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Mother's Journey through Addiction Ends with Support from Nonprofits, Faith, Friends

Copyright Joe Shearer

This ​story is written by Scott Stewart of the Daily Non-Pareil. It was posted Sunday, September 14, 2014 at

Brandee Steffes came to southwest Iowa as an addict. She has stayed in southwest Iowa to be an inspiration.

When authorities took away her first child, Steffes spiraled into despair – drinking, meth and a tumultuous relationship with a new man who ended up in and out of prison.

Six weeks after having her second child, a state social worker showed up again. The police had been to her trailer in Glenwood multiple times for drunken fights between her and her then-husband.

She had been in and out of the “drunk tank” several times, she said. She just loved the way alcohol made her feel – until she couldn’t handle it anymore.

“The first couple hours, I would be happy-go-lucky,” she said. “The next thing you know, I’m in a blackout, and my temper’s flaring about something.”

She was separated from her then-6-week-old child, but she was determined to do something about it. Determined to turn her life around. Determined to face the monster within herself that drove her choices and kept her on an up-down cycle of getting high and crashing low.

Ultimately, she was successful in breaking the cycle. Lauren Laferla, a spokeswoman for Boys Town Iowa, said Steffes has beaten the odds and become a great role model.

“She worked diligently to get her life back on track and return to her son,” Laferla said. “She picked herself up off the jailhouse floor and embraced a brighter future whole-heartedly.”

It wasn’t always clear that would happen. Her journey began with a series of decisions to ask for help.

After the Iowa Department of Human Services took away Steffes younger child, she checked herself into Heartland Family Service’s Family Works residential treatment facility in Council Bluffs in 2011.

“I had heard about these treatment centers,” she said. “I don’t know why they don’t advertise them more. You can take your children with you.”

She was reunited with her baby after a couple weeks, and she finished four months of learning about her addiction, the cycles of abuse and parenting skills, all while staying in a safe environment reunited with her child.

“It was a really, really good program,” she said. “It’s just a bunch of women and children. It was chaotic at times.”

The program stressed personal responsibility along with empowerment, encouraging women that they could face their addiction. Support groups were different from her previous experience with Alcoholics Anonymous, Steffes said, and the treatment center offered her a 24-7 supportive environment.

“Most people with addiction are not used to being around people or working with other people,” she said. “You’re in there, and you have to cooperate together.”

Addiction has been a part of Steffes’ life since she was a young teenager.

She said her drug of choice has always been alcohol, after she had her first drink at age 14. Her father was a recovering alcoholic – a “dry drunk” who had a temper, she said.
“There’s just so many alcoholics in my family,” she said.

She grew up in North Dakota in the ‘80s, before the oil boom brought easier access to drugs in its wake. Her parents eventually divorced, and she and her brother found themselves in southwest Iowa after her mother moved to Malvern.

By that point, Steffes was already abusing not only alcohol, a depressant, but also methamphetamine, a stimulant. “I stated using crank maybe at 16, 17,” she said.

Shortly after that, she married her first husband and spent four years in Texas – until the couple divorced – partying and going from smoking meth to shooting it, she said.

She returned to Malvern in 2003 and quickly returned to the “same old habits.” She ended up in facilities in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, struggling with a one-two combination punch of addiction and mental illness that stymied building a solid foundation for more than a decade.

She landed in Red Oak, where she earned a commercial driver’s license and started driving a truck cross country. She said she never drove while drunk, but she developed a cycle of driving, getting drunk, sleeping and doing it all over again the next day.

Steffes said she didn’t have to put up with nagging and complaining about her drinking when she was on the road.

One day out on the road, living her life day-by-day, all she wanted was a bowl of chili and some beer, she said. She went into a bar in Arkansas, and met a recent divorcee who was also there drinking.

A one-night stand became an attempted but ultimately doomed relationship, from which Steffes’ first child was born.

She returned to Malvern while she was pregnant and to raise her son. She got a job driving a school bus for the Glenwood Community School District and attempted to return to college, later moving into a trailer in Glenwood.

“I was trying to do the single mother thing on my own,” she said.

A few citations for public intoxication later – and after a couple of breaks from her boss – she said she lost the job driving the school bus. She was living in a trailer off child support, and she ended up walking away from college because she couldn’t make it to class.

Her son was 3 when DHS showed up. The investigator, Steffes said, had no interest in reuniting her with her son. He ended up living with his dad, where he remains today at age 7, in a blended family in Arkansas with annual visits from his mother.

“It’s a mess. It’s been hard,” she said. “He’s got his own family setting down there. He was here for Christmas for two weeks – that was pretty cool.”

Alone in that trailer in Glenwood, bad became worse for Steffes. She became pregnant again that same year, and she married for a second time. The cycle was stuck on repeat.
“It was a really bad time,” she said. “That’s when I met my new baby daddy. It was through drinking again.”F

ast forward through DHS, Family Works and being reunited with her infant son.

Steffes was on more secure footing living in an apartment in Council Bluffs with support from Heartland Family Service. But old habits – choices reinforced by genetics and an inner voice of self-destruction – they don’t always go away without a fight.

“I was doing all right,” she said. “That little voice told me I could sit back with a six-pack again, and that got the ball rolling. By the end of the summer, I was locked up and my son was in foster care.”

She felt like meth was closing in on her where she was living in Council Bluffs, so she packed up her bags for Malvern and her mother. A month later, she had a drunken altercation with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, and she landed in jail.

It’s been about two years since she served her time. Two years sober. Two years since DHS came again. Two years since a new Boys Town of Iowa caseworker, along with other community supports, helped restore Steffes’ life.

“I didn’t think DHS would give me a second chance,” she said. “I got that second chance, third chance, over and over.”

Lutheran Family Services provided her with parenting support. DHS worked to keep her and her younger son together, after pushing to separate her from her older son.

Jaymes Sime, the community outreach coordinator at Boys Town Iowa, worked with Steffes after DHS put her son into foster care. Sime said she was dedicated and hardworking, taking the long road and becoming successful.

“She’s a rock star in my book, always has been,” he said. “If you look at where she is today, it is just at tremendous change.”

While incarcerated, Steffes also was connected with Hope Net Ministries of Council Bluffs, which operates two Sequels Thrift Stores in Council Bluffs. The nonprofit offered a bridge from jail through two support groups, Winners’ Circle and Circles of Support.

Jean Stephens, the director of Hope Net who worked with Steffes, said she became involved in the thrift stores, the group meetings and built a network of support for herself.
“I have just seen a total transformation in her,” Stephens said. “She has had an amazing transfomration, and it has been really exciting.”W

inners’ Circle is an all-female group focused on living a sober, healthy, crime-free life. It meets Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at First Baptist Church, 540 First Ave. Circles of Support is open to anyone seeking support. It meets at the same church on the fourth Monday of the month at 6 p.m.

“Hope Net Ministries have been a huge part of my success,” Steffes said. “I’m real faith-based, and I believe God has just set up everything.”

The meetings at First Baptist Church led her to join the congregation, restoring her faith that she lost when DHS first separated her from her older son. She now believes she is where she is today in no small part thanks to restoring that relationship with her faith.

“I couldn’t understand what God was doing,” she said. “Now reflecting back, I see it as a totally different picture. I knew once I hit that jail, I knew that it was time for me to get right with God. I thought I had lost my son.”

She didn’t lose him, though. She has since gotten a divorce, finalized in May, and completed probation, finalized in July. Twenty years after her first drink, now at age 34, she’s standing on her own.

Nevertheless, she said she doesn’t believe she will ever completely beat the monster of addiction – recovery is an ongoing process, not a cure. She still has her bad days, and she still occasionally has to ignore the little voice inside of her head pushing her to abuse a substance again.

But she now has the strength to tell herself: “That’s who you used to be. That ain’t who you are now.” She keeps herself surrounded by supportive people, and she will not associate with active users anymore.

“I feel like I have gotten on a strong foundation,” Steffes said. “I believe that God has lifted that obsession from me.”

The difference each day is still shocking, she said. She knows backsliding is possible, because addiction is “a tricky, tricky thing.”

“I am OK day in and day out without using,” she said. “There are so many resources in Council Bluffs. I would never have thought I would have gotten sober here.”

For those in the community who are struggling, her message is simple: “You don’t have to bear the burden alone. There’s too many resources out there.”

Yes, there are stereotypes. Yes, there are stigmas. Yes, the path to recovery isn’t easy.

But Steffes said those are not excuses to reject the support available for those who face addiction. Accepting help, she said, is a no-brainer: “I don’t know why you wouldn’t. It’s survival.”

“The appointments or the different things might be a pain in the butt, but it’s all worth it,” she said. “There is just a whole other world where you can finally get out and be still for a moment and get out of the addiction cloud.”

Many who work in social services are passionate, caring, concerned people, Steffes said. She said had she not received help, she wouldn’t be sober today after two years.

“These people do put their heart and soul into trying to make a difference and help,” she said.

Steffes would like to be one of those supportive people someday. She is wrapping up her associate’s degree in addictive studies – after years of off-and-on classes and a myriad of abandoned, failed classes – with plans to graduate this spring from Iowa Western Community College.

The Council Bluffs Community Education Foundation’s Stars scholarship program helped her as a parent returning to college. She was even on the honor roll, until she encountered another one of life’s challenges, familiar to plenty of college students out there: a class in statistics, which she passed by the skin of her teeth.

After graduation, her next goal is a bachelor’s of social work. From time to time, she will facilitate the Winners’ Circle group – and she’s already seeing her own influence’s power on others.

“I would love to be one of those people who would encourage others,” she said. “For some reason, you made an influence, and they remember you. You had an influence – and you didn’t realize it – just by being there.”