Northeast Michiganders share stories of recovery

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Zach Williams talks earlier this summer about his journey from addiction to recovery. Williams, a former heroin addict, is now a wellness advocate and peer recovery coach for Catholic Human Services.

ALPENA — Heroin sent her to jail, got her kids taken away, and pushed her to the brink of death.

Jesika Brown wasn’t ready to give up hope. Now approaching three years in recovery, she is expecting another child.

“There is hope,” Brown said.

At first, her recovery mantra was “one day at a time,” but, now, she doesn’t feel the need or desire to use drugs.


News Photo by Darby Hinkley Jesika Brown talks earlier this summer about the importance of support for people in recovery from drug addiction. Brown, a former heroin addict, is now a peer recovery coach for Catholic Human Services.

That’s the best tool she has found to keep herself on the right track.

“Being able to be mindful and aware of my surroundings — the things that I’m doing and how it’s affecting me,” said Brown, 32. “Is it affecting me in a good way, or should I step away from this person or situation? Being able to recognize that has helped a great deal.”

She credits her success to a circle of support people, including family, friends and church members. Her faith in God is a strong factor in her recovery.

“Support is probably the biggest” factor in helping an addict through the recovery process, Brown said. “Being able to support somebody while they are trying to recover, and during their addiction, is very difficult for the people around them. But it’s necessary. If it wasn’t for my family being there for me, and my church, I don’t think I would have had the strength to get by, to come back out of my darkness. Having that support there, it’s everything.”

Similar stories play out for hundreds of people in Northeast Michigan, where both the arrest rate for drug charges and the hospitalization rate for overdoses vastly exceed the statewide rate, according to state data.

Family is a huge part of the support system.

“I’m so appreciative that they were able to stand by me and still support me to this day, after all that I’ve put them through,” Brown said of her family.

She recalled where she’s been.

“I was addicted to heroin for almost two years,” Brown recalled. “And, prior to that, it was pain medication — opiates — and that was off and on for about 10 years.”

She just couldn’t take the pain she was feeling inside, so she coped in a destructive way.

“I would numb myself to not feel whatever I was feeling,” she said. “I would just try to get rid of those dark feelings, and think getting high was making me feel better, when, in turn, it was just making everything 10 times worse.”

She said she would have a month or two of sobriety here and there, but then, when life got too hard, she would turn back to using.

“In 2017, I had lost custody of my children,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “And, that’s what spiraled me into the heroin addiction. Because, again, I didn’t know how to cope with that loss.”

During the next two years, she got busted for drug possession and delivery — two felonies.

“I ended up in jail quite a bit,” Brown said. “In 2018, I spent 153 days out of 365 days in there, and that was going in and out. And then, in 2019, I had an old charge come back at me, and I was sober at this point, and I ended up getting sentenced to a year in jail.”

Good things came from what seemed like a bad situation, however.

“When I was in jail, I ended up discovering my faith,” Brown said. “That’s where Living Hope (Church) was doing jail ministry, and I got connected with them. And I, by the grace of God, literally, I was able to stay connected and stay sober. Now, I have an amazing job with a very supportive team of people.”

She now works as a peer recovery coach for Catholic Human Services, helping others navigate their recovery journey. It’s meaningful work, and she loves sharing her personal story with those who need hope.

“A lot of people look at someone with a substance abuse disorder, and they think that there’s no hope,” she said. “That this is going to be their life. My family thought so. My family — I can’t say that they turned their backs on me — I turned my back on them. And people need to realize that, for as many people as there are in active addiction, there’s 10 times as many in recovery.”

Brown said recovery resources are plentiful — you just have to reach out for help.

“It’s unbelievable, the recovery community out there,” she said. “I’m so connected with so many people, all over the state, all over the world. There’s groups on Facebook with thousands, millions of people that are recovering every day.”


Zach Williams is one of those people.

In recovery after 20 years of active addiction, he, like Brown, now works at Catholic Human Services as a wellness advocate and a peer recovery coach, helping others navigate the resources available to them. He and Brown completed peer recovery coach training through Northern Michigan Substance Abuse Services.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Williams, 42, said of the transition from drug addict to peer recovery coach.

He ended up going through drug court, which allows addicts to seek treatment in lieu of jail time, after four charges related to driving with drugs in his system, and he had a felony on his record.

“I was a hardcore heroin addict,” the Oscoda man said.

He was “always a very functional addict,” working at high-paying jobs or running his own business. He has three children and has been married for 20 years. On the outside, he said, he looked like a “good member of society.”

But his life was out of control.

“I kept spiraling out of control, and it was crazy,” Williams said. “At that point, I really probably should have been locked up. I couldn’t pass a drug test, I couldn’t maintain anything.”

He was driving to Mt. Pleasant to a methadone clinic every day, a two-hour drive one way from Iosco County.

“I couldn’t seem to stay clean enough to get take-home,” he said. “It was a nightmare.”

His ultimate wake-up call came on April 11, 2018, when, after leaving to go get drugs around 3 a.m. in his newly acquired sports car, he crashed into a cemetery in Harrisville after accidentally driving 14 miles past his home while high.

“I hit a bunch of headstones, and one of them was the judge’s family,” Williams said. “I flipped my car three times, and it landed in a tree and it came down. I was ejected.”

Barefoot in the snow, Williams can hardly remember anything, except that he had tunnel vision and he recalls his big toe dragging over the headstones, sweeping the snow off them as he attempted to walk to the road.

“It was the eeriest thing,” he said. “I walked across the street. I was bleeding internally. My spleen was ruptured. I was all messed up.”

He walked a while, knocked on a door, and Frank, who owns the bowling alley in Harrisville, happened to be home. It was close to 5 a.m. now.

“He said it was a miracle, ’cause he’s never home,” Williams said.

When Frank asked what happened, Williams lied.

“I said, ‘Oh nothing. I was just walking through the woods and I need to use your phone,'” Williams recalled.

Meanwhile, the cops arrived at the scene and Williams was nowhere to be found, so they went to his house, where his wife was getting the kids ready for school.

“My pastor’s wife called my wife and said she was in prayer that morning, and that she knew where I was,” Williams said. “That God showed her that I was in a snowbank, and that I was going to be OK.”

Then, at about 9 a.m., his wife got another call, that time from MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena.

“They said, ‘You need to pull your kids out of school and come up to the Alpena hospital. It doesn’t look like your husband is going to make it,'” Williams said.

They knew he was bleeding internally, Williams said, but they had to do a CT scan to determine where he was bleeding before operating.

“My heart stopped while I was on the table,” he said.

He said Dr. Mark Puls made the decision to try to save his life.

“From what I understand, he is a Christian doctor, and he prays over his patients,” Williams said.

“So he cut me open from top to bottom, just wide open, and started diggin’ around, pulling out pieces of my spleen,” Williams said. “They had to give me five pints of blood, brought me back to life. And then I woke up a couple of days later in the hospital.”

Despite that event, Williams’ addiction still had a hold on him. He went back to using.

“I wasn’t done, yet,” he said. “Did I want to be done? Of course I wanted to be done. I just didn’t know how. I had been to rehab already six times at that point. I had been to multiple outpatient programs. I had been to medication-assisted treatment programs, I had been to church programs. I had been to every kind of program you could imagine.”

He was at the lowest point in his life, and his beloved dog, Justice, had just died. They had just gotten another dog, a young German shepherd named Tyson.

“I was very attached to this dog,” Williams recalled.

The kids had just gotten on the schoolbus.

Tyson “slipped out, and he ran down the road,” Williams said. “It was, like, 7 o’clock in the morning, … So, I’m running down the driveway, and I just see this car hit him, and I just kept running. And I just laid down in the middle of the road on this dog. And I just laid there, and I just held him. And there were cars that were swerving around me … And I just felt so broken. I couldn’t even save this dog. I didn’t know how to talk to my own kids. I didn’t know how to talk to my wife. And I didn’t know how to fix myself.”

That was his breaking point.

“And I know that may seem silly to a lot of people,” he said through tears. “It was just a dog, and we didn’t even have him that long. But it was what I needed to know that I couldn’t do anything, that I was powerless over every single aspect of my life.”

His friend, Matthew Barnett, came over shortly thereafter and sat at his kitchen table with him.

“He said, ‘I had to come over here and tell you that I love you, and that you matter, and tell you that you have to do this. You have to take this seriously. You’ve got to get clean,'” Williams recalled. “He told me I was needed.

“I didn’t understand it, but I felt it in my spirit,” Williams said. “He sat at my kitchen table and prayed with me. And I decided to stop making my own decisions. Because that’s really what it was all about. I was selfish. I didn’t have any of the answers. I just knew one thing, and that’s, any time I made my own decisions, things went horribly wrong.”

He said Jessica Hope was his drug court case manager, and she was a drug court graduate.

“It was great, because she knew what it was like to be me, because she was me,” Williams said.

Now, Williams is able to impart that same hope to others, as Hope imparted it to him.

After the yearlong drug court program, which was Williams’ first sober year since he started using, he thought to himself, “Man, I like this. I like who I am today.”

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Brown is attending Alpena Community College, pursuing an associate degree in social arts. She plans to move on to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work or psychology.

Brown is also a board member of Families Against Narcotics (FAN), which holds a monthly forum featuring speakers who address drug-related topics from a variety of perspectives. FAN is a statewide program, Brown said.

“They have all kinds of resources available to help families that either have somebody directly close to them suffering with a substance use disorder” or individuals seeking assistance for their own addiction and recovery issues, she said. “It’s really exciting to have this starting up here in Alpena. We need things like this.”

She said FAN offers training on how to administer naloxone, which can help reverse an opioid overdose.

“It saves people’s lives,” Brown said. “It saved mine.”

Brown overdosed on heroin in 2018.

“If it wasn’t for that NARCAN giving me another chance at life, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “It’s a great thing. There’s a lot of stigma attached to it, because a lot of people that don’t understand substance use disorders, they look at it as, ‘Well, that’s just another day for them to get high … They did that to themselves, and they’re just going to go get high again.’ But, not a lot of people realize there are chances for people, you know? A substance use disorder is not the end of somebody’s life. They can change.”

She did go back out and use after her overdose, but, about two months after that, she got clean.

“I’ve now been clean and sober for two years and seven months,” she said in June.

Substance abuse disorders often go hand-in-hand with mental health issues.

“I can’t speak for everybody, but the majority of people with substance abuse disorders have underlying mental illnesses,” Brown said. “I, myself, have suffered with depression, PTSD, things like that, since I was a kid. And I didn’t know how to cope with that. I tried to get counseling when I was younger, but it was seen as just a phase that I was going through, and that I’d grow out of it, but then I never did.”

Brown choked up when she started talking about her two children, and the one on the way.

Her two children live in South Carolina with their father.

“I haven’t seen them — because of what I have done with my life in the past — I haven’t seen them or talked to them in three years,” Brown said. “I was not in a good place when I had them. I was not mentally stable, I was not financially stable, I just wasn’t stable at all.”

She is grateful for a new chance at motherhood.

“It’s different this time around,” she said. “Now, I have this opportunity to have another child. To be the mother that I should have been before.”

“Nobody is a lost cause,” Brown said.


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