When Vada and Susan Haxton locked eyes last week, a decade of broken dreams and missed opportunities painfully passed between them.
As the twins from Winona celebrated their 24th birthdays on Wednesday, there was also a glimmer of hope — finally — after battling drug and alcohol addiction since age 12 that nearly cost them their lives.
Since losing her childhood to halfway houses, the judicial system, and simply running from responsibilities, Susan completed Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge's long-term, inpatient treatment program in May. She's been sober for nearly two years after abusing marijuana, Xanax and synthetic drugs, among other things, for a decade.
Vada followed her sister's lead to MnTC's Minneapolis facility last November after frequent stints in jail and short-term treatment centers across southern Minnesota. She's set to graduate next month in what figures to be an emotional ceremony.
After years spent as bitter enemies, rarely talking as substance abuse drove them apart, the twins' journey will come full circle when they become sober roommates at their grandparents' home in Brooklyn Park. They've both earned their GED, found jobs and enrolled at North Hennepin Community College while also restoring their relationship.
"We're getting back all the years that we lost from our addiction," Vada said.
"It's just nice to be able to see my sister having the one thing I wanted her to have all along — hope," Susan said.
Missing out on motherhood
Still, it remains a bittersweet moment with an uncertain future. That's especially true for Vada.
Vada forfeited parental rights of her daughter, Skylyn, after a 2016 relapse violated parole and sent her to prison for eight months. She's rarely seen Skylyn after opting to enroll in MnTC's Grace Manor facility upon her release.
Tina Presson, Vada's and Susan's mother in Winona, has served as Skylyn's foster parent for the past year; she's in the process of completing formal adoption. Photos of Skylyn fill Vada's bedroom at MnTC, but the child is still not aware Vada is her birth mother.
Tina, Susan and Skylyn all plan to attend Vada's upcoming graduation ceremony from MnTC.
"I know I'll cry, for sure, just to see her accomplish anything," Presson said. "Sometimes I have to ask myself if this is even real because it's been so long since I've seen them happy and enjoying life.
"Vada, you are becoming the mom you wanted to be. You have come a long way. Don't ever let anyone push you back. You're going to make all your dreams come true."
MnTC and Fountain Centers
Vada and Susan both received short-term care from facilities throughout the region during their lengthy battle with addiction. However, they're two of many who have been forced to trek north to enroll in long-term programs as the Rochester area has been affected by the national opioid epidemic.
That scarcity of local access is a key reason why local officials are celebrating the opening of MnTC's new women's facility in Rochester. The $7.1 million facility will soon add 44 beds for long-term addiction treatment and 30 beds for short-term treatment, effectively filling a missing niche in Southeast Minnesota.
However, those gains will be offset by Mayo Clinic's recent decision to "pause admissions" at its women's residential unit at Fountain Centers, which opened in 1974 in Albert Lea. Mayo spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo said "critical staffing shortages" forced Mayo's hand at what was once a 50-plus bed facility that could serve up to 12 females.
Mayo plans to create a "behavioral health center of excellence" in Albert Lea by combining its residential program at Fountain Centers with its inpatient psychiatric services unit, which is moving from Austin to Albert Lea in 2018 as part of Mayo's consolidation plan. It will serve up to 18 men in the residential unit and 16 patients in the psychiatric unit.
"This will uniquely position us to care for patients struggling with both mental health and substance abuse disorders," Plumbo said.
Mayo is still evaluating the future of its women's residential program and is unable to say when women's services will be reinstated. Plumbo says that's due to a "critical shortage" of "nurses and front-line technicians who are with patients 24/7."
Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson called the Fountain Centers news "a huge loss" for the region.
"I know we're jammed up with mental health beds across the state and that's an issue," Torgerson said. "There's a correlation there with these addictions … and mental health issues. Any type of loss of beds, it's a huge loss, no question."
Courtney Lawson, director of Rochester-based National Alliance on Mental Health of Southeast Minnesota, agreed with Torgerson.
"Even with the number of beds before (Fountain Centers') were taken away, it wasn't adequate," Lawson said. "To lose those, that's puts a strain on the system. If you're ready for help and can't get it … oh my gosh, those people don't always stay ready."
Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem was one of 700 who attended last week's MnTC's annual gala in Rochester, making it the largest in history. He's been a vocal proponent of the women's facility, which he calls "a desperately needed resource" for Southeast Minnesota.
"I think we're just scratching the surface," Ostrem said of opioid problems across the region. "I don't think we're realizing the problem our community has."
Between 2012 and 2016, Ostrem says drug cases in Olmsted County have increased by 100 percent. He says drug-related crimes are "extraordinarily outpacing every other crime" in the Rochester area.
Over the last five years, that's included a big jump among women. Torgerson is acutely aware of that fact.
Torgerson says he's had to rearrange Olmsted County's adult detention center to create additional space for women. His hand was forced after the daily census often hit 30 in the 16-bed female unit.
"As our community is growing, we know that there's a lot of women who are out there functioning as addicts," Torgerson said. "There's a need and it's not just here. Women, for whatever reason, have not been as out front with addiction. They have not been given the same kind of support in the recovery and addiction area."
Planning to give back
Vada and Susan have both lived that harsh reality, forced to travel to get the help they needed. That's an especially difficult decision to make for mothers, like Vada, forced to leave families behind. The twins now plan ways they can be part of the solution.
Susan is pursuing a degree as a licensed drug and alcohol counselor. She hopes to prevent teens from going down the same path she did, perhaps even working for the same program that helped her get sober.
Vada's plans are even bolder.
"I'm going to open a recovery church in Rochester someday," Vada said. "I tell everyone that and (Susan) gets embarrassed, but I just know that I'm called to do ministry work, and I just have love for people who are going through addiction."
That desire to give back isn't unusual, according to Tom Truszinski, director of Rochester's MnTC facility. The new women's facility will be "seeded" with up to six Rochester-area women nearing the end of their long-term program in Minneapolis. They eagerly volunteered to move closer to family, but Truszinski hopes they'll also "take ownership" of the facility by guiding a building full of newcomers.
Truszinski says the need for a long-term, inpatient treatment facility for women in Southeast Minnesota is "overwhelming," as evidenced by the volume of calls he's receiving before the Nov. 1 opening.
"Meth, opiates and heroin are stealing and taking lives," said Truszinski, a recovering addict himself. "I can't even tell you how many phone calls we're getting a day asking when we're opening. All across Southeast Minnesota, they've been saying we need a facility like this."