The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 22, 2013

No Direction Home, Day 3: From prison cell to college campus

She credits the Welcome Inn with helping her climb out of despair

By Robb Murray

---- — She started hanging around with the wrong crowd when she was 12. From there, Angie Herz's life was a steady of stream of bad decisions and bad outcomes.

She's exchanged sex for drugs, sold drugs in a convenience store parking lot, used methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol. Got pregnant and couldn't stop using drugs, which resulted in a miscarriage at four months. Eventually, her wild and dangerous ride ended in prison. Which for her was a good thing. That's where she turned her life around.

Today, the 30-year-old Herz is an example of a success story. After leaving prison, Herz came home to Mankato where she stayed for a few months at the Welcome Inn. The homeless shelter gave her a chance to continue the self-discovery process she'd begun in prison and stabilize her life.

Today, she's a student at Minnesota State University, in a healthy relationship with a man in Waterville, and confident she's past the poor and often dangerous decisions that landed her at rock bottom.

But before she could pick herself up, Herz had to fall. And the beginning of that fall — which was more like a plummet — was at age 12. That's when she started hanging out, she says, with the wrong crowd. At the same time, she says her mother was in an abusive relationship.

That prompted her to go live with her father. But that didn't last long either. Midway through 10th grade at St. Clair High School, she got kicked out of school for, in her words, "disobeying everyone." So she went to live with her sister in Richfield.

Up until that point she was experimenting with drugs a little. When she moved, the drug use got amped up.

She started doing cocaine and was hanging out with her sister's older friends. The guys would supply her with drugs.

"They just gave it to me," she said, insisting it wasn't a trade.

She came back to Mankato when she was 16. She was living in her own apartment on Front Street and attending what is now known as Central High School, but back then it was called the alternative school. She got caught shoplifting once, which was just one of a long line of misdeeds, she says, but it was the one that prompted a school counselor to suggest her drug use required inpatient treatment.

How much was she using? A lot.

"It was an everyday thing," she said of her cocaine use. "About a teener a day. A gram."

Around this time, she also started taking acid, dropping a couple of hits every weekend.

"I started getting tattoos and living the dream," she said.

She did take that counselor's advice and enrolled in an inpatient program. She lasted 70 days. Her stay there ended when she returned to the treatment campus after a break to find a surprise.

"Got back to the house one day and there were cops there," she said. "I was arrested. They said I was sabotaging the treatment program."

She spent a week in juvenile detention, and after a court appearance, she was released to her dad. But she wasn't about to stay with him, so she left, bouncing around from place to place.

"I didn't want to stay with my dad," she said. "I wanted to be wild and crazy."

At a party at her sister's house, she met a man who was her equal when it came to partying.

"Cocaine every day. Every weekend was a huge party," she said. "Then I got pregnant."

She couldn't stop her drug use, though, and lost the baby at four months.

"I felt like shit," she said. "I completely lost it ... I was addicted. I felt so ashamed. I still live with shame about it. On a regular basis."

Why did the drug use continue during pregnancy?

"I don't know. I just kept thinking it was all going to be OK. I remember having thoughts of wanting to get my shit together and get sober. But that's the life of an addict. You don't really think things through."

Back home, her boyfriend never stopped drinking. And after her miscarriage, the two became physically abusive to each other. And then she got pregnant again.

For several years, she struggled to raise a child while balancing the life of an addict and college student. She was attending South Central College to become a nurse.

She graduated from SCC in December 2005 with a nursing degree. That was the same year she started using methamphetamine.

"And then I lost control completely," she said. "I started shooting meth. I lost my career. They wouldn't let me anywhere near people ... Lost my nursing license, found out I had hepatitis C. And then I lost the kids."

She'd also begun selling. With connections she made in the drug world, she had ways of getting enough meth to become a dealer.

"I was selling. A lot. Couple grand a day. I'd flip it, go back and get more. Sell it," Herz said.

Her days of selling ended in the parking lot of Super America in North Mankato. A guy she'd been selling to was working as an informant for police. She was arrested and went to drug court. Part of her sentence included mandatory drug treatment, which she said was good for her, but it didn't stick. She slowly crawled back into the meth world. Her kids, meanwhile, were living with their father.

She continued selling meth. And in December 2010, she was arrested again. This time meant prison. And that's where she turned things around.

Prison is where she found the so-called "boot camp" program, or what the Minnesota Department of Corrections calls the Challenge Incarceration Program. She applied right away. Two months later, she was accepted.

Through hard work via community service and intensive supervision regarding chemical dependency or other issues, a change happened for Herz.

"I had a lot of alone time," she said. "I started reflecting a lot. And I knew that being a junkie was not the way I wanted to go down. I couldn't see my kids. Couldn't see my dad. And my dad's the one who always held me together."

Her dad picked her up after she graduated from the Challenge Incarceration Program. They drove back to Mankato and he dropped her off at the Welcome Inn.

At first she was hesitant. She didn't want to live in a homeless shelter. But she had nowhere to go.

It didn't take her long to make friends.

"I met a woman with several kids, she'd always make me eat tuna sandwiches," Herz said. "The people there would ask me things about my life, about my girls.

"Two months. It was probably the best two months of me being out. I had a lot of fears about leaving. And I felt really safe (at the Welcome Inn)," Herz said. "I spent hours and hours and hours staying up and talking with (this woman I met), talking about our lives. It makes me really grateful. If I hadn't went to prison, I would never have met her. I wouldn't have gotten my girls back. Would never have gone back to school and on my way to getting my master's degree."

Now, as Herz said, she has her children back. She's living in Waterville and in a new relationship. She'll finish soon with a degree in psychology and plans to start right away on a master's program in counseling.

"I don't think I could have done any of this without going to the Welcome Inn," she said. "I was angry about having to go there. I was mad at my case worker. But everyone there was really supportive. Even on the bad days. Gave me positivity, made me feel like everything was OK."

Because of how far she's come, she said, she has a message to others who are struggling: "If I can do it, anybody can do it. I was at the bottom, and I slowly made my way to the top. I can face any challenge that comes my way."