Her life spiraled into addiction after her brother’s tragic death. Ho-Chunk woman declared her independence, and now saves lives.
BLACK RIVER FALLS - Tena Quackenbush had an epiphany one day while staring into a mirror.
It came down to a choice between life and death.
“I never thought I could get clean,” Quackenbush, of Black River Falls, said. “My way out was going to be suicide. … I literally was dead inside, so it didn’t matter to me.”
The former Marine had started using drugs in 1987 when her brother, with whom she was very close, died in a car crash.
“I started using because I never wanted to deal with the grief,” Quackenbush said.
She eventually found the will inside of her and set a date of July 4 in 2012 to make her own independence day.
When the fireworks lighted up the sky that year, Quackenbush told herself that part of the celebration was for her finally being free from drug abuse.
Two years into recovery, she confronted her grief over losing her brother and was able to again say his name, Eric.
A few years later, she founded #StoptheStigma of Addiction in Black River Falls and soon after left her job as the family services program manager with the Ho-Chunk Nation. The organization assists those looking to recover from substance abuse through referrals to rehabilitation centers and programs, such as Narcan distributions and needle exchanges.
#StoptheStigma, now in its third year, has helped over 30 clients in getting treatment and has contact with hundreds of people throughout the state, including those with Oneida, Menominee and Ho-Chunk in their backgrounds, said Quackenbush, a recovery coach and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation.
Native Americans are 28.5% more likely to have reported recent drug abuse than any other ethnic group nationally, according to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Quackenbush said the drugs of choice in Wisconsin have been meth and heroin.
During COVID-19 restrictions, she discovered firsthand the devastating effects the ongoing pandemic had on those trying to recover from drug addiction.
With treatment closed, client succumbs to addiction
“The situation with the drug crisis seems to fall to the sidelines,” Quackenbush said. “It’s still a major crisis, and it’s even more prevalent now with the mental health issues being pushed to the edge.”
She points to the tragic story of one her clients, a Ho-Chunk and Menominee woman named Amanda Peters, who died last month from a drug overdose after being denied entry into a respite house that was closed due to the pandemic.
Quackenbush learned of Peters from the woman’s teen son, who slipped her a note with his mother’s name on it after Quackenbush gave a presentation to his class.
She said Peters was supposed to get released to her so Quackenbush could get her into a respite house for Ho-Chunk women transitioning to treatment. The courts denied that release because Peters was taking part in a drug court with its own treatment program.
"I believe without a doubt that Amanda would have loved (the Ho-Chunk respite house) and she would have thrived," Quackenbush said. "She wanted recovery so bad."
But the court-ordered program was unavailable, too.
“COVID-19 shut everything down and she couldn’t go because they weren’t accepting any new clients,” Quackenbush said. “Because of this, she was released and struggling out here to stay clean. … Had she gone to treatment, she probably would be alive today.”
Peters died on May 28. She was 37.
With the lifting of many pandemic restrictions, Quackenbush said she is starting to work with clients again.
“I am back to making house calls again, also,” she said. “Meetings are going to be opening up again next week with masks and social distancing required.”
Quackenbush has had many success stories since starting her organization in 2017, including helping another Ho-Chunk woman, Taylor Porter, 22, to get clean.
Porter said she had been addicted for six years and had been the victim of human trafficking before being rescued by police last year.
Quackenbush found her at the request of one of Porter’s aunts and referred her to a treatment center.
“I personally can say that without her (Quackenbush) and StoptheStigma, I don’t know if I would still be here,” Porter said.
Quackenbush said she tries to help anyone she can, whether or not they’re Native American, and said about half of her clients are non-tribal.
#StoptheStigma born from Facebook attacks
Thanks to her organization distributing Narcan and police officers having the drug on hand, Quackenbush said drug overdose deaths in Jackson County — where #StoptheStigma is based — have been significantly reduced.
The drug is used in emergency situations to help counter the effect of decreased breathing in opioid overdose.
Quackenbush also is a big believer in needle exchanges because of the high risk of infection for drug users using disease-infected needles.
She remembers helping one girl who was overdosing and left alone by paramedics because she was denied service.
“When I touched her skin she was burning hot,” Quackenbush said. “She had her sleeve up and her arm was completely black from infection. I rushed her to the ER. … She later thanked me because she had literally almost died. That’s why clean needles are so important.”
She said the main reason she started the organization was to stop the stigma society places on drug addicts, which can be a barrier for them seeking help.
Quackenbush got the idea after defending someone in a Facebook post who had a drug-related warrant for her arrest and was being verbally attacked by hundreds of commenters.
From that exchange, #StoptheStigma of Addiction was born as a slogan that she put on shirts and stickers.
Having been in recovery herself, Quackenbush said she knows the pain of addiction and is able to connect with and relate to many of her clients.
The organization gained 501(c)3 nonprofit status in September 2018.
Currently, Quackenbush is working on earning her nursing degree. She's already a state-certified peer specialist to help people through recovery.
“Getting my nursing degree means #StoptheStigam can save more lives,” she said.
One of the issues Quackenbush has noticed in the state is the lack of detoxification services on reservations that have been hit hard with drug overdoses. Tribal leaders are aware there is a lack of drug treatment facilities, she said, but there also needs to be a detox process first.
“People need to go through a process, a horrific process, to get to the point of entering a treatment program," she said. "My vision is to create a program for this.”
She said she’s been through the detox process with a few clients already.
“We did it, but it was difficult,” Quackenbush said.
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.