By Anne Stanton
Last week, Northern Express reported on those who found comfort and
refuge in methadone and other drugs, but were ultimately killed or
nearly destroyed by them. As the reporting went along, the Express
also came across stories of recovery and hope for drug addicts and
alcoholics. Here they are.
Kyle Oleson, 33,
When Kyle Oleson was 26, back in 2003, he was living in a storage unit
with winter coming on. He was cold, hungry, broke, and addicted to
methadone. His 24-year-old younger brother, Eric, had died earlier
that year from a heroin overdose he had taken with two people hed met
at a T-house* in Traverse City. When Eric stopped breathing, they
panicked and drove to Munson Medical Center, and they dumped him off.
Erics death weighed heavily on Kyle. He blamed himself for setting a
bad example for his little brother. He had cut himself off from his
family and felt utterly alone. One morning, he called his mom, who
agreed to meet him at Mabels Restaurant. Over breakfast and coffee,
he told her he wanted help. Oleson soon entered treatment at Teen
Challenge, a spiritually based worldwide recovery program for all
ages, which accepts anyone, no matter what their means.
It took me twelve months to complete the program. When I went there
it was my last stop before the grave. I had tried New Age, I had
tried prescription drugs, I had tried counseling. This was it. When I
went in there, I opened my mind upIm going to listen to these guys,
Im going to give it a shot. It had to be real to me. I didnt want
another lie, another act I had to follow. They helped me understand
what the Scriptures teach, but mostly they helped me work out things
with my Creator. It was Jesus that was the difference. Id been
through every other program; my mom and dad took out three mortgages
to send me to the best places across the country. None of it worked.
There was a hole inside of me until I got saved. Its the only truth
Ive found in this world. Im not perfect. I didnt see a big bright
light. But over a period of time, my heart softened. The hole I tried
to fill with women and drugs and friends, it was like, there was love
that was inside of me I was always looking for.
Now Oleson, who works as a waiter, is close to completing his seminary
degree. He has also worked for several years to open a recovery center
in Traverse City called Treehouse Ministries. Modeled after the Teen
Challenge program, it will open this year. We are going to graft
their DNA, but we wont take the same name because its too confusing;
the program is for all ages.
If I can help someone feel the joy I live everyday when I wake up, Id
consider it an honor.
Scott Pagel, 25, Traverse City
Pagels brother, Dan Pagel, died last month at the age of 21, from an
overdose of Methadone and Xanex, an anti-anxiety drug. Scott also
spent years addicted to illegal drugs.
From my personal experiences, the incarceration system, being in
jail, and the T-houses around town, I think they are a 100% failed
effort and a waste of money. When I was in a T-house,* my roommate
was selling drugs. Hed sneak out and go to the bar. He was in a T-
house, but he wasnt doing shit. That same time, a block down the
road, a guy in a T-house got busted for selling heroin and one of the
guys in his house overdosed and died shortly after that. [Editors
note: It could have been Kyle Olesons brother, Eric, since it was
the same year.]
The best result for me was when the judge had ordered me to go to the
SAI boot camp for 90 days, a prison boot camp in Chelsea. It was
absolutely my last chance. He told me, if you screw this up, youll go
to prison for a long time. The boot camp is the last ditch effort the
state has of saving people. I was under intense physical education,
which being a drug addict, your body will push it out of your system
in a matter of weeks. The programs theyve got are great.
I got my GED, completed two substance abuse programs, and learned a
lot about myself. The biggest thing from SAI is the discipline they
taught; you cannot get that from jail or T-housesthe self-respect
and self-value. You dont get anything like that in jail. When youre
in jail, you hate yourself; life is horrible. At SAI, they might be
calling you mommy or all kinds of silly things, but they build you
back up. The last I heard, they were thinking of shutting it down. Do
I believe in a higher power thing? I believe in a higher power, but at
the same time, I think its a crock of shit. If theres a higher
power, then why are such horrible things happening all over the
Scott now provides medical marijuana to certified patients. He regards
it as a safer alternative to pain relief medication.
Mel Hagelberg, 42, Texas
When Traverse City teen Kyle Hagelberg died from an overdose of
methadone and cocaine, it spun his father, Mel Hagelberg, into an
alcoholic despair. Kyle died at the age of 17 a few weeks before
Christmas in 2005.
I lived with much self blame for not looking in on him before I left
that day. I could hear him snoring. But in reality, he was trying to
breathe from his lungs collapsing.
Mel believed his own alcoholism had led Kyle down the path of drugs.
He drowned his grief and guilt in dozens of beer a day, chased by
Vicodin pills. One day in the Spring of 2007, he got on a bus to
Texas to get away from his two sons and end his life far away.
After about two months, I drank so much, I would just cry
uncontrollably. My nephew asked me, Have you ever thought about not
drinking? Well, my best friends, dad, hes in AA, and Id like to
introduce you to him. So I went.
I have been clean, and sober since July 16, 2007, which is my true
birthday. God did for me what I could not do for myself. I submerged
myself in the recovery program and worked the steps, as well as using
the sponsorship offered.
By Thanksgiving, he was living in a hotel with no car, and $20 in his
pocket. But Mel said that God gave him a sense of peace, and he felt
no worries. He met a couple at church, who told him theyd been
praying for him. The man said he didnt know how or why I weighed so
heavy on him and his wifes minds, but he doesnt ignore it when God
speaks and directs him to do something.
The man hired Mel to work as an IT coordinator for his company, but
before he began work, he flew him home to Traverse City to make amends
with his family.
All I can say, is that today I make more money than I ever did my
whole life. And I have true friendships with too many to even count!
But the best gift I received? God is my best friend.
Hagelberg has a dream of building a youth center and ministry in Texas
in Kyles memory. He has a lot to say about the pressures on kids, and
hopes his youth center will change lives.
There are kids who pretty much raise themselves on TV. They see
people driving nice cars, winning millions of dollars, living in nice
houses. TV sculpts kids. They dont feel good about themselves; they
cant love themselves as they are. When you cant love yourself, you
cant give love to everyone else and you lose hope. Its hard to get
Thomas Gilbert, 52,
On October 12, 2002, Thomas Gilbert, who was then a judge for the 86th
District Court, went to a Rolling Stones concert.
About midway through, he furtively looked around and removed a
marijuana joint from his pocket and took a puff. He took another puff
when it came back his way.
Although that single action cost him what he calls 1 1/2 years of
public humiliation, including a mention on the Jay Leno show, it also
transformed his life immeasurably for the better.
As it turns out, Gilberts true drug of choice wasnt marijuana, but
alcohol. He entered a 30-day treatment program at Hazelden Drug and
Alcohol Treatment Center in Minnesota. At his first group session, he
cracked: Ive been told Im an alcoholic. They all thought it was
hilarious. That denial only lasted one day.
Gilberts awakening came midway into the program. As part of the
therapy, his peers wrote to him about the blocks they saw to his
spirituality. He also wrote a letter to himself. After the session,
while swimming laps, he experienced his first aha moment.
Alcoholism really is a disease, and I really do have it.
Gilbert served out his term as judge after a six-month suspension
despite pressure to quitfrom the Traverse City Record- Eagle, from
drug abusers whom he had sentenced, even an eighth grader who sat down
to write a letter about his hypocrisy teaching a DARE class.
Gilbert has since made his apologies to many, including the Elk Rapids
couple who reported him, to Bill Thomas, the Traverse City
Record-Eagle editor who called for his resignation, and to his wife,
Marsha Smith, who loyally stood by his side.
With his recovery came a new lifes purpose: I am called to be a face
and voice of recovery. To go anywhere at any time and tell my story
and to be an example of the solution, he said.
Gilbert has earned a masters degree in addiction counseling and
opened Touchstone Recovery, located near the YMCA. He flies around the
country to help families and businesses with interventionsa
respectful confrontation of a persons alcoholic or drug addicted
behavior by friends, families and co-workers.
Typically, the person immediately enters into treatment. Its a myth,
Gilbert said, that people must hit bottom before they can be
Spirituality was critical to Gilberts recovery; he believes people
need to rely on something bigger than the substances that ruined their
lives. Gilbert acknowledges that the higher power aspect is a
stumbling block for some. There are a lot of different paths to
recovery. As many different paths as there are human beings. We
should honor them all.
Gilberts dream is to help create a culture of recovery in Traverse
City, and to open an affordable residential recovery center that
would cost a fraction of the normal fee, modeled upon a Sioux Falls
recovery center where he worked. (Gilberts own treatment at Hazelden
cost $24,000 and wasnt covered by insurance.)
He believes the community has dwelled on the problem; now its time
to focus on solutions.
Three things you must know. Addiction is a disease. Treatment works.
Recovery is possible for everyone. We know the biochemistry of this
disease, where it lives in the brain. And if we can make progress in
recognizing that these are not bad people trying to get good, but
sick people trying to get well, then it really should carry no more
stigma than being a diabetic.
*T-house is short for transition house, which, ideally, is a drug-
free setting for people to practice newfound sobriety skills with
Broken by William Cope Moyers. The son of journalist Bill Moyers,
Moyers tells a compelling story of recovery through Alcoholics
To learn about AA meetings in your area, google Alcoholics Anonymous
and the name of your town.
If you want to help an addict with an intervention, call a
professional such as Tom Gilbert for help (933-8845) or read Love
First by Jeff and Debra Jay, a $15 paperback, which explains how to go
For information about secular recovery groups, check out
smartrecovery.org or LifeRing Secular Recovery. There are sometimes AA
groups for agnostics and atheists.