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Two decades into Wisconsin's opioid crisis, stories of recovery offer hope

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Dexter Lane, upper left, came out as a transgender man after becoming sober four years ago, shortly after an opioid overdose landed him in the hospital. Jewel Adams, upper right, lost custody of some of her children because of opioid abuse, but became sober nearly 15 years ago after the birth of her first grandchild. Allen Nyberg, lower right, has been sober for eight years after starting to abuse opioids in high school. Rebecca Foss, lower left, was prescribed opioids for meningitis shortly after losing her infant son. Addicted for nearly 25 years, she has been sober since 2015.

Since the start of Wisconsin’s opioid addiction epidemic 20 years ago, more than 8,500 residents have died from opioid overdoses.

That’s nearly the same number as the population of McFarland. With few exceptions, the death toll has climbed every year, driven by three waves of the crisis, according to the state Department of Health Services.

The first wave, which started in 1999, came after an increase in opioid prescriptions for pain.

The second wave, in 2010, was spurred by rising use of heroin. In 2014, a surge in synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, fueled the third wave.

State spending to address the problem, which mostly relies on federal funds, has gone from $5.1 million in 2016 to $24.7 million this year.

Still, more than 172,000 people — greater than the populations of Eau Claire, Janesville and Wausau combined — continue to misuse opioids, state health officials said. Nearly a quarter of them aren’t getting the treatment they need.

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In previous articles chronicling the crisis, the Wisconsin State Journal has focused on stories of those who have died.

Today, the State Journal highlights survivors, people who broke free from opioid addiction and remain sober. There’s no official estimate for their ranks, but their stories of recovery may point to solutions and inspire others.

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