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Bismarck woman featured in documentary on opioid addiction

Shila Stiefel, 40, an administrative assistant and a former patient at the Heartview Foundation in Bismarck, is a recovering addict from prescription pain medication. The mother of four children began using pain medication to dull the emotional pain after she was sexually assaulted at 12 years old. Here she is featured outside her place of work, Heartview, an addiction treatment center. Mike McCleary | Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK—Drugs had a tight grip on Shila Stiefel starting at a very young age.

Stiefel, of Bismarck, was 12 years old when she was sexually assaulted. After that, she started treating herself with different medications and alcohol.

"I liked the numb feeling. I didn't want to feel anymore," said Stiefel, 40.

For years, Stiefel remained under the spell of drugs and alcohol. She had three children as a teenager, and she described her life as "out of control."

It wasn't until after giving birth to her fourth child that she sought help from the Heartview Foundation in Bismarck. Now in recovery, Stiefel is working at the same place that helped her get her life back together.

Because Stiefel would like to see more people get help for drug and alcohol use disorders, she agreed to be featured in a documentary called "The Opioid Epidemic: Seeking Solutions in North Dakota," a collaboration between Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota and Prairie Public Broadcasting. The 30-minute documentary will be shown Thursday at the Heritage Center.

Opioid addiction has been worsening across the United States, including in North Dakota. This year, the Bismarck Police Department has responded to at least 11 heroin overdoses, according to data from the BPD. Earlier this month, over the period of one weekend, officers responded to four apparent overdoses in which Narcan, the nasal form of naloxone, was used.

"I can tell you without a doubt that we do have an opioid problem," said Dr. Elizabeth Faust, senior medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota.

In the Blue Cross system, which insures about one-third of Americans, diagnoses of opioid use disorders from 2010 to 2016 have increased by 500 percent, said Faust, who has worked in the behavioral health care field in Fargo-Moorhead for 25 years.

Three years ago, Faust started her position at Blue Cross because she wanted to have an influence on improving access to affordable behavioral health care coverage in the state.

"I started thinking, what can Blue Cross do? What is our role, what should we be doing, as a public steward and as a payer, to help support the movement to manage this crisis?" she said. "One of the things we can do is garner attention."

Faust said the goal of documentary is to not only increase awareness of opioid addiction, but to also highlight the work of health care providers, treatment centers, law enforcement and schools, and help others to see how they can be part of the solution.

"We wanted this documentary to keep moving this conversation forward,' Faust said.

'It's the addiction. It's not who we are.'

Growing up, Stiefel was using any drug she could get her hands on. At 13, her choices were limited, so she drank cough syrup.

She had her first child at 16. She had two more children and realized her life was quickly spiraling out of control and gave up custody to her children's father.

After that, she started using opiates, her drug of choice.

"By the time I was 21, that was a daily thing. I couldn't get out of bed without them," she said.

At that time, she'd go to local emergency rooms two to three times a week to get prescription pain medications, which she said was "easy" to get from doctors. She shot up heroin and OxyContin, and once was in a coma for two days after using a dirty needle.

She also went to prison three times, the first time for stealing checks to buy drugs. She went to treatment while in prison, and, after she got out, she used right away.

"I had my relapse plan before I ever walked out of prison," she said.

Stiefel said her fear of feeling anything but numb perpetuated her addiction. She used through funerals and has never buried a loved one while sober.

"It was scary to be happy. It was scary to be sad," she said. "Since I was little, number was what I had felt."

Stiefel said she wishes people would see the documentary to try to better understand how addicts operate.

"It's the addiction. It's not who we are," she said.

A family affair

For Stiefel, using drugs was a family affair. Both her parents were addicts, and, at one point, she used "just to be close to them."

Both her parents are in recovery. Her mom went through the treatment program at Heartview in December.

"She's doing amazing, and she would've never done that had I not started and been there to support her," Stiefel said.

Her dad, too, is faring well.

"For the first time, I have a family," Stiefel said, tearing up. "Recovery has given me the one thing I've always wanted, and that's a mom and a dad."

Faust said addiction is relative to illnesses that can be passed down from generation to generation.

"Most people who are vulnerable to addiction have some level of genetic vulnerability," she said. "Like many conditions in behavioral health, there is still a lot of perception that they're choices rather than illnesses."

Getting help

Stiefel said giving birth to her daughter, Layla, was the breaking point for her.

She remembers sitting on the floor with her 6-month-old daughter and thinking that her little girl needed her.

"Layla deserved more, and I didn't want to live," she said.

Stiefel had previously been buying a drug called Suboxone, which is used in addiction treatment. These pills were costly, and she felt like giving up. Finally, she decided to call Heartivew to get help. She was evaluated in July 2014 and is taking Suboxone.

"There's hundreds of stories just like mine in Bismarck," she said, adding that she is an advocate for more treatment options.

Faust said the documentary is one way to educate the public and providers about best practices for addiction treatment. She said Blue Cross also plans to incentivize providers to do medication-assisted treatment, such as Suboxone.

The documentary will be shown at 3 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16. The showing is free and open to the public. There will be a panel featuring U.S. Attorney Chris Myers, Stiefel, Bismarck Public Schools Superintendent Tamara Uselman, and Dr. Melissa Henke, Heartview medical director.

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