MARINETTE – Lying in a bed in the intensive-care unit, her life restored after a near-fatal overdose, a feeling came over Cassie Nygren. (Watch Video Here)
It wasn’t relief that her mother had come home unexpectedly and summoned help for the daughter who was turning purple on her bathroom floor with $10 worth of heroin next to her. Nor was it gratitude that her father had been there to hold her as she gasped for breath as they awaited the ambulance crew’s arrival.
“I was mad,” Nygren recalls now. “Mad. They had taken my high away from me. All I wanted to do was go back out and get high. If that wasn’t insane, I don’t know what is.”
Her story is anything but easy to tell.
Tears drip periodically as the 25-year-old explains the sexual abuse she suffered for six years of her childhood at the hands of a distant relative, the suicide attempt at 13, the casual drug use that became an OxyContin habit at 16 and a heroin addiction not long after.
There was pregnancy at 15, a daughter given up for adoption at 16, jail at 20.
She borrowed money, stole, wrote bad checks. Then came an overdose, a second overdose, jail, and prison.
“Hearing about the overdose scared me,” recalls Nygren’s half-sister, 19-year-old Cecelia Anderson. “I did not realize she was as bad into drugs as she was. I honestly thought she was going to have to stay in prison …. or end up dead in a ditch.”
But Cassie Nygren says hers is now a positive story. Clean and sober for more than a year and out of prison for two months, she’s back home in Marinette where she is surrounded by loving family members and supportive friends.
And she’s spending almost every free moment working to help some people break free of addiction’s grasp, encouraging others not to venture down the road she took when she was 13.
“Me helping other people,” she says, “is what’s helping me.”
At first glance, the Facebook page looks like it could belong to any 25-year-old woman in Northeastern Wisconsin. A family photo with dad, stepmom and younger siblings at Copperfest. Three cousins at a baseball game. Bonfires.
But look closer, and it’s clear that the owner of the page is anything but typical.
Since June 6, photo after photo appears of a group of young adults, some wearing black T-shirts that declare in bold letters: “(Expletive) Heroin.” A photo proclaims “80% of heroin users inject with a friend, which is weird because 80% of overdose victims found by paramedics are all alone.”
Heroin claimed 227 lives in Wisconsin last year, according to data gathered by the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team. That’s up from 206 in 2012 and nearly eight times the average death toll from 2000 to 2007.
Before June 6, the Facebook page has a gap dating back to last fall, when Nygren began what she says will be her final prison sentence.
And then there are the pictures of the radiant 9-year-old who has Nygren’s eyes and her smile.
“I didn’t see my daughter because of my own actions and my own choices, and the whole time there was this hole in my heart,” Nygren says of the girl who lives in northern Illinois with loving adoptive parents.
“Now that I’m sober, I can enjoy a relationship with her to the full extent. We have phone calls, FaceTime, she sends me videos, sends me texts.”
The best things, though, are the actual visits. There’s a photo of Nygren and “Miss Paige” mugging at a restaurant table. Another shows mother and daughter donning bicycle helmets. In a third, the two snuggle amid stuffed animals.
“It makes my heart,” Nygren adds, “feel like it’s never felt before.”
SYMBOLS OF HOPE
Her tattoos tell a story — several stories, actually.
Atop one foot, a lily of the valley and her daughter’s name. “It’s the second tattoo I ever got; it’s like she is walking with me even when she’s not there.”
Below her neck, in elaborate script, the words “By his wounds, I have been healed.”
“Every time I look in the mirror, I see it,” Nygren explains. “If others choose not to forgive me, that is their choice, but I know that in God’s eyes I have been forgiven.”
On her right shoulder, an ornate rose. “Roses are a symbol of beauty,” she says. “I remember the days I would go without showering, be disgusting, not brush my hair, because I didn’t feel beautiful, felt disgusting from the inside out. This reminds me of the beauty that I have, the beauty that I feel.”
On her rib cage, and on one arm, are symbols of hope. The arm was inked in 2012, and honors her mother, Amy, for the theme of hope-themed cards and messages she sent to a daughter who was behind bars.
The tattoo along her rib cage — an infinity symbol — was added in June, on the one-year anniversary of Nygren’s sobriety.
“Hope,” she says, “is what I always held onto.”
Her mother agrees. One room in the house is filled with brightly colored sticky notes that say things like “HONESTY” and “TAKE RESPONSIBILITY” — reminders written by a daughter in recovery. But throughout the tidy home, on the walls and seemingly everywhere else, one word is repeated.
‘HEROIN IN MAYBERRY’
“There is heroin in Mayberry,” a Wisconsin Assemblyman told an audience at a summit on the issue in Appleton earlier this year
He likened parts of Wisconsin to the mythical TV town where Andy Griffith was the sheriff and the lone substance-abuse issue involved a lovable town drunk.
In a later conversation, the Republican lawmaker told a reporter how the stain of heroin has spread across the rural northern Wisconsin city where he lives. It would derail a promising young life one day, he recalled, and left a local manufacturing business unable to find drug-free workers the next.
The speaker was in a unique position to address the problem. Cassie Nygren is his oldest daughter.
John Nygren and Cassie’s mother, Amy, divorced when their daughter was 3. The daughter recalls her father driving each weekend from his home in Wausau to the house Cassie and her mother shared in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He would pick up his daughter so they could spend the weekend together.
Nygren made headlines across the state for his work on a package of bills he called the HOPE — Heroin, Opiate Prevention and Education — Agenda, saying, “With Cassie’s permission, I have publicly shared our story to illustrate that heroin can affect anyone.”
Gov. Scott Walker signed the bills into law in April.
“My family is painfully aware of what heroin is capable of. My daughter, Cassie, is a heroin addict,” said John Nygren, who represents the 89th Assembly District.
John and Amy were good parents, Cassie remembers. Both eventually remarried and started new families. Then the tears come as she recalls the later years, and the strain her addiction placed on their lives.
“I know the pain I watched my parents go through,” she says, wiping away the tears. “I was always his number one fan, and I feel like at some point we lost that. I was daddy’s little girl and I lost that ….”
But not long after, she smiles, picturing the scene that people in Madison will see on Sept. 13. That’s the day of a “Recovery Rally” at the state Capitol, and father and daughter plan to address the crowd together.
That’s when the outside world will see how far Cassie Nygren has journeyed. But to those who know her best, the change is obvious.
“I tell (people) to look at what my sister is doing, how she’s really making a difference,” Cecelia Anderson says. “I’ve never been prouder of her than I am now.”
Back when Douglas Darby was selling drugs, Marinette was a heroin dealer’s dream.
A local doctor with a thick prescription pad and a thin conscience had made the painkiller OxyContin almost as easy to get as aspirin, and soon addiction was rampant. Then the doctor got caught and went to prison. Meanwhile, a reformulated version of “Oxy” made it more difficult to snort.
Opiate addicts went looking for a new high. They found heroin. It was cheap. It was available. And there was a demand for it in Marinette.
“It blew up into the perfect storm,” says Darby, a Suamico resident and recovering heroin addict who helps run Rise Together, an advocacy group he co-founded with fellow recovering addict Anthony Alvarado.
“You had a manufacturing business that couldn’t get enough workers who could pass a drug test. You had parents calling in sick to work because they were afraid their child was going to overdose and die if they left the child’s side.”
The problem remains, as Marinette County had the highest number of heroin deaths per capita each of the last two years.
Cassie Nygren was in prison when she learned about Rise Together. Soon she was pestering Alvarado to make her part of the team. It didn’t take long for the group’s leaders to realize they had a dedicated advocate with a believable story and seemingly limitless energy.
Today, she is a Rise Together “street team coordinator” for the Marinette area. She puts up posters. She coordinates a picnic. She approaches strangers on the street and asks them to support the cause.
“For someone to be able to see Cassie’s face and to relate to her,” Darby says, “to know that she is the face of recovery — that makes everything so much more effective.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter@PGDougSchneider
— Call (800) 662-4357 any time to find substance abuse treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations in your area.
— Visit http://1.usa.gov/1Ak0ySq for listings of Wisconsin-based community programs, Social Services and Human Services agencies by location.
— Visit facebook.com/weallrisetogether to join Rise Together and its efforts to fight addiction in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
— Visit theflyeffect.com/ to learn more about how heroin’s destructive effect on individuals and communities — and what you can do to make a difference.