MOUNT VERNON – Michelle Zedaker almost slipped up a little over a week ago.
She bought the pills that made her dopesick; that limited her ability to raise her two teenage boys; that she couldn’t stop taking, even when her mother was on her deathbed, and her dying wish was to see her daughter clean.
She bought the pills. Adderall. Ritalin. She had all intentions of taking them.
Then she logged onto Facebook and she saw a post about Mount Vernon’s Fall Recovery Fest. It was to take place that Saturday – a celebration of clean living, something she’d fought hard to accomplish since her mother passed away four months ago. It would be hosted by Riverside Recovery Services, the place she turned to when she reached her lowest point.
She put down the pills. She couldn’t let them down.
“I wouldn’t have made it this far if I wouldn’t have started going to Riverside,” she said last Saturday, standing on the periphery of Riverside Park, watching as her two boys passed a frisbee back and forth in the afternoon sun.
Zedaker’s story is undoubtedly similar to many others who attended the September 7 festival, which included a free cookout lunch, kickball, an obstacle course, and many other sober, family-oriented activities. Riverside Recovery Services director Amy Smart said that around 150 people came to the organization’s first festival last fall, and this year’s turnout looked to surpass that.
“To see everybody out here having a good time, celebrating – a lot of past clients that are still sober have joined us today, some of our former employees who have gone on to other avenues in their life have joined us today as well,” Smart said. “It’s been a really good day.”
Riverside’s second annual Fall Recovery Festival coincided with National Recovery Month. Every year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services marks September as a time to “promote the societal benefits of prevention, treatment and recovery for mental and substance abuse disorders,” according to its website. It’s also a time to celebrate those who have recovered or are seeking treatment, Smart said.
As the park began to fill up last Saturday, Zedaker stood near the edge of the grassy area. She doesn’t like large crowds, she said. But she still felt proud to be there, among so many people she used to use with, but were now clean. Among the staff at Riverside who believed in her. Among her two boys, who never gave up on her.
Among herself, alive and sober. Which, given what she’s been through, is nothing short of miraculous.
‘She sees me’
Zedaker’s path to addiction began long before adulthood.
Growing up in Mount Vernon, Zedaker didn’t meet her mother until she was 18 years old. She’d fallen victim to the same disease that seemed to plague the entire family.
“She chose drugs and alcohol over me and my big brother,” Zedaker said.
Zedaker enlisted in the Army after graduating from Mount Vernon High School at the turn of the century. When she returned home, she was hit hard by health issues. She needed 11 surgeries within a two-year period.
“After having my kids, you know, it put my body through hell,” she said.
All of this pain, of course, warranted medication. Lots of it.
Zedaker became hooked.
“The overprescribing of the pain meds is what got me,” she said.
Soon, Zedaker assumed the same old family story. She fell head-first into the thralls of addiction.
“Everybody that I was around was using,” she recalled. “I was bouncing home-to-home and kind of got sucked right in.”
At first, it was painkillers. It was an on-again, off-again thing; six months of binge using followed by six months clean.
This went on for several years. Then, one day, she shared some of her pain pills with her best friend. He overdosed that night.
“Having that in the back of my mind – I don’t know if it was the pills that he had gotten through me,” she said. “It wasn’t easy.”
After years of using painkillers, Zedaker decided then to quit cold turkey.
“I saw him in my dreams every night for a month telling me, ‘Baby girl, you need to get away from this. I want to be with you, but I don’t want you up here. It’s not time,’” she recalled. “And knowing that I was never gonna see his face again and it was because of our addiction that took him away, I just... I couldn’t do it.”
But addiction found its way back, as it often does. Three years later, Zedaker found Adderall and Ritalin.
This produced a more intense high than before. Adderall is compared chemically to meth, as overuse of the prescription stimulant can cause a dangerous increase in dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the central nervous system. Users become addicted to the dopamine rush caused by the drug and are often unable to function without it.
Zedaker could only lay off the pills for a day or two before becoming dopesick. She eventually turned to Riverside Recovery Services, but only because she wanted to save a relationship. She needed to prove to her significant other that she was clean, because he was already making an effort to do so.
“Then once I started meeting everybody at Riverside it’s like, ‘Hey, I do need this,’” Zedaker recalled. “‘This is where I need to be.’ And it just went from there.”
Zedaker went through intense recovery treatment through Riverside’s outpatient program. She attended three group therapy sessions each week, where staff members would hear about her struggles and work to find solutions. She also attended one-on-one sessions.
But what finally got Zedaker to quit, tragically, was the passing of her mother.
It was her last wish to see her daughter clean, free from the disease that had haunted her life as well. Unfortunately, that never happened. When Zedaker’s mother passed away, she was still fighting.
Zedaker was heartbroken; she still is. But she’s used that pain as a source of inspiration. Zedaker wants to make her mother proud, she said, and she battles addiction every day in her name. It’s been four months since Zedaker’s mother passed, and she hasn’t used since.
“I promised her she’d see me clean before I lost her and that didn’t happen,” Zedaker said, glancing upwards. “But she sees me.”
‘We’re finally overcoming something’
To those passing by Riverside Park last Saturday, it may have seemed like an ordinary day. Families played on the park equipment. The smell of cookout food wafted through the cool fall air. Just another Saturday in a town like Mount Vernon.
Except this was anything but ordinary. To those in attendance, this was some sort of miracle.
“It’s like it’s a family get-together to me,” said Zedaker, who knew many of the Riverside staff members and clients in attendance. “It’s nice to see them again and see a lot of my old friends that I used to use with, they’re all here. I know a good handful of the people that’s here. It’s good seeing them all clean.”
The mood that day was somewhat triumphant. The people present made a choice that day: instead of using together, they’d celebrate sobriety together.
“Seeing everybody clean together…” Zedaker paused. “You know, we’re finally overcoming something.”
For those stricken by the disease of addiction, family time often falls by the wayside. One of Riverside’s core goals, Smart said, is redeveloping healthy relationships between clients and their families. The Fall Recovery Fest provides an opportunity for this to occur.
“We actually have a [Child Protective Services] worker right here that took her day off to bring a couple of our clients’ kids to visit with them,” Smart said last Saturday. “That’s an awesome thing.”
Zedaker, 37, spent quality time with her two boys that day. While she’s never lost her children to CPS or had charges pressed against her, Zedaker said her bout with addiction has impacted her ability to raise her children.
“I’ve never been into any kind of trouble,” she said. “But the structure that my kids needed wasn’t there.”
Zedaker’s sons are now 15 and 17 years old, respectively. From a parental perspective, Zedaker said it can be hard to make up for lost time.
“Now, trying to put that structure back in their life and be the mom that I should have been from the beginning, they’re not as flexible as you figure a kid would be,” she said.
Still, Zedaker said days like last Saturday are important. Overcoming addiction is about celebrating the victories, like the fact that Zedaker is four months clean from Adderall and Ritalin, and five years clean from painkillers; that she’s now the manager at a local pizza shop; that she still stops by Riverside’s outpatient center from time to time, but does not need as many sessions per week now.
Zedaker spends her days working and caring for her children, as well as her mother’s dog, which she left behind.
There are easy days; there are hard days. For as far as Zedaker’s come through her own volition, however, she gives Riverside almost all the credit. It was the staff at Riverside that supported her on her darkest days – that opened its arms and listened.
“I mean, this is my other family,” Zedaker said, looking around the park. “Without everybody here, I’d probably still be using. They’re amazing people, they’re a big support. They were even there for me when I lost my mom. I didn’t have family by my side, except for my kids.”
To overcome addiction, Zedaker said, it takes a support system. Riverside, which serves an estimated 200 clients in Knox County, gave her that boost.
“To do it alone, I would never do it again,” Zedaker said. “With Riverside, it’s like one giant family.”