A journey to recovery

Martha speaks at different churches about her book “Dear David,” and David is there to answer questions people may have about his journey. (submitted photos)

The struggle to overcome addiction not only affected David, second from left, but also his mom Martha Wegner, far right, his dad John Hay, and sister Christine. (submitted photos)

Mother and son tell their story of overcoming addiction


It was never something Martha Wegner thought would happen to her family. 

Her teenage son, David, became addicted to drugs, and she was forced to give him a “tough love” ultimatum: get treatment or get out.

“Most people say they could never do that, but we didn’t have any choice. There was nothing left for us to do,” Martha says. “He wasn’t getting the help he needed, and it was really causing havoc in our family.”This moment was just one stop in David’s three-year battle with addiction. Now, Martha and David travel to area churches talking about their family’s struggle and how they overcame it. 


A long battle

It started during his junior year when he was 17. Before then, David says he never used drugs but was always fascinated by them. His drug of choice: marijuana. Right off the bat, he says he “went off the deep end.” He remembers it got so bad there was never a point in the day when he wasn’t high on cannabis. 

Looking back, Martha says she had a sense something was different almost as soon as he started smoking weed. 


If you go

What: Book discussion of “Dear David: Dealing with My Son’s Addiction One Letter at a Time.” Mother and son speak about drug addiction’s effect on families

When: Sunday, April 17, from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.

Where: First Presbyterian Church, 535 20th Ave N., South St. Paul

After several months of using, in June 2013 David went to Fairview medical clinics for mental health and chemical dependency assessment, and began outpatient treatment. At this point, he says he was experiencing some psychosis, and he didn’t always know what was real and what wasn’t.

After he completed outpatient treatment, David started at the Insight Recovery School, a sobriety-oriented high school offered by the White Bear Lake School District, in October 2013.

“I went through the motions. I don’t think I was ready. I didn’t want to be sober bad enough. I didn’t have the desperation; the pain to motivate me,” David says. 

The day David graduated from Insight, he disappeared for a few days. Then he’d return home for a handful of days before leaving again. This is when Martha says she and her husband, John Hay, had to make another tough decision.

When they gave David the ultimatum, get treatment or move out for the first time, he received treatment at Hazelden as an outpatient, but he withdrew after only a few days. 

Now he was drifting in and out of the family home and getting stoned all day, and his parents knew they had to give him the ultimatum again.

“That was probably the best thing that they’ve ever done for me. I would still be at home getting high if I was still living there,” David says.

After spending three weeks living on the streets, in July he enrolled in Hazelden’s inpatient treatment for six or seven weeks, but he walked away from the program before completing it.

David continued using, dabbling a bit with opiates, but preferring marijuana. 

Turning point

It was in October 2014 that things began to turn around. David was in a serious car crash and totaled his vehicle. His best friend was a passenger, and they were lucky to have survived.

After this happened, Martha’s friend Mike talked with David and brought him to the Union Gospel Mission, a homeless shelter in St. Paul.

While living there, David participated in a free treatment program for two months. In December 2014, David moved into St. Paul Sober Living. He moved out last December into an apartment with a sober friend he met with at Sober Living.

Now age 20, he has now been sober for 18 months, and is a student at St. Paul College, where he is studying cabinet making.


A different kind of moment

David says he never had that “a-ha moment” some people talk about. But when he totaled his car, he knew he had a serious drug problem. 

He says his car was the last “good thing in his life,” so with that gone he felt completely beaten down.

When he went to the Christ Recovery Center, which is part of Union Gospel Mission, he didn’t go with the sole intention of getting sober.

“It was more to stop hurting, which was getting sober,” David says.


A rollercoaster of emotions

In the beginning, Martha says there was a pragmatic approach, thinking he was just experimenting with marijuana. 

That soon turned into feelings of disbelief at how quickly David had become dependent on cannabis and was smoking it every day. 

Watching David fall into an addiction that took precedence over everything in his life was unbelievable at first, before it evolved into feelings of anger.

Throughout David’s battle, Martha says she and her husband felt like they were on a rollercoaster. Their emotions ranged from incredulity to anger to hope. It was a cycle that kept going until David became sober.

She admits that cynicism crept through during the addiction phase and also during recovery.

“Like ‘Yeah, yeah, right, I don’t believe it.’ When he would report something good, we would be ‘Well, I think so,’” Martha says. 


Finding a way to cope

When David walked out of Hazelden for the second time, Martha had no clue where he was living. This is when she started writing letters.

“It was just my way of being able to get out my emotions and get it on paper,” Martha says.

Even though they were letters to David, Martha thought he probably wouldn’t read them. 

She started posting the letters on a blog so family members and friends could see how David was doing, and so she could get them out into the world.

David did find out about the letters though. He says he read some of them while using drugs, and he didn’t want to hear the contents, which contained things he was running from. 

“It was the truth behind the lie I told myself and everyone else to justify my use. It kind of blew a hole in my cover story,” David recalls. 


Telling their story

About a year ago, Martha decided to publish the letters in a book, which she titled “Dear David: Dealing with My Son’s Addiction One Letter at a Time.” Just like the letters on the blog, David has read most of the book but not all of it. 

“There’s no plot twist that I don’t know,” David says.

Martha decided to compile the letters in a book after the reaction she received from the blog. A lot of strangers were reading the blog and reaching out to her.

She began to realize there are many commonalities among different addicts’ stories. Parents were reading the blog and commenting about how the same things happened to their kids.

Since the book was released, the mother and son have been giving talks, often at churches, about their family’s journey. Martha reads portions from the book before a question and answer session. 

“People are taken with the honesty in the book and the honesty of David’s story,” Martha says.

David says it would be easy to “get a big head” from all the people telling him how successful he is and how incredible his story it.

While he acknowledges he has come a long way on his sobriety journey, he knows he didn’t do it alone.

“It’s easier for me to kind of ride in the passenger seat, and it makes me happy to support my mom in this, David says.  

For his own sanity, he says being on the “sidelines” is nice.


Lessons learned and lessons shared

Martha says there are limits that people have to in terms of what they can tolerate as a family.

While families can persuade their addicted loved one to get help, the addict has to want the help.

“I didn’t know that. I thought if we really waited David out, or took away his phone or took away this, he would want to get help. That didn’t work as far as I could tell,” Martha says.

David stresses that families and friends can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. It ends up being a waste of everyone’s time.

Martha wants families going through this to know they didn’t cause it, but they also can’t cure it. Everyone has a breaking point and eventually will want to ask for help. When David went to the Christ Recovery Center, it wasn’t because he wanted to get sober. It was because he was open to suggestions about not hurting.

“Then I became open to suggestions on staying sober because that seemed to be the path to not hurting anymore,” David says.

David says if his parents hadn’t helped him find treatment programs, he wouldn’t have researched the different options available to him. If Mike hadn’t pointed him in the direction of Christ Recovery Center, he wouldn’t have gotten out of bed to seek help. 

Martha and Mike informing him about these opportunities and reminding him that he had options made them “be in his head” when he was finally ready to try something different. 

David says two key things people should remember are: “you can’t help someone who doesn’t want help, and addicts are people.”


Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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