s support group and started seeing a psychiatrist. She said it was at that time she started functioning as her own person, and finding the right people to have in her life. She started to learn that she wasn’t to blame for the abuse she had endured.
“This isn’t about me, this isn’t something wrong with me,” she said. “What’s wrong with me is that I allowed it to happen; I allowed someone else to take all my power away to the point that I couldn’t even function as my own person.”
Lenway finally got the divorce finalized, though she said it took about four or five years for her ex-husband to stop showing up on her doorstep because of it. While their marriage was officially over, he still dragged her through a nasty custody battle, she said.
“He never really had her, never really wanted her,” Lenway said of her ex-husband’s relationship with their daughter. “It was all about getting at me.”
There was court-ordered visitation between him and their daughter, which was only supposed to be overnight. One of the overnight visits turned into three days, during which time Lenway couldn’t reach her ex-husband and didn’t know where he lived. She eventually got in touch with one of his friends, who told Lenway that her ex’s apartment had been raided for drugs and that he was in jail. The friend went to the apartment for Lenway, where he found her 3-year-old daughter hidden under a pile of clothes in the bathtub, where she had been alone for almost two days.
From that time until her daughter was about 8, Lenway said her ex-husband would talk to their daughter on the phone and describe in detail how he planned to kill himself. He would then instruct their daughter to tell Lenway it was all her fault after hanging up the phone.
Those kinds of incidences left her daughter with a lot of anxiety as a child, Lenway said. Her daughter was afraid of bathrooms and didn’t like the door being shut on her. When she heard or saw her dad she’d become terrified, worried he’d try to take her away from her mom again. Lenway’s ex battled for custody for quite some time, until social services caught up with him for not paying child support. Once that happened, Lenway said he called her and told her their daughter wasn’t worth it and that he wouldn’t pay anything.
“I wanted her to mean as much to him as she means to me. When I realized she was really just a weapon to him, it was really hard for me to accept,” Lenway said. “I wanted him to understand that she was worth it all on her own — without me, with me, it didn’t matter because she was so worth it.”
Lenway ended up remarrying in the middle of her custody battle with her ex-husband, which she thinks is part of what led her ex to fight for custody in the first place — knowing that he really didn’t have any control over Lenway anymore.
“It wasn’t that he had this deep love for me, it was that he had lost control of my life,” she said. “His life was so out of control in every way, and I was the one thing he had control of.”
Her second husband was very protective of her and her daughter from the start, Lenway said, and helped them through the custody nightmare. She eventually had two more children with her second husband, and together they built a much healthier life for their family of five.
“My husband’s amazing,” she said. “He adopted my daughter when she was 9 and probably would’ve done it sooner if it was allowed, and he’s the only dad my daughter’s ever known.”
Through the trauma and years of instability and pain, Lenway said it’s important to her that her children know what a healthy relationship is and how other people should be treated. Lenway’s son and daughter from her second marriage are 23 and 18, respectively. Her children each have a strong sense of self-worth, Lenway said, and are all very kind-hearted. Her daughter from her first marriage is now 32, happily married and has a baby of her own.
“She is the kind of person that I wish I had been at that time,” Lenway said. “I can look at her and know that situation will never happen to her.”
It’s important to Lenway that others currently in unhealthy relationships know that there’s a way out.
“One thing people need to know is there’s a life after that,” she said. “It has been a lifelong journey of accepting things the way that they are, trusting that things will be different or I can do different things, that I do have control over my own life.
“I am a victim, I was a victim,” she said. “But I don’t have to be a victim anymore.”
‘I never stopped surviving’
On a night after they had gone out drinking together, Stephani Adams and her husband got into an argument that resulted in Adams running out of the house for her own safety. After she got out, her husband called the police, telling them Adams had assaulted him and was a danger to him and their children. Adams said he had punched himself multiple times to make it look like she had attacked him, and claimed all of the things Adams had knocked over to keep her husband from following her out the door had been thrown at him to attack him. Since Adams was more intoxicated than her husband was at the time, she said the police believed her husband. She also thought this was due in part to Rochester police not knowing the history of domestic abuse the couple had in Freeborn County.
Her husband then got an order for protection against Adams so that she couldn’t come near him, or come near their children.
“Through all the bad stuff he’s done to me; for all the sick, physical things he’s done to me — the knots that he’s put on my head, the scratches that he’s put on my face, he’s bit into my skin, he’s broken my nose, pulled my hair out, left bruises all over me — that was the worst I felt,” she said. “That was the most helpless I felt. And nobody believed me.”
Adams went to detox that night, but when she got out the next morning she realized she had nowhere to go. She tried going home, but her husband called the police on her so she had to leave. She called a friend of hers who paid for a hotel room for a night, and then the next day Adams went to stay with her sister back in Albert Lea. She said she was worried about her children at the time, not knowing if her husband would be able to take care of them — especially their 1-year-old daughter. Within two weeks of Adams being back in Albert Lea, she found out her husband had brought the children there to live with his parents. He then returned to Rochester to go to school and continue to use drugs, Adams said.
The court orders from Rochester transferred back to Freeborn County, so Adams had to stay clean and sober if she wanted to be able to earn her children back.
“I was so lost. I really didn’t believe that he deserved the kids, and I didn’t believe I did either,” she said. “Even though I really wanted my kids, I didn’t believe I deserved them.”
While Adams used drugs when she first moved back, she said she eventually started going to meetings, connecting with others trying to live sober, and got a sponsor. She got a job and started going to therapy, all the while garnering more and more hope that she would get her children back — that she’d make it up to them.
“I never stopped staying clean and I never stopped fighting and I never stopped surviving,” she said. “I got out and I took the chance on somebody that said ‘You can do this.’ I took their word for it.
“If I didn’t trust that, I would be dead — either from him killing me or my own drug abuse, because all of that was a spiral.”
Adams got her children back after about two years of them living with their paternal grandparents. In the meantime, Adams divorced her husband, as well. Her children still have his side of the family in their lives, which Adams said she’s grateful for, but her children haven’t seen their father in three years. She said she has made attempts to reach out to her children’s father, especially now that he’s living in the area again, but that it hasn’t happened yet. Adams said when she and her children have run into her ex-husband in public, he avoids them.
“I would love to work together with him, I really would. If he was healthy, I really would love to work together with him as a parent and share things with him and make choices with him, but he’s not around because he chooses not to be around,” she said. “He knows he’s missing out.”
Adams has been dating someone for the past few years, and she said he has been a positive father figure to her children, who are now 14 and 8. While she wishes their biological father was in her children’s lives, as well, Adams knows that’s up to her ex-husband.
“When you let the kids see for themselves, they figure it out. All I can do is be the best mom I can be and be there for them, and at the same time take care of me. Because if I don’t take care of me, I can’t take care of them,” she said. “I want to show my kids what a survivor looks like.”
The fact that she survived is what Adams feels is most important for her children, as well as others currently in domestic violence situations, to know.
“One thing I want to make clear for anyone out there struggling is that you don’t always have to be a victim for the rest of your life. I may be a victim of domestic abuse, but I’m not a victim anymore,” she said. “I don’t want that to be my story. I want it to be the fact that I got out of it and I survived and I didn’t die, that my kids get to live with their mom, that they don’t have to live with their mom in the grave because their dad took my life.”
Adams said it’s especially important that those watching someone they love struggle to leave an abusive relationship stand by them and support them, even if they’re not ready to leave yet. She said it’s important to offer them a way out, even if it’s just for a night, even if they go back.
“Don’t ever give up on them, don’t ever get mad that they went back,” she said. “Don’t ever give up on them, because it’s almost like a sickness within us, too. We’re almost just as addicted to this abusive relationship as our abuser.”
‘No matter what, I’m still moving forward’
Even though she had an order for protection against him, the father of Beth’s child still wouldn’t let her go. He was calling her hundreds of times per hour, and would threaten to post nude pictures of her around her college campus with her name and address on them in the hope she would be raped. She remembers being in a women’s studies class, learning about the power and control wheel of domestic violence as her phone continually went off with threatening messages from her ex.
“It was unbelievable to me that someone had already taken all of my experiences and studied them and researched them and put them into a power and control wheel,” she said. “It was an actual thing that I never knew about.”
Beth said she didn’t understand what the OFP was doing for her if those things still kept happening, even with her reporting every other day what her ex was doing to her and how he was violating it.
“I thought that if I reported a violation it actually meant something, but it doesn’t. The cops will take your report, but in my experience that was the end of it,” she said. “I learned — the really, really hard way — that you can’t just stop reporting and give up because nothing’s being done. I think that’s where a lot of people and a lot of victims, that’s the point where they start losing hope.”
Eventually Beth got in touch with a police sergeant, who called her ex-boyfriend and told him to cease any contact with her. He then referred her to a victims service center, which helped her build a case against her ex. Within a week her ex was arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic assault. With domestic assault being an enhanceable offense and Beth’s ex-boyfriend having a criminal history from assaulting a previous girlfriend, he went to prison.
When he eventually got out on probation, he still didn’t let up in his pursuit of keeping control over Beth. She was pursuing felony charges against him, when her daughter was over at his grandparents house for a visit. While her daughter was gone, Beth got a text message from her ex playing a song, which she ignored. He then called her, resulting in her going off on him for violating both his probation and her OFP so soon after getting out of jail. He also sent a note home with their daughter, for her to give to Beth.
“I was mad because I really wanted him to get better, even after all that crap,” she said. “I was at that point where I just really wanted him to get better for (our daughter), because she deserved better.”
Considering herself a “veteran of navigating the justice system,” Beth knew she had the right people on her team to get her ex sent back to jail. She called the police to file the report, and then called his probation officer with the report number so they could pick him up right away.
Beth and her daughter were at her parents’ for the Fourth of July one summer, when her ex was back out of jail and on probation. He kept calling Beth saying he wanted to take their daughter, to which Beth either ignored or told him no. On one of the times she did answer, her ex told her to have her dad “pistol up” and that he was coming to get his daughter. He later showed up at the house in a rage, clearly coming off of a drinking bender, Beth said. Beth tried to get him to leave herself, but eventually it took her mom yelling at him and her dad staying outside with him to get him to leave.
“I remember being afraid for my dad,” Beth said. “I didn’t want to call the police at that moment because I knew if we did, he’d take off and they wouldn’t be able to find him.”
Her ex kept calling and texting her, threatening her that he’d be waiting for her when she went home later that night, that he wanted her dead so he could have their daughter.
“That was the moment I just knew,” she said.
Beth called the police, and when they said they couldn’t pull him out of his own home for an OFP violation, Beth told them he had a warrant out against him for escaping custody — he had been out on work release from jail and never went back. The police picked him up and he went back to jail that night.
The final breaking point came for Beth when her daughter was once again at her ex’s grandparents’ house for a visit. Being in jail at the time, her ex called their daughter and talked to her on the phone, telling her horrible things about her mother, trying to sever their bond as mother and daughter. Beth said she saw a change in her daughter almost immediately when she came home that night. She was angry with her mother and called her a liar.
“There was no way I was going to let him do that to her or to us, and after that the world got very dark for a little while, because just the thought of him harming our child that way really just pushed me over the edge,” Beth said. “I knew right then that there’s no hope of ever having a healthy relationship of co-parenting. None of that was ever going to be possible.”
Beth eventually made plans to move to Albert Lea while her ex was still in jail, and her decision was further cemented when his grandparents showed up at her apartment one night, saying he had sent them to make sure Beth still lived there.
“I just knew that if I didn’t do something it would never end,” she said.
Beth and her daughter moved to Albert Lea, and registered with the Safe at Home program, which keeps physical addresses confidential and lists a P.O. box as a person’s legal address.
When her ex eventually got out of jail, he tried to get custody of their daughter. Beth had to fight him in court on her own, not being able to afford her own legal counsel.
“I remember nights laying on my living room floor with my laptop just bawling, dragging myself back through hell to recount all of these stories,” she said. “To get them all on paper was so traumatizing.”
After her ex trying to drag out proceedings by either not showing up at times or showing up late, Beth eventually got the case thrown out by explaining her history with her perpetrator.
Her OFP eventually lapsed and she didn’t renew it, because at the time she thought things had seemed to calm down. Earlier this year, Beth got an email from her ex that suggested otherwise. She said the email blamed her and shamed her for not letting him be a father to their daughter, and that’s when Beth decided to file for a 50-year protection order for herself, and one that would apply to her daughter, as well. When her ex once again tried to manipulate the legal system during court proceedings, Beth eventually got her 50-year OFP, and got one that applies to her daughter until she turns 18 — at which time she can extend it if she so chooses.
“I really feel like the nightmare that happened inside of me was absolutely horrendous, and people agree,” Beth said. “I have a 50-year order for protection and my daughter is protected, and it’s because of the mental abuse and the manipulation and control and the threat of violence.”
Beth credits her daughter with giving her the impetus to help her get out and keep her ex out of their lives.
“She’s really a great kid,” she said. “There’s no way that I could ever let her grow up thinking that that behavior was OK, or to live in that twisted, manipulated world.”
Beth’s daughter knows that her mom has an OFP against her dad, but doesn’t yet know that it applies to her, as well. Beth said she has had conversations with her daughter about her being able to see her dad “when it’s healthy and safe,” and that her daughter knows it will be a while, should that ever happen. As her daughter gets older, Beth said they’ll talk about why she also has an OFP and how she can go about making the decision on whether to extend it at 18.
Beth said she talks about what she has been through with those she trusts, and that she has to do so to help herself heal. She strongly encouraged other survivors to do the same.
She said those in unhealthy relationships can’t minimize what’s happening to them.
“If you’ve been strangled by your partner, if you’ve been stalked, there’s a 75 percent higher chance that you’ll be murdered by that partner. Don’t minimize what’s happening to you. Be honest with yourself, as honest as you can be,” she said. “You may not be ready to leave right now, but you will be.”
Beth and her daughter have a safety plan, should they ever run into her ex or see his family or friends somewhere. There are certain festivals in her hometown that Beth avoids, and her daughter’s school knows she can’t be in public pictures or be picked up by anybody besides Beth without explicit permission from Beth. She thinks having a plan has made her daughter feel safer, and she thinks it has helped her, as well.
“I’m either walking on the side of survivor or I’m walking on the side of victim,” she said. “But no matter what, I’m still moving forward and it doesn’t take away from the things that I’ve already accomplished and it doesn’t take away from where I’m going.”
School district does whatever it takes to help students at all levels succeed both in and out of the classroom
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
LAKE MILLS, Iowa — At the start of just about every class, Weston Menuey greets art teacher Brook Christianson with a big hug. Jacob Olson then comes in, and greets Christianson with a smile or nod of his head. As other students filter into the classroom, each greets Christianson in their own way before setting about working on their art projects.
The best education possible for every single student is what Lake Mills school district staff hope to provide, no matter how above and beyond the teachers, paraprofessionals and even the students have to go.
“We want every kid to feel successful and feel belonging,” Christianson said.
Olson, a senior, has been a student of Christianson’s for about four years. Olson uses a wheelchair, but Christianson wasn’t going to let that stop him from being able to participate in ceramics class.
Christianson, an art teacher in Lake Mills for about six years, found an old electric potter’s wheel and took it to the shop class teacher to see what could be done to modify it for Olson. Thanks to students Trae Butler and Drake Harnish, the wheel was adapted with a switch on top to turn it on and off and was raised so Olson’s wheelchair could fit underneath.
While there was some hesitancy for Olson at first when using the potter’s wheel, according to Christianson, he eventually became more interested. She said it now seems like working with the clay is soothing to him.
“Even though Jacob can’t talk to us, you can definitely tell that he feels part of it,” Christianson said.
Menuey, a freshman, is in his first year of school in the Lake Mills district. Menuey was born with Down syndrome. Christianson said it seems like being task-oriented and using a timer helps Menuey thrive in school. For example, he’ll come into the class and chop up dry clay for Christianson — one of his favorite tasks — for the first few minutes of class, before his timer tells him when to clean up and then get to work on his project.
The ability for Christianson and other teachers to better understand the ways they can help their students succeed and participate wouldn’t be possible without paraprofessionals like Tammy Hesse and Becky Hengesteg, Christianson said.
“They are exceptional helpers, and they are amazing,” Christianson said of the paras. “I throw out some ideas, but they do a lot of the work. They deserve a lot of credit.”
For Hesse, a para with Lake Mills for about 23 years, the school district’s efforts to include all students are always apparent in the ways they adapt equipment, lessons, projects and anything else they need to so that every student has the chance to succeed.
“I’ve worked with many students throughout the years, and every student is different. They have different needs and you have to adapt to what their needs are to make them successful,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from working with these students.”
Christianson, the art teacher for Lake Mills middle school and high school students, said elementary school art teacher Gretchen Kingland has provided adaptive art classes for students as well.
The inclusion efforts also extend outside of art classes, including into the music department.
While Lake Mills band teacher Nate Sletten said Olson isn’t able to attend regular practices or band class due to his school schedule, he has regularly performed with both the marching band and the concert band. A drum pad was created to fit on Olson’s wheelchair, and Sletten said drumsticks were modified so they could attach to Olson’s wrists.
“We love having him along, because he obviously loves music,” he said. “When we’re playing in concerts or when he’s sitting in the front line playing his drum pad, he’s just got a big smile on his face.”
Sletten, a teacher for about 12 years — three of them in Lake Mills, said when Olson is passing the band room with one of his paras, he sometimes stops in to play some music as well.
“He loves music, so he should be able to participate,” he said. “That’s what we do here at Lake Mills, is we allow students that want to participate to participate.”
The Lake Mills marching band welcomes every student to participate, even the athletes competing in the same game the marching band is attending. It is not uncommon to see marching band members in football pads or cheerleading uniforms during the band’s halftime performances, Sletten said.
In addition to music and art classes, both Olson and Menuey are involved with Special Olympics. Olson has participated in track, while Menuey will try basketball and track this year after taking part in bowling at his previous school. Menuey is also in Student Council at Lake Mills.
Christianson said the overall goal is to give each of their students the tools to continue to succeed and learn, and to teach them to be better, even and especially after they graduate.
“The staff as a whole, especially in the arts, are able and willing and wanting to provide extra,” she said. “It is for those students, so that they can learn new things and learn new skills, but it’s also good for the other students to see that inclusion and be open to students who are different than them.”
The school district’s efforts are also ever-expanding, as in December Christianson was planning to meet with the town’s parks and recreation department about developing a community art program to pair up people living with disabilities with others to work on regular projects.
“I think these kids have inspired me to do more,” she said. “There’s other people in the community, and when these kids graduate, I don’t want it to be the end of it. I want them to still be able to do things with others and do things like others, meet new people, because they are part of our community.
“I think Lake Mills is a really cool town in that way, that we accept everybody in the community and we want them to be successful.”
Environments, family history lead some toward addiction
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on addiction and recovery.
ALBERT LEA, Minnesota — Memory loss. Paranoia. Aggressive or violent behavior. Cancer. The list goes on.
All of these are possible side effects of long-term methamphetamine or alcohol abuse. They’re the effects of addiction.
“The way to think about addiction is that it is a disease,” said Michael Brunner, a licensed psychologist and the clinical director of Fountain Centers in Albert Lea. “It’s when problems begin to take over a person’s life that you begin moving away from substance use as recreation, to substance use as a problem, to addiction.”
Brunner said that addiction qualifies as a disease in that it affects an organ, there’s a defect or damage to that organ, and there are symptoms.
“With addiction we have all three of those, and the organ that is affected is the brain,” he said.
According to Brunner, there are four Cs to addiction: craving, continued use in spite of consequences, loss of control and compulsive use of a drug.
“There’s so many people out there in our communities — Albert Lea and the surrounding areas included — that do have addiction who are not receiving treatment,” he said. “The number of people with addiction compared to those with treatment — there’s just a vast gulf there.”
He noted not everyone who has an addiction necessarily needs to be in treatment. There are those who can find recovery through groups, families and other supportive sources, but there are also those who absolutely need to be in treatment to find a way to recovery.
Nature vs. nurture
In Brunner’s 20-plus years of experience as a psychologist in the recovery field, he has come to the conclusion that when it comes to addiction either being a predisposed condition or a product of someone’s environment, the answer is that it can often be — and usually is — both.
“When people are exposed to certain experiences in their life — particularly if they’re stressful, if they hurt the person, if they damage the person in some way — it actually changes the expression of their genes,” he said. “Some of the things that they say and do are affected and are very different than if they’d never been exposed to those negative things in their lives at all.
“If you are the type of person who responds impulsively, who is likely to do things without thinking … that’s one of those genetic characteristics that predisposes somebody to addiction.”
Brunner said adolescence can be an especially vulnerable time for someone who may be dealing with addiction or coming close to it.
“The earlier that you expose that brain to those toxins, the greater your risk for having an addiction later in life,” he said. “Put off the use of alcohol and other drugs for as long as possible until we can get your brain to that point where it’s pretty much developed, and generally speaking we’re talking about young adulthood. … We used to think that the brain stopped developing maybe in the teenage years, and now neuroscience is telling us that it’s young adulthood — middle 20s.”
For Rochelle Kirsch, an addiction to meth meant a loss of her identity — both as a mother and as a nurse.
Kirsch, a 41-year-old resident of Albert Lea, said she grew up with divorced parents. Her father wasn’t in her life throughout most of her childhood due to his own addictions. Instead, Kirsch lived with her mother and stepfather, who she said started to sexually abuse her when she was 9.
“I was born to an alcoholic father, a narcissistic mother and a pedophile. Those are my parents,” she said. “I was destined for this.”
Kirsch was a sophomore in high school when she said she finally came out to her mother and the local authorities about the abuse she had been suffering. Her mother told her if it went to trial, Kirsch would be breaking up the family, and that she’d be making front page news. Asking her what her friends might think about the situation, Kirsch’s mother scared the teenager into lying and covering up the whole ordeal.
“Right there set me up for, ‘Ask for help, and you’ll get worse.’ Right there set me up for, ‘I am responsible for other people’s actions,’” she said. “I didn’t matter. I was not loved, I was not cared for, I was not protected, I was not… anything.”
Due to no self worth or self esteem, Kirsch said she went to nursing school to become a registered nurse, but that she still made bad decision after bad decision.
“I was an addict way before I even picked up,” she said.
At 36, Kirsch was married with three children and was an RN in the trauma intensive care unit at Mayo Clinic.
“I floated always to trauma and always to chaos,” she said. “I didn’t know any better.”
Essentially, Kirsch said she had been hanging on to a horrible marriage but was still devastated when it ended in divorce.
“All I could think was, ‘I’m a failure, I didn’t make this work,’” she said. “Everyone’s going to think there’s something wrong with me.”
She called her divorce process “messy and nasty,” and said she didn’t receive any support from her family. Kirsch said her ex-husband would take off with their children for days at a time to exert control over her, leaving her feeling lost and alone. She said she didn’t know what to do with herself if she couldn’t be a mother.
“I decided to do the wrong thing,” she said. “To escape.”
She started to tell herself that — since she had never been much of a partier in her 20s due to being a young mother and being in school — that it was her time to let loose and have some fun.
“I thought it was going to be like ‘Sex and the City’ in Albert Lea,” she said. “It so was not.”
For about a year, Kirsch said she dabbled off an on with various vices, but that her mainstays were meth and alcohol.
“I started drinking heavily, and one thing led to another,” she said. “I was a 36-year-old meth addict.”
Kirsch said she lived like that for about three years, and that no one knew about her addiction at first. She said she would even arrange her work shifts around her addiction, to the point that she was using every day. She’d call in with different excuses constantly, from her children being sick to her car breaking down.
Later on, when others became aware of her drug use, Kirsch said she was often asked why she didn’t just simply quit.
“It’s not that easy,” she said. “When you are so full of emotional pain and shame, and all those awful feelings — you don’t think you have a choice. Your choice is to numb and not have to deal with it.”
Something was missing
For Ric Staloch, there was no trauma that preceded his years of addiction, but there was a family history. His mother was a recovering alcoholic, and he said that a number of his siblings have had their own struggles with addiction, as well. Staloch’s own bout with the disease began at a young age.
“By the time I was a junior in high school, I would do any drug I could get my hands on, and I don’t know why,” he said. “There was a lot of love in my family and we had what we needed. … We weren’t abused, we weren’t neglected.”
Staloch, now 59 and living in Wells, said he first started drinking with friends before school dances and other events.
“I just always wanted more,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that there’s just something in the brain of an addict that’s different. Something was missing, and I used drugs to try and fill that piece that was missing.”
Staloch said that as a junior in high school he was shooting drugs, and eventually contracted hepatitis from using unsanitary needles.
“None of that really seemed to make any difference to me,” he said.
At the age of 27, after getting married and having children, Staloch was arrested for selling drugs to support his own habits. He said his wife went to his mother for help with bail money.
“(My mother) said, ‘That’s just where he needs to be,’” recalled Staloch.
At the time of his arrest, Staloch said he knew he was in trouble and went into treatment as a part of his sentencing.
“I didn’t want to be sober,” he said. “But I didn’t want the consequences of not being sober, either.”
He said he was sober for about 90 days total during his first treatment experience. He could’ve been sentenced to five years in prison for selling drugs, but his sentence was stayed due to how well he did in treatment.
When he left his treatment program, Staloch said he made no effort to change his friends or his habits, and things eventually slipped back to normal. The only way Staloch felt he could afford to keep using the way he wanted was to start selling drugs again.
“Part of the insanity that I see of my addiction is that the judge told me if I so much as got caught jaywalking I was going to be doing my time, which would be at least three years in prison,” he said. “Within two months after the judge told me that I was back to selling drugs again to support my habit. It just gradually got worse and worse.”
All in the family
Sandy Roe’s childhood was spent growing up with an alcoholic family, she just didn’t know it at the time.
“I thought it was normal for parents to party all the time,” said the 51-year-old Albert Lea resident. “It’s definitely a family disease as far as addictive behaviors. I believe that. You go from one addiction to another.”
Roe’s parents were both alcoholics, and Roe and her two brothers have all had their own struggles with addiction.
Roe was 13 when she started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Through the rest of her teenage years, she said her drug use expanded to cocaine, acid, hash and street speed.
At 16, she was arrested for illegal consumption, and also became pregnant with a daughter she put up for adoption.
“I always knew I was missing something, and I always thought that was a man,” she said. “I thought if you had sex with men then they’d love you, and if they’d love me then I’d love myself.”
Roe’s parents both got sober in 1985, after her mother went through treatment. When they found out their daughter was using coke, Roe said they staged an intervention for her in 1987. She went to treatment, and ended up marrying a man she met there less than a year later — something she said treatment professionals adamantly advise against.
“You need to work on you any time you’re in recovery,” she said. “When you’re in a relationship, you don’t concentrate on you, you concentrate on that other person.”
Following treatment, Roe said she and her husband stayed sober for about 1 1/2 years. They didn’t go to meetings and neither of them got a sponsor through their respective programs. Over the years they both began drinking again, having children in the meantime, as well. Roe said she went into treatment a second time in 2008 in an attempt to save the unhealthy marriage. Around that time her daughter, who was then 15, moved in with Roe’s father to get away from her parents’ drinking.
Through Roe’s second treatment she said she stayed sober for about six months, during which time she moved out of the home she shared with her husband and began living with her teenage daughter again. Again, Roe didn’t get a sponsor after treatment, and the few meetings she attended dwindled down into not attending any.
Eventually old habits returned, and Roe said she’d always try to rationalize them. She wouldn’t drink, she’d just smoke weed. She wouldn’t drink hard alcohol, just beer.
“I could never accept that I was an alcoholic,” she said. “I could admit it, but I could never accept it. I thought I could control it.”
Just having fun
Albert Lean Matthew Peterson, now 36, was 17 when he had his first drink. It was the Fourth of July.
“That was really the time that opened the doors. … The first time I drank, I loved it,” he said. “After that first time, I wanted to be drunk. I was never one that just wanted to carry a buzz, so to speak.”
While Peterson said he didn’t initially start drinking heavily right away, he said it steadily increased over the years. He said he used street speed, but that alcohol was always front and center.
Peterson’s addiction really grew legs in 2003, when he said he was activated in the Army for one year as part of the National Guard. During that time, he said his drinking became an everyday habit while he was stationed in Fort Carson in Colorado.
Peterson said he idolized the wrong people — people like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe — people he refers to as “intellectual idiots.”
“I emulated the wrong people and just wanted to keep the party going,” he said. “I just thought I was having fun.”
Peterson said he never had any run-ins or incidences while on the job — both with the National Guard and now at Minnesota Corrugated Box — but he feels his higher-ups in the Army probably had an idea of what was going on.
“I was the typical working alcoholic where — on the job — I did very good, but would get carried away on my free time and that spilled over,” he said. “I think in the end I got what I deserved out of it. I didn’t try to re-enlist, and they didn’t try to keep me, either.”
Once he was back in Albert Lea working at MCB, he said he never felt right when he wasn’t drinking and that he’d get the shakes after going too long without alcohol.
“I never drank on the job, but I was about going crazy inside my head,” he said. “My wheels were just spinning like crazy. It wasn’t calmed until I would get home and have a drink.”
Trying to be normal
Thirty-six-year-old Rey Reyna first started drinking at the age of 11, when he said he was hanging out with older guys and felt like he had something to prove.
He said most of his drug experimentation was with marijuana, but that he also used coke, meth and LSD as well, before going through outpatient treatment as a teenager for drugs.
“After that I thought, ‘Alcohol is legal, and I don’t have a problem with it,’” he said. “I thought it was normal.”
For years the Albert Lea resident said he’d watch other people drink “normally,” who were able to stop after only a few drinks, and kept thinking he could do the same.
“We see people do that, and to me it’s like, ‘I can do that too,’ and then continually trying and trying over and over again and failing every time — that’s where the term of denial comes in,” he said. “I didn’t understand that addiction was a disease. … Something happens to me when I take that first drink.”
Reyna said he was in jail at one point due to getting in a car crash while driving drunk. He lost his license for three years, and people both inside of his vehicle and others outside of it were hurt.
“Emotionally, I think that affected me quite a bit, because you know you’re not supposed to be doing something like drinking and driving,” he said. “But for some reason, the consequences just don’t seem real when you’re in the middle of it.”
He said a number of his friends never considered his drinking to be that serious, but Reyna also felt that he really didn’t hang out with people who didn’t do the same things he was doing at the time. He didn’t realize what he was doing to himself and to others in his life, and the realization of how he can and has affected others is something that has come with time.
“It’s a family disease. One person has the addiction and the whole family suffers, everybody around them suffers,” he said. “It’s frustrating to watch somebody you love wreck themselves, and it’s hard to understand why they keep doing it.”
An all-consuming power
Jayne Stout of Hollandale started drinking and smoking pot with her friends when she was 14 and continued to experiment as a teenager.
Her honor-roll grades, participation in sports and other activities dwindled and dissipated due to her newfound habits. She said she’d stay up all night partying and would then skip school the next day.
When Stout was 19, she tried crystal meth for the first time — the drug that would turn into an almost 20-year habit.
“I knew absolutely that I wanted to do it again,” said Stout, now 41. “I’ve found over the years that very few people who try meth say ‘I never want to do it again.’ That’s how powerful the drug is.”
Stout has had a total of seven drug felonies, and has spent a total of six years — non-consecutively — in jail or prison stemming from her possession charges.
Stout said one side of her family has a history with alcoholism, but the other side has no known history of addiction at all. She said she believes some people are prone to addictive behavior because of their physiology.
“I tell my own kids, ‘You can’t try drugs, not even once,’” she said. “Because their parents — my kids’ parents, myself and their father — are both addicts.”
The effect her struggles may have had on her children is something Stout often thinks about.
“I think my kids always knew that we didn’t live like other people. They knew that their mother’s behavior wasn’t always consistent with the way they saw other people act,” she said. “I was very good at protecting them from what drugs looked like or the paraphernalia that goes along with it, but I had people coming in and out of my house and we’d go in the basement and get high together. What other households do you know where, when the parents’ friends come over, they go hide somewhere?”
Growing up, Stout said she thinks the time period — the ’70s and ’80s — wasn’t known for being open or nonjudgmental about any form of abuse or addiction. She thinks that’s something that has changed with time and that society today is more pro-empowerment.
“Meth is nondiscriminatory. It doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, if you’re pretty or ugly, if you’re fat or thin, or smart or challenged. Meth will take ahold of you and it doesn’t care,” she said. “I tend to look at meth more like a demon. It consumes you totally.”
Lowest points in addiction often lead a person toward change
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
Editor’s note: This is second in a three-part series on addiction and recovery.
Those who have any experience with addiction are typically familiar with the phrase “rock bottom.”
When it comes to alcoholism or drug addiction, rock bottom can manifest in a near death experience, legal trouble or the loss of a partner or children. It could also mean experiencing a mental or emotional breakdown. “Hitting rock bottom” is used to describe the lowest point in a person’s addiction, but it can also be the turning point that brings about the change needed to push an addict toward recovery.
A moment of clarity
Ric Staloch first went through treatment when he was about 27 and had been arrested for selling drugs. He said he maintained his sobriety for about 90 days, before gradually slipping back into old habits. His relapse would go on for about eight years.
Staloch said there were a number of times when he knew he wanted to quit, that he wanted to be in recovery, but “the addict in his head” kept coming up with excuses. He didn’t enjoy using anymore and said he felt guilty and ashamed every time he did.
His daily routine consisted of getting up in the morning, getting dressed, packing a lunch and then getting high before going to work for the day. He’d try to take baby steps to quit using by trying to stop for one day. Over the course of a week, that one day was reduced to waiting until he got home from work, to waiting until his lunch break, to just trying to make it to the parking lot at work before he used. On the morning he made it to the parking lot before using — a 20-mile drive from his house — he said he just sat in his car and cried.
“I kept thinking, ‘What a loser I am,’” Staloch said.
He finally went in with his wife for a Rule 25 assessment — an assessment done when a person is seeking chemical dependency treatment and needs public funding to pay for the treatment — and was given a 30-day residential treatment recommendation.
“I laughed at her,” Staloch said. “I said, ‘I’ve tried that, it doesn’t work. You need to lock me up six to nine months. That’s the only way it’s going to work.’”
The woman running the assessment said they’d start off with 30 days and told him he could be admitted within the week. Staloch panicked. He told her he’d have to talk it over with his family and that they’d make the decision together. On the drive home, Staloch told his wife to let him do all the talking when they brought it up to their children.
He wanted to put the treatment off for a month, saying that if he went in right then his family wouldn’t have much of a Christmas. The family hadn’t started decorating or shopping for the holiday yet, and while Staloch was in treatment he wouldn’t be earning a paycheck to do so.
“I told them, ‘I can go to treatment now and we won’t have any of that. It’ll be the most miserable Christmas we’ve ever had, we won’t be together as a family.’ And I just went on and on. And I said, ‘Otherwise, we can wait four weeks, next paychecks we’ll get Christmas ready, have a great Christmas and then I’ll go to treatment,’’ Staloch said. “My kids started crying and said ‘Dad, we just want you to get help.’ It just took the wind out of my sails. … It was a moment of clarity.”
This is it
Through Jayne Stout’s treatment experience, she has heard the saying, “Drug addiction leads to jails, institutions and death.”
Stout herself had her own brushes with the law through her continued methamphetamine use. After going through an outpatient program at Fountain Centers as a term from her most recent felony sentencing, she skipped a check-in with her probation officer. Two days later she was arrested in Austin.
“I was in the back of a cop car with my hands in handcuffs, and my boyfriend was along with me. … I turned and it was like an epiphany,” she said. “I turned to my boyfriend and said, ‘This is it. I’m never going to do this again. This is the end for me.’”
Stout said before that turning point she had been playing games with the system for years. Out of her seven drug possession felonies, Stout said almost all of them were for fifth-degree possession, which means she had less than a quarter of a gram — the lowest level of possession. She referred to her record as “the record of a junkie.” She never had a large amount of drugs on her, because she was always using, and she considers herself lucky to have only ever been arrested for possession.
“I took a lot of risks that I definitely could’ve been caught for. God willing, I never did,” she said. “I came to a place where I found myself to be physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. … I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Stout commends the local probation office for how it handled her situation and the role it played in her path to recovery.
“I’d stay sober when I thought I needed to, and when they’d turn their back I’d use. I was just really bent over to my addiction,” she said. “I really give them credit for seeing the potential in me, even when I couldn’t see it myself. … They could’ve very easily put me back in prison at any point, but they decided to give me a shot in treatment this time.”
After being arrested, Stout went to jail for 60 days, and then straight to Fountain Centers for 34 days of inpatient treatment as part of a recovery plan that was specifically tailored to what the center thought she needed.
“It was really about getting honest with myself. You like to believe when you’re using that you’re not hurting anyone else, you know, that you’re just having a good time,” she said. “I was hurting my children and my family. … You lose your friends, you can’t hold a job, you have trouble paying your bills and your self-esteem just plummets.”
By the time he was 24, Rey Reyna said he had been to jail multiple times, was renting a cheap room from a friend and had a number of broken relationships in his life. He felt powerless.
“I had no compassion for myself or other people,” he said. “I knew something was wrong and it scared me.”
A number of the relationships with those closest to him were strained or broken, he said. Reyna believes there is certainly a place for tough love — or as he calls it, “detaching with love” — when dealing with a loved one who’s struggling with addiction.
“Some of us are really good manipulators and we can keep people sick around us. If I’m behaving in an addictive way or using, I can keep people around me in that same sickness mentally and emotionally as well,” he said. “There’s a way to detach with love.”
Reyna said his sobriety technically began with jail time, but that the idea of recovery didn’t fully resonate with him until he went to a 72-hour relapse program in Austin.
“Jail was not fun, but I didn’t hear what I needed to hear until I got to a relapse group,” he said. “I didn’t have a drinking and driving problem, I had an alcohol abuse problem.”
While he said the program wasn’t as intensive as an inpatient or outpatient treatment, Reyna believes the program was what introduced him to the concept of recovery.
“It was just hearing somebody explain the behavior and the mentality of an addict and going, ‘Wait a minute, I think that might be me,’” he said. “I believe wholeheartedly that addiction is addiction. The chemical we react to is the one our body likes the best.”
Reyna credits a good deal of his recovery to the legal system and the groups he has become involved in throughout the years.
“I’ve heard so many stories in these groups of people with amazing stories of overcoming their addictions and overcoming hardships,” he said. “My story isn’t quite that dramatic. I think it just proves that so many of us have different degrees of bottoms.”
Five or six years ago, Matthew Peterson said he felt he needed help where his drinking was concerned. He tried asking for help, but felt he asked the wrong people when nothing changed.
“Inside, growing up I always felt like I was a little bit different than everybody else,” he said. “Nowadays I think that was more inside me than it was put on me. … There was a lot more going on inside my head.”
Peterson believes he found his rock bottom about two years ago, when he said his drinking was taking off again.
One afternoon he put his two young children down for a nap, and then passed out himself because of his drinking. While he was asleep, his children woke up and went outside by themselves to play. The police were notified, and Peterson’s mother had to pick up his children when officers came to the house. The incident made Peterson think more and more that he needed to get into recovery, but he didn’t know how. His family ended up finding him a treatment center to go to.
“I thought the window had closed. I had resigned myself to be a drunk until I died,” he said. “Somebody else was looking out for me, and they’re the ones that got the ball rolling into recovery.”
In general, Peterson credits his family and the support they’ve given him as playing a major role in his recovery.
“I’ve been ready for a couple years to get sober,” he said. “I took it very seriously, and I still do.”
Rochelle Kirsch first asked for help with her meth addiction after she felt she couldn’t hold her life — both as a mother and as a nurse — together anymore without treatment.
After her first outpatient program, Kirsch said she was living with a boyfriend who was also using, and that too much of her life was still the same for recovery to take hold. Eventually she went into a second outpatient program, specifically made for health care professionals. Throughout this second treatment, Kirsch said she was routinely met with the stigma of, “You’re a nurse, you should know better.”
“I did know better, but I didn’t feel better,” she said. “There’s no gray zone. You either are or you’re not. … I tried to find it.”
Following her second treatment, Kirsch relapsed once again. Since she had gone into treatment specifically meant for those in the health care field, her relapse was reported to the board of nursing.
Her nursing license was suspended, and Kirsch was told to take a year off to get help. At the time, Kirsch was also reeling from the loss of her brother, who had committed suicide two weeks prior to her suspension. Kirsch was terminated from her job as a result of the suspension, as well.
“That was a huge part of my identity. I’m a nurse, that’s me,” she said.
Kirsch said she went to her ex-husband to ask for help and was met with animosity and insults. The couple had joint custody of their children at the time, but — following her admission — Kirsch’s ex pushed for full custody. He got it.
“I’m a nurse, I’m a mom,” she said. “I didn’t have it anymore. Nothing.”
The loss of her two most important identities brought Kirsch to yet another recovery crossroads.
“I thought, ‘I can’t stand this.’ Everything I thought I was is gone,” she said. “If I pick up and use again I’m not coming back from it, I’m not. … It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
She fully committed to treatment her third time around, she said, and still never received support from any of her family. Kirsch said her going to rehab was very “hush-hush” where her family was concerned, because they were worried about what people would think.
“I’m not blaming anybody. I am responsible for my actions. … As using addicts, we have horrible behaviors. We do. I had them. That’s what’s always highlighted. … But there’s another side,” she said. “I was very broken, I was very damaged. I was very emotionally void. That’s what an addict needs, is emotional support.”
One last chance
After both going through treatment twice and relapsing twice, Sandy Roe was to the point where she was drinking in the morning, at lunch and throughout the day, every day.
In 2000 she got a DWI while driving with her two youngest children in the car. In 2005, one of her brothers died after falling asleep at the wheel while driving drunk. Roe said none of it phased her.
At her lowest point, Roe’s youngest daughter wouldn’t speak to her, even though they worked together at Minnesota Corrugated Box. One day, Roe said her obvious drinking was reported at work. She was pulled into her boss’ office, written up, told to get help and was then escorted off the premises and sent home.
“I had lost all respect from family, friends, coworkers,” she said.
She went home and continued drinking.
“I got home from work one night and I just bawled and cried and prayed to God. I knew I was going to die,” she said. “If I didn’t quit drinking I was going to die. My health was deteriorating. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I didn’t care anymore.”
Roe said she called her father and asked him to take her to the hospital. She was taken to the emergency room, where she passed out. She woke up two hours later. Her father told her that, unable to give her a breathalyzer, doctors had done a blood test and Roe’s blood alcohol level was .52 percent. A .5 is considered potentially lethal. Roe believes she had been that drunk before multiple times, and she thinks she was routinely walking around with at least a .17 percent blood alcohol level at all times.
“From that moment on, I knew God had a plan for me and that he saved me, because I should’ve been dead,” Roe said. “I know — in my heart and in my soul — if I go back out again I don’t have another chance.”
Recovering addicts find purpose in helping others overcome
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series on addiction and recovery.
Those who are in recovery know what it means to them and how important it is in their life. They don’t need a formal definition.
For those not familiar with the concept, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines recovery as the “process of change whereby individuals work to improve their own health and wellness and to live a meaningful life in a community of their choice while striving to achieve their full potential.”
“People can heal by virtue of surrounding themselves with nurturing, loving, caring people,” said Michael Brunner, a psychologist and the clinical director of Fountain Centers in Albert Lea. “A lot of folks actually already have that, it’s just that they’ve damaged those relationships. So the key is finding ways to rebuild and reconnect with other people.”
Finding help in the community
Jenine Koziolek has been an outreach specialist at Fountain Centers for four out of her nine years at the treatment center. She has been a licensed alcohol and drug counselor since the late ’90s.
She said those looking to find help for themselves or a loved one battling addiction can find various groups in the community like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon. Fountain Centers also has a number, 1-800-533-1616, that can be called for those trying to find help, either for themselves or someone they care about.
“There’s 23 million Americans that we know today that are in recovery that have made it work for them. If we want this disease to be recognized as a disease — as something that is chronic, that is treatable, that people do recover from — we have to reduce the stigma,” she said. “What society sees is the mugshot on the front of the paper. … What we do as a society, unfortunately, is judge others — because it’s unpleasant, because it’s scary, because there’s not a quick, easy answer for it.”
Power in forgiveness
For Ashley Casey of Ellendale, almost her entire life has been impacted in some way by addiction.
When Casey was 2, her mother was killed in a car crash. The driver of the other car was drunk and was a professional golfer out celebrating. He was told by multiple people that night not to get behind the wheel. Casey’s mother was in the process of moving back to Albert Lea at the time and was driving back from the Twin Cities that night. She was killed eight miles north of Faribault.
Casey, now 29, said the man was charged with vehicular manslaughter and went to jail for three months. He was assigned work release, community service and had to sit in on victim impact panels with Casey’s grandmother, Mary Kay Malakowsky. Casey said while the man told the judge he was sorry, he never directly addressed her family.
“There are times when I feel resentment towards him because of all the ways that it could’ve been prevented, and just the lack of remorse that was shown,” she said. “I would like to know where he’s at and how he feels about things, how it’s affected his life. I’m sure it’s had to have affected his life greatly, too, whether or not he shows it. I hope that he’s OK, that he’s not still struggling with whatever issues he may have. And I would just let him know that I forgive the situation. … There’s a lot of power in forgiveness.”
Casey has no memories of her mother and said she grew up with severe separation anxiety. Any time her grandmother would leave to go somewhere, Casey feared she’d never return. She said some of that anxiety still makes an appearance today, as Casey now has children of her own, ages 11, 9, 7 and 2.
“It’s the absence of things,” she said. “They won’t get to know their grandmother. We celebrate our holidays and birthdays at the cemetery.”
Casey is a counselor at Fountain Centers and has worked at the center for about two years total. In addition to the circumstances behind her mother’s death, Casey said her husband’s experience with methamphetamine addiction also played a factor in her career choice.
“They’re two opposite ends of the spectrum,” she said. “The situation with my mom made me want to be more involved with the community and helping people, and then with my husband’s addiction I wanted to help that specific population.”
The couple has been together for 12 years and married for 10, and Casey said her husband has been sober for seven years.
“We feel hopelessness; we feel guilt and shame,” she said. “Everything the addict goes through, we feel, too. When they’re not sleeping, we don’t sleep. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in an addicted family. Just know that there is hope and just be able to support them the best way that you can.”
When Emmons resident Joey Honsey and her husband had been married for 25 years, she finally reached her limit in terms of her husband’s alcoholism.
Honsey said her husband, Dean, started drinking when he was a teenager, but that his drinking didn’t really start to become a problem until 1988. It was that year that Honsey was hit by a pickup truck as a pedestrian and sustained trauma to the thought and memory part of her brain.
“He wasn’t kind; he always looked for an argument. When he was drunk he was always right. When he wasn’t drinking he was just wonderful — a very kind, thoughtful man. I always thought that someday he would be like that again,” she said. “I stayed because I loved him. I didn’t love the disease, I loved Dean. I hated the disease.”
Honsey said her husband struggled with his addiction for a solid seven years. He would tell her over and over that he would quit, and when he wouldn’t — Honsey said they’d yell, argue and threaten to leave each other.
“It was one lie after another. … He couldn’t stop, but the disease was the reason he couldn’t stop,” she said. “All those years I would say ‘I’m leaving,’ but I always came back. ‘I’m going to do this,’ and I’d never do that. … I was just as much a part of it as he was. Only I was doing all my stuff sober, and he was doing his stuff drunk. … I learned I had to follow through.”
In 1995, Honsey said four people from Alcoholics Anonymous helped her stage an intervention for Dean. They told her that if he wouldn’t go into treatment, Honsey had to follow through with leaving their house.
“I said I would. I would do anything, because I didn’t want anymore of this. I was ready for a change,” she said. “We both hit our bottoms that night, and we both started a new way of life.”
Dean went into treatment that night, and less than a week later, Honsey attended her first Al-Anon meeting.
“My life has changed a lot. I’ve learned to use the Al-Anon program with other things, with cancer,” she said. “I learned to get rid of my resentments from my accident that I had years before I even got there. I’m a cancer survivor of 14 years now. … Recovery helped me get through it because I needed to live one day at a time.”
Honsey said Al-Anon has taught her that she can still support the people she cares about who struggle with addiction, without enabling them to stay sick.
“I learned to take care of myself. I learned to mind my own business. I learned not to caregive and caretake all the time. If there was any caregiving or caretaking that needed to be done I needed to do it to myself,” she said. “They have got to learn to be self-supporting, and I have to stop supporting them. If I want to give them something, I can give them something. … Until I get resentful. When I get resentful, I have to stop. When I give someone something I have to realize it’s a gift; I’ll never get paid back.”
Ric Staloch entered a Fountain Centers recovery plan in December 1989, for a 30-day program that finished in January 1990. Thirty days turned into 60, and then 90. When he hit 90 days, Staloch said he just took his sobriety one day at a time.
“Just for today. Don’t worry about yesterday, don’t worry about tomorrow. You do what you can today so your tomorrow works out and yesterday’s gone,” he said. “It actually got a lot easier after that. … Somewhere along the way it’s not a job, it’s not a struggle to stay sober anymore. I think that when you figure out your life is better because you’re sober, it starts getting a lot easier.”
In December, Staloch will have 26 years of sobriety.
About 18 months after he sobered up, Staloch said he started going to meetings more and more, and got more involved with others in recovery. He started volunteering in different capacities at Fountain Centers, including in detox. He remembered seeing how sick some of the people were that would come through, and said he told his wife once when they were in the car that he was glad he was never that sick.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Where were you?’ And for the next 30 miles she gave me example after example of how that was me. That was me spending money that should’ve been paid on bills, her going to ask the landlord to give us some more time for the rent or to our parents to help get the lights back on. How can you forget that? How could I have ever forgot I went through that?” he said. “To me, that part of addiction is still there even after you sober up, that denial part. You don’t ever want to think it was that bad. … I didn’t think I was as sick as those people, but in reality I was just as sick as they were. But for the grace of God I found a way out of it. I got the help I needed and I was able to put it together.”
In 2004, Staloch started working at Fountain Centers full time. For the past three years he has been a recovery specialist, working with program alumni to check up on them, help them find resources in the community and offer them support.
“I enjoy coming to work, I enjoy what I do. It’s rewarding. It feels like it’s my purpose,” he said. “My recovery has gotten better and stronger.”
Have an exit strategy
After Matthew Peterson returned back from his first treatment, he started going to meetings the next day. He was going to about five meetings a week and got a sponsor.
“I did use about everything they told me to do,” he said. “I took it seriously.”
Peterson has been sober more than 19 months now. He said he typically goes to about three meetings a week, and twice a month he leads AA meetings at the jail.
His relationship with his children has greatly improved since his sobriety began, Peterson said. He plans to be open with his children about his recovery when they’re older, as they’re currently 4 and 6. He thinks they know some of the general terms — that he was sick and had to go away for a little while. He believes he has always had a good relationship with his children, but that they’re even closer now thanks to Peterson’s sobriety.
For the most part, Peterson said he makes a point to avoid situations that will put him around other people who are drinking. He has gone to weddings and concerts and not felt the temptation to drink, but he will make an early exit if there’s too much of a party atmosphere.
“I haven’t felt really strong pangs of temptation for a while now,” he said. “I usually have a pretty good exit strategy for situations.”
To others going through recovery, Peterson said it’s important to talk to the right people — people who have gone through the same situations and who have practiced patience and strength.
“Whatever you can use for that moment to stay sober, use it,” he said. “Use every trick in the book to not drink or not use. I know I did.”
Learn to let go
For Rochelle Kirsch, her third time going through treatment is what jump-started her recovery. She said while her parents and extended family didn’t give her the support she felt she needed, her children and her fiance have been a constant source of strength for her.
“I’ve gotten to the point where it wasn’t my fault. I’m not damaged, I’m not broken. … That was huge,” she said. “Ever since then I’ve done everything I needed to do.”
Kirsch will have two years of sobriety in October.
She goes to meetings, has a sponsor and two sponsees, and speaks regularly at both the Fountain Centers in Albert Lea and Austin. Anonymity no longer scares her.
“I’m not going to be quiet anymore. I was quiet my whole life and that didn’t work out for me. It had severe consequences,” she said. “I’ve gotten to the point that, you know what, this is who I am. I’m a drug addict. But a recovering one.”
Kirsch said she has been very open with her children — now 22, 16 and 9 — about her addiction and her recovery.
“I try not to bring up the past that much, but every time I can I say how sorry I am, and that none of it was their fault — at all,” she said. “I couldn’t cope through the divorce, and I’m an adult. My poor kids had to just flounder. It was horrible.”
Kirsch works at Larson Manufacturing in Albert Lea but has been working the past two years to earn her nursing license back. She said she was given 12 pages of mandatory tasks she’d have to accomplish. Last week, she met with the board and received news that her license will be reinstated Oct. 1.
It will have conditions for the first two years, Kirsch said, where she will have to pass random drug screens and the nursing board will check in with her employer. Once she passes those two years, her license will be free and clear of any conditions.
“I’ve had to learn how to let go. … I can only control me,” Kirsch said. “I have a choice, I get it. I don’t need to drown my existence or numb my feelings anymore. It’s good. It’s really good.”
Accept and embrace
Sandy Roe found recovery during her third treatment, as well. She said she knew her addiction was progressive — every time she relapsed after being sober for a period of time, her drinking would get worse and worse.
Following Roe’s third treatment, she got a sponsor and has continuously gone to meetings.
“Sobriety is fun, but you’ve got to get involved. … It’s really hard, too. It’s getting out of your comfort zone,” she said. “I can still have fun sober, and that’s huge.”
Roe has been sober since Feb. 20, 2013, and she has no plans of ever going back to her old life.
“My life is amazing sober. I could never even imagine going back to using again,” she said. “This has been truly amazing, getting to know myself and working on myself. … My life is so full.”
All four of her children — including the daughter she gave up for adoption at 16 — and all of her grandchildren are back in Roe’s life.
Roe said her first year of sobriety was the most trying. She found herself calling her sponsor multiple times a day in the beginning. She now makes a point of not putting herself in situations where either hard liquor or marijuana would be present, as well.
But, she stressed, it does get easier.
“It’s scary going out and living real life right away. … Before, if I thought about drinking I’d just drive right to the liquor store. Today, I think about the consequences,” she said. “I think about things today, whereas before I didn’t. It’s a whole mind process, just to get out of your head.”
Roe said people going through recovery shouldn’t feel ashamed. They’re making a change and are pulling themselves out of something that can be all-consuming, she said, and that’s something to be proud of.
“Today I accept it and embrace it,” she said. “Today I can honestly say that I’m a proud alcoholic and addict, because it has made me the woman that I am today.”
Rey Reyna believes in the importance of speaking up about addiction and recovery.
“Nowadays I think a lot of people either know somebody or have been affected, and if not I think awareness and education is huge,” he said. “Recovery’s possible. It’s OK to be a recovering addict. It’s OK to talk about it when asked.”
Reyna has been sober for 10 1/2 years.
In his decade-plus of sobriety, Reyna said one of the things he has had to do is rebuild the relationships strained by his addiction.
“Having to deal with courts and fines, other people’s lives that you affect in a negative way — you’ve got to rebuild those relationships. … Sometimes people don’t forgive what you did and where you come from,” he said. “It can be a long process to get back on our feet and rebuild those relationships that we’ve kind of wrecked. I think that’s the most important thing, too, is just rebuilding relationships and having good relationships with people.”
Reyna works full time as a welder at Herman Manufacturing in Wells and has a 7-year-old daughter. He said recovery has made him a better father, family member, employee and person in the community. His daughter sometimes comes to meetings with Reyna, and — when he thinks the timing is appropriate — he talks about his recovery with her.
As far as how recovery has impacted his parenting, Reyna said that he always encourages his daughter to stay positive.
“Sometimes we fall short, but we continue to seek the good in everything,” he said. “Even if we’re not doing so well.”
Reyna stressed that there are groups for everyone when it comes to recovery — no matter a person’s spiritual or personal beliefs.
“There is hope, and there is a suggested solution, and there are ways to recover and it’s OK to ask for help. … There’s a lot of benefits to recovery,” he said. “Recovery is about a lot more than where we were.”
Do the next right thing
Jayne Stout has found one of the biggest benefits of recovery is the sense of community she found.
Stout went directly into outpatient care, following 60 days in jail and 34 days in an inpatient program. All in all, her treatment was a one-year plan put together by Fountain Centers. The people she has met since being in recovery are now some of her closest friends, she said.
“It would be hard for me to go back to it — if I wanted to — just because they’ve been so great about reaching out to me long after my treatment was over,” said Stout. “Once you get a taste of recovery — of the gifts and the blessings it brings you — I don’t know a lot of people that are happy when they go back to that life. If they’re still stuck out there it’s because of just that — they’re stuck. … Everyone chooses their own path. I certainly don’t look down on anybody who’s in active addiction because, in my mind, they’re sick with a disease and they can’t help it.”
Stout has been sober since Feb. 22, 2012.
“When you’re using, your days are consumed by the needing and wanting and finding of drugs,” she said. “When you get into recovery, it’s really a discovery process of learning, you know, who you are and what you like now that you’re not under the influence.”
Since finishing her treatment program, Stout has attended meetings and other sober events like picnics and alumni benefits. She won last year’s Recovery’s Got Talent talent show with a rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin. She speaks in the women’s unit at Fountain Centers every five weeks, as well.
“They think that I’m there for them, and really, the gift that they give me back is huge, 10 times as huge,” she said. “That opportunity to share my experience and my strength and my hope with other people, it gives you a great sense of pride and is great for self esteem building.”
Stout does have some lingering health issues from her meth use. At 35, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and she has been diagnosed with social anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. The depression was most likely a result from the chemical changes in her body from the drug use, she said.
“The PTSD comes from living your life like a criminal — always having to look over your shoulder, the paranoia that comes from the meth use — it doesn’t just go away when you get sober. It takes time for your body to heal itself, and your mind,” Stout said. “There are days, early in recovery, where I’m still training my brain not to think like a criminal.”
Stout said her mantra has been to “do the next right thing.”
Her peace of mind is something that has come with her sobriety, Stout said.
“There’s so many great things that recovery has given me and I really am happy in my life. … The longer I stay sober, the easier it is,” she said. “My recovery has been a lot of work, but it’s a culmination of all the things that I’ve done. … I like to look at my life like, ‘OK, this is what I was doing then, and I have a lot of things that I’m not proud of, but I can be proud of who I am today.’”
Because of her sobriety, not only has Stout’s life changed for the better, but the lives of her children have, as well. Stout has a 17-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter and also has her 17-year-old nephew living with her. Her nephew’s father — Stout’s brother — is serving 25 years in federal prison on meth-related charges, and her nephew’s mother died from a drug overdose. Stout said she has been completely open with her children about her road to recovery.
“Today, my kids know everything about me. They know all my secrets; there’s nothing I can’t tell them. … Because they know what I’ve been through, they can come to me about anything,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I don’t guarantee that when you have to tell me something important that I’m not going to be angry or concerned or scared for you,’ but I always am willing to openly discuss stuff like that with them because I just don’t want them to go down the same road I did. … It’s OK to have flaws. It’s OK to make mistakes.”
Holocaust survivor to speak in Ellendale about experiences
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about Holocaust survivor Anita Dittman.
For 13 years, Anita Dittman lived in what she could only describe as hell. Hitler’s hell.
In 1927 in Breslau, Germany, Dittman was born to an Aryan father and a Jewish mother. She said she was about 5 1/2 years old when Adolf Hitler came into power in 1933, and brought along with him his Nazi regime.
According to Dittman, Hitler referred to people of Jewish heritage as germs.
“Hitler had a grandiose idea,” she said. “He was going to make Germany into a master race — he called them the Aryans — and he would purify the people, the German race, so that there would be no interference, and all the undesirables were to be annihilated. Among all the undesirables, at the top of the list, was the Jewish people.”
Soon after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, life as Dittman knew it began to unravel.
A family torn apart
Shortly after Hitler’s rise to power, Dittman and her mother, Hilde, were woken up in the middle of the night by Dittman’s father, Fritz.
“My father told us to leave one night,” she said. “Told us to pack up and leave.”
Dittman said her father favored her older sister, Hella, and had her stay with him at first. He tried to bribe Dittman to stay with him as well, only in attempts to hurt their mother as much as he possibly could.
“He was not a very nice man,” said Dittman. “He was very unfaithful to my mother. … He just didn’t want to be married to a Jewish wife.”
Dittman and her mother stayed with a friend who had extended the invitation after going through a similar situation. One day after leaving her father’s home, Dittman said their former neighbors came looking for her mother to tell her that Hella needed her. Apparently, their father had left Hella all alone and locked up in the house during a thunderstorm while he was out with one of his mistresses, and the neighbors heard her screaming and crying and pounding on the door to be let out. Dittman and her mother went back to the house, retrieved Hella and brought her back with them.
An absent father
Dittman’s father was a member of the Social Democratic Party, which she said was Hitler’s arch enemy. As treasurer of the SDP, she said her father had embezzled large sums of money, and went into hiding both from the Nazis as well as the SDP. He had disappeared for some time, with not even his mother or grandmother knowing where he was. Dittman said she was 7 when he was finally caught by the Nazis and imprisoned.
Fritz wasn’t imprisoned long, and when he got out he tried to get in touch with his estranged family by sending Dittman a birthday card. Dittman said he had visiting privileges and was technically supposed to pay child support, but that he never did.
Her mother attempted to go through a lawyer in hopes of receiving some kind of financial support from Fritz, but was met with animosity. He sent Hilde’s lawyer a letter saying that if she asked for child support again he’d have the children taken away from her, saying that he wouldn’t want his half-Aryan children being raised by a Jewish mother anyway. Since Fritz was Aryan and Hilde was Jewish, Fritz was not forced to pay her the money.
“There was nothing my mother could do,” said Dittman.
The young mother and her two daughters were then on welfare, but that didn’t last long. Not wanting to pay welfare to a Jew, the government forced Dittman’s mother into extremely heavy labor, making her work at least 10 hours a day hauling manure.
Taking refuge in dance
Dittman said she had taken dance lessons when her parents were still together. After her father had forced them out, she said a ballet teacher had taken Dittman under her wing and continued to give her lessons anyway. At the age of 6, Dittman was dancing with girls much older than her and was dancing in solo recitals.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “I loved every bit of it.”
Before dancing in a recital, Dittman said she felt apprehensive about being the center of attention in front of such a large audience. Her mother had told her in general to stick to herself, keep her head down and not to draw attention to herself as a means of survival.
Dittman loved music as a child, saying that her mother had always been musically talented.
“When I danced, I danced all my cares away,” she said. “I was free of the oppression all around me and was free of the persecution.”
Forced into the ghettos
Eventually, Dittman said that she and her mother and sister were able to move into an apartment of their own. They lived in poverty, but it was still nice, she said. She had been sad to leave her things and her playmates behind, but her mother told her that things could be replaced and that she would make new friends.
In December of 1938, around Christmas, Dittman said a notice came from the Gestapo saying that they would have to move from their nice suburb to the inner city, where the Jewish families were being housed in buildings referred to as ghettos. The three Dittmans shared an apartment with four other families. Each family had a room to themselves inside of the apartment, and shared a kitchen and a bathroom.
“I had to grow up awfully fast,” she said. “I had to leave my childhood behind when we moved in there.”
It was soon after the move that Dittman noticed those around them were vanishing, little by little each day.
“Things were getting worse,” said Dittman. “More and more people were being taken to concentration camps.”
After moving to the ghettos, Dittman found a church that welcomed and accepted Jewish people into its congregation. It was led by a pastor who would not forgo his faith in order to win favor with the Nazis. For that reason, he was put on what Dittman called the Nazi’s black list. She said that Schutzstaffel officers, or SS officers, would come to services dressed in plain clothes to spy on the pastor, but they stuck out to parishioners because of the way they acted.
In early 1939, Dittman said that the pastor got in touch with an organization in Berlin that was helping provide passports to Jewish families looking to flee to London. The pastor, his family and other members of the congregation were raising funds to help those that couldn’t afford to pay for the passports themselves. Dittman and her mother and sister all applied for the papers, but had to reapply after the Gestapo burned all of the files.
In the middle of July in 1939, Hella’s visa finally arrived. Dittman and her mother were reassured by the pastor that theirs would be along soon after. Hella left Germany by train in August, with Dittman and their mother reassuring her that they would soon get their papers and all of them would be together again.
The very next day, Sept. 1, 1939, all of the German borders were controlled. No air or land traffic was allowed out of Germany, and no foreign mail was allowed into the country.
“Our papers were lost forever,” said Dittman. “We were literally trapped in Hitler’s hell.”
From the classroom to the factory
School can be tough for some children, but for Dittman it was difficult on a completely different level. When she first started school and had to fill out registration paperwork, she had to check off whether she was a Jew or an Aryan. Being half and half, Dittman had to register as Jewish.
When Dittman was 7, she told her mother, “I would rather sign under undesirables. We are the victims and these are the enemy. They are persecuting us and I wouldn’t want to put my name there.”
Dittman described her state school experience as “pure horror.” She remembered coming home from school almost every day in tears, mostly in part from a number of her teachers being Nazis themselves.
“My mother would sit with me and say ‘I know it’s tough but you’re going to have to accept this because it’s happening everywhere. You’re not alone.’”
Dittman was able to study and pass an entrance exam to enroll in a parochial school by the time she was in fifth grade. She called her new school “lovely,” saying that none of the other students had joined the Hitler Youth yet, and that her grades improved greatly.
“It was like an oasis in a desert,” she said.
The oasis didn’t last long, unfortunately.
Hitler had all parochial schools closed. Dittman was forced to return to the state school, where she faced new persecution from both teachers and peers.
In the meantime, three of her mother’s sisters had moved in with them. One by one, they were each taken away by the Gestapo. Dittman said her mother was one of 11 children, and that every single one of them ended up in a camp.
At 15, Dittman received a notice from the Gestapo saying she was permanently suspended from school due to her Jewish heritage. When breaking the news to her, Dittman’s principal said it was “high time that the government cleaned all the riffraff out of the schools.”
Dittman said she was grateful to be relatively free, and that her mother often said, “Let’s do everything we can while we’re still free.”
Hilde had been forced into harsh factory work, and soon after her suspension from school Dittman was drafted into the labor force as well. Dittman considered herself “blessed” to be assigned to the same factory and to the same shift as her mother, along with a number of people they knew from their church.
Mother and daughter separated
On a cold, January morning in 1944, Dittman said there was a knock at the door. Two SS men grabbed her mother by the collar, shoving her back into the room when she answered and forcing her to sign forms that would put all of their possessions into the hands of the Gestapo. If they wanted anything back, they would have to go down to the warehouse at the Gestapo’s headquarters where they could buy their belongings back for a highly inflated price.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t all that the SS men took that day.
The men took Dittman’s mother, telling Hilde she was going to an undisclosed location. Dittman was 16 at the time.
“I knew I would be facing it alone,” she said.
Dittman found out soon after that her mother had been taken to Camp Theresienstadt in what was then referred to as Czechoslovakia. The Nazis used the camp as a “model camp” to show the world that the camps were not as formidable as many made them out to be. That was a lie, to put it lightly, said Dittman.
Because of the camp’s model status, Dittman said it was the only one that allowed food packages in from the outside.
Dittman only made enough at the factory to pay for streetcar transportation to and from the factory, along with raw necessities. Because of this she used food ration stamps, stamps that bought barely enough food for Dittman alone. Despite that fact, she decided to split them with her mother.
“My mother had made many sacrifices on my account for 16 years,” she said. “Now it was time to reciprocate.”
Dittman traded in her winter coat for an old bicycle she could use to peddle the numerous miles she had to go to obtain her food rations. Something she always sent to her mother was a loaf of dark, hard rye bread that they both loved for its nourishment. She said her mother would always send her cards listing the contents of the packages she received, as it was a well-known fact that Nazi guards would go through packages and help themselves to the contents.
On Aug. 9, 1944, after having been alone for nine months, Dittman came home to find an envelope from the Gestapo. She was to report to a train station the next day, along with about 300 others, to go to an unknown location. She knew it wasn’t good news, but took comfort in the fact that she might get to see some of her old friends again. The only concern Dittman had was letting her mother know that she could no longer send her food.
She went to the grocer’s and bought one of her usual loaves of bread. She took it home and wrote out a note to her mother, saying “I’m going to be moving. Don’t be afraid of anything. Don’t worry, we’ll be together again soon. I’m fine, I’m healthy and I’m strong.” She used the handle of a knife to push the note into the middle of the loaf of bread and prayed, knowing that if the bread and the note inside of it fell into the wrong hands her mother would be killed.
It would be 11 months later that Dittman would find out that the loaf had arrived at Camp Theresienstadt covered in fluffy green mold. Her mother, starved and recovering from dysentery, ripped off the moldy parts of the bread to eat the untouched insides, finding the note as well.
Dittman left the next day, not knowing if she would ever see her mother again.
Woman shares horrors of concentration camp and aftermath
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about Holocaust survivor Anita Dittman.
The website for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum describes the Holocaust as “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.”
Those persecuted during that time in World War II-era Germany are called Holocaust survivors.
Anita Dittman calls it surviving Hitler’s hell.
Dittman was born in 1927 to an Aryan father, Fritz, and a Jewish mother, Hilde, in Breslau, Germany. When Dittman was 16, her mother was taken to Camp Theresienstadt in what was then referred to as Czechoslovakia. Nine months later, Dittman was told to report to a train station, where she would be taken to her “final destination,” or what the Gestapo called her assigned concentration camp.
Life in the camps
Dittman arrived at Camp Barthold in August 1944. She and the rest of the women she was with were housed in a dirty, old cow barn. Having never been cleaned out, straw had simply been thrown over the ground of the barn. The women were given old horse blankets and were told to pick a spot on the ground to sleep on. The men were housed in old horse stables. Dittman said there were two married couples in the camp that were not permitted to live together, but were able to see each other when working.
She said there were about 300 people at the camp, split pretty evenly between men and women, ranging from ages 15 to 65.
The prisoners were woken up at 4 a.m. the next day and told to get dressed and to stand in formation. They were told they were now working for the country, for the Führer, and that they should feel honored. They were given a piece of bread and a bit of imitation coffee, and were then counted and recounted, all while being verbally and sometimes physically assaulted.
Afterward, prisoners were then marched off with picks and shovels to vacant fields to dig ditches. Dittman said the ditches were about 8 to 10 feet deep, 10 to 15 feet wide and many kilometers long. They were meant to be traps for tanks should Russian troops invade.
The routine was the same every day. She said their heads were never shaved and numbers were never burned into their arms, leading her to believe that they were better off than some camps, especially Auschwitz.
Winter came, and according to Dittman, Hitler was as delusional as he ever was.
“Hitler always said we were winning because he was demented,” she said.
Camp Barthold’s occupants were moved to another location, where prisoners would then work in the forest cutting down trees to act as reinforcements for the ditches.
In the meantime, prisoners caught head lice from each other, and the authorities took their time in getting them medication. The cold weather brought on harsh conditions. Dittman said she had a blister on her foot that had opened and was impossible to keep clean, and that she contracted blood poisoning. She said the guards were under the impression that if the prisoners couldn’t work, they shouldn’t live, so she knew that if she told them of her ailment she’d either be clubbed to death or shot on the spot.
Dittman said it was shortly before Christmas in 1944 that prisoners were told they would be shipped off to the ovens at Auschwitz once their work had been completed.
On Jan. 23, 1945, the prisoners were told to line up in formation one evening. They were told that they would be marched off to yet another new location as it was rumored that Russian troops were encroaching on the camp’s land.
Three brothers in the camp decided that this would be their chance to escape. They invited Dittman and one of her friends — also named Hella, like Dittman’s sister — to join them on their journey. The girls accepted, until Dittman told another friend of hers at the camp, named Christian, of their plan. When she tried to convince Christian to come with them, he told her that it was too dangerous and that she should stay at the camp as well. Dittman and Hella eventually conceded and decided to stay at the camp. Dittman would later find out that those who had tried to escape that night were eventually captured by the Gestapo and taken to an apartment building that had a bomb dropped on top of it. None survived.
A chance to escape
Dittman and her fellow captives were marching back to camp one night when they passed a number of villagers fleeing their homes nearby. They found out that the Russians were on their way and would be in the vicinity of the camp by the next morning. Dittman said the Russian troops were notoriously known for their treatment of the women they came across when invading. When the prisoners returned to their camp, the women were locked up tight and surrounded by guards who had guns with bayonets attached at the end.
Dittman was one in a group of five women who had become close through a shared Christian faith, and said all five women stayed up that night holding hands and praying.
Early the next morning, all of the women in the camp were loaded up into a horse-drawn wagon and were sent off to a different location. They were escorted by two guards on bicycles and were driven by Polish prisoners of war. While stopped at one point, Dittman said three of her friends managed to escape into the forest. When one of the Nazi guards sent Dittman and her friend Hella with one of the POWs to head them off at the nearest railroad station, they saw their chance to escape.
Dittman said they were able to bribe their driver with cigarettes and the money from Dittman’s mother that she had managed to hide in her clothing throughout her stay in the camps. The POW dropped the two girls off at the station, where they were reunited with their three other friends who had escaped earlier.
At the station they found a long train with cattle cars, German soldiers and one passenger car, with the rest of the train consisting of flatbeds that carried demolished Russian army tanks to be repaired and used by German troops in a city near Berlin.
With Dittman being able to pass as an Aryan with her long, blonde hair, her friends encouraged her to go up to one of the soldiers and talk their way onto one of the cars.
“I was cute then, I have to admit,” she said.
Dittman told a soldier they were villagers that had been separated from their families while running from the Russians, and that they were very afraid. The soldier, not knowing that they were escaped Jewish prisoners, allowed them to stow away in one of the tanks with two other soldiers. One of the soldiers made it clear to Dittman that she should seek medical attention at once for her leg, which was badly infected by that time.
Once off of the train, the girls worked their way through the firestorm in Dresden and found a hospital in Bautzen where they dropped Dittman off, as a few of them had family in the area to stay with.
At the hospital, Dittman was greeted with a “Heil Hitler” by a Nazi nurse. She was careful not to reveal who she really was and what she had escaped from, and was admitted with a 105-degree fever.
She said she had to wait days before there was a doctor available to perform surgery on her. Once she was finally operated on, she was put under using ether as anesthesia. One of the side effects of the substance was talking while sleeping, and when Dittman woke up after surgery she could deduce from the nurse’s behavior that she had revealed too much in her unconscious state.
The Nazi nurse couldn’t say anything due to her professional oath, but Dittman knew that there was a medal waiting for every Nazi that killed a Jew, thanks to Hitler.
“She took it upon herself to kill me,” she said.
Dittman said the nurse mocked her and ridiculed her, and did everything in her power to work against the doctor’s medical treatment of Dittman. She made sure nothing was sanitized, aggravating the open wounds from Dittman’s surgery. When the doctor told Dittman she’d need another operation, she knew it would be a chance for the nurse to literally do her dirty work. The nurse continued her unsanitary ways, going as far as giving Dittman an enema and leaving her on a bedpan for over two hours, leaving the open surgical wounds on Dittman’s thighs vulnerable to her own bodily waste. As expected, the infection in her leg continued to spread, worsening as it did.
When Hella came to visit her friend in the hospital, she was appalled, and immediately sought out Dittman’s doctor. The doctor had been unaware of her condition, saying that the nurse had been telling her Dittman’s health was progressing. She went to examine Dittman, seeing that she needed another operation right away. The doctor managed to relocate the Nazi nurse to another part of the hospital, and set about trying to save Dittman’s life, and her leg.
Following the surgery, Dittman woke to find she still had her leg. With her condition being all too close to death, she was not allowed painkillers or any ether to dull the pain. Eventually, as she recovered, Hella helped her learn how to walk again.
Weeks later, as Dittman was walking the floor for exercise, she heard sirens in the distance. It wasn’t an air raid, but a message signaling that the Russians had invaded. It was only a matter of time before they’d be at the hospital, the tallest building in the area.
Once the Russians took over the hospital, all of the men, women and children were pushed into one room used as shelter from air raids. Women were being raped by Russian soldiers right before everyone’s eyes, and Dittman said she feared what she thought was the inevitable.
A soldier grabbed her, and another soldier helped him push her down onto a mattress and rip her clothes off. The men saw her stained bandages and, thinking they must be for show, had a student nurse take them off. When they saw Dittman’s garish-looking wound and her cut-up leg, they were revolted enough to leave her alone and move onto someone else.
One night soon after, Dittman was walking the floor once again in attempts to gain her strength back. She found a woman curled up in a corner weeping, and realized it was the Nazi nurse who had tried to kill her. Initially, Dittman was too angry to even think of attempting to comfort the woman. It wasn’t until she heard the nurse cry out — in between sobs — that she had been raped multiple times by the Russian soldiers, that Dittman sat beside her and cried with her and tried to offer her some sort of comfort.
“All my bitterness was gone,” she said. “I felt so sad. I thanked God that I had been spared from that.”
“How can you possibly comfort me? Don’t you realize I tried to kill you?” the nurse asked Dittman.
Dittman’s only reply to the nurse was that she forgave her. She said the war had done a number of terrible things to a number of people. It had brought out the worst in some, and Dittman said she refused to be one of them.
She never saw the nurse again.
Weeks later, the Russians had — for the most part — been driven out of the area. Dittman said that ambulatory patients were being shipped out to a different location. As she was healing, she was bandaged up and told to be on her way.
A long-awaited reunion
On April 30, 1945, as Russian troops surrounded Berlin, Hitler shot and killed himself.
“Hitler never gave up until the enemy was at his doorstep,” said Dittman.
While the war may have been over, Germany was left in shambles.
Dittman was gradually working her way to Czechoslovakia, to the camp her mother had been imprisoned in. She walked and hitchhiked to a train station in Bautzen. She managed to put together just enough money to obtain passports in Czech, Russian and English, as well as passage into Czechoslovakia. She was told that Czechs did not take kindly to German-speaking individuals, and that if she didn’t know any other languages she should pretend to be a deaf mute.
From Bautzen Dittman took a train to Prague, and then took another train to Leitmeritz. From there she hitchhiked to Camp Theresienstadt. Along the way, Dittman had heard that the camp’s prisoners were ordered to build the gas chambers that they would ultimately be executed in. After stalling in their construction, the camp was liberated the day before their planned mass execution. Even though the camp was said to have been liberated, news was also being circulated that many had died in the process.
Knowing what she did, it was hard for Dittman to walk onto the grounds, which were now a Displaced Persons camp, knowing that her mother might not be there waiting for her on the other side.
About one month after the war had ended, on June 7, 1945, after waiting for what seemed like hours for her mother to be found in the records of survivors, Dittman and Hilde were reunited.
“When I came face to face with her, we couldn’t say anything,” said Dittman. “We were just so amazed.”
Hilde told her that she had been invited to journey back to their hometown that very same morning, but she had decided not to. If her mother had gone back, Dittman said she never would’ve seen her again.
The end of the journey
After finally being reunited, Hilde and Dittman tried to find a way to England to see Dittman’s sister, Hella, again. With the country being completely poverty-stricken, it was impossible. Mother and daughter were in a DP camp in Bavaria for about seven months before applying to the American Christian Committee for Refugees.
On June 7, 1946, exactly one year after their reunion, they left from Bremen on the SS Marine Flasher with about 900 other refugees on their way to the United States.
On June 17, they arrived in Ellis Island, after passing the Statue of Liberty.
“It was so beautiful,” said Dittman. “Finally, after 13 years that we had prayed that someday we would be free.”
Dittman, 19 at the time, said that all 900-some passengers came to the deck to take in the sight.
“There were no words,” she said. “No speech. Just sobs of gratitude and relief. It was beautiful.”
Life in the U.S.
Hella finally reunited with Hilde and Dittman in 1961 when she came to the U.S. for a visit. She stayed with them for three weeks before returning home to London. Three years later, she died from cancer.
Dittman eventually moved to Iowa from New York. She went to college, graduated and got married.
“I finally had a home again,” she said. “I had security.”
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Dittman has two children, Floyd and Jeanette, who live in the Twin Cities area, as well as four grandchildren. She lives in Ham Lake with her husband, Fred Rowden.
In the mid-1970s, Dittman wrote a book about her story with the help of Jan Markell. Originally called “Angels in the Camps,” her publisher told her the memoir was too long and needed to be condensed. Her memoir is now called “Trapped in Hitler’s Hell,” and can be found on Amazon. Dittman has traveled all over the U.S. telling her story, and spoke Sunday at First Lutheran Church in Ellendale.
In the mid-1980s, Dittman’s mother died from a heart attack at the age of 89. Dittman said her mother died peacefully in her sleep, with Dittman by her side.
“She had a hard life,” said Dittman. “She deserved an easy death.”
Dittman said that her father died of cancer at one point. It became apparent to her that cancer ran on her father’s side of the family, while heart disease ran on her mother’s side. After surviving two heart attacks herself, Dittman said she has been asked if the thought of dying that way scares her.
“After what I’ve seen, why should I live to be scared of what I die from?” she said. “You can’t live that way.”
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
GLENVILLE, Minnesota — Ask Dan Studier why he’s a beekeeper, and he’ll tell you it’s in his blood.
Beekeeping is a trade that’s been passed down throughout the Studier family. It started with Dan’s grandfather, Emil, then was passed onto Dan’s father, Rudy, and Uncle Herb, to Dan and his brother, Tim, and continues today with Dan’s son, Drew.
Rudy and Herb Studier started the family into the commercial beekeeping business with Shell Rock Honey Farms in 1947. At Shell Rock’s peak, it had around 5,000 hives in Minnesota, Iowa, Georgia and Florida and distributed 55-gallon drums to packing companies. About 99 percent of the honey was bottled by those packing companies, with the remainder being bottled by the family and sold at a roadside stand in Glenville.
Dan and Tim grew up helping with the business, and Dan said he went into it full-time after graduating from high school in 1978. He stayed with it until leaving in 1994, and his brother followed suit a few years later.
According to Dan, the only way to make money off of bees in the northern part of the country is through honey production. Down South, other options like raising queen bees and offering pollination services provide other revenue sources. He said Tim tried taking bees down South for a while, but different quarantines brought about by the increase in mite and beetle problems made it impossible for him to move bees.
Dan said the challenges the industry was facing became too much, along with the expenses. He was working a full-time job along with full-time beekeeping and wasn’t seeing a profit. Floral sources that the bees fed off of were being eradicated thanks to chemicals, mites and beetles were posing a problem, an intestinal disease called nosema was becoming more common and colony collapse disorder was emptying hives in the offseason. The honey being produced became less and less, while expenses grew. Dan left the commercial beekeeping business and had no intentions of ever returning.
“It was frustrating, having two full-time jobs and no money. I was spinning my wheels,” he said.
It was Dan’s wife of 10 years, Cathy, who suggested he get back into beekeeping, at least as a hobby. That was about six years ago, and Dan has no plans of ever going commercial again. Now working full time in the shipping department at Ventura Foods in Albert Lea, he likes being able to keep bees and not have to depend on them as a source of income.
“I didn’t understand how much I enjoyed it before,” Dan said. “I didn’t have the time to enjoy it before. There’s no pressure to make it work now … It’s kind of an art.”
Shortly after getting back into beekeeping, Dan’s son, Drew, joined up with him.
“I grew up watching my dad, uncles, cousins,” Drew said, “I remember going to the bee yards with them.”
“It’s something for us to do together,” said Dan. “Some fathers and sons go hunting together, we keep bees.”
Drew, a taxidermist at Tom’s Taxidermy in Clarks Grove, shares his father’s sentiments about beekeeping staying a hobby and not becoming anything more.
“It’ll always be a gamble, so it’ll probably always be a hobby,” he said.
Both father and son believe there are too many hurdles for the industry at the moment, and aren’t sure that experts even know what to do to fix things.
“I hope they figure it out. It sounds like it’s reached national attention,” Dan said. “I’d like to see the business grow, but I’m not going to put any more money into it until the experts figure it out.”
“It’s frustrating when you want to have healthy, successful bees and have it not come through,” added Drew.
Dan said that he used to be able to keep bees in Minnesota year round. After the harvest season, which is typically six to eight weeks long, he would leave enough honey in the hive for bees to feed off of, and they would essentially hibernate for the winter. Colony collapse disorder and nosema disease have each put a stop to that though, he said. The disorder makes the bees abscond and disappear from the hive. Nosema takes over the bees’ intestines, killing them off as they attempt to hibernate.
Because of those threats, the Studiers buy new hives each year. Dan said that the bee packages are sold by the pound and said he and Drew buy 12 three-pound packages at about $100 each.
The trick to beekeeping, according to Dan and Drew, is knowing when to harvest. They harvest from their hives about three times over the course of one season. Harvesting in late spring or early fall should be avoided. Bees can make honey up to six months; it’s just not all usable, said Drew. He said you have to time it right, right in “the sweet spot” over the middle of summer.
The father-son duo then use a four-frame extractor to take the honey out of the hives and hand-crank it in a 100-gallon stainless steel drum, before bottling it. They sell the honey at the Albert Lea Farmers Market and from Dan’s home off of Highway 65 in Glenville.
Dan prides himself on the fact that their bees are not treated with any kind of chemicals, and that they seek out a certain kind of floral source for the honey they put into jars. They avoid goldenrod and thistle as sources, and instead hold out for sources like sweet clover and white dutch. They house their hives near a wildlife refuge, and away from farmland so that there’s no chemical contamination.
For those looking into beekeeping as a potential hobby, both Drew and Dan suggest knowing what you’re getting into. Dan said the best way to learn is to find someone who’s already keeping bees and to job-shadow them.
“Hands-on experience is the best experience,” he said.
Ask the two men if they’ve ever gotten stung, and they’ll both laugh before saying yes. They don’t typically get stung much anymore and don’t usually wear protective wear, but they said there’s definitely a learning experience that comes along when you first start handling bees.
“There’s an art to learning how to handle them,” said Dan. “There’s an art to all of it, really.”
By Colleen Harrison, Albert Lea Tribune
CONGER, Minnesota — A century’s worth of the Steele family history revolves around their farm on 190th Street about one mile north of Conger.
The house and barn were first built in 1914. The original barn has been taken down, but the original house remains standing on the 100-plus acres of land.
Barney and Louisa Steele were the first generation of the family to live on the farm. When their son, Loren, married Delores in 1949, the newlyweds moved in with Barney and Louisa. Delores and Loren fashioned the second floor of the house into a makeshift apartment while Barney and Louisa lived on the ground floor.
Delores and Loren’s children were all born and raised on the farm.
Delores, 82, said that farming is a Steele family tradition. Her in-laws were farmers, her sons Danny and Steve currently farm corn and soybeans on the land, and she has great-grandchildren in 4-H. Her late husband “lived, ate and slept farming.”
Delores Steele stands outside her home on her farm in Alden. While it sustained a lot of damage during the area tornadoes of 2010, the house has mostly kept its original structure with the exception of a few updates and a bathroom and garage addition. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
Delores Steele stands outside her home on her farm in Alden. While it sustained a lot of damage during the area tornadoes of 2010, the house has mostly kept its original structure with the exception of a few updates and a bathroom and garage addition. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune
Loren died two years ago on April 17, 2012.
“The day he got sick, he was out there driving around on the tractor looking at the crops,” said Delores. “You can’t take the farmer out of the man. … He was born here and died here. He loved everything about this place.”
In addition to the two sons, they had two daughters, Lori and Cindy. Delores has 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, with another due this summer.
The place, 66346 190th St., has seen more than its fair share of excitement.
On June 17, 2010, tornadoes ripped through the area, and the Steele farm was no exception. As Loren and Delores were preparing to take shelter in their basement, the power was knocked out, leaving Loren stuck in his power-lift chair on the ground floor. Delores wasn’t able to lift him out, and wouldn’t leave his side. The couple stayed together and watched trees go flying past their living room window as winds ravaged the outside of their home.
They made it through the tornadoes, as did the structural integrity of the house, but the same couldn’t be said for the rest of their property, or for neighbors in the surrounding area. Machine sheds, grain bins, wiring, siding and entire outbuildings were completely gone or destroyed. Neighbors’ homes were completely unsalvageable. One house was even lifted off of its foundation and landed yards behind it.
“If (the house) hadn’t been built like it was, it wouldn’t have stood,” said Delores.
The Steele house is the only house on that mile, and it sits a half of a mile from the main road, or “the tar,” as Delores calls it.
She is retired and worked as a hairstylist for more than 40 years. Her hobbies are gardening and quilting. She likes living in rural Conger.
“I’m not stuck in the boonies,” said Delores. “I don’t want to move to town if I don’t have to. I hope I can always stay here.”
Delores’ wish is for the house and land to stay in the family for as long as possible. The house holds a lot of memories for her and the century-old farm is a source of family pride. It hasn’t been designated a Century Farm by the Minnesota State Fair and Minnesota Farm Bureau yet, but Delores said she plans to apply for the honor. Most of the family get-togethers are at her home, and she always hosts Christmas.
“This place has seen a lot of people, a lot of children,” she said “If these walls could talk…”