Rock bottom for Cheryl McDonald came when she realized the heroin addict she loved - her son - had stripped everything of value from both her home and his grandmother's.
"And the manipulation. We'd fall for the stories for the longest time about different things," McDonald said. "He had more oil changes in his car than anyone we knew because that was a way to get (money)."
On top of it all, her son was a dad.
"Drug addiction doesn't stop you from fathering a child," said the Superior woman. "He loved her instantly and was really good with her, but it was just you can't live this life and be a father to a little girl. It's just not OK."
To give him the tough love he needed, McDonald had to step back. She began meeting with others whose lives have been touched by addiction. Being able to talk freely about it and know you're not alone, she said, was a great help.
"Addiction is shameful; people don't want to talk about it," McDonald said. "You don't want to go to work and say 'I can't even think today because I didn't sleep last night because the addict in my life didn't come home and I don't know if he's dead or alive' or 'He stole from me and now I have to go find my crap or I have to buy it back from the pawn shop' or, you know, there's lots of craziness that goes on because you love that person and you want to make them well and you're doing everything in your power to do that but you get so wound up in it that you soon don't realize that you're just about as crazy as them."
It took her a year of meetings to realize that if her son died, she still had to live.
The Superior woman paid out of pocket for treatment at area centers. Her son went through the Douglas County court system for forging his grandmother's checks. Finally, McDonald sent him to a sober living house in Georgia. He couldn't come home until he stayed clean for six months while holding down a job.
"And he's clean. He's clean now," McDonald said. "And it's not from me enabling him, it's from us standing up and saying we can't do this anymore."
Her son is back in the area, working and getting ongoing suboxone treatment, a medical replacement therapy.
"I was against the suboxone," said McDonald, a nurse. "So much of the medical community was, but I now see the benefit of it in that he is clean and he is working hard, he's a father, he's a really good father and he isn't doing any of the things he was doing before when he was using. That just goes to confirm that's not the person he really is, it's what he felt he had to do to survive, to not be sick from lacking your drug. He's 24."
McDonald is one of four Douglas County women rallying to raise awareness of the need for more treatment options for drug addicts. Their stories involve different loved ones and different drugs, but they have a similar theme.
"You go online and you Google inpatient treatments in northern Wisconsin and there's nothing," said Jenny Anderson of Superior. "It directs you to Madison and Milwaukee and Green Bay. If we could have just one place for these people to go, even if it's just 10 out of 50 addicts that they help."
Looking for help
There are three outpatient drug treatment providers in Douglas County, and the county has a long-standing agreement with St. Louis County to provide detox for alcohol and drug use. But the county's 20-bed residential treatment program was shuttered in 2009 due to lack of funding, according to Betsy Byler, mental health therapist and chemical dependency counselor with the Human Development Center.
"There are inpatient facilities in Duluth," said Dave Longsdorf, manager of mental health, alcohol and other drug abuse and adult protection services with the Douglas County Health and Human Services Department. "To the best of my knowledge, none of them accept (Wisconsin) medical assistance."
Douglas County has a drug court, but it is far smaller than St. Louis County's, which has up to 50 participants at a time. A collaborative, unfunded effort between the city, county and private partners, Douglas County's drug court program takes two to three candidates at a time, according to Longsdorf. In the seven years it's been operating, 11 participants have been involved in the program. Three have had a 100 percent success rate, Longsdorf said.
Anderson's boyfriend, David Lee Peterson, 30, is serving a three-year prison sentence for theft, forgery and burglary that he committed to support his meth habit. He called inpatient treatment programs in Duluth to seek help, but was turned away.
"It is super frustrating and super heartbreaking when you have a loved one as an addict and there's help a mile away and you can't get the help for them," Anderson said. "It's right across the bridge, but you call there and they say sorry, you're from Wisconsin and we can't help you. I truly believe in my heart that if there would have been a place for David to go and get help, that he wouldn't have, things wouldn't have continued on the way they did."
There is a barrier separating the states, especially for those on medical assistance.
"There's a huge disparity between services available in Minnesota and those available across the river," said Gary Olson, chief executive officer of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Duluth.
Although there are Wisconsin residents in the center's opioid treatment program, most are self-pay.
"For Wisconsin people to come over here, somebody's got to foot the bill," Olson said.
Recent changes could help. As of last month, Wisconsin medical assistance now covers the treatment portion of inpatient treatment. Families still have to pay for room and board at the facility, Longsdorf said. That costs about $1,000 for a 21-day stay. And they have to find a facility that will accept medical assistance patients.
In 2015, the Department of Health Services awarded grants for opioid treatment programs in underserved areas through the Heroin and Opiate Prevention and Education legislative package. Two Ashland facilities - NorthLakes Community Clinic and Ashland Baughn Clinic - were among those receiving grants. They are now suboxone providers, Longsdorf said, but Douglas County residents cannot access the treatment there.
"They're looking at expanding the project to our county," he said.
There are two suboxone treatment providers in Duluth, Olson said, but they can only prescribe for a limited number of patients.
Comparing the treatment options available in Douglas and St. Louis counties is like comparing apples and oranges, Longsdorf said. With a much larger population, St. Louis County is more akin to Madison. And there are still gaps in the Minnesota system, including an overwhelming number of people seeking treatment and a wait of anywhere from one week to one month to get an addict into treatment once they step forward and ask for help.
"We have resources, no doubt about it, and there are options for people," Olson said. "It's not easy to access. We haven't figured this out."
There has to be a way to get the word out about the need for more treatment options locally, said Peterson's mother, Shelley Faul of Solon Springs.
"We'd like to see a treatment center, a treatment center in our area, even if the treatment center was in Duluth but accepted residents from Wisconsin," Anderson said.
The women plan to host a table at next month's Twin Ports Recovery Walk on Barker's Island to raise awareness of resources available - like NA, Naranon, AA and Alanon - and the lack of treatment options for Douglas County residents. They may even have a petition for folks to sign.
"We're just moms and people that love addicts, and we just want to make a difference. And I know that we will," Faul said.