The 13th time the judge summoned Natalie to appear before him, he presided over her wedding.
Their road to that gorgeous fall day in 2021, though, wound through some dark places, including jail, prison, rehabilitation centers and hospitals. Prior to finding her way to sobriety, Natalie overdosed 11 times. The same judge who presided at her wedding had sentenced her to prison twice. So, they both fought back tears when he pronounced her married because they each knew what it had taken to get her there.
Natalie grew up in the neighborhood that surrounds the Outagamie County Justice Center. She enjoyed a happy childhood, went to good schools, ate family dinners with two parents and a younger brother who loved and supported her.
“My best friend and I used to play in Jones Park. We’d ice skate there in the winter and ride our bikes through the back parking lot of the county jail in the summer. Never once did I ever think I’d spend time there,” she said during one of the talks she gave to the Outagamie County Drug Victim Impact Panel. This one took place last week at the Outagamie County Justice Center in front of 25 inmates and a dozen court-ordered drug offenders who are on probation.
With no genetic predisposition to addiction, Natalie said she did not think too hard about the kind of trouble she might face when she first tried marijuana early in her high school years.
“I thought it was just for fun,” she said.
By age 15, Natalie had moved on from marijuana to morphine and essentially checked out of high school.
“I was the girl sitting in the back of the classroom smelling like cigarettes,” she said. “My parents were extremely worried but they didn’t know how to approach it.”
And then, the real trouble began. A boyfriend introduced her to heroin and sent her on a dramatic path of self-destruction.
“I’ll never forget the moment I met ‘the boy’, heroin. I remember the moment so vividly. It hit me immediately and I had this overwhelming feeling of peace,” she said.
The repercussions of that single decision rippled through the next decade as Natalie let go of everything good in her life to get her hands on that drug. She cycled through jail and prison. Once, while in jail, she figured out a way to have heroin snuck into the facility for her use. At another point while incarcerated, she looked out a jail window and saw her best friend standing in her yard, holding a sign she’d made to encourage Natalie.
Judges Metropulos and Biskupic, the two most involved in Natalie’s cases, tracked her journey closely, cheered her progress, mourned her setbacks and worried about her all the time.
At one point, when Natalie was paroled from her first prison sentence, Judge Biskupic summoned her back for a review hearing on Friday, October 14, 2016. He offered her encouragement regarding her treatment progress, but also cautioned her about returning to her past drug circles of friends.
“I don’t know how he knew I was involved with heroin again. Maybe he had DEA spies, but he summoned me into court to see how I was doing,” she said.
Three days later on Monday, October 17, 2016, Natalie was arrested again, this time for delivery of two bindles of heroin at a coffee shop on College Avenue. From 2013 to 2017, she faced sentencing for six misdemeanor and four felony cases related to drug use in Outagamie County. She would concede to you that there were countless other drug related offenses for which she was never caught.
On her 23rd birthday, Biskupic sentenced her to prison for the second time. He ordered that upon her release from her second prison term, Natalie was to reapply to the county’s Drug Treatment Court Program.
“In the end it came down to a simple question – did I want to live or die? Death did not feel physical to me because I was already dead inside. The drugs didn’t give me that happy feeling anymore. They stopped working,” she said.
“Once I made the decision to quit, everything got easier. I found a therapist and began to work my way back.”
While paroled after her second prison sentence, she completed an outpatient drug treatment program in July 2020. She continues to participate in one-on-one counseling with a therapist.
Natalie is generous and unflinching when she gives her presentations. She owns every sentence of it because she knows it is both a cautionary and an inspirational story.
“Fifteen people that I know very well have died due to addiction,” she said. “It’s a lot heavier now that I’m not numb to it.”
She said she feels survivor’s guilt at times.
In a letter she wrote to the court during her second incarceration, Natalie eloquently acknowledged what she called the “ambivalence of addiction”.
“The good-hearted young woman versus the careless criminal, the want and the will to be better versus the temptation of worldly desires; the push versus the pull,” she wrote.
She knows she has to fight to maintain her sobriety every day and, along the way, she has achieved some major milestones. She completed an intensive substance abuse treatment program, earned her associates degree and is working toward her bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh all while working fulltime as a payroll and accounting coordinator at an area mechanical business.
She bought her first car, enjoys a good marriage with a man she admires and has a life she never takes for granted.
Her latest update to the judges in November of 2021 involved some especially good news.
She and her husband are expecting a baby.