CODY — Around Cedar Mountain Center, Jillian Zerkle is known as the kind of person who “opens doors, both literally and metaphorically,” Steve Humphries-Wadsworth said.
Zerkle has only worked at the facility since January, but immediately endeared herself to staff and residents, said Humphries-Wadsworth, the center’s service line director.
As Unit Coordinator for the facility, Zerkle connects with residents and makes sure they feel supported and stay focused during one of the toughest battles of their lives: an ongoing battle with issues. mental health and addiction.
Zerkle knows this particular battle and this particular battlefield.
In 2019, she spent 45 days at Cedar Mountain Center — a pivotal month and a half in what was, at the time, a 17-year battle with crystal meth and alcohol abuse. She started using at age 11.
“I spent years working my way through this town,” she said. “I was the reason people closed their doors at night. I did a lot of damage here.
Zerkle has first-hand experience of the pain, darkness and isolation that come with drug addiction.
She has lost many friends to drug addiction over the years and recognizes that it is amazing that she lived long enough to tell her story and had the chance to use her story to improve lives. others struggling with addiction. But she is grateful to be able to give back to an organization that saved her life.
“If I had gone anywhere other than CMC, I wouldn’t have made it,” Zerkle said. “I struggled with addiction for 17 years, and mental health was part of that battle. These guys made sure I was properly medicated. Taking care of those chemical imbalances helped me gain a foothold, as did the things I learned here. This place saved my life. That’s why I work here.
For Zerkle, like many people struggling with drug addiction, addiction seemed like an inevitable and predestined part of his life for many years.
“I didn’t just wake up and decide I wanted to be an addict, and I don’t think anyone does,” she said. “There are mental health factors. There are genetic factors that predispose you to addiction. There was trauma – a lot, in my case. Of course, I didn’t understand anything at that time. All I know is that when I first started using at age 11, I didn’t even feel like it was a choice.
But in the summer of 2019, Zerkle was tired. She had been arrested, she had lost friends to drug addiction, and many of her other relationships were in shambles. She was ready to start over.
“I was tired and scared to death,” she said. “I thought there had to be a way out.”
But starting over does not come easily. In order to be admitted to a rehab program like Cedar Mountain Center, applicants must complete what is called an Abuse Severity Index. An ASI is an assessment tool used by psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists to assess the severity of a person’s addiction and provide a comprehensive overview of a person’s addiction-related issues.
The assessment costs $200 and is not covered by insurance, Zerkle said.
“For a lot of people, that’s where their journey ends,” she said. “Most addicts don’t have $200, and when they do, they’re not going to spend it on an assessment.”
Zerkle overcame this seemingly insurmountable obstacle with the help of his jailers in Worland, who generously agreed to pay his ASI.
In the years since the end of Zerkle’s ASI, new programs have sprung up to help individuals pay for assessments, including state dollars and funding for various nonprofits, said Humphries-Wadsworth.
“For the most part, when people come in and need a UPS now, they can get one for free,” he said.
The beginning of Zerkle’s recovery journey, after being admitted to Cedar Mountain Center, was tough. Accurate diagnostic information is key to developing a treatment plan for each resident, said CMC supervising advisor Josh Spinney.
One of the first tests Zerkle received was the Genomind genetic test, which provides information about medications that could help residents deal with mental health issues that exacerbate substance abuse, Humphries-Wadsworth said.
“A lot of times people have taken a lot of drugs and none of them are working,” he said. “What Genomind tells us is, for that person’s genetics, whether a particular drug is likely to work or not. It eliminates trial and error, and for many residents it’s very rewarding for their experience, as they realize there was a reason the medications didn’t work, and it wasn’t just their fault.
Cedar Mountain Center views addiction as a mental, physical and spiritual battle, and provides its residents with tools on how to fight addiction on all of those fronts, Humphries-Wadsworth said. For Zerkle, a big part of his journey has been learning to love himself again and accepting the love of others.
“A lot of it is about teaching you how to grow again,” Zerkle said. “I hadn’t felt love from anyone, including myself, in 17 years. When I arrived at Cedar Mountain Center, I met people who loved me and told me it wasn’t my fault. It was huge for me to hear – that there were reasons I was an addict other than just being a bad person. The center put me in touch with people who had felt the same pain as me and fought the same fight, and we healed together.
Relationships are key to healing struggling drug addicts like Zerkle, Spinney said, but they don’t always come easily.
“When you’re struggling with an addiction, a lot of things happen in your life that set the standard that the community is bad,” Spinney said. “You don’t want people to know about your struggles or the crimes you’ve committed, so you isolate yourself. But here we teach that community is one of the most powerful tools and one of the only ways to heal.
Zerkle said her time on the program taught her to give back and have fun without substances. Critically, it also helped her make amends with her mother and grandmother.
“Family week here has changed my life,” she said. “We were able to talk to each other and learn to forgive. The work I did here was very important.
Even after completing her 45-day stay at Cedar Mountain Center, success wasn’t guaranteed, Zerkle said.
Returning to the real world can be difficult, Humphries-Wadsworth said, and it’s not unusual to see program graduates return for a second or even third time.
“When we talk about recovery, it’s never a straight line,” he said. “You can relapse, and sometimes you get stuck in relapse, but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s all part of the journey.
The key to success, Spinney said, is connecting residents to the resources they need to survive outdoors, from groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to affordable medications.
“We’ve talked a lot about barriers to accessing care, but there are also a lot of barriers after care,” Spinney said. “Drugs are provided while our residents are here, but they have to pay for them when they are alone. That’s why we set them up with patient assistance programs: We don’t want to throw them on things they can’t afford. We also connect them with the appropriate groups, clinicians and providers. We want to make sure they have the right plan in place when they leave.
Zerkle agreed that the aftercare regimen was crucial to her success.
“The aftercare they put in place for me was extremely important,” Zerkle said. “They made sure I was medically correct and chemically balanced, and that I didn’t just lose my mind when I returned to the real world.”
Leaving the establishment, Zerkle got a job as a Domino’s delivery driver. She regularly got doors slammed in her face and customers asked for another delivery driver, she said.
“I caused a lot of pain here and I knew I had to heal those bonds,” Zerkle said.
In October 2019, Zerkle started a Facebook group known as Community Hand Up. The goal was to bring some good to a community that she had hurt for many years.
“I have this desire to make a difference in my community after years of tormenting it,” Zerkle said in his first post to the page. “I hope this group can be a place where people in need can ask their community for help without judgement.”
Community Hand Up is a page where group members can donate anything, including food and clothing, to those in need, she said. In three years, the group has accumulated more than 3,000 members.
“A lot of times when someone is in need, they have to qualify for help,” Zerkle said. “I withdrew the qualifications. I just said, ‘If you have a need, let’s see how the community can help you.’
This desire to help others led Zerkle to return to Cedar Mountain Center earlier this year. Humphries-Wadsworth said it was essential for residents to interact with success stories like Zerkle’s.
“Jillian is a beacon in a very dark time for many of our residents,” he said. “When people are in the middle of a substance use disorder, they can’t see a future where they will be successful. When they see someone like Jillian, it gives them hope.
“The one thing I hear from residents more than anything else is ‘I can’t do this,'” Zerkle said. “I’m living proof that they can. I just got through three years of probation, and it was more exciting for our residents than it was for me because they saw it was possible. It’s possible to have a life.
Finally, Zerkle says she has found peace and purpose.
“I love my life now,” she said. “I am part of the life of my family. I’m raising a little girl with my boyfriend. I love my job and the people I help.
Zerkle said it was love that saved her life, and it’s love she wants to give back to the world. And for those struggling with addiction, the first step is to simply accept that love, she said.
“I would say just ask for help because there are people out there who are willing to help you,” Zerkle said. “They are ready to love you and go through this with you. So accept that love, and when you fall, get up and keep going.