'My kids were on their own': How a Utah mother battled addiction while raising her children

The quiet, affluent neighborhood in Cottonwood Heights was an unusual place for a police chase.

But when a cop pulled up behind her car in January 2015, flashing his lights, Jenna Uitdenhowen panicked and hit the gas.

The needle had pierced the 40-year-old’s vein just a few minutes before, and the methamphetamine effect was reaching its peak.

In the passenger seat next to the mother of two was a friend and fellow drug user she had picked up at McDonald's. He told her he had a gun in his backpack, and if the police pulled them over, they’d both get in trouble.

Her mind was racing, she couldn’t think clearly. “Speed up!” he shouted.

She took a big breath and jammed the gas pedal to the floor. Her car careened around a corner into a residential street. Suddenly her heart sank and she hit the brakes hard. She was caught in a cul-de-sac.

The police car pulled up in front of her, blocking her path. Before she knew it, she was handcuffed in the back of his car, heading to the police station. The judge sentenced her to a year in jail — the first 90 days to be served in maximum security.

The police chase was Uitdenhowen’s rock bottom. But the problem had started over 15 years earlier, when she was 24, after a car accident when she was living in Bellingham, Washington. Her son was 6 at the time, her daughter just 2 years old. Her doctor prescribed her Lortab and Percocet to relieve the pain caused by two broken bones in her right forearm.

“The medicine made me feel so warm and good that I wanted more and more,” Uitdenhowen says now, sitting in her office in downtown Salt Lake City.

Over the next 12 years, she moved around, working at nursing homes in Washington state and California. In 2006, she ended up in Utah, and started a job at Evergreen Canyons Health and Rehabilitation Center in Salt Lake. All the while, she discreetly took what she needed from the facilities’ medicine cabinets.

“I had a reliable source for feeding my habit,” she says. “But I had two young kids at home and I worried all the time about being found out and losing my job.”

In retrospect, Uitdenhowen says she wishes she had been caught stealing the drugs. “Then maybe I could have gotten help before everything got worse,” she reflects.

She regrets the way the drugs prevented her from being fully present at home. “I would come home and pass out,” she remembers, “my kids were on their own.”

She tried several times to quit on her own but her withdrawal symptoms were unbearable.

“It was like a terrible flu,” she remembers. “The chills, shaking and sweating, the stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, headaches and intense anxiety — it was just too much and I couldn’t break free."

In 2009, she started using methamphetamines occasionally, and noticed that when she was on the drug, she didn’t have opiate withdrawal symptoms.

“It felt like meth was the only way I could get off opiates,” she recalls. “I saw it as the lesser of two evils.”

But she soon realized it wasn’t. Within several months, her meth habit had accelerated to daily use, and her behavior became so erratic that she was fired from her job in March 2011. A few weeks later, she was arrested for burglary. During her 45-day jail sentence, her 18-year-old son took temporary custody of her 14-year-old daughter so that Uitdenhowen wouldn’t lose her.

“My life was falling apart, but I didn’t care,” she remembers. “When you’re on meth, you have no soul, no conscience. I still couldn’t admit that I was an addict.”

It wasn’t until that fateful police chase that she began to turn her life around.

“Waking up sober in a maximum security cell was finally what forced me to acknowledge that I needed to get help,” she remembers. “In max, you’re in the cell for 23 hours a day — and all you have is your thoughts to keep you company. I decided that whatever I was doing up to that point, it wasn’t working, and I had to start doing the exact opposite.”

Uitdenhowen says she committed herself to following every jail rule — no matter how small. She got on the waiting list for every treatment program available to inmates. Though she is not LDS, she allowed members of the clergy to pray with her.

Finally, she was granted a spot in a 90-day on-site treatment program through The Odyssey House, a nonprofit substance abuse treatment program based in Salt Lake City that receives government funding. The organization reaches about 4,500 people each year in 12 different facilities. Their jail treatment program serves 817 inmates yearly, providing a host of services, including individual and group therapy, conflict resolution, trauma counseling and job training.

After finishing the program on Nov. 17, 2015, she was released a month early from jail and made it her mission to stay connected to the recovery community. She moved in with her son and daughter, who were living together in Ogden. While taking care of her grandson, she attended 12-step addiction recovery meetings regularly.

In October 2016, she got a part-time job at The Odyssey House. Coming to the role with decades of nursing experience, she immediately added value to their operation, and in March 2017, she was offered the full-time position of medical director. In the role, she now facilitates communication between doctors and pharmacies, helps families coordinate payments, and monitors electronic medication records to ensure that all of their programs are in compliance with the law.

“It’s an awesome feeling to know that after everything I’ve been through, I now have something to offer the people at The Odyssey House who are still struggling,” she says.

The 43-year-old is looking forward to celebrating three years of sobriety this coming January.

This past September, she received a 2017 Utah Substance Abuse Conference Award for her contributions to addiction recovery.

“I’m on the front lines of the fight,” she says. “Now that I have made it out of the hell that is addiction, I owe it to those who are still suffering to be a beacon of hope.”