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A Clean Life: After a life of struggling with addiction, Heather Olson found strength through drug court

At 35 years old, Heather Olson is more than aware of her hard walk of chemical dependency down the long and washboard gravel road of addiction.

For 23 years she’s battled addiction, starting at the age of 12 with alcohol and later migrating to drug abuse, specifically methamphetamines. But thanks to her time in a joint drug court through Waseca and Steele counties, Olson has turned off on a smoother road that’s allowing her to use her own experiences to help others.

“I feel pretty good, I feel accomplished,” Olson said on Thursday afternoon of this week, smiling as she spoke about the two years of being clean. “I still feel nervous and my (probation officer) at my last appointment, she told me it’s okay to feel nervous.”

Olson has a right to feel nervous. Her years of on again, off again sobriety often times seemed like a runaway roller coaster, never stopping and never allowing her to catch her breath.

The moments of respite from her addiction were only peaks before the fall.

“Throughout my whole addiction, I was arrested 19 times total,” Olson said. “Then to now I have all 19 booking photos from here (Mower County) and Steele County.”

Those booking photos are part of a board Olson has put together in her home, north of Blooming Prairie. They serve as a reminder of a life that simply became too much.

“It’s a reminder of where I don’t want to be ever again,” Olson said. “Going through those pictures literally made me sick to my stomach.”

Use at an early age

Olson doesn’t hide her drug abuse or her past. It’s a story she tells willingly, filled with heartbreak and turmoil.

She first started using when she was 12-years-old, smoking pot and drinking alcohol, but by the age of 18 she started using meth. Nothing frequent at first, but like all stories of drug abuse, it quickly spiraled, made worse by the abuse she suffered at a young age.

“I was sexually abused, physically abused, emotionally abused,” Olson related. “Life just wasn’t very good. I was drunk when I tried meth. That was one drug I said I wouldn’t try in my life, but when you are drunk … I didn’t like it the first time, but a year later I ended up using on a daily basis.”

From that point it quickly turned into a struggle that involved law enforcement on several occasions.

She was arrested numerous times and had her license taken away, but that wasn’t the worst of it. In 2005, she lost custody of two of her four children, and in 2010, she lost custody of the youngest two.

As she tells her story, Olson can rattle off dates as if they were dark milestones, running through every misstep, every fall from the wagon.

It was also during this extended period of time that Olson would go through periods of being clean, only to fall again.

Despite all of the struggles and all of the run-ins with law enforcement —including jail time — Olson never served real time in prison.

It was confusing considering her past, and Olson admits she was surprised when her probation officer and the judge optioned her to drug court in 2018.

“(The PO) saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. That was on Feb. 7, 2018,” Olson said. “All that I was thinking is that they would execute my time. I’m going to prison.”

She admitted to going to court high, faking urine analysis tests. “The next three months I played their game, still high,” she said.

Olson said she fought the system, continuing to get high and do what she could to fake her way through drug tests.

“You can’t tell an addict that they can’t do something, especially in an environment that that is all they know,” she said.

Olson continued this cycle until, like most addicts who seek help, there was a breaking point. A reckoning where she was tired of what she was seeing in the mirror.

“I was sick of myself and sick of being the way I was,” she said.

For Olson, that reckoning came in the span of just 15 minutes. During a particularly bad moment, Olson said she had every intention of intentionally overdosing and made the call for whatever drugs she could find: a needle, heroin, meth.

But she also made another call for a ride to treatment, and that ride got to her 15 minutes before the drugs.

“It was a higher power thing for me,” Olson said.

Olson gives credit to the drug court for helping her with the fight.

“In drug court, there is severe accountability,” she said.

That accountability rested in a revelation of self-love, something Olson had been fighting to do over so many years of drug use.

It wasn’t until she found that that she was able to find herself.

“It took awhile to start loving myself before I could get clean,” she said. “I live my life with gratitude rather than regret. I try to keep positive.”

Heather Olson sits back as she listens to announcements at the end of Coffee Connections. On Wednesday, Olson will graduate from drug court.
Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

A second chance

Olson’s true second chance is not something she wants to take lightly and it’s something she takes with her as she gets closer to her graduation from drug court this coming Wednesday.

She finds a nervousness in leaving the program that helped her gain her footing and her compass.

“I’m a little nervous about graduating,” Olson said. “When you have that much accountability for that long in your life … that takes up quite a bit of a person’s time. My PO said if I wasn’t worried they would be worried. I want to succeed, I just don’t want to be scared of failing.”

The two years clean has represented her longest stretch free of drugs and this change in life has resulted in a change of attitude. She has become an active part of the community in both Blooming Prairie and Owatonna, starting a support group in Blooming Prairie as well as working to create a Coffee Connections group in Owatonna.

Coffee Connections, started in Austin, is an informal support group that started with a small number of people supporting one another around coffee.

She’s organized a volleyball tournament with the drug court for people in the court and those in supporting roles and she sponsors other addicts hoping to follow her example.

But in a lot of ways, it’s some other accomplishments that have meant more.

“I’ve had a lot of failure, but my biggest accomplishments are in the last 21 months,” Olson said. “I got my drivers license, I get to see my kids wherever I want to, I get to be present for things in their life.”

The battle within

Often times, addicts will admit the war is never over. Instead it’s simply putting one foot in front of the other, and Olson’s no different.

She thinks about use from time to time. Sometimes it’s a fleeting thought, sometimes it’s something more.

But she has a simple mantra she follows. If she feels weak or tired; like she might use again, she simply tells herself that if she feels the same way tomorrow she will get high.

Olson said that gives her distance. It gives her a reason to push back the actual act of getting high. For Olson, it comes down not to days, weeks or months, but seconds at a time.

“That’s what’s kept me clean and on level ground,” she said.

With that understanding, Olson is able to reach out and help others. She’s taken an active approach to Coffee Connections and she wants others to know that if they are about to use they can call her. That’s all because she has been able to use her experiences rather than drown underneath them.

“It’s crazy to know where I am today as to where I was then,” she said.

Programs like support groups and especially drug court works, but Olson also stresses that to be a recovering addict, you have to help yourself as well.

In her mind when asked, it’s what makes drug court so successful.

“It does if you want it too,” she said. “Seriously, it’s about doing better and being better.”

Olson feels good about where she is and more importantly where she is going. Her experiences have built her into a new person, and while she admits to a certain level of fear going forward, she knows she doesn’t want to go backwards.

“Mostly what scares me is losing myself again and losing the trust of my family,” she said. “I don’t want to lose myself ever again. I love who I am and I’ve never had that.”