HURON, S.D. -- It’s been seven months since Ryan Pomerico used methamphetamine, which is the longest he’s ever been sober over the past 12 years. That’s almost half of his entire 30-year life and the entirety of his son’s, who is 12.
The events that led to these months of sober living started when his wife, Ashten Pomerico, reported her husband to law enforcement for being high on meth after his vehicle caught fire in 2017.
“After years of dealing with a revolving door of relapses, you can only handle so much,” Ashten admitted.
After calling the police on him, Ryan Pomerico was given a sobriety test, which justified a urine analysis. His results showed methamphetamine in his system and he was charged with felony ingestion.
Ryan was then kicked out of his family’s home and began living at his grandmother’s house in Huron, where he could continue his meth use.
Eventually he applied for drug court in Beadle County and was accepted into the program. The program, fear or prison time, threat of being excommunicated from his family and his newfound faith in God have played the biggest roles in his will to stay clean this time around.
Life on meth
“The first time I did meth was when I was 16. I didn’t try it again until I was 18. That was when I started using it to get high. When I first started doing it, it was awesome,” Pomerico said.
All it took was knowing someone, who knew someone that could find meth, Ryan explained.
“But once you got in that scene, you get further and further into the underground meth scene.”
In the first few years of his heavy meth use, Ryan Pomerico said meth use wasn’t as widespread.
“Seems like nowadays, everyone and their mom is doing it,” he said, adding he believes that was the result of a crackdown on meth manufacturing in the state, which included a registry system and restrictions for buying pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in Sudafed.
“Back then, more meth was made in the United States. Once that pseudoephedrine law was in effect it moved to Mexico, which made a cheaper version of it and it just started flooding the streets,” Ryan said.
Meth is a drug that takes longer to recover from after chronic use than most other drugs, Ryan Pomerico said.
“Meth is the most psychologically, mentally addictive drug I’ve ever done in my life,” he said, explaining that it impacted his moral compass and his physical appearance.
Last year, Ryan Pomerico weighed only 112 pounds at the height of his meth use.
He started using the drug intravenously.
His family life was greatly impacted by his drug use, but he never put his three sons or wife in harm’s way like some others he saw addicted to meth.
Ryan recalled one situation in particular in Sioux Falls where addicts would go to use meth.
“In this woman’s house, she had a couple kids and there were needles on the floor," Ryan Pomerico recalled with regret. "It was the most horrible house I’ve ever seen in my life. She had these weird, random men watching these kids. They were just 3 and 5 years old.”
Had he been sober and witnessed such a thing, he would’ve reported the situation to the police. The children being exposed to meth like that is a way others decide to use meth later on in life, he said.
“It’s definitely a generational thing, a lot of people who started using at 30 or 40 years old, now their kids are doing it,” Ryan said.
Ryan had completed two stints, in 2015 and again in 2018, at Worthmore Addiction Services in Aberdeen, which is now known as Avera Addiction Care Center.
The thing about going through a treatment program is actually wanting to quit using meth and putting in the work to do so, he said. Both times he said he may have wanted to quit, but he didn’t want to put in the work.
“People may want it but it’s not going to break the cycle. It’s one of those drugs that someone can say ‘I’m going to cut your eye out if you do it again’, and you’ll still do it,” Ryan said.
For others, the urge and desire to really want to quit comes after experiencing a traumatic event as a result of meth use.
“A lot of them, something insane happens like you kill somebody or you see someone die. In the last couple years, there’s been quite a few deaths related to meth. Overdoses, driving accidents, I got fentanyl in meth once,” Ryan said.
Last year in South Dakota, 13 deaths were the result of meth overdoses, according to Gov. Kristi Noem's office.
Ryan said that the drug court program has helped him manage his sobriety.
To participate, a person has to be 18 or older, found guilty of a felony drug or alcohol charge and apply to the program.
“They pick high risk situations where people will be repeat offenders,” Ryan said.
A judge, court services officer and two counselors guide each participant through the program, which also requires they be drug tested and have their homes and personal belongings searched at random.
“You get a text message on your phone, anytime throughout the day, saying you have a drug test. Then you have an hour to get down there, take the test, and it’s totally random,” he said, which takes the temptation out of trying to use and flush the drug out of one’s system in time for a scheduled test, unlike standard probation in the state.
“So the standard probation is scheduled drug tests, and this is random," he said. "Standard probation doesn’t do home checks or offer treatment like drug court. Everyone in drug court has to go through intensive inpatient program. Then you go through cognitive behavior intervention, which changes the way you think,” Ryan said.
“If you miss anything on drug court, unless you’re dying, you go to jail,” he added.
Recovery and sober living
These days, Ryan Pomerico has a relationship with his son Landon, who said that his dad “Would be in a coffin if it wasn’t for us,” referring to his mom and his younger siblings.
Previous to Ryan Pomerico’s sobriety, his son and wife thought he was a lost cause.
“I truly in my heart believed that he wasn’t going to change and it was up to me to change the situation for myself,” Ashten said.
If her husband remains sober for five more months, she will let him move back in and continue their marriage. If he relapses, she will file divorce, she said.
Ryan’s sobriety has changed Ashten Pomerico’s view on meth addicts, which she now says can achieve sober living no matter how hopeless the situation may seem.
Ryan echoed his wife’s take that anybody can get clean, but it’s a day-to-day effort.
“I think about using randomly, but I never stay there. It gets easier and easier every day," he said. "I play the whole tape from start to finish of when I use, the consequences of my use and where meth leaves me. I don’t want that anymore. I want everything I need right now and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
Fighting the epidemic
If treatment programs took recovery as seriously as drug court programs do, Ryan believes more addicts would stay sober.
“There’s plenty of people who would be great drug court candidates but they end up going to prison,” he added.
Long-term treatment facilities may work for some, but Ryan said three months is not long enough for chronic meth users to be able to maintain sobriety and think through the steps clearly.
Drug court also partners with local employers that will hire participants despite their felony conviction. Ryan is now readying himself to start an apprenticeship program, which he was able to be accepted into thanks to the drug court program.
More funding for drug courts in the state could make a real difference to those addicted to meth in South Dakota, Ryan said. Ashten agreed, saying, “You do recover if you want it and you work for it. No one can do the work for you. If someone could do the work for you, he’d be sober years ago.”
Federal, general and other funds make up the state’s drug court budget. The majority of the funding comes from the state’s general fund. The state allocated $3.923 million to county drug court programs in 2018. Treatment and supervision are major cost drivers of drug courts in South Dakota, with treatment services alone accounting for $1.36 million in expenditures in 2018 while serving 490 participants. Supervision costs $2.6 million and testing costs $120,828.
Allocating more funds to these aspects of drug court programs is something the Pomericos believe would help the state’s meth epidemic, but that alone won’t cut it for many addicts.
For Ryan, his support system at Bethesda Church in Huron and attending meetings held by Celebrate Recovery, an organization that offers a 12-step, faith-based treatment program, are what helped him.
Both Ashten and Ryan agreed, had the state spent $1.375 million on these types of programs aimed at treating meth addiction instead of on a marketing contract for the now infamous “Meth: We're on it” campaign, the impact would be seen in the addicts themselves.