Catholic Herald staff
Editor’s note: The Catholic Herald received permission from the Douglas County jail administrator to conduct the interview for this article. *To protect her privacy, the subject’s name has been changed.
How does a beautiful, talented and intelligent young woman go from being a star student in high school to jail in her 30s?
The answer lies in one of Wisconsin’s worst social scourges: substance abuse.
It’s a long story, and it happened in a short amount of time, given Julie Andersen’s* 34-year lifespan.
“It has been crazy, and not good, unfortunately,” she added. “I remember growing up … I never thought I would get into drugs.”
Andersen was raised in the Twin Cities. A member of the National Honor Society in high school, she was a varsity athlete and solo performer who graduated with honors.
A soprano, she moved to Eau Claire to study vocal performance at the university.
“I got into pills in college,” she said.
Andersen went to the doctor for medicine to treat pain and anxiety; she was given routinely prescribed drugs that are also addictive, and she started taking too many.
Narcotics and stimulants – ativan, an anti-anxiety drug; hydrocodone, an opiod painkiller; and adderall, which is used to treat ADHD – were among the prescription drugs she abused.
Then, there were the boyfriends. One, whom she considers her first true love, let her try cocaine. She drank excessively with another. She was also attending a college with a drinking culture, living in a county that is currently ranked second-worst for binge drinking, according to a recent UW Health study, in the top binge-drinking state in the country.
Years later, after moving to Duluth, she lived with a different boyfriend after college; that relationship she marks as the start of her decline. They drank heavily; she was still using pills, now purchased off the streets. He encouraged her to audition as an exotic dancer.
She got the job – lucrative, but “not the sanest or healthiest” of occupations – and she was using more pills to keep up her energy and control her weight. A fellow dancer introduced her to methamphetamine; when she ran out of pills, she switched to meth, “and that was a bad idea.”
“Meth causes paranoia, obsessive behavior (like cleaning), psychosis and delusional thinking,” she said. “After not sleeping for a long time, it can cause hallucinations too.”
Drug use led to her first run-ins with the law a few years ago. She was arrested in Superior in possession of both meth and illegally obtained prescription drugs. She was soon on probation, back on the streets; despite her fear of being caught, “I still couldn’t quit, which was really sad.”
Then, she was in a downward spiral. Drug use got her kicked out of a series of apartments, so she decided to go homeless, “hopping from couch to couch, using, and in and out of the psych ward.”
She was also in and out of jail, arrested on a variety of charges – possession of drugs and paraphernalia, disorderly conduct, retail theft and resisting/obstructing an officer.
The company she was keeping had correspondingly declined.
“I was compromising my personal sense of safety and well-being,” she said.
She’d put herself in dangerous situations, hanging out with “scary” people whose criminal records were far worse than hers. She dated a murderer for awhile, “because I was addicted, because we used and drank together, and I was desperate.”
“A really dark world” is how she describes that life, and it only got worse.
She was molested, raped and beaten in the ghetto. Then, she was trading her body for drugs.
“Life became so depressing and so sad,” she said.
She was arrested again in May and is currently in jail in Douglas County, charged with bribing a public official, a felony, and misdemeanor theft.
Faith and hope
Jail may be a bleak place, but it has its blessings. Inside, Andersen has no access to meth, so she’s been clean for months. She’s also used her time wisely – reading inspirational books, beginning the long journey of mental and physical rehabilitation, reconnecting with God.
“I was raised Episcopal, but I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention in church, even though I went to Sunday school,” she said.
Faith has become one of her greatest sources of comfort.
“My favorite recovery/spiritual books include ‘Words that Heal’ by Douglas Bloch, ‘Refuge Recovery’ by Noah Levine, ‘24 hours a Day,’ and the Bible,” she added.
Andersen’s lawyer has been working with the district attorney’s office to secure treatment for her, and she’s looking forward to the opportunity to move on with her life.
“My plan, now, is to complete treatment, and keep climbing out of this dark place,” she said. “I plan to stay strong, remain clean and sober, and build a spiritual life.”
Alcoholism has long been a problem in Wisconsin, but in recent years, methamphetamine trafficked from Mexico via the Twin Cities has invaded the state’s rural areas. Northwestern Wisconsin has some of the worst statistics in the state.
Drug use is so widespread – and it is becoming more socially acceptable, as marijuana is increasingly legalized and states like Oregon discuss decriminalizing possession of small amounts of meth, heroin, and cocaine – that parents, grandparents and others may be justifiably concerned about the future of their young family members.
Andersen advises them to tell teens the truth.
“The disease of addiction is difficult to prevent a human being from experiencing – but people can become educated about what can happen with prescription or hard drugs,” she said. “Young people should know that their use can lead to incarceration or death … and a world of torture in between, as well as physical and mental health problems.
“If I could change anything, I would have chosen to stay clean and sober my last time out of jail,” she added. “I wouldn’t be back here.”
Andersen was released into treatment just as this story was going to press.
On a side note
By Anita Draper
This isn’t the typical story we feature. Julie isn’t Catholic, and faith hasn’t been a strong presence in her life.
However, I believe her story must be told. Many of you know someone, either directly or indirectly, with addictions. We are also living in a region with significant meth, opiod and alcohol abuse, which leads to a host of other social ills – poverty, crime and family abuse, just to name a few.
This story is also personally important to me. Although we’d fallen out of touch in recent years, Julie was once a close friend. I found out she had been arrested just before interviewing George Blenker, a strong advocate of jail ministry, so his message resonated. I began emailing Julie.
Few of us have access to these stories. We see and hear little of those who are incarcerated, addicted, charged with crimes. For that reason, I wanted to share her story. For that reason, she agreed to help.