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'It took everything from me': Former drug users talk about their addictions

Doug Hanken (left) does odd jobs when he's not working on carpentry. He said even though he's been sober for more than two years, he'll always be an addict. (Herald photo by Matthew Lambert) | Doug Hanken with his fiance Nicole Jaeger (right). The couple plan to get married in June. Hanken said his life has changed since he met Jaeger. (Photo courtesy of Doug Hanken)

Doug Hanken started drinking and smoking marijuana when he was 12. Joseph Whirry started drinking and smoking cigarettes when he was 14.

What began as early age addictions would spiral into years of drug abuse: Smoking marijuana to taking pills to experimenting with designer drugs.

As the addictions took hold, Hanken and Whirry saw loved ones leave, the inside of a jail cell and crippling isolation.

Being high used to be the most important thing in their lives. It consumed them.

Now, they're sober and trying to leave addiction behind them.

The middle school drug dealer

After getting in with the wrong crowd, as an attempt to fit in with some of his classmates, Hanken began to sell drugs shortly after his first sip of beer and puff from a joint.

He started off by selling weed mostly, he said, but it only took a few more years for him to graduate from middle school drug dealer to high school drug dealer. It wasn't just weed anymore then.

"It just progressed when I was 15 or 16 and I was doing harder drugs," Hanken said. "I was living that double life, you know. I want people to see this but behind the scenes I'm doing this."

Hanken, now 22, grew up in Prescott. His dad's side of the family hails from Prescott, while his mother's are from Hastings.

During his adolescence, Hanken's parents divorced. After his sophomore year of high school, Hanken left Prescott to live with his mother in the Twin Cities. That move didn't last long.

"I got arrested for meth," Hanken said. "I decided to up and leave and go to Prescott."

Being back in Prescott didn't help Hanken's early addiction. Hanken said the crowd he longed to belong to moved him toward harder, more illicit drugs; he couldn't say no.

"I think at an early age I didn't quite fit anywhere...I just felt uncomfortable in my own skin and those drugs and alcohol let me breathe," Hanken said. "I didn't have to worry about what everyone thought about me and I didn't have to worry about all the stuff that was going on at home."

He started taking prescription medication, then cocaine, then heroin, and eventually meth.

"It wasn't like I was drinking and smoking weed at an early age and was like 'Someday I want to do meth,'" Hanken said. "I would always lower my bottom."

When he was 17, Hanken went to buy pills from his dealer. His dealer was out, but had meth instead. Hanken wasn't scared of the translucent crystals.

"At that point in time, I just wanted to get messed up," Hanken said. "I didn't think it was that bad. I wondered what everyone was talking about. People don't get addicted to drugs because they suck."

The first time Hanken was arrested was when he was 16 for possession of marijuana, truancy and misdemeanor assault. He's been arrested four or five times; he forgets the exact number. Only one time as an adult.

Hanken didn't think he had a problem.

"The way that my mind worked was I drank and did drugs....I could stop anytime I wanted to," Hanken said. "Until I really put my foot down and decided I wanted to stop and I couldn't."

The 100-pound prisoner

Whirry is a skinny man. Not sickly by any means, rather of average height and proportional build. By all accounts a healthy looking man.

He was born in Spring Valley and grew up there for a period of time.

In school, Whirry and his friends would take alcohol from their parents' homes and sell it to other students. After their sales, Whirry and his friends went underneath bridges or found an abandoned building in which to drink and smoke cigarettes.

When his alcohol consumption became out of hand, it forced Whirry to move from Spring Valley into a foster home in Ellsworth when he was 16. He received two OWIs in eight days and was involved in a high speed chase. He has six OWIs on his record.

Just a mere 19 miles away from home, Whirry smoked marijuana for the first time at age 17.

Joe Whirry and his friends used to go to abandoned houses like this when they were younger to drink and smoke cigarettes.

He has lost track of how many times he's been arrested. He said he has "over 20" booking pictures in Pierce County and has been in jail in Goodhue, Pepin, Dunn, Eau Claire and St. Croix counties. All of his charges stem from traffic violations.

In 1999, Whirry's drug addiction worsened. His girlfriend, and mother of his only son, said she was leaving and expected Whirry to leave their home in Spring Valley when she returned.

"My son's mom said she was leaving if I didn't stop drinking and smoking weed," Whirry said. "I drove down to Spring Valley to a family member's house and they were doing meth. It was over from there. I would use it for the next 18 years."

The liberating feeling of being high on meth was unlike anything Whirry ever experienced. He wasn't upset by his girlfriend and son leaving him. There was no pain.

"I felt, just emotionally, I felt great," Whirry said. "I excelled at my job. Everything went better in my life for like six months."

Like many addicts, Whirry didn't want it to end. The abuse evolved from using on the weekends, to daily, while drinking and smoking weed on top of it all.

"You'd know when you walk outside and it looked like a cartoon strip," Whirry said. "It just didn't feel like reality anymore...Even if everything was crumbling around you and you were at that level of highness, you were fine."

Whirry began cooking meth with a friend and continuing to drive under the influence. He went to prison twice.

Being in prison as an addict is a tremendous challenge, according to Whirry. Many inmates acted like "huge drug dealers," when in reality they were caught for minor offenses.

Whirry didn't succumb to the typical prison lifestyle. He found religion.

"When I was in prison I was a completely different person," Whirry said. "I spent all my time in the chapel; I actually got baptized in there. I thought for sure my life would change."

A 100-pound Whirry pleaded with God for help. Whirry said he prayed for help while he was in Pepin County but found himself back in prison for using only a couple of months after being released.

By sheer force of will, Whirry decided to stay clean. In 2011, he got out of prison and out of trouble. He was sober for 21 months, was active in groups, and had a girlfriend that was going through the same recovery process.

Soon, Whirry found himself back in isolation, encountering new, legal drugs that would thwart his sobriety.

A poisoned body

The only thing Hanken had to do was stay clean, call the Pierce County Courthouse once a month, and not get any new charges. If he did those things, his recent felony meth possession would be dropped.

Except Hanken couldn't stay sober.

He found himself in the hospital. His heart was failing; the doctors were telling him he could die.

His mother called the District Attorney's office while he laid in the hospital bed. This was the only way Hanken's mother thought he could receive help.

At this time, Hanken's relationship with his family was strained.

"I didn't have a good relationship when I was using," Hanken said. "My family really had to cut ties with me. Not talk to me or help me because all they were doing was enabling me by allowing me to stay with them."

While his mother was on the phone and his doctors were telling him he wouldn't have long if he continued down his path, Hanken said it was the lowest point in his life.

Death didn't scare him.

"I wasn't really upset or saddened by that because I spent so much time killing myself doing drugs...I never quite had the courage to put a gun in my mouth," Hanken said. "So I tried more drugs and more drugs and eventually it'd kill me because I wanted to be high when I died."

The possibility of living a sober life didn't seem attainable to Hanken. Why go through the hardships of a sober lifestyle when getting high every day was easier?

He was homeless, bouncing around to friends' couches. He was in Iowa when he had to go to court; his deferred prosecution agreement was violated after his mother called the District Attorney's office.

Hanken showed up in the Pierce County Courthouse without a lawyer, waiting for his court appearance. Judge Joseph Boles advised him to seek out a lawyer and come back. When he did, he received two options: sit in jail or go into drug court.

"I wasn't super fond of jail so I did drug court," Hanken said.

An experience like drug court wasn't easy for Hanken to wrap his brain around. People were telling him what to do constantly. He had to endure regular drug testing, an almost daily occurrence in the beginning, a 12-step recovery process, and other classes.

Hanken was homeless no more, moving in with his father in Prescott.

With a roof over his head, a rekindled relationship with his family, and a job, he found the path to a normal life.

"My life has changed so immensely," Hanken said. "I have a place to stay. I have a good job. I have a new fiancee. All of it I owe to my sobriety."

'Like wham. I'm alive again'

With 21 months of sobriety under his belt, Whirry was staying out of trouble.

But his relationship was deteriorating. He walked into a family member's house in Spring Valley where they were snorting bath salts, a legal drug at the time.

"I had 21 months of sobriety and I thought, 'what the heck,'" Whirry said. "Man that was the worst."

He was back. Hooked by addiction, but a new drug.

Whirry said he felt the same rush he had gotten when he smoked meth for the first six months. Life wasn't depressing or woesome, but vivid and exciting.

While abusing designer drugs like bath salts and flakka, he began abusing meth again. He and a friend cooked their own meth. The consensus between them was they didn't want to steal.

"If you can't work, you end up being a thief," Whirry said. "The first people you steal from are usually the closest people to you. You've got less of chance of getting in trouble, because they don't usually call the cops on you."

In a moment of clarity, Whirry found himself at an all too familiar crossroads.

"Me and a friend of mine were making meth for ourselves because you can't really buy a lot of pills anymore...I remember walking into the house one night and saying 'man, I'm not going to be like this forever'," Whirry said. "I just knew, at that moment, that I was going to get sober."

Months prior, while riding his motorcycle, Whirry was hit by an automobile. He was rushed to the hospital, but was okay. Officers noticed track marks on Whirry's arm and the hospital took a blood sample.

He was in trouble again after the blood test came back positive for drugs in his system.

With no interest in returning to prison, Whirry skipped his court date. With a warrant out for his arrest, he fled to Fort Benning, Ga., to watch his son graduate from the National Guard boot camp.

"I was sober to go down there and I told my dad 'You better just take me to jail when we get back to Wisconsin so I don't have a chance to use,'" Whirry said.

The last time Whirry used was Dec. 15, 2014. He went to jail 11 days later. He hasn't used since.

Their sobriety

Hanken is a son, a brother, and a fiance.

Whirry is a son, a brother, and a father.

Both of them admit that in their description they'll always be one more thing: an addict.

"It's important to know that I'll never be fixed by it," Hanken said. "I'll always be a drug addict for my entire life. All I have to do is use and I'll be right back where I was."

Hanken lives in Eau Claire and takes jobs in carpentry and plowing snow. He didn't envision this career path, but he admits the drug issues derailed any kind of plans.

Whirry lives in Ellsworth, paints cars and goes to church.

Hanken has been sober two years in February. He said trying to become sober was "uncomfortable" but working out his personal, emotional issues keeps him away from temptation. Hanken said he's thought about recreational use of alcohol or marijuana. His focus isn't on that anymore. He's getting married in June to the love of his life.

Whirry said over his life he's been in treatment 11 times, with the Pierce County Drug Court being his last.

The best piece of advice Whirry said for struggling addicts is to get a mentor, someone that's also sober. Hanken suggested being your honest, true self; letting people in can help.

For Whirry, at one of his lowest points, he found himself unable to assist his father with chores around the farm. Whirry and his son went to help chop wood the Thanksgiving before he entered Drug Court.

"I was really messed up and I wanted to help my dad, just help him do stuff because I felt like I was so far away from everybody," Whirry said.

Whirry's son picked up the maul and started chopping wood. He didn't stop for two-and-a-half hours. The two didn't say much while this was going on, but his son had one thing to tell his father.

"He said 'I'll sit here as long as it takes for you to get sober,'" Whirry said.

Whirry watched his son, his own flesh and blood, doing something he never expected: love him unconditionally.

"He split wood for two and half hours by hand," Whirry said. "I knew how much he loved me. It was pretty amazing."

Editor's Note: This is the final article in a series about meth abuse in Pierce County.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal in December 2016 covering government, school board, and writing features about the community. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism.