WASILLA — Karl Soderstrom and Kerby Kraus are tired of seeing Alaska’s youth fall victim to an addiction they know all too well.
“We are trying to combat the heroin or opiate epidemic with a recovery epidemic,” Soderstrom said during a recent interview at MY House, a Wasilla nonprofit dedicated to homeless youth prevention.
Kraus, a part-time paid employee and volunteer for MY House, sat beside Soderstrom in a light purple collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a skinny black tie tight at his neck. Soderstrom was dressed casually for the occasion in a black t-shirt and gray beanie. An eclectic assortment of tattoos curled up and around both men’s arms, illustrating stories and moments only they know.
For these two men, the effort to help others get clean starts with “Fiend 2 Clean,” a program they’ve begun with support from MY House. Through the Fiend 2 Clean Facebook page, Kraus and Soderstrom have connected with hundreds of people to discuss what MY House founder Michelle Overstreet calls a “war” on heroin and other hard drugs.
Overstreet said Soderstrom and Kraus are on the front lines of that war.
“We’ve got an amazing couple of young people here who are creating a movement in our community for young people to get clean and sober,” she said.
By posting videos, inspirational quotes and facts related to addiction on Facebook, the duo hopes to reach the growing number of Alaskans struggling with addiction. According to a recent report by the State of Alaska Section of Epidemiology titled, “Health Impacts of Heroin Use in Alaska,” the number of heroin-associated deaths more than tripled between 2008 and 2013.
Heroin and opiates are incredibly addictive, and both men said they know how difficult it is to kick the habit.
“I didn’t get sober the first time I tried to get sober,” Kraus said. “I tried it for other people, I tried it for my family, and that was never enough. Until it was something I wanted for myself, it was never real.”
Until he made that decision, he was living on the street, sleeping on a bench near Wasilla’s Nunley Park. He had no job, no food — no hope.
“The only solution I knew was putting a needle in my arm,” Kraus said.
Still, he went to a detoxification center and gave recovery a shot.
“I was like, ‘Man, if I can just get through detox, I will be just fine.’ But then I got through detox and I was still angry,” he said. “I hated myself.”
Soderstrom tells a similar tale.
“Day one of my recovery, I was broken, I was suicidal and I was lost. I didn’t have a warm place to sleep, any food in my belly, and I was desperate,” he said.
When he walked into MY House, all of that began to change.
“I found some people who loved on me,” he said.
Not only that, but they offered to help. One person agreed to pay Soderstrom to mow his lawn so he could buy some food. Three weeks later, he got a job. He had stopped sweating and shaking from the withdrawals, and began to realize that if he wanted to keep his job, all he had to do was show up on time and not call in sick when he wasn’t sick.
“It sounds like such a simple concept, but the world had always revolved around me,” Soderstrom said, laughing at the person he used to be. “They had to literally teach me, at 25, 26 years old, accountability and responsibility.”
Kraus said he had to “learn about having feelings again” before moving onto basic life skills, which he had never gained because of his addiction.
“I didn’t just have an addiction problem, I didn’t know how to live life either,” he said. “I didn’t know how to have relationships or how talk to people.”
Kraus counted 1,000 days clean and sober earlier this month. Soderstrom will celebrate 3 years clean and sober on April 20.
Both men are now married and have kids, homes and food on the table. Both are taking college classes to become certified in counseling and social work.
“My life is really blessed today,” Soderstrom said.
Part of the solution
Aside from the social media campaign to spread awareness about addiction, Fiend 2 Clean is also raising money for its outreach efforts, resource manual and a text-able hotline — 907-982-HOPE (4673) — by selling shirts that read “Sober…it’s the new sexy” through the Facebook page and MY House’s Steamdriven Boutique.
But being part of the solution to the heroin epidemic in the Mat-Su Valley and beyond requires more than selling shirts and making videos, which Kraus and Soderstrom recognize.
“Really it’s about building relationships with people,” Soderstrom said.
And building relationships requires honest dialogue, Kraus said.
“I don’t just wanna have conversations with addicts who are suffering. I wanna have a conversation with someone who’s had 30 years of recovery, too,” he said. “The idea is to remain open minded and continue to learn.”
Eliminating the stigmas surrounding addiction is also a part of the men’s mission. Addicts aren’t simply nameless, faceless junkies, Soderstrom said.
“These are doctors, nurses, moms, sons, daughters — that’s who we are,” he said.
Kraus said addicts can be anyone, from anywhere.
“You never know who addiction has touched,” he said.
To hear more of Kraus’s story and that of other people affected by addiction to heroin, check out the Mat-Su Health Foundation’s “Heroin in the Mat-Su” video on healthymatsu.org or vimeo.com/145931085.
Contact reporter Caitlin Skvorc at 352-2266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.