Air Force veteran’s wife speaks about addiction stigma in WCH

Addiction stigma in community impacts family’s daily life

By Ashley Bunton - The Record-Herald - AIM Media Midwest News Network

WASHINGTOn C.H. — Krista and Zach Gullufsen lived the American Dream.

Zach was active duty in the United States Air Force. Krista said they led normal lives.

“My husband, Zach, was extremely, extremely successful. He had a top secret level clearance in the Air Force. We were normal, productive members in society,” said Krista.

Krista said their family’s American Dream changed after Zach was injured. Shared trauma would eventually cause them to lose everything.

“He got an injury to his back while he was deployed to Iraq,” said Krista. “He was active duty Air Force at Hill Air Force Base in Utah and we transferred back home to Ohio.”

In Ohio, Zach was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. He left due to sequestration.

“After that he left the Air Force and enlisted in the Air National Guard and he was employed full-time civil service as an intelligence analyst,” said Krista.

Krista said their life was going well and everything seemed very normal.

“I sat in my big fancy house with my fancy cars and we lived the American Dream,” said Krista.

At the Veterans Administration, Zach had been prescribed pain pills to treat the symptoms of his back injury from his deployment to Iraq.

“His addiction started with pain pills at the Veterans Administration,” said Krista. “He is a disabled veteran, he has PTSD, and he has a skin condition from being burned when he was at training.”

As Zach addressed his back pain with pills, Krista said that she began to feel pain, too, but it was different.

Then Krista was prescribed pain pills to help with the symptoms of endometriosis. Endometriosis is a disease for which there is no known cure where the lining of a uterus begins to grow outside of the uterus, causing severe pain as the growth continues.

“We got to the point where we were spending $500 a day on pills,” said Krista.

Krista and Zach were among about 60 participants Monday at the forum, “The Opioid Epidemic in Washington Court House.”

The forum, held at the Langley building on South Fayette Street, was held to give people in Fayette County an opportunity to address the issue of addiction in their communities.

Krista and Zach each spoke during the forum, sharing their personal life story and highlighting their experiences.

Krista said that in 2015 they went into treatment together to get help for their pain pill addiction.

“We had dealt with a lot of trauma. We lost our (Dayton-area) home due to flooding twice and we were displaced for nearly a year. At the same time that we lost our house we got into legal trouble. We got a few felonies due to our addiction problem,” said Krista.

Krista and Zach said they have been in recovery now together for three years, but despite that recovery effort, the felony criminal charges on a person’s background assures that they are left with less employment opportunities.

The barrier to employment isn’t the only thing that has impacted the couple’s lives.

Krista said their family receives constant criticism from members of the Fayette County community.

Their son, age 6, is a student at Miami Trace Local Schools.

Krista shared that one day she and Zach were at the Washington Court House YMCA to exercise when a person approached her and informed her that someone she did not know personally had looked up her background by doing a search for a couple of public records online.

Suddenly Krista said that she and Zach noticed that the people they’d see at the YMCA began to treat them differently.

With tears in her eyes while telling this story during Monday’s forum, Krista said, “It became pretty obvious that we weren’t welcome there anymore. Everyone was talking about us behind our backs.”

Krista asked rhetorically, “I know we have a past but we’ve worked to overcome that … but it’s like people expect us to show up at the YMCA and introduce ourselves to everyone as the recovering pain pill addicts. Then we would have to explain our whole past story, the story of how our house flooded twice and we were displaced and struggled through addiction together and went into recovery three years ago. Why do we need to tell that story to every person who goes to the YMCA? We’ve been clean for three years but everyone thinks they know our personal history and judge us from what they’ve heard when they don’t even know our story.”

“It takes a lot of courage to tell stories,” continued Krista. “That’s why I’m here, because I want to share our story, because if it can at least give one person hope out there who is struggling then it’s worth sharing. That’s why we’re here. We want to give inspiration to someone who is struggling.

Krista said, “We face a lot of criticism and judgment. While our families have been very supportive and we have other people who are supportive, we’ve faced a lot of criticism and a lot of judgment in the community. It’s been really hurtful. I feel like people don’t take the time to get to know us. This was a very brief part of our lives and our addiction was a very brief part of our lives. Prior to our addiction we were very upstanding, successful members of our community.”

Krista called the continuous gossip about their family slanderous.

“If that person, who someone who heard something, came to me and said, ‘You know what I heard this and I saw this, could you tell me?’ I would have told her. I would have told her our life story, gladly. I am not ashamed. I am proud of us — Zach and I being able to overcome not only addiction but the catastrophic events we have.”

Though proud, she is humbled by her experiences.

“When you meet someone, at what point do you say to someone, I had an addiction, I got into legal trouble? I don’t walk up to someone and introduce myself in that way. I think the people who are slandering my family had a stereotype of what a drug addict was and thought they knew what drug addicts looked like. When someone found out about our personal history, they thought we were trying to keep it a big, dark secret.”

Soon, Krista said that she heard people say they wondered why she and Zach even bothered to come back to the YMCA everyday because they thought they should be “ran out” of town by now.

“Everybody knew, by that time,” said Krista.

Eventually, Krista said an employee at the YMCA reached out to Krista and asked if she and Zach were okay.

“He wanted to make sure we felt comfortable,” said Krista.

The stigma, though, still hasn’t gone away.

“It’s affecting our daily lives, even outside of the YMCA,” said Krista. “If I could have had that situation happen in a perfect world, anybody would have come to me and asked. It’s a public record. But if you have the courage to go around slandering and hurting me around this town and around this community, then you should have the courage to come to me and ask me because I will tell you anything you want to know. My life is not a secret.”

Krista said she didn’t let the stigma stop her.

“I let it fuel every decision I make in everything I do. I use their negativity to fuel my positivity,” said Krista.

Among participants at the forum, many reiterated that there is too much negativity in the community, and not enough support and positivity toward people in recovery.

Still, she goes to the YMCA every day to work out.

“In my everyday life, I make good decisions, and I respect people and I love people, and the only time that I have intentionally hurt people was during my darkest times of the addiction. These people, like the people who go to the YMCA, are hurting people intentionally. But in my mind, I’m better than that, because in my clear head, I could never go around and slander people. Me, with my morals, my ethics and my integrity, I could never go and spread and hurt people intentionally. The people who are doing this slandering are doing this for fun,” said Krista.

As for Zach, Krista had this final thought to share: “My husband would have lost his life for these people and he would do it tomorrow without hesitation.”

Ohioans may text the state crisis line for immediate help by sending the message ‘4hope’ to the number 741741 at any time.

Addiction stigma in community impacts family’s daily life

By Ashley Bunton

The Record-Herald

AIM Media Midwest News Network

Contact Ashley at (740) 313-0355 or connect on Twitter by searching for @ashbunton and send a message.

Contact Ashley at (740) 313-0355 or connect on Twitter by searching for @ashbunton and send a message.