‘Wild’ author Cheryl Strayed shares story of abuse, addiction and heartbreak at Youth Eastside Services breakfast

The nonprofit hopes to raise $790,000 as they celebrate 50 years in 2018.

The first time author Cheryl Strayed used heroin, she thought “here’s the cure.”

It was the “cure” for relief from the suffering she experienced from her grandfather’s sexual abuse, from the domestic violence her father inflicted on her and her family and, ultimately, from her mother’s death at age 45, leaving Strayed an orphan at 22.

“I thought here’s the cure, here’s the world that I can live in because this other one without my mom, I can’t live in,” Strayed said at Youth Eastside Service’s annual fundraising breakfast. “Of course, I was so wrong about that and that feeling only lasted a day. Soon, heroin really brought me down a very destructive path.”

Strayed, author of bestseller “Wild,” recently spoke at Youth Eastside Service’s Invest in Youth breakfast at Meydenbauer Center March 21 to share how her story of overcoming her personal struggle is similar to those of teenagers and young adults Bellevue-based Youth Eastside Services helps.

The nonprofit, which is celebrating its 50th year, currently provides youth and family counseling, substance abuse treatment, psychiatric services, early childhood behavioral health and more to youth on the Eastside. They have offices in Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, Sammamish and serve the Lake Washington and Bellevue school districts.

While Strayed, the keynote speaker for the breakfast, didn’t have access to Youth Eastside Services when she was going through her hard times, she knew she needed a way to restore her strength, so she decided to hike more than 1,000 miles from Mexico to Portland, Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 – a journey she details in “Wild.”

The tools her mother had given her, such as a sense of “having a mission” and “that it was up to her to find the beauty in her life no matter how ugly it was,” are tools, she said, Youth Eastside Services provides on a community scale.

“We all know, all of us in this room knows, we are all responsible for our own lives,” Strayed said. “It’s always up to the individual to take that step, to move toward the light, to move toward recovery. But organizations like YES can be there to plant the seeds to help people have those tools that are necessary to save ourselves.”

And it’s those seeds that were planted in two clients of Youth Eastside Services, 18-year-olds Zoey and Alex, that allowed them to take control of their mental health and thrive.

Zoey, who doesn’t identify with a particular gender, said “pre-therapy Zoey” didn’t know how to handle their emotions.

“Every feeling that was a pastel paint would become a neon attack on my mental state,” they said. “I have borderline personality disorder, which means every emotion becomes extreme to me, good and bad.”

Zoey tried to find ways to cope through food, art, positive thinking and even inspirational cat posters before relenting and going to Dialectical Behavioral Therapy program at Youth Eastside Services.

“I took the group skills program and it helped me a ton with radical acceptance, other skills like TIB [sic], helpful distractions, and it even helped my leadership skills in those spaces,” they said. “This is a post-therapy Zoey. I’m doing my best with the skills I’ve acquired and working on building more. I speak often in front of large crowds, which pre-therapy Zoey would have been absolutely freaking out about, but I’ve only cried once over this – that’s pretty impressive.”

Zoey is currently attending college and believes they are a better person because of Youth Eastside Services and the surrounding community.

Alex, a senior at Eastlake High School, has been part of Youth Eastside Service’s in-school substance recovery groups after his life hit rock-bottom last April.

Alex was first introduced to the effects of alcoholism as a young child when the police showed up at his home looking for his parent who had been out late drinking that night. Later, at age 12, he experimented with marijuana and, after being sober for only 23 days following his first time, he took up the drug.

During his freshman year of high school, he tried acid, Xanax and cocaine all within 30 minutes for the first time.

“It was game on,” he said. “I started to experiment with everything I could get my hands on as long as I had at least one friend who would do it with me.”

Alex began dealing drugs and burglarizing and robbing stores, which helped fund his addiction.

“I’ve broken into stores in the midst of the night with a mask and gloves and duffel bag, been jumped, blacked out for days on end to wake up laying in bed with my mother checking my pulse,” he said. “All while developing the skill of lying, cheating, and stealing from everyone.”

On April 15, 2017, Alex was arrested while hallucinating on acid with $1,000 and a pound of marijuana. Two felonies later, and a recommendation from his lawyer to check himself into rehab, he said he was done fighting.

“I walked into treatment weighing 130 pounds,” he recalled. “I earned my stripes and walked out weighing 165 pounds.”

Alex plans to celebrate his first year of sobriety on April 22.

“I regularly attend AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and groups at school involving my Youth Eastside Services counselor and never would have imagined how great my life is, thanks to these groups and my sobriety,” he said.

Patti Skelton-McGougan, executive director for Youth Eastside Services, said the nonprofit’s work touched more than 80,000 lives last year.

“I want you to think about how many people that is,” she said at the breakfast. “We could fill CenturyLink Field with all the children and their family members whose lives we changed in 2017 – and there’d still be 8,000 people standing outside.”

Their Early Childhood Behavioral Health program helped more than 200 parents, nearly 7,000 young people and families with “intensive mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment” were provided services, and the nonprofit’s Homelessness Prevention initiative kept 98 East King County families in their homes.

“In the last decade, we’ve seen increased demand for our clinical services,” Skelton-McGougan said. “Every year, we’re increasingly challenged not just by the number of kids we see, but the seriousness of the issues they’re facing.”

And because they use the most current research-based therapies, investing in these best practice models and psychiatric services can be costly – up to $5,000 for one year of counseling.

It’s why Youth Eastside Services has a fundraising goal of $790,000 this year.

“Youth Eastside Services exists not just for you – but because of you,” Skelton-McGougan said.

Before Strayed ended her speech at the breakfast, she left the crowd of more than 1,000 people with some food for thought.

“When I finished my hike, I really looked back on that experience not really as one of transformation, that I’d started off the trail as Charles Manson and ended up the Buddha, but really rather as one in which I returned to myself,” Strayed said. “And I think that’s a truer story of transformation. That’s what I see YES doing in this community – not taking people and changing them from one to the other – but saying, ‘We embrace the complexity of this world, we embrace the fact that there is loss and there is sorrow, there is struggle and, alongside it, if we take steps in this direction, there can also be healing and light and beauty and generosity and what is broken can be made whole again.’”

Youth Eastside Services Executive Director Patti Skelton-McGougan at the Invest in Youth breakfast. Photo courtesy of Phillip Johnson

Youth Eastside Services Executive Director Patti Skelton-McGougan at the Invest in Youth breakfast. Photo courtesy of Phillip Johnson

Zoey and Alex at the Youth Eastside Services Invest in Youth breakfast. Photo courtesy of Phillip Johnson

Zoey and Alex at the Youth Eastside Services Invest in Youth breakfast. Photo courtesy of Phillip Johnson

Youth Eastside Services celebrates 50 years of service in 2018. Photo courtesy of Phillip Johnson

Youth Eastside Services celebrates 50 years of service in 2018. Photo courtesy of Phillip Johnson