Tortured by addiction, couple getting back on their feet with Meridian clinic's help

The Center for Behavioral Health offers treatment to help people regain control of their lives

At first, Erika Sternberg and Dan Templeman used prescription painkillers to relax and have fun on the weekends.

Then Erika's father, whom the Boise couple loved dearly, died about two years ago. That tragedy changed the role of drugs in the couple's life. Vicodin, a prescription opiate, wasn't for having fun. It was for getting numb.

"I couldn't have a peace about (the death)," Sternberg said. "It really disturbs my soul."

During two years of drug use and attempts to quit, the couple hit bottom several times.

The Center for Behavioral Health in Meridian opened when the couple needed it most.

With daily treatment, Sternberg, 27, and Templeman, 30, have started to put their lives back together.

Until this spring, Idaho was one of only a few states without a methadone clinic. Methadone is a synthetic form of morphine that helps most people wean themselves from opiates or heroin.

The Center for Behavioral Health, which opened April 7, is part of a for-profit chain of centers in nine states. The outpatient facilities offer treatment and counseling for every addiction.

Fewer than 30 people are in treatment at the Meridian center, partly because of the downturn in the economy, said co-owner Brant Massman, of Boise.

"The response has been very positive," Massman said. "However, because of the economy being where it's at, I can't say that things are booming."

For Templeman, the road to addiction started with surgery to remove his gall bladder. "That's pretty much how most people get hooked on stuff like Vicodin," he said.

At first, Templeman simply asked his doctor for more refills "and then pretty much you just buy them from people," some of whom had unused prescriptions, including for OxyContin, which carries a national reputation as a highly addictive opiate sometimes prescribed to relieve severe pain.

Sternberg was making good money at an office job and bought presents for Templeman, who worked at the Boise Airport.

In addition, she said, "We had gotten my wedding ring."

Eventually, Templeman's sources of prescription painkillers dried up. He decided to use heroin. He said it was to wean himself off prescription painkillers.

"First, we did it just on the weekends, and it just gradually increased," Sternberg said. "We'd do it two days in a row and then ... after a while you just have to have it."

Desperate to hang on to their jobs, the two tried to find a detox center in Boise to get help. With no health insurance, they came up empty. They were missing a lot of work and performing poorly because of their drug habits, and they were afraid of losing their jobs. They pawned possessions to get money.

"It was both depressing and humiliating," Sternberg said. "There were several times I would just break down and cry, but I just couldn't stop."

Through relatives and friends, they heard about a detox program in Seattle, but were unable to stay long enough for aftercare and were using again within a few months.

They went to a methadone clinic in Ontario, but fell behind on paying for their medication and were forced to leave the clinic for nonpayment.

Withdrawal followed.

"You want to keep thinking of ways to die, but you are too weak to do it," Sternberg said. "If there had been a gun, you would have pulled the trigger, because you just want it to end. You don't want to die, but you want a way out."

Since starting their treatment at the Meridian clinic things are looking up.

"For the first time, I don't crave any alcohol or drugs or anything," Sternberg said.

At the Meridian clinic, the couple pays $55 each a week for a daily dose of methadone in a cherry-flavored liquid.

The pair recently began working at Deseret Industries, where they make less than $6 an hour hanging clothes and sorting merchandise for a second-hand store. Deseret Industries, sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will also provide up to $3,000 to help the non-Mormon couple learn a trade or career skills, they said.

The couple's only wish: That the state's Medicaid program would help addicts pay for maintenance, as a few other states do.

"(Addiction) can affect anybody," Sternberg said. "It doesn't mean that you're a bum or homeless or a junkie or any of those things."