Sheridan man begins new life after addiction

Chase Gysel, 31, looks out the window at the Volunteers of America Northern Rockies Life House treatment center Tuesday, March 3, 2020. A scar on his neck reminds him daily of how close he came to losing his life while addicted to heroin and methamphetamine. (Photo by Allayana Darrow, The Sheridan Press)

SHERIDAN — When Chase Gysel died, he didn’t care at the time. During surgery necessitated by neck edema caused by an untreated nasal infection, his lungs collapsed. Later, medical staff told him they revived him on the table. He gave into the feeling of dying and felt relief.

He wanted to let go, but a friend off the street talked him into going to the hospital — he took one more shot of heroin on the way. During the next few weeks recovering in the hospital, a regular supply of morphine and oxycodone didn’t have much of an effect after 30 seconds or so because of his high tolerance. But the pain medications temporarily satisfied the itch for a fix.

Today, from the Volunteers of America Northern Rockies treatment center, Gysel struggles to articulate how he feels about the experience. A deep reddish-purple scar on his neck reminds him daily how close he came to losing the opportunity to recover from 19 years of addiction to heroin and methamphetamine.

Gysel never injected into his neck; he could always find a vein elsewhere to shoot up. But in the depths an addiction to heroin and meth, when caring for his health was low on his list of priorities, a simple untreated infection was enough to nearly end his life.

Gysel recalls one period in his addiction when he held a job for nearly two years — the longest period of employment in his life. He was promoted from housekeeper to assistant manager at an inn in Cheyenne.

Toward the end of his addiction, he was grateful for the quality of his sleeping bag. Runners would pass him sleeping on a bench and stop to ask if he was OK. Sleeping, yes, but waking, Gysel said he had little left that inspired him to live.

Gysel wanted to die by heroin overdose. Heroin felt like a mother’s embrace — a warm feeling of slipping away into nothingness. The first time he used meth, he thought his heart would explode from his chest. After the fear dissipated, that feeling was exciting.

Addiction plagued him as a true disease for nearly two decades, one that held on and wouldn’t let go.

Eventually, he no longer possessed the energy to steal from stores to fund his addiction and began stealing from friends — including the van used to drive him to the hospital — and begging dealers for advanced hits, with the empty promise he would pay them back. While Gysel was still employed and had a car, all of his pay and serving tips went toward drugs, substituted with stealing. Today, near the end of 90 days at the VOA, thinking about walking into a department store evokes anxiety.

When Gysel lived in the comfort of his mother’s apartment with his ex-girlfriend, their days were strangely well-structured. He and his ex-girlfriend would wake up, take a prepared shot of heroin and plan out the day. They would decide what stores to hit, what items to steal, whether to pawn stolen items or dumpster dive for receipts to use as a shopping list, to steal and return items for cash. The remainder of the day would swing between getting high and using free WiFi at Taco John’s before passing out in the car in the parking lot.

They had enough money to buy drugs and cigarettes but not enough to pay the phone bill. He said he is fortunate to have never been caught by law enforcement for drug possession or theft.

Despite living through a near-death experience, Gysel describes the moment he “hit rock bottom” as several months prior, when he watched the love of his life go through a court hearing, and realized he had not been there to support her before she wound up facing criminal charges. They had known each other since elementary school and he said no one will ever know him as well as she does. She introduced him to heroin and meth. After a breakup, he came back into the relationship believing he had the insight, coming from a family of addicts, to cure her addiction.

Reflecting on their relationship, he still believes they are truly compatible. But with drugs in the mix, they were not good for each other.

“You’re a different person in your addiction,” Gysel said. “Addicts aren’t bad people. But people in addiction do bad things.”

He recalls feeling truly alone in a room full of people. He speaks intelligently about feelings of self-realization and draws from a rich vocabulary to describe tools for addiction recovery, but cannot remember what month comes before August. He recalls saying, “I’m done losing everything.”

Today his goals are simple: car, job, roof over his head, supportive friends and perhaps a loving person waiting for him at home. Gysel has started to find some of that love and connection with brothers at the VOA.

“When I first walked through those doors, it was almost like taking a new drug,” Gysel said. “It was almost like that first high — that earth-shattering perspective change.”

Gysel started using alcohol at age 12 when he was subject to severe physical abuse from a family member. Treating his physical pain with pills became an easy excuse to use. Since adolescence, his longest period of sobriety lasted less than one year. After growing up in an environment where he came to believe he was worth next to nothing, finding self-worth was his biggest barrier to recovery. At 31 years old, Gysel is only beginning to find who he is without addiction.

Over time, the physical experience from using meth and heroin devolves, he said. Addicts are always chasing the first “earth-shattering” high. The most frightening moment during his addiction was the first time he took heroin and felt the self-control he thought he built up slip away into helpless submission. He knew heroin would send him diving back into addiction with no control — a way to turn off his jumbled thoughts.

“I don’t care if you grew up in a perfect home, in a perfect community, if you find your right drug and it hits you, it’s really hard to go back,” Gysel said.

On meth, he felt invincible, like he could be anyone and do anything, without a care for what others thought of him. Gysel said he encourages others to cultivate those feelings through hard work and effort, not by using drugs as a shortcut.

Meth provided an effortless “laser focus.” At one point, he was in the top 2% in the world in a mobile strategy game. The artificial confidence and pride he experienced on meth mixed with constant shame. Toxic shame is at the crux of his addiction, according to what Gysel has learned about himself in treatment at the VOA.

“I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to use. I don’t want to live like this,” Gysel recalled saying to himself. “But I would be saying that with a needle in my arm.”

As that feeling of invincibility flooded Gysel’s system, the central nervous system slowly lost its ability to regenerate neurons and critical areas of the brain responsible for memory, movement, visualization, reasoning and problem-solving degraded, according to American Addiction Centers.

Reflecting on years lost to addiction and the past three months in treatment, Gysel recognized what triggers he will face when he gets out. The sight of a syringe, retelling stories about using, happiness, sadness — almost anything can be a trigger in the wrong mindset, he said. Gysel gives credit to himself for making it through treatment and to his mother and his sister for supporting him and listening, even while he fell deeper and deeper into addiction.

Sheridan College EMT instructor Mike Buss said he often uses his experiences in the military to inform students about what they could encounter as an EMT. Witnessing some situations, like overdoses, is the only way to prepare for treating them without freezing up, he said. Scenarios and ride-alongs with the Rocky Mountain Ambulance service help provide some of that experience.

Rather than falling back on judgement, Buss aims to communicate to his students that all actions have consequences but an EMT’s interaction with an individual only presents a small snapshot of that person’s life.

“As EMTs, the one thing that you have to have in this business is empathy,” Buss said. “Walk a mile in their shoes and you’ll understand…you don’t know what they’ve been through.”

Buss said he cannot stop someone from using but he can be there to save their life. Perhaps coming back from an overdose or a simple conversation during which they can express something causing them pain is the experience that inspires them to change course, he said.

In 2019, the Sheridan Police Department responded to 264 drug cases overall, including 200 arrests and citations. Thirty-four cases involved methamphetamine — a 24.4% increase over the previous three-year average.

Of the 83 criminal case filings in 4th Judicial District Court in 2019, 40 counts involved meth, according to Clerk of District Court Rene Botten. Six were child endangerment cases, 23 manufacturing or delivering meth, nine possession and two “person using or under the influence” of meth. One defendant may have faced more than one count, Botten said.

SPD Lt. Travis Koltiska speculated that meth gained popularity in Sheridan County because of price drop and availability in a flooded market. As a stimulant, meth is popular by supply and demand like anything else, he said. From a law enforcement perspective, securing the next fix ranks above family and employment over time.

“Methamphetamine consumes people,” Koltiska said.

Still, there is no one example of what a meth addict’s life looks like. Many people who battle or succumb to addiction are functioning members of society and lead an ostensibly normal lifestyle. Meanwhile, physiological effects wreak havoc on the brain and body — more so than many other drugs, Koltiska said.

The day before Colton Wardell’s mother had a stroke, she visited him in jail. She made him promise he wouldn’t take up using meth or heroin again. That promise was the last conversation they shared before she passed away in January 2019.

Wardell said without his mother’s influence, he likely would not have gotten clean — let alone talked his brothers into entering treatment in Sheridan. He has been clean for about 16 months as of March 4.

Wardell was arrested in Cheyenne Nov. 2, 2018, for heroin and meth possession and was sentenced to six months incarceration per a plea agreement. Wardell speculated that in the eyes of the law, he and his brothers — who faced severe, federal criminal charges for meth, heroin and armed robbery — were a bad group of people.

Wardell doesn’t disagree with how judges looked at him, like a junkie, looking back on his mugshots.

He was introduced to heroin and meth in college, when he started to smoke both substances with his brother. Someone told him the cleanest way to take meth was in a shot. When he made the transition, he said it was “game over.” He described the feeling as “Adderall times 10.”

Wardell said he nearly always had a warrant out for his arrest. He never opted for probation because he wanted to be able to use upon release from jail. Few are proud to be a heroin addict, Wardell said. But meth provides a false, “Superman” feeling — one that kept him awake for up to seven days without noticing a lack of sleep. He used heroin to come back down.

“Back in the day, they always looked at me — they would never give me bond because ‘I’m a menace to society,’ is what they would say,” Wardell said. “And I really was.”

Wardell sold meth to veterans, construction foreman, oil field workers — anyone with enough money to buy from him. He was employed for most of the five years in his addiction but doesn’t deny that using impacted his work and “ruined his life.”

Some people are given chance after chance to obtain treatment instead of incarceration and repeat the same behaviors and mistakes, he said. A willingness to take advantage of treatment and work toward long-term sobriety plays a critical role in how judges and prosecutors determine punishment.

At one point, the high fades away and using becomes a way to maintain what feels normal, Wardell said. He didn’t eat much besides apples and would drop about 40 pounds going from three jail meals per day back to using meth and heroin. He slept with women but didn’t connect. He didn’t trust other addicts.

He would mix heroin and meth into one shot — the meth felt like jumping in a frigid pool of water. Adding heroin prevented withdrawal sickness and meth kept him functioning throughout the day.

Recalling his time as a dealer, Wardell said he misses the feeling of being needed and providing for people. He didn’t worry about paying his bills either. Still, Wardell said he feels blessed to have made it through a bout with addiction without a felony charge and with all of his teeth, to a period of sobriety and solid employment.

One day, Wardell’s brother was released from jail and immediately came knocking on Wardell’s door to get high. Wardell passed his brother a shot and when he looked up from injecting his own, his brother’s lips had turned a deep blue. He panicked and followed the series of attempts to wake an overdose patient common among addicts: smack him as hard as possible, throw him in a cold shower and place ice cubes in his anus — anything to wake him up. Eventually, he returned.

A Washington state health organization advises that if someone overdoses, the best course of action is to shake or pinch them, check the airway, give two quick breaths every five seconds and call 911. Putting someone in the shower or bath, injecting them with salt, water, speed or coke, putting ice cubes in their anus or giving them coffee or alcohol does not work and wastes time, according to Seattle and King County Public Health.

After that incident, Wardell carried Narcan everywhere. He used it on four or five friends who overdosed. But his brothers’ battles with addiction have been similar to many other addicts who cannot bear the pain of withdrawal or let go of friendships forged in addiction.

“As soon as the drugs were all out of his system, you could just see a different light,” Wardell said. “He was just glowing, like smiling, happy…everybody is so hopeful. But then they get out and they go back to the same crowd.”

With a close proximity to Colorado, Wardell said Cheyenne’s drug scene is far worse than what he has seen in Sheridan County. The one person he knows who supplied meth in the county was recently arrested. Sheridan is a sheltered, recovery-oriented town, he said.

Gysel and Wardell each found their reason to quit and a treatment center that helped them start a clean life. Wardell said treatment programs forced him to consider how to connect with his higher power. He puts his faith in the promise he made to his mother.

But for many addicts in Wyoming and the U.S., treatment center waitlists are too long, judges are not willing to risk the safety of the community to give an addict another chance, or the internal drive to quit remains just out of reach.

Methamphetamine is often cited as one of Sheridan County’s most prominent issues facing law enforcement, public health organizations, family-focused nonprofits, courts and others. Substance abuse affects established systems to be sure, but amid the harrowing statistics and 12 steps to recovery, individuals and families bear the brunt of the true cost of addiction.