Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences: On family struggles with addiction, road to sobriety

Janice Jenswold, and Michelle and Brien Gleeson
Janice Jenswold, and Michelle and Brien Gleeson

In this episode, you will hear Jan Jenswold, mother of a recovering addict and a recently retired Mayo Clinic staff member from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, and Brien Gleeson, a recovering addict and psychotherapist specializing in addiction at Mayo Clinic, discuss their family experiences with addiction and recovery.

Mayo Clinic is a unique place: the culture, the values, the people. "Mayo Clinic Employee Experience" explores the experiences of Mayo Clinic staff as they navigate life personally and professionally. Sharing these experiences increases understanding of others and ultimately contributes to finding connections, belonging and inclusion at work.       

In this episode of "Mayo Clinic Employee Experience," you will hear from Jan Jenswold, a recently retired Mayo Clinic staff member from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, and Brien Gleeson, a psychotherapist specializing in addiction at Mayo Clinic, discuss their experience with addiction. Jan shares her story of being the mother of an addict in recovery. Brien shares his struggles with, and recovery from, addiction.   

 Listen as they discuss their experiences. 

Read the transcript:

NARRATOR: In this episode, you'll hear Jan, a recently retired Mayo Clinic staff member and Brien, a Mayo Clinic psychotherapist, discuss their experiences with addiction. 

JENSWOLD: I am the parent of an addict who is in recovery.

GLEESON: I am a recovering addict and alcoholic and have a family history of that, as well. I work with a specialty of alcohol and other drug abuse here in the outpatient Department of Psychiatry and Psychology.

JENSWOLD: My journey involves my close family member, my son. I was one of those people who thought I would certainly be aware if he was struggling with drugs. Nope. Not a clue.

It started probably in his late 20s. I didn't really understand what was going on until he lost a job and ended up moving in with me. Then things got kind of weird. I was strictly in denial and enabling. That was kind of what I did.

GLEESON: My mom didn't have a clue either. We're pretty good at hiding things.

I think the closer you are to the person, the less likely you are to notice it. My grandma noticed. She's like, "That boy's on something." But my mom had no clue.

JENSWOLD: There were signs everywhere. I don't know if I just couldn't face the reality of it. I believed every lie. And everything had an explanation. Everything had a reason. They were really stupid reasons, but I bought into them because it's what I wanted to hear. I would guess that's fairly typical.

GLEESON: It absolutely is. One of the first things you learn is the dishonesty is absolutely part and parcel to the illness. It's absolutely required for an addict or alcoholic to essentially protect that which has become most important to them. And that is unfortunately the relationship with their substance. In the same way, a mom will lie to protect a child, an addict will lie to protect their substance.

JENSWOLD: I am one of the very fortunate ones. My son has been clean for over six years and is doing incredibly well. I say that knowing that, like with any illness, there could be a relapse.

But we just take one step at a time and try not to think about that because he really has turned into kind of a different person — very self-aware. All the treatment he has gone through has made him really accountable for what he did and very understanding of what happened in his brain that made him behave that way.

Certainly, before the addiction, that was not him. But it really does turn the person into a different person altogether.

We were talking pretty frankly once about what went on during those years. I said: "You would make up the stupidest lies or you would steal. You would do this or that. What were you thinking?" He said, "I was thinking about getting my next hit, and I figured I'd worry about the rest of it the next day."

GLEESON: It's an absolute hijacking of the neurocircuitry of attachment. The drug moves in and takes over and pushes out all other attachments, including attachments to family and friends.

I grew up in a family with active alcoholism. My father's alcoholism affected us immensely throughout my entire childhood.

He was a professional man. He was in the health care field. His alcoholism caused a lot of disruption in my family.

I remember as a kid thinking why isn't there someone who can help us? The cops would come over every now and then, and they might haul him to jail. But he'd just get out and start drinking again. We'd be holding our breath until the next crisis.

I grew up thinking I was never going to drink or do drugs because I didn't want to be like dad. I discovered I didn't have to be like dad. I found a different drug.

When I made my acquaintance with marijuana, I absolutely fell in love very quickly. And my attachment grew very powerfully.

Was that due to conditions in my life at the time? Was it due to genetics? I think the answer to all those is probably, yes. It was so soothing and comforting, and it worked for me.

At first, everything was fine. And I was pretty good at hiding it. Once my mom found out what was going on, her trust in me plummeted.

JENSWOLD: When the person struggling with the addiction is going through recovery, the loved ones are going through their own recovery because you finally learned not to trust them. You finally learned to panic when the phone rang because it was the police. It was the hospital. That takes a long time to get rid of.

I would keep my purse by me because I still, in my head, thought he was going to sneak my car keys and take off. I still was living in the world of addiction, even though he was doing his best to be clean.

My biggest mistake was I didn't reach out to people enough. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups are generally happy to welcome people whose loved ones are struggling with drugs. I really wish I had done that. I wish I had gotten my own therapist.

Even my closest friends were not aware of just how bad it was. I think part of that is the denial, and part of it is shame. This is my child. I raised him.

Logically, you know it's not your fault, but it's kind of an extension of you. And you don't want to admit that your little family has become such a horrible mess.

GLEESON: Quite often, the first one to come and see me is not the addict or alcoholic. Quite often, it's mom who finally comes in and looks for help.

I think that is a real turning point for everyone absolutely, including myself. I had no chance against this illness until I started asking for help. This is not a neighborhood to travel in alone. You absolutely need some backup.

I don't think you can have a relationship with an addict or an alcoholic and not do some level of enabling. They have a lot more invested in using the drug then you can imagine.

Whatever you do, in many situations, any action that you take will be turned into something that enables their addiction. People feel ashamed. They feel like, "What does it say about my mothering skills?" And you've got to recognize this is a formidable foe, and it will outwit you at every take.

One of the most wonderful things about finding the recovering community is the release from that level of shame. Suddenly you're meeting people who absolutely understand. And who don't look down at you at all.

When I first encountered a recovery group, the thing that really struck me was that these are people who get it. They understand. And most importantly, I'm not going to be able to con these people. And that actually was a relief.

It's not easy to live that life. You have to keep up with lie after lie after lie. It's exhausting. And these are people where it wasn't even worth it because they weren't going to buy it anyway. And there was no need to because the shame was gone.

JENSWOLD: It was kind of after the fact for me, but, still, I have a very good, small network of friends who meet once a month. Their stories are all similar to mine.

If you isolate, and don't come clean with your friends or family about what's going on, you're going to feel like yours is the worst situation in the world. Nobody else has ever gone through anything like this. When you actually talk to people, the stories are so similar. It's incredible.

GLEESON: It's a very diverse group of people with a whole lot in common. There's so much commonality there. The manner in which it affects us is just universal.

One of the things I got to do was go to a subgroup of Al-Anon called Adult Children of Alcoholics. If you grew up with alcoholism or addiction, these groups are wonderful. They talk about how you may not be personally affected at that moment by someone who's addicted, but how growing up in that environment affected you. And, boy, that, had a positive impact on me, as well.

Have you found that the experience you had with addictions played a beneficial role in your career working in behavioral health?

JENSWOLD: Work was definitely my sanctuary. I worked with a great bunch of people. It was just a comfort to get away from everything and go to work.

But what it did do to help me was it made me a lot less judgmental. It's really easy to find out about other people's kids going through things and think, "Oh, I'm glad my child will never do that." You learn real fast never to do that.

Everybody has a background. Everybody has a story. If you don't know somebody who struggled with a family member in addiction, it's just because they haven't told you. It's so widespread. It's important to me to erase the stigma and just be able to support people and be able to talk about it frankly.

I couldn't do the tough love thing in that you cut the person out and say, go fix yourself and come back when you're better. I understand getting to that point, but I wasn't able to do it.

The other thing I learned is you can't really make anybody go through treatment. I had Steve (my son) go to treatment a couple of different times, and he would just kind of mess it up and walk out. He actually got better because he ended up in jail and went through drug court, which was an amazing program.

GLEESON: Forcing someone into treatment against their will is not the best course. If the person goes themselves, it usually ends up having a positive effect.

I would argue, though, that even when he went because mom made him, it did have some benefit. It may not have been immediately apparent. But overall, I don't end up thinking of treatment as a waste of time. It becomes part of the breakdown of something really powerful.

The number of people who achieve recovery after one treatment is improving. But it's not unusual that something's accomplished in the first treatment.

JENSWOLD: He sat in jail. He says there were people there who were just anxious to get out so they could go back to using. That's where the light dawned on him that he didn't want to be that person anymore.

GLEESON: I was really fortunate. I never ended up in trouble with the law. Goodness knows, I should have, but I was able to skirt that every time.

Would that have led to me finding it sooner? Perhaps.

I think what had a greater impact was my father's recovery. He has long since passed, but my father did find recovery in the last four years of his life.

Even though my recovery didn't start until after he died, that was excellent modeling on his part. Plus, I had been part of the treatment to some degree.

The family treatment programs and recovery were a part of something that I was acquainted with growing up. Parents are really afraid of what their influences might have had on their children. They worry about the genetics of it. "Did I pass this tendency onto my child?" "Is the environment of my drug use or alcohol use going to affect my children?" "Is it going to make them more vulnerable?" What I end up telling them is the indications are unfortunately, yes. But to counter that with your recovery is powerfully influential on them.

Would you say you found recovery first, or did your son?

JENSWOLD: Oh, my son, definitely. I didn't trust that things really were going as well as he said. I was probably almost a year behind him.

When he hit that one-year mark, it was like, wow, this is really something that's happening. And I can stop being so worried and hypervigilant about everything and untrusting.

I didn't really get better until he got better, which says a lot about co-dependency.

GLEESON: That's not unusual. You need all the help you can get.

Some real important moments in my life were when my now ex-wife said, "I'm not going to do this anymore." And when a very close friend of mine from childhood, who's still a good friend of mine said, "Brien, I'm not going do this with you anymore," and put our relationship on hold. I absolutely credit him with taking the tough love road at that moment. I knew he was doing it because he cared about me, but I also knew he had to be absolute about it.

That led to my driving back to Eau Claire and starting a treatment program. Tough love is not easy to do, but many people in recovery have their stories of their recovery beginning when someone who loved them said, "Nope, I'm not going to play this game anymore."

JENSWOLD: When you talk about the friends and family members recovering, it's so hard to walk through that door because then you're admitting everything that you've been so busy covering up for so long.

GLEESON: I think it is in many ways more difficult for someone in your position. The addict or alcoholic — they can admit this is the effect of drugs and alcohol on me. For the co-dependent person, you are not seen as having a drug to blame.

It's more like, "This is my fault." It's tougher on them to accept.

Quite often, people will want an Al-Anon meeting or a Nar-Anon meeting to teach them how to save a son, husband or wife. And that's not what they do.

JENSWOLD: We're just supporting you. We're just here to listen to your story.

GLEESON: I think we understand addiction better than we did 20, 30 years ago. Most people today recognize this is an illness, and that simply punishing people isn't going to fix the problem. It's not the same level of shame in our culture today to admit a problem with drugs and alcohol.

The treatment that we do today is overall better. I wish there were more money available for treatment. I wish it were easier for people to find treatment. But I do think we're doing a better job of it.

JENSWOLD: All I can look at is my own son and how happy and healthy he is, and it's been a real gift.

NARRATOR: If you need help, connect with a resource or someone you trust. If you know someone who needs help, be supportive and encourage them to reach out. There is hope, and there is help.


It takes courage to share your story, but with each story, the stigma of addiction is reduced. Know there is help when you need it. If you are experiencing addiction or have mental health needs, take advantage of these resources:

Mayo Clinic resource

Public resources

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