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‘Join Our Journey’: Southeast MN native Tiffany Hunsley honored for recovery activism

Courtesy of Tiffany Hunsley
Tiffany Hunsley at the first-annual Recovery Is Possible 5K in Rochester in 2011.

At the beginning of August, Tiffany Hunsley and her daughter will head to Los Angeles. This isn’t a typical summer getaway: Hunsley, founder and executive director of the Rochester-based nonprofit Recovery Is Happening, is heading to LA to be honored with a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA)-sponsored Voice Award, a national recognition of her tireless work to raise awareness of recovery in Southeast Minnesota.  

Voice Awards are presented annually to community leaders in recovery from mental health and/or substance use disorders. Members of the TV and film industry are also honored for creating thoughtful portrayals of individuals who struggle with mental illness or substance use disorders.

Hunsley, 47, clearly earned the recognition: Until she became sober in 2004, she struggled mightily with substance use. Most of her family members were addicted, and she began using illegal substances at a young age. After a drug conviction landed her in substance-abuse court, Hunsley was able to pull herself out of the cycle of addiction and earn a college degree. She founded Recovery Is Happening to spread the word to others in her community that it was possible to get sober and live a happy, productive life.

When we talked earlier this week, Hunsley told me that her daughter had nominated her for the award, which in itself feels like a big honor: Hunsley’s family was split while she and her life partner went through the recovery process, but they were eventually able to get their children out of the foster-care system and back home.

Hunsley is expected to give an acceptance speech at the Voice Awards. “I’m super excited,” she said. “I’m also a little nervous. But I’m going to do my best because I know that this is my chance to bring awareness to the fact that there are opportunities for individuals to recover and for families to reunify. Just getting that message out there is worth everything.”

MinnPost: How did your addiction begin?

Tiffany Hunsley: I come from a family that has suffered with the illness of addiction for generations. I was impacted by addiction at a very young age. I grew up in a house where substance use was common. I started smoking marijuana at the age of 9, and by 12 I was drinking alcohol. By 14, I was smoking crack.

I spent the first 36 years of my life in active addiction. At the age of 36 I was convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines. At that time I was blessed with the opportunity to take part in substance-abuse court. I honestly think it should be called recovery court.

MP: What makes you say you were “blessed” to take part of substance-abuse court?

TH: Before I took part in substance-abuse court, I had been a part of many legal systems and in and out of different outpatient treatment programs.  But I was never given the opportunity for long-term inpatient treatment. Nothing ever stuck for me.

MP: What’s the story of your arrest?

TH: I was fleeing my probation officers in Rochester because I couldn’t stay sober. I moved to Wabasha County. When I was in Wabasha County, I began manufacturing methamphetamines. 

On July 27, 2004, I was arrested.  That was exactly 12 years ago today. The night before my arrest, I sat in the corner of my bedroom with my hands on my head asking God to please make it stop. My life was out of control. The next morning, I was arrested by officers from the Southeastern Minnesota Drug Task Force Team.

MP: What happened then?

TH: I was incarcerated for six months. My children were taken away from me and placed in the state foster-care system. At the time of my arrest, they ware 16, 12, 2 and 1.  

Tiffany Hunsley
Courtesy of SAMHSA
Tiffany Hunsley

I didn’t see my kids again for 10 months.

After my six-month incarceration, police transported me to New Beginnings Waverly for inpatient treatment. This was my very first inpatient treatment, even though I had two prior fifth-degree substance-abuse convictions. In those other cases, I had always been given outpatient treatment. But I never stayed sober through any of them — and somehow I always graduated.

MP: Why do you suppose that was?

TH: It didn’t work for me. I needed long-term accountability. I just kept using during and after treatment. Now that I understand my illness, I realize that I needed time for my brain to heal and allow for my prefrontal cortex to function correctly.

MP: How much time did you spend in inpatient treatment?

TH: I spent 45 days in inpatient addiction treatment followed by 60 days in a halfway house and then 18 months in drug court. It’s a highly accountable system that no longer allowed for my manipulation and addictive behaviors.

MP: How does drug court work?

TH: In drug court, they do three to four home visits, which are random, unannounced.  You never know when they are going to show up. Every week you go in front of the judge. Every day you write in a journal so the judge can learn what you are doing.  

MP: You were eventually reunified with all four of your children. How did you achieve that?

TH: After I had gotten out of the halfway house, Wabasha County paid for an apartment for me and my significant other. He was also arrested with me. We have the same sober date. We’re still together today. We went through drug court together. We worked to gain our parental rights back, and we did it: Within 45 days our kids were back in the home with us.

If it had not been for our participation in substance-abuse court, the parental rights to our children — at least the youngest two — would probably have been terminated.

MP: How does this experience affect your children today?

TH: My youngest children were both born addicted to methamphetamines. It has had an impact on them for sure, but because I understand this disease that I, and many generations of my family, all suffer with, I am able to help my children understand how this illness has impacted their lives. I’ve also been able to get them the outside support that we need as a family to learn and grow and be successful in our recovery. The transition and healing process still continues today.

MP: What made you become a recovery activist?

TH: When I graduated from drug court, the judge sent me an application. The State of Minnesota was looking for a parent in recovery to be on their Children’s Justice Initiative. I began volunteering there in 2006, and I was chosen to be the parent on that team. In that role I was able to speak openly to judges, prosecutors, social workers and others who deal with addiction and substance abuse every day. I’ve been able to help provide a new understanding on how they can better work with families with addiction, and that has given my life purpose.

MP: Since you’ve achieved sobriety, you’ve earned a college degree. How did that happen?

TH: When a person goes through drug court, they are required to get a job. Because I had several prior felonies, it was hard to find a job. So the people at drug court suggested I go to college. I applied and was accepted. I went to school for six years. I got a degree in social work and chemical dependency counseling from Winona State University.

I grew up in a family that believed that believed that college was not for families like us. It was for families like them. Growing up, I wasn’t very successful in school. Teachers saw me as a problem child.

Over the years I would occasionally hear, “You have so much potential. Why are you doing this?”  I didn’t know why. That was what I knew until I came to the understanding that I had an illness. When I went to college, I was an honors student. I found out that I was really smart and when I applied myself I did really well.

MP: What inspired you to start Recovery Is Happening?

TH: I was required to do a capstone project for my degree in social work. I did a paper on how communities bring awareness to the fact that people can and do recover from addiction. I felt that too much focus was put on my addiction and not my recovery, and I wanted to change that.  

Through that process I found out about National Recovery Month. I decided I wanted to do more than just write a paper, so I founded a 5K walk/run called Recovery Is Happening. It kept growing.

In 2014, I learned about a grant that was available to fund someone in the community to open a recovery community organization. Someone suggested I apply. I put together a team and we submitted our first grant proposal to the state of Minnesota. I was chosen to receive grant of $180,000 a year for three years.

Today, Recovery Is Happening is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. We’ve really mobilized recovery into the community through our work with individuals and families. We offer peer-to-peer support services, advocacy and education for communities and families impacted by substance-use challenges. We serve 11 counties in Southeast Minnesota. Our office is located in Rochester.

MP: Recovery Is Happening emphasizes the importance of going public with addiction and recovery. Why is that?

TH: Growing up I had no awareness that there was such a thing as a recovery community. The local recovery community had always been anonymous. We recovered behind closed doors or in church basements. It added a sense of shame to the process. That’s why we as an organization are so focused on not being anonymous. We want to show the community that people can and do recover and that recovery is for everyone. We say, “Join our journey.”

MP: All the support you received to maintain your sobriety sounds expensive. Do you think it was worth it?

TH: The state uses my case as an example all the time about all the money they saved by not sending me to prison and not having my children in the foster-care system. They say I saved $700,000. That is a significant. And if you look at the ripple effect of the lives that I’ve positively impacted through my activism, the truth is it’s tenfold that.

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