‘My past doesn’t define me’

Image of Leah wearing her graduation robe posing infront of the clock tower on campus.Leah Voit-Ostricki is a statistics major and a business administration minor. This spring she celebrated Mother’s Day, her graduation from UWL and four years of being clean.

May grad overcomes drug addiction, learns it takes a community to rewrite her story

On Leah Voit-Ostricki’s arm is a tattoo of a quill pen with black ink drops splattered across her skin.

It symbolizes how she can rewrite her story.

Voit-Ostricki celebrated her graduation from UW-La Crosse Sunday, May 13. This spring she also celebrated four years since she quit abusing opioids.

She is rewriting her life from the moment she realized abusing drugs didn’t give her motivation to live. A new little person — born in January 2015 — did. And a community of people were willing to help her become the mother she wanted to be.

The small start

Voit-Ostricki recalls the first time she snorted narcotic painkillers. It was 2009 and she was 19 years old. She was sitting in her truck with her friend.

“It wasn’t a big moment. My friend was driving. She wasn’t addicted either,” says Voit-Ostricki. “We thought it was just like smoking weed. We didn’t know you could get addicted to pain pills.”

At first, popping pills and snorting them made Voit-Ostricki feel “up.” As a teen taking technical college classes in Milwaukee, they helped her concentrate on homework and finish housework. “Snorting would wake me up in the morning like coffee,” she says. “I would knock down that to-do list.”

To continue to get those high feelings, Voit-Ostricki started using more and more. But, over time, the affects became less. She realized she was addicted when she had to take her dose of pills to simply not feel ill. That continued until she went to jail for possession of narcotics in October 2012.

In jail she met other inmates who had used heroin. That got her thinking about changing her drug of choice. “The addict in me … I always wanted more,” she says.

Life in an hour glass

Leah Voit-Ostricki’s tattoo of herself trapped in an hour glass.

Voit-Ostricki compares jail and a life of addiction to being trapped in an hour glass — another one of her tattoos.

She felt like her life was going nowhere and she was running out of time. She was continually searching for some kind of energy from her next high, but it never came. She spent most of her days on the couch. She even set up a mini theater with an entire wall painted black where she wrote the names of shows and times.

She lost weight — getting down to about 100 pounds — and started taking 10 vitamins a day to try to compensate for her declining health.

Her addiction was her secret. She told friends “little lies” to get away and use drugs. She could never be spontaneous or take a vacation because she needed access to drugs.

A turn of events

In summer 2013, Voit-Ostricki started dating a man she met in Milwaukee. As the relationship became more serious, her addiction became a sticking point. She recalls the words he wrote in a note to her, which she still keeps in her wallet, “I don’t want to marry a hype.”

“I realized it’s time to grow up, stop doing illegal stuff, go back to school and get a job,” she says. “No one wants to marry an addict.”

Her first clean day was April, 27, 2014, followed by a long period of withdrawal to Suboxone, a narcotic used to treat addiction to narcotic pain relievers. She had fevers, chills, mood swings and stomach pains.

At the time, Voit-Ostricki didn’t know that she wasn’t the only one who would have to deal with her withdrawal symptoms. She learned a month after her clean day that she was also one month pregnant. Her baby would experience withdrawal from the Suboxone taken early in her pregnancy.

New motivation

Within hours of having her baby, David, on Jan. 28, 2015, he was sent to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for three weeks.

Voit-Ostricki felt horrible about the pain he went through and she was determined to do whatever she could to give him a successful start at life.

“I needed to give my son the best possible chance I could and the best way was to go to school,” she says.

She finished her associates degree in liberal arts from Milwaukee Area Technical College during her three weeks in the NICU, and applied to UWL where she started that summer.

School and parenthood

While at UWL, Voit-Ostricki’s boyfriend went to jail and she became a single parent — something she initially tried to make up for. Like mothers from two-parent households, she brought homemade brownies to daycare and built his Halloween costume from scratch.

“I tried to do everything a two-parent household could do, and I eventually realized I couldn’t,” she says.

Balancing often two part-time jobs, schoolwork, housework and parenthood was challenging. She had obstacles many other students didn’t such as daycare closing, her child getting sick, or her rehabilitation doctor’s retirement. Sometimes she would need to miss class or reschedule exams.

She realized very quickly that to achieve her goals she would need to reach out for help.

And when she finally did, she was surprised to find that plenty of support was there. Support came from not only friends and family, but from where she received care at Gundersen Health System, in her jobs at Mayo Clinic and Fastenal and where she attended class at UW-La Crosse.

Faculty in the Mathematics & Statistics Department worked to ensure she could make up assignments and reschedule exams. They provide insight or guidance — sometimes via emails in the middle of the night.

“I couldn’t have done it without the statistics faculty,” she says. “Everyone helped me in some way.”

Professor Barbara Bennie, Mathematics & Statistics, calls Voit-Ostricki a “super woman” of sorts. “She does an amazing job of balancing every day,” she says.

As her student and advisee, Bennie quickly noticed Voit-Ostricki’s strength as an analytic student and her professionalism. She encouraged her to apply for internships as a statistical analyst at Fastenal and a biostatistics intern at Mayo Clinic Health System, and Voit-Ostricki landed both. She continues to work full-time in her role at Mayo Clinic this summer. And after talking with faculty about graduate school opportunities, she is considering starting the applied statistics program at UWL this fall.

Voit-Ostricki says Bennie and Melissa Bingham, associate professor of Mathematics & Statistics, have become “role models” who have not only helped her connect to opportunities and graduate on time, but have also let her “rant about mom stuff” and even offered to babysit when her schedule got tight.

She calls Bennie her “school mom,” answering questions for her about everything.

Bennie says the field of Analytics is a very lucrative one and she, like other statisticians in academia, could make double what they do if they moved to the business sector. But she doesn’t because of the fulfilment of working with students like Voit-Ostricki.

“I love the students. … I think we have to invest in them as whole people,” she says. “That is what makes our job worth doing. In these few years they are with us, the trajectory of their life is being decided. When we can help them make their choices and see all of their options, that is incredibly valuable.”

Today Voit-Ostricki looks forward to a 40-hour work day where she’ll have time in the evenings to spend more time with her son — just to cuddle or go to the park.

Since she started school, she has noticed a change in where she gets her energy. It is no longer dependent on drugs, but instead comes from caring about her future. “I think about my future 100 percent more, and it’s not even my future, it’s my kid’s.”

Her quill pen is breaking new ground.

“When I came to UWL the person I was on paper was horrible. Now my criminal record is over five years old and I have two degrees,” she says. “My past doesn’t define me.”