BY ANGIE JACKSON
TRAVERSE CITY — Claire Scerbak received a call that all parents fear.
Her son, Nathan Koeneman, was on the other end of the line. He wanted to say goodbye.
Deputies were after him, trailing him on a high-speed chase that started in Kalkaska County and spilled into Grand Traverse just north of Traverse City. Koeneman, 23, sparked the chase when he pumped gas into his car, then drove off without paying. Amid the chaos he apologized to his parents for disappointing them.
”He said, ‘I’m going to hit a tree and kill myself,’” Scerbak said. “I think there was a part of him also maybe hoping they’d just shoot him.”
Koeneman subsequently crashed into a utility pole and was arrested. He faces felony charges in Kalkaska and Grand Traverse counties; his record already included several drug-related convictions, owed in part to an eight-year drug addiction that started with prescribed narcotics and catapulted him and his family into an up-and-down existence of recovery, relapse and near-fatal overdose.
Shortly before the February car crash, Scerbak told Koeneman to check himself into Munson Medical Center’s psychiatric unit or she’d have him involuntarily committed. He had walked out of three different detox treatment programs in three months and argued he’d “never beat it.”
But Scerbak doesn’t want to give up on her son or others who struggle with drug addiction. She’s leading an effort to open a residential rehabilitation center in northern Michigan that would accommodate teenagers.
From prescription to addiction
Scerbak envisions a residential addiction treatment facility that would house boys ages 14-18 when outpatient therapy and counseling for substance abuse isn’t enough to stop their spiral. Treatment duration would be determined on a case-by-case basis and incorporate prayer, school, family therapy, a work program and alternative therapies, she said.
Scerbak is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Grand Traverse County’s Peninsula Township and has a master’s degree in mental health counseling. She previously worked in Fort Wayne, Ind., as a counselor at a residential treatment center for mentally, emotionally and sexually abused adolescents.
She believes there’s a need for such a place because she knows her son doesn’t struggle alone.
Thirteen percent of high school students reported taking painkillers without a doctor’s prescription one or more times over a span of 30 days in 2011, according to the Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The most common drugs cited were codeine, Tylenol 3 and Oxycontin. Eight percent of students reported taking a prescription drug without a doctor’s orders.
Marybeth Novak, a prevention specialist for Catholic Human Services who was instrumental in installing a prescription drug drop-off box at Traverse City Police headquarters, said older siblings or friends are “almost always” the source for a young user’s drug supply.
Novak works with inmates ages 18 and up at local jails. Typically, nine out of 10 inmates with whom she meets admit to illegally using prescription drugs. It’s become a predominant issue over the last few years, she said.
”Younger kids are following what they see older kids doing. And it’s so readily available,” she said.
Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power said narcotics addiction is more common now than it was 15 years ago for people who filter through the court system.
”It’s far more widespread than it ever was. It used to be very unusual,” Power said.
Koeneman struggled with anxiety and depression, then was badly injured in a 2004 car crash that introduced him to narcotics. He was given Oxycontin and morphine for a shattered pelvis and other injuries. When the pain subsided and doctors stopped writing prescriptions, Koeneman turned elsewhere for narcotics and other drugs.
Scerbak and her husband sought help from a behavioral psychologist when Koeneman was 15, but she didn’t realize his addiction had reached advanced stages. Short-term rehabilitation programs and an out-of-state residential treatment program weren’t effective, Scerbak said.
”He would do well for a while, and then he’d relapse. And then he’d get back up and try again,” she said.
One relapse nearly took his life.
”It’s tragic that it gets to this point that I’m glad Nathan’s in jail ... because he doesn’t have drugs. I mean, how pathetic is that, that this is your goal for your child?”
Michigan’s residential teen addiction programs typically draw clients from around the state to stay afloat, said Sue Winter, executive director of Northern Michigan Substance Abuse Services.
Wedgwood Christian Services of Grand Rapids contracts with Winter’s agency and pulls teens from northern lower Michigan, as well as the east and west sides of the state. Anthony Muller, director of clinical and business development, said the residential substance abuse program rarely has a waiting list.
Most local substance abuse treatments for teenagers are outpatient only, aside from Abba's House in Traverse City, which treats adolescents for a duration of eight to 18 months. Cries for help from parents prompted Scerbak five years ago to work to bring more treatment to northern lower Michigan.
She hosted a meeting with local school officials, social workers and counselors who seemed enthusiastic about the effort, but then interest fizzled.
Scerbak and others drew up business plans and seriously looked at property that turned out to be too expensive. Now, officials with The Catholic Diocese of Gaylord are open to exploring possibilities of a property donation to site such a facility, said a spokeswoman for the diocese.
A director is in the early stages of formally creating the program. Services may expand to include female adolescents and adults, and serve people who fight various forms of addiction, Scerbak said.
”There’s no one-size-fits-all rehab program. You have to look at individuals,” said Scerbak, who said she will volunteer at the facility but won’t run the programs.
She wants to keep costs low by establishing a large volunteer base. The center won’t receive many government grants, she said, and mostly would be reliant on donations. Scerbak said organizers have a couple potential donors in mind, but they have not yet approached them.
Still, there are many hurdles to sustaining a facility. If insurance providers cover residential treatment at all, it’s usually only up to 30 days, said Novak, of Catholic Human Services.
”Then the kids are right back in the community,” she said. “What’s covered by insurance generally is not adequate for the scope of the problem.”
Scerbak tried tough love in the early years of Koeneman’s addiction by having him charged with incorrigibility and sent to juvenile detention. Today she considers that move a “huge mistake.”
”It’s like taking somebody with cancer and putting you in jail and saying, ‘Get better’,” she said.
There’s something of a “mental click” when parents realize their child’s drug abuse is a disease, said Wendy Blodgett, whose daughter, Sarah Clark, was addicted to pain medication and who committed suicide in the Grand Traverse County Jail in 2008 at age 21. Blodgett challenges parents to address their children’s drug or alcohol dependencies.
”When it comes to addiction, you can’t be the family that hides its eyes. You have to look it in the face,” Blodgett said.
Claire Scerbak may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.