Alexandra Smith and Jeremy Zwetzig sat in separate cells at the Davison County Jail, knowing something had to change.
The Mitchell couple was being held on charges related to a two-month methamphetamine bender, the product addiction suffocating them in a cruel embrace after years of sobriety. But the bars surrounding them provided an understanding that sobriety would never become permanent until they decided to stop suppressing demons from the past. Addiction was no longer something they could hide from and it was time to seek proper counseling for the first time or their lives would crumble for good.
Smith and Zwetzig had recently opened a business together — Marked. Tattoo Studio — and Smith has shared custody of her 5-year-old son. Zwetzig, meanwhile, has spent 16 of his 40 years behind bars due to drug-related crimes and was facing another five years after pleading guilty to possession of a controlled substance.
They sought drug counseling and one-on-one therapy immediately, not just for addiction, but for unresolved childhood trauma. They began hosting Mitchell’s only all-female Narcotics Anonymous meetings and added an all-encompassing NA meeting, as well.
Smith and Zwetzig searched for change, not through court orders, but because they needed desperately to find coping mechanisms to fend off the allure of meth that has been lurking over their shoulders for more than two decades.
The court saw the life-changing effort put forth and Smith's felony charge of ingestion of controlled substance will be wiped away due to a suspended imposition once she completes probation, while Zwetzig will avoided jail time on Tuesday with a suspended execution and will be forced to pay fines.
“I didn’t want to get high and didn’t plan on it and then it happened,” Zwetzig said. “Now that I’m clean, I want to be in recovery. I don’t want to be sober, just living life. I want to be in recovery. I want to be active in it. I’m excited that it’s on the table. I want people to know that there is a drug problem in Mitchell and it could happen to anybody.”
Smith had not touched meth in 15 years, while Zwetzig had been sober for 10 years and was two years removed from being paroled from his last eight-year stint in prison.
Zwetzig lost his job in December, not long after Smith lost the lease on her tattoo studio. They were left vulnerable when a friend from the past arrived on their doorstep. He offered to purchase meth and they initially rebuked his offer.
But the same friend came back, and this time he had meth in his possession. Seeing the drug in his hand was too much to overcome. Both were sucked back into the grip of addiction, which is considered a brain disorder because it involves changes to how the brain handles stress and self-control, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
At first, they figured kicking the habit after a weekend of partying would be simple. Then it turned into two weekends and then a month. Having custody of her son every other week, Smith would sober up long enough to care for him, but she fell right back into the habit when he left.
“That’s when my brain started romancing,” said Smith, 32. “I could get so much stuff done, I wouldn’t be tired -- you think of everything. Everything you can think of that would be positive, but none of the negatives come up because it’s an addict brain. Your brain’s not going to say, ‘Whoa, this could f--- your whole life up.”
More than two months passed and eventually their struggles exploded. An anonymous tip of drug activity led Mitchell Police officers to their home. On parole, Zwetzig was searched, as was the home and drug paraphernalia was found.
Recalling the past
Not long into their therapy sessions, Smith and Zwetzig learned how ill-equipped they were to confront addiction.
Neither attended NA meetings aside from court-mandated sessions in the past and neither sought regular counseling. They believed addiction could be conquered simply through willpower — Smith was able to expel an addiction to painkillers, prescribed for a legitimate back injury a little more than a year prior, without any help — only to learn their addiction was rooted in traumas dating back to their childhood.
Addiction runs in their families, they say. Smith was born in Minnesota, but her mother was a Mitchell native and moved home not long after her birth. Since birth, Smith’s father has spent all but two of those years in prison, and when she was young, her mother married another addict, whose thirst was for something more abhorrent than any drug.
Smith was molested by her stepfather numerous times for nearly six years until he finally left town. Not long after, she and a friend found the body of another friend who committed suicide.
By the age of 15, Smith was actively looking to find ways to wash away her pain, bottling up secrets of sexual abuse from her stepfather and finding companionship with people much older.
She experimented with marijuana, becoming a habitual user and eventually she received her first taste of meth and it took control of her life. Smith dropped out of high school, learned her GED and started taking classes at Mitchell Tech, but her life became devoted to finding ways to secure money for her meth intake.
“I lived to use and used to live,” Smith said. “You look at how you’re going to make money for the drugs you need for this day. I’ve always been able to use my skills to trade for whatever I needed. I remember doing absolutely anything to get the drugs I wanted.”
Just before her 18th birthday, she was arrested and sat in a Huron juvenile detention center until being given the option to enter a rehabilitation facility in Yankton.
It was there that she finally confronted her childhood nightmares and shared all of her dark secrets with her mother. A police report was filed for her stepfather’s arrest, but he was never apprehended.
After her release from Yankton, Smith sought new friends and a new lifestyle. She never went back to meth, but had an on-and-off relationship with marijuana.
Being able to recognize her addiction to opioids — taking 20 10-milligram tablets of hydrocodone at once — Smith figured she could handle a little meth, but she realized her approach to sobriety was not the right path for herself. Through therapy, she is finding correlations between her obsessive compulsive disorder and what happened during her youth.
“I would think that stuff happened to me as a kid and that’s not me now, but it is,” Smith said. “That little kid is damaged inside of me. … My therapist taught me that it’s the little girl inside that couldn’t control things that happened. I couldn’t control finding someone dead, I couldn’t control what my stepdad did. If I clean (my house), it’s my way of telling the little girl it’s going to stop bad stuff.”
While Smith has had two instances in which meth took over her life, Zwetzig has felt its tug far more often.
Growing up in Rapid City, his parents divorced when he was young and strained relationships with both, along with the suicide of a friend, guided him to meth when he was 15. He was caught breaking into a storefront at night and sent to Custer Youth Correctional Center, where in 1996, he was a member of Gov. Bill Janklow’s first youth reform boot camp.
Zwetzig was shocked by some of the activities that took place in the camp, which became infamous for horror stories across the state. In 1999, the death of 14-year-old Gina Score within a week of arriving at the South Dakota State Training School in Plankinton was national news.
Eventually, he accepted the discipline the camp was forcing upon him, only to be released into counseling, which featured addicts that had yet to participate in the camp and he fell back into his old habits.
Zwetzig joined the U.S. Navy at 17, shortly after he married a girl he met 10 days earlier and when their shared drug use imploded the marriage within a few months, he was back in Rapid City on leave, sitting in his car with a friend.
Police arrived and his passenger stashed drugs underneath the seat. Zwetzig took the charges and was sent to Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield for the first time. He served four years of his term in sobriety, was released, relapsed and returned to jail for four more years.
His stint in left him bitter that a friend would allow him to spend nearly a decade behind bars, while Zwetzig watched from a distance as he turned his life around, married and had children.
“It’s hard to say what would have happened, but even if I relapsed when I was in the Navy, I probably could have turned it around,” Zwetzig said. “The Navy probably would have guided me through that. But when I got that initial 10-year number, that started the whole process of being in the system and it was for somebody else.”
Determined to stay away from the trap, he moved to Mitchell and started his own tattoo shop.
He was dating a nice girl and was building the life he felt robbed of, but his mother grew ill, and Zwetzig rushed back to Rapid City. He only intended to be gone for a week and he did not return for 10 years.
Grief of his mother passing without either reconciling years of lies and deceit fueled by addiction, Zwetzig returned to meth. His relationship and business imploded and he needed to find ways to feed his addiction.
Zwetzig turned to writing and cashing forged checks, but he landed back in Springfield after being arrested for grand theft and identity theft in 2011, along with another friend that was cashing counterfeit checks in Deadwood that led to a raid of his house.
Serving eight years of a 20-year prison term brought sobriety upon release in 2018, along with a rage against anyone that used. He also did not want to attend treatment meetings with fellow addicts for a fear that it would cause relapse.
“I didn’t want to be in with people that were still using,” Zwetzig said. “I had been clean for eight years, so I didn’t feel like sitting with people that were fresh into their recovery was a good idea. But I was wrong, because I was sober and not in recovery.”
Years of escaping truth have finally caught up with Smith and Zwetzig and they no longer want to run.
Counseling during the last six months has brought them a new outlook, one that helps them understand that being in recovery is a lifetime process and there is no antidote to permanently cure addiction.
Smith is resigned to the idea of continuing therapy for the remainder of her life, while also using resources to help others that have shared struggles with addiction.
“Self-medicating isn’t getting me anywhere,” Smith said. “I had to figure out how to deal with those things and then I had to get the tools to deal with life. If stressors happen, I can't just use drugs because I won’t have to feel for a little bit. That’s not healthy; that’s not what a normal person does. Now I need to deal with these things as they come in the most healthy way. Now I feel like I have an arsenal of things that can help.”
Meanwhile, Zwetzig is tired of living in an endless cycle — drug use, prison time, sobriety, release and relapse. He has found success in his life when sober and now he wants to find a way to maintain his sobriety or learn to pull himself up if he fails.
Zwetzig has not shied away from his substance abuse and his actions while influenced by drugs, but he is seeking to prove that he can contribute to society in a productive manner when sober.
“I enjoy holding the NAs, because it holds us accountable to our own recovery and it allows us to help other people,” Zwetzig said. “Whatever stage they’re in, they can come talk. It’s been six months and I’m hoping to prove that I’m actively in recovery, not just being sober.”
Relapse rates for addiction rivals Type 1 diabetes, hypertension and asthma, while continued treatment reduces relapse, according to the NIDA.
The NIDA also states that when given the option between jail time and rehabilitation, people are more likely to comply and stay in treatment for longer periods of time.
A study by the American Public Health Association that 11 percent of those incarcerated get treatment for addictions. There are also instances in which those that do receive treatment while in prison are not willing or seeking help, limiting the effectiveness of treatment.
While prison has helped him earn sobriety in the past, Zwetzig believes it has also contributed to his relapse. While incarcerated, he was released of the burden to make money, but once he was released, those pressures returned. Now, he wants to continue with his current counseling, which faces him to confront struggles.
“When you go to prison, life goes on for everybody else and it stops for you,” Zwetzig said. “You prepare yourself to mentally shut down, so when I got to jail, I just started to shut it down. I started thinking about my family and everything we’ve built. I can’t do it again. There’s no way I can do prison again.”