JACKSON — Almost everyone has either personally suffered from addiction or knows another who has, so one heroin survivor is speaking up about the crippling power of addiction and how a local nonprofit saved her life.

After a decade of a traumatic relationship with heroin, it holds no control now over Geena Laabs. She successfully completed Elevate’s programs and is sharing her story at their fundraiser gala on Friday.

Laabs’ first interaction with Elevate was after an overdose when she was court-ordered to complete its treatment and diversion program. Although still using heroin, 

 she was honest with one Elevate partner about struggling to quit. When she overdosed again the next day and went to jail, that partner visited Laabs during her incarceration and afterwards provided Vivatrol shots, which Laabs said helped.

“I tried to get clean on and off my 10 years on opiates,” she said, “and there was this moment when I was in jail, yet again, but for just a second I believed I could do it; I could change my life and I believed in myself, believed that I deserved a better life than this pain and suffering.”

A common misconception, she said, is that users are happy and enjoying life getting high — that could not be further from the truth.

“You’re not yourself anymore — the drug is who you are now; you’re a slave to it and you do what it tells you,” Laabs said.

“Nothing is good — you’re dying, you’re a zombie and every day you’re hurting someone new to get your high; going another step lower to get your fix,” she said. “It’s killing you inside but you have to keep going because your addiction won’t let you quit, so it is all misery, and I never stopped praying for God to take it all away.”

The Vivatrol helped with the physical withdrawals, but the issue was much deeper for Laabs.

“I had to deal with all the anger, irritability and emotions and the problems that led me to turn to drugs in the first place,” she said. “I had to look at myself and change those things, without excuses, trusting that God had a plan for me.”

It’s not hard to look back or talk about it, Laabs said — instead she is grateful she’s in a much better place, thanks to the tremendous support, confidence and resources from Elevate, in partnership with court ordered programs like treatment and diversion.

“Elevate was great for helping me get my life back after spending 10 years on drugs without a job, any sense of a routine or a real life,” she said. During those years, she would sleep all day, wake up and seek out heroin.

“They held me accountable and were so kind, helpful and knew what was better for me than I did, like when I was actually ready for a job,” Laabs said.

Her caseworker became like a second mom.

Laabs later became pregnant and a little more than a year ago gave birth to a healthy, drug-free baby girl, Delilah Belle.

“I can’t tell you how thankful I am for Elevate’s help when I needed it the most, because I was saved from having to go through addiction with my daughter,” Laabs said. “I find it very hard to believe that addicted parents just don’t care; my heart just breaks for them and the guilt they probably feel.” That can be a vicious cycle, she said, of addiction and then using to escape their guilt of not being strong enough to quit for their child.

Now, she wants to help others, starting by speaking at Elevate’s upcoming event. There is no better gift than helping others through difficult times, Laabs said, because it is impossible to know just how much it means and how far a little kindness can go.

“Elevate showed me kindness — I wasn’t a number to them; they weren’t reading a script or checking the box for what protocol they had to follow,” she said, humbly giving credit to others along her journey. But humbling herself was part of the recovery process, Laabs said, coupled with accountability and responsibility.

“I see that life can be anything I want it to be — there is no drug with a ball and chain holding me back,” she said.

It is never too late, Laabs said. Each choice is either toward self-improvement or self-destruction, and recovery is a lifelong journey that won’t happen overnight, nor is it expected to.

Recently she was driving through West Bend and was reminded of an old boyfriend who lived there and did heroin with her.

“I remember screaming and crying for hours and hours because I couldn’t hit a vein, and every day I would go through the same process with blood everywhere,” she said.

“Sometimes I forget I was really there and actually used to go through that, because that pain is gone and I’m not in that place anymore; I have grown so much.”

If you go

What: “Unmasking the Myths of Addiction and Mental Illness,” a Mardi Gras gala fundraiser for Elevate

When: 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21

Where: Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend

Tickets: $25 per person at https://cutt.ly/elevateyou; limited tickets may be available at the door

For more information: 262-677-2216, www.elevateyou.org


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