Sarah Ferber’s lowest times, her most down-and-out moments, weren’t when she was using and dealing methamphetamine and other drugs.
They weren’t the countless occasions during her on-and-off drug use during 14 years when she emerged from benders feeling like she’d been run over by a truck. They weren’t even her multiple arrests and subsequent court appearances, or jobs and other opportunities lost in the aftermath of yet another plunge downward in the roller-coaster ride that had become her life.
The worst times, Ferber said, those moments when she hit absolute rock bottom, happened when she sobered up from yet another day or days of drugging and thought about her two sons.
Amid the hazy re-entry back into the real world, visions of Ferber’s sons often flooded her mind. How they loved her, despite her failed attempts to get her life in order. How she was losing her older son’s affections as her behavior worsened. How her boys pleaded with her to live her life differently, to live life better. How she was unable to do that, no matter how much she wished to.
“I didn’t want to, but I was neglecting my kids,” a tearful Ferber said on a recent afternoon, her voice cracking with emotion. “I would think how I have these beautiful kids who for some reason still love me. And I knew I was failing them.”
So when Ferber, 36, was arrested outside Knights Inn west of Eau Claire in November 2014, what should have been an alarming incident felt instead like relief. She was homeless at the time, her arms lined with needle tracks, her few belongings in a vehicle with her, along with meth, marijuana and syringes.
For the previous 18 months, her life had felt like a drug-fueled freight train careening off the tracks, with her helpless to stop it. Now controls would be put in place, she thought, in the form of the court system and prison.
“I knew I couldn’t stop on my own. My addiction was too strong,” Ferber recalled. “If I was ever going to get out of the drug life, I was going to need help doing it.”
Stories of meth abuse are becoming ever more commonplace in Eau Claire and in communities across northwestern Wisconsin. Officials with law enforcement, social services agencies and others say drug abuse, especially methamphetamine, continues to rise across the region.
In 2016, 320 meth-related cases were introduced in Eau Claire County Court, a number that rose to 342 last year, the highest number recorded. Based on arrest figures during the first three months of this year, that figure is on pace to hit 436 this year.
Those numbers continue to grow as more meth makes its way to the Eau Claire region. The drug typically starts its journey here from Central America or Mexico, where it is manufactured, law enforcement officers say, then is shipped north to California before being transported east to hubs such as Minneapolis and then to smaller regional locations like Eau Claire.
“We are seeing more and more of these cases, more meth in the community,” Eau Claire County District Attorney Gary King said during a meeting Monday in Eau Claire to discuss meth and other drugs.
Additional meth cases, in turn, have prompted a significant uptick in crimes in the region, Eau Claire police Deputy Chief Matt Rokus said. Property crimes have risen especially in recent years, Rokus said, as meth abuse has climbed. Violent crimes such as battery also have risen, he said, as have instances involving guns and other weapons.
“More people are committing crimes to support their meth habit,” Rokus said.
The highly addictive power of meth often means parents and other caretakers using the drug largely abandon caring for their children, local law enforcement officers said. In some instances, Rokus said, police and social workers discover children caring for themselves because their meth-addled parents aren’t able to do it.
The rising prevalence of meth here and elsewhere across west-central Wisconsin in recent years is occurring even as efforts to combat abuse of the drug grow. Chief among them was the formation in 2015 of the Methamphetamine Response Committee.
The group comprises representatives of many entities, such as the district attorney’s office, law enforcement, the public defender’s office, juvenile court, Eau Claire County judges, the county Human Services Department and others. It seeks to combine different vantage points related to meth abuse to come up with better solutions to that problem.
“We are looking at other solutions to this problem,” King said. “We know we cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”
King and others acknowledge curbing meth abuse is a complicated, multifaceted riddle with no easy answers. At Monday’s meeting, when a mother asked what she can do to help her 32-year-old daughter addicted to meth, King and other panelists at the event didn’t have concrete answers.
“It is a very challenging issue,” King said, urging the woman to seek out available services for her daughter.
One alternative intended to help people overcome their meth addictions and get their lives on track is the Eau Claire County Drug Court. Instead of serving full jail or prison sentences, some offenders are referred instead to that court, which provides treatment and counseling options and requires that those in the program abide by a strict set of conditions. The idea is people in the program receive services to break their addiction and learn life skills to prevent them from returning to jail.
“This is a program that can work,” said Eau Claire police Sgt. Andy Falk, who heads the West Central Drug Task Force. “There are meth users who have turned their lives around in this program.”
Lynette Meier counts herself lucky to have taken part in Drug Court. She was referred there after her November 2013 arrest in Eau Claire for meth possession, her eighth arrest in the previous 17 months.
Meier’s meth dependence was so strong that by the time of her last arrest she couldn’t take enough meth to stay awake for long, she said. “I was falling asleep at stoplights, I was falling asleep at the wheel in my driveway ... I was a danger to everyone around me,” Meier, 47, said.
In 2010, a decadelong relationship turned violent. To escape the resulting trauma and depression, Meier said she turned to meth, using it at first and later dealing it.
After her last arrest, Meier figured she was headed to prison, because drug dealers typically aren’t referred to Drug Court. But Meier got a spot anyway after a six-month stint in jail.
Like Meier, Ferber figured she was going to prison after her November 2014 arrest. Instead, after three months in jail, she made it into AIM Court, a treatment program for single mothers. Ferber found temporary housing at Bolton Refuge House in Eau Claire and then received an apartment as part of the Housing First program started by Western Dairyland Community Action Agency.
She underwent treatment and counseling for her drug addiction and physical abuse she had endured. She attended substance abuse prevention meetings and replaced old acquaintances with new, supportive friends.
It wasn’t easy, but the new approach to life she was learning through treatment was working, Ferber said.
“I felt like I had a second chance at life,” she said.
Shane Renner isn’t eligible for Drug or AIM courts, but the 29-year-old Eau Claire resident who worked as a registered nurse is trying to piece his life back together after it was torn apart by his meth addiction. Five years ago he received treatment for alcohol abuse, and his relapse led to a heroin habit that prompted lost jobs and income.
Seeking a cheaper high, he discovered meth and became hooked. Last year, he found himself homeless and turned to crime to support his drug habit. After several arrests, he spent four months in the Eau Claire County Jail and was released Feb. 5.
Two months later, Renner remains clean and recently celebrated six months of sobriety. He lives in transitional housing he pays for with money he earns doing factory work through a temp agency. He attends substance abuse prevention meetings nearly daily and is tested each day to ensure he is drug-free. He said the support of his probation officer is responsible for much of his success.
“Just knowing there is someone on your side who will support you makes a huge difference,” he said.
Ferber and Meier credit strong support systems for their staying drug-free too. Meier has been clean for 4½ years and works today selling hearing aids and as a peer support mentor. Her relationship with her once-estranged family “is the best it’s been,” she said. She speaks to teens referred to juvenile court “because I see myself in them.”
Ferber hasn’t used meth since late 2014 and plans to graduate this year with a social work degree at UW-Eau Claire. She has become a local activist and a leader in the organization EX-Prisoners Organizing, or EXPO, that works to end mass incarceration. She spoke at Monday’s meeting in Eau Claire about drugs and received applause and handshakes for sharing her thoughts.
Both women said they were fortunate to receive multiple “wrap-around” services concurrently that addressed their many needs related to drug addiction. But many meth addicts often go without those services, they said, and remain trapped in the drug life.
To avoid that, they said, meth treatment must be much longer than typical 21- or 28-day programs; those sessions aren’t extended enough for addict’s brains to overcome meth cravings. Earlier intervention would be helpful as well, they said, as would increasing access to Drug Court and ensuring strong support systems and links to housing when people are released from jail.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Ferber said. “Some days are still hard, but I received the services and support to make it. Now we have to make sure more people get the same help I did.”
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