The opioid crisis has only intensified during the pandemic. The American Medical Association reports increased opioid-related deaths in more than 40 states, including Minnesota. Alcohol sales also are up. The reasons are many, including isolation, anxiety and financial worries. One group hit hard is our youth. The Minnesota Department of Health reported recently that overdoses are the leading cause of death for 13- to 21-year-olds. And, yet, we don't talk about the perils to our kids nearly enough. Jayna Pomsyda, 23, and Justin Goeman, 25, both in recovery from addiction, want to end that silence as volunteers for Change the Outcome, a nonprofit educating youth about substance abuse and giving kids hope.
Q: Tell me about Change the Outcome (changetheoutcome.org).
Justin: We go into middle and high schools, virtually now, and talk to students about drug trends, risks with legitimate prescription drugs, alternatives to opioids for pain relief, Narcan, the good Samaritan laws. We also show a Minnesota-made documentary about the opioid epidemic, followed by a panel discussion. We're not placing blame or dictating what you can and cannot do. We're starting conversations with kids that they can take home or into the school cafeteria. We've reached about 30,000 students, educators and community members. There's definitely something to be said for including people who have experienced this themselves.
Q: Might you say more about that?
Justin: I grew up in Chaska with not the most kosher home life. My mom had addiction and mental health issues which, ultimately, resulted in my own addictions. My intention isn't to demonize her but it's part of the story. I used substances to cope with things I didn't know how to deal with.
Q: How is Mom doing now?
Justin: She's good. She did some prison time and is living with me now, working full time and sober. I appreciate her effort. I'm excited that I am even in a space to provide her somewhere to live and continue to recover.
Q: Jayna, what about you?
Jayna: One of the big things we touch on when sharing at the schools is genetic disposition. I come from a family where addiction has been around for generations. I started experimenting at 12. I didn't think twice about the fact that my dad struggled with addiction the majority of my life. My dad went into meth-induced psychosis when I was 10 and I always have been a daddy's girl. He never came back completely and still struggles with his mental health.
Q: What were your drugs of choice?
Justin: The first time I used, I was a freshman in high school and a kid shared his Adderall prescription. I was just curious. After you use a first substance, it's easier to use the next one. For me, it was drinking, smoking weed, acid, OxyContin, then heroin. At 17, I was driving to meet up with a mule for the Mexican drug cartel.
Jayna: Alcohol was always my common denominator. Other than that, I would have done anything you gave me. I didn't care what it was.
Q: Are you surprised you're alive?
Justin: By the grace of God. One time, I intentionally tried to overdose and I woke up and ended up in jail. I had just turned 18. That began my road to recovery. On my 25th birthday, I reflected a lot on how, when I was addicted, it never crossed my mind that I would ever be 25. It was impossible to imagine I'd ever get this far.
Jayna: Every person I met while I was in active addiction would tell me they knew I was going to die young. Fingers crossed that doesn't happen because I am still very young. I would go too far, surround myself with danger whether it was drug dealers or getting into strangers' cars. I am very thankful I can see that now.
Q: Jayna, why do you think you acted that way?
Jayna: I was a kid who felt like she didn't belong anywhere. I had this big secret and I didn't want anyone to know why I was able to be as happy as I was or to stop me. I was the life of the party until I wasn't.
Q: How did you connect with Change the Outcome?
Justin: I was acquainted with [Founder Colleen Ronnei's son] Luke, who died at age 20 from an accidental overdose in 2016. A friend of his led me to participate. Colleen is almost like another mom to me. She has an open ear to allow us to really tell her what we think needs to be done.
Jayna: I lived with a volunteer in 2016 at a sober living house who introduced me to Colleen.
Q: What do you hear from students?
Justin: Some cry, some sleep. But we're planting seeds.
Jayna: There is always that one kid who is fully attentive to what we have to say. One of the things that shocked me was when we spoke at a Bloomington school and an eighth-grade girl raised her hand. She thanked us for being alive to share our stories to help other people.
Q: What do want for your life?
Justin: I want a family. I want to establish a healthy home life in the way I never had. The quality of life for me has been a bullish, upward trend. It took a lot of work, a lot of conscious effort. I'm choosing to live every day now.
Jayna: I celebrated four years of continuous sobriety on Nov. 12, 2020. In my sobriety, I got my GED and am attending Minneapolis College full-time to become a social worker. I want to help the community the same way it helped me.