Devoured by demons: Grand Forks woman, 28, dies after battling alcoholism
Jace Erickson remembers finding a box of empty liquor bottles among his sister's belongings while helping her move between homes a few years ago near St. Louis.
The box was one of many sitting on the front lawn of the house Caitlin Erickson was leaving, so Jace hardly realized what was in it until he was packing the box in his truck.
He tucked the box behind the truck's front seat, where Caitlin couldn't see it, planning to throw the bottles away later without her noticing.
But when the two siblings, both in their 20s, were unpacking at Caitlin's new apartment, she saw the empty bottles.
Jace told his younger sister to throw them as hard as she could into a nearby dumpster.
"She got a big smile on her face," Jace said. "When she threw the bottles into the dumpster, the glass shattered everywhere."
Caitlin laughed and told Jace it felt good to break the bottles. To them, the bottles symbolized an addiction Caitlin had been battling for years, Jace said.
But neither Caitlin nor her brother knew how severe that addiction would become.
It proved to be fatal.
Caitlin Erickson, 28, was found dead at about 10 p.m. Feb. 27 in her Grand Forks apartment, said Grand Forks Deputy Police Chief Jim Remer.
Police have not released an official cause of death yet, as the case is still under investigation, but no foul play is suspected.
Caitlin's family and friends believe she probably died of alcohol poisoning.
After years of struggling with alcoholism, Caitlin moved to Grand Forks in February 2014 to be closer to her parents, who are originally from the area and moved back from Missouri in 2009. Caitlin's young daughter, Emily, who is almost 2, also moved to Grand Forks to be raised by Caitlin's parents.
State statistics show deaths by alcohol poisoning are rare in North Dakota, but cases of binge drinking and alcoholism are not. North Dakota has repeatedly ranked among states with the highest binge drinking rates in the U.S.
'At a loss'
It wasn't Caitlin's idea to move to Grand Forks -- her friends in the St. Louis area, which is where she grew up, had contacted her parents in early 2014 after several attempts to help her become sober, including allowing her to stay with them after her alcoholism caused her to be evicted from an apartment.
"She couldn't keep her life together anymore," said Jessica Grinstead, a friend Caitlin met through an addiction recovery support group in St. Louis. "She couldn't hold a job. She just wanted to be a good mom but couldn't stop drinking."
Caitlin's bright, "jokester" personality sometimes hid her addiction, her friends and family said.
"She had this incredible goofiness about her, even when her heart was breaking," said Jan Erickson, Caitlin's mom.
Grinstead, 28, said Caitlin desperately struggled toward sobriety through support groups and treatment programs.
Eventually, Caitlin's friends felt they could no longer help.
"We were just kind of at a loss," said Angie Fromme, a friend of Caitlin's since high school in St. Louis. "It was like, 'I don't know what else there is for you here (in St. Louis), so maybe there's something for you there (in Grand Forks).'"
Shortly after Caitlin moved to Grand Forks, she started a 10-month adult treatment program at North Dakota Teen Challenge in Mandan.
When she returned to her parents' home in Grand Forks, "she was so afraid of being out of a controlled environment and being on her own again," her mother said.
The last two months of Caitlin's life were the most difficult, and she twice visited the emergency room in February due to high toxic blood alcohol content from drinking, her mother said.
Still, Caitlin worked to move forward.
Shortly before her death, she had moved out of her parent's house and lined up a job at a local veterinary clinic, Jan Erickson said.
Even after picking her daughter up from the emergency room twice within a month, Jan Erickson said she was shocked when police knocked on her door at midnight Feb. 27 to tell her and her husband that Caitlin had died.
"It's devastating," she said.
'Alcohol is a drug'
Caitlin's family and friends aren't sure exactly how her alcoholism started, but they pointed to one instance that seemed to push the addiction out of control.
In 2012, Caitlin lost custody of her son, Caleb, now 4, after months of struggling in a relationship with the boy's father, Jan Erickson said.
Though Caitlin had been an addict before that, she used alcohol to cope with her anxiety and pain from the relationship, which eventually caused her to lose custody of Caleb, her mom said.
"I don't think she ever forgave herself for that," Jan Erickson said.
Grinstead agreed, adding Caitlin often cried while drunk and said she felt she had abandoned her son. "She just couldn't get past that," Grinstead said.
The day Caitlin died, she had told her mom she was excited to talk to Caleb the next day -- his birthday -- because she hadn't spoken to him in a long time, Jan Erickson said.
While Grinstead and Caitlin did not know each other when they first started drinking, Grinstead said her own alcoholism started in high school.
"My experience -- it started out just like any other teenage kid," Grinstead said. "You go to a party, drink a little bit."
But then partying once a week turned into twice a week and then more often, blurring the line between what's fun and what's dangerous.
"It's not knowing where the limit was, and I think a lot of it has to do with not wanting to feel the way you feel," Grinstead said.
Heredity can also play a role in addiction, and Caitlin had a grandfather and an uncle who were alcoholics, Jan Erickson said.
Grinstead, who has been sober 12 years, called addiction a disease, adding that alcohol can be just addictive as any other drug, depending on the person.
"For an addict, alcohol is a drug," Grinstead said. "But (Caitlin) being an addict doesn't make her any less of a person. She wanted to do everything normal people do, but she just couldn't stop drinking. ... This is a girl who lost everything because of alcohol."
Caitlin wasn't alone in having a drinking problem. Though her alcoholism started in Missouri, it didn't stop while she lived in Grand Forks.
The most recent data from the North Dakota Department of Human Services show the state had the nation's second-highest rate of binge drinking -- with almost 28 percent of people age 26 or older having five or more drinks at once during the past month -- between 2011 and 2012.
That rank is up slightly from a 27 percent statewide binge drinking rate between 2009 and 2010, when North Dakota was third in the nation.
The national binge drinking rate remained at about 22 percent between 2009 and 2012.
Despite the North Dakota's high binge drinking rates, statistics suggest it's rare for people to drink themselves to death, as Caitlin's family and friends suspect she did. Health Department figures show four people died due to alcohol poisoning in North Dakota between 2004 and 2013.
Deb Davis, alcohol and drug unit supervisor at Northeast Human Service Center in Grand Forks, said Grand Forks is no exception to North Dakota's culture of binge drinking.
Locally, there are numerous local treatment options available for people who may be struggling with alcohol or substance abuse.
'It'll eat you alive'
Still, despite the availability of treatment, many people have trouble admitting their addiction and seeking help, often because they are in denial of the problem, Davis said.
Jan Erickson said her daughter felt a lot of shame for her drinking, often hiding it behind jokes and saying she was OK, which made it difficult for family members to see the full scope of the problem.
"People shouldn't hide their addiction," Jan Erickson said. "It'll eat you alive. It'll swallow you whole."
Even when Caitlin's family tried to help with the problems they could see, it was immensely difficult.
When Caitlin's addiction began to intensify, before she moved to Grand Forks, Jan Erickson remembers frequently calling her son, Jace, and asking him to check on his sister. She and her husband also took several trips to St. Louis to try to help.
"It took its toll on this family, and then you feel guilty, because you love this person so much," Jan Erickson said. "The hard part for us as parents is because she was an adult you can't force help on her."
In Grinstead's experience, an addict's recovery is a personal choice, she said. "Your desire to stay clean has to be stronger than your desire to use," she said, "but some people don't know how to do that."
'Our bright star'
Recently, as Jan Erickson cleaned her daughter's former Grand Forks apartment, she found a worksheet Caitlin had completed during the treatment program in Mandan.
"It was very, very emotional," Jan Erickson said. "Just to hear it in her own words and to see it in her own handwriting ... I thought, 'Caitlin, I wish I could have crawled into your mind and understood more.'"
The worksheet focused on "fear of failure."
"I always expect the best out of myself, and sometimes I shut down when I can't reach perfection, or I just avoid doing something all together in fear of not reaching perfection. ... My pride always keeps me from saying I'm sorry or admitting I'm wrong, and so I just continue to get more and more angry at myself."
Caitlin's family members and friends still struggle with her death and have questions about how she died.
Despite missing Caitlin and grieving her death, Jan Erickson said she and her husband have found solace in raising Caitlin's daughter, Emily.
"She is our bright star," Jan Erickson said.
The Erickson family is also grateful for the outpouring of support they've received, including from their church, Hope Church in Grand Forks, and an online fundraiser started by Grinstead to help Caitlin's parents raise Emily.
To donate to the fundraiser, visit www.gofundme.com/nkno2o.
Jan and Jace Erickson both said they hope others struggling with addiction can learn from what happened to Caitlin and reach out for help.
"There are resources out there," Jan Erickson said. "There is hope."
Licensed addiction treatment programs in Grand Forks:
- Adapt, Inc.: (701) 772-1011 or (701) 215-0050
- Agassiz Associates:(701) 746-6336
- Alcohol and Drug Services, Inc.: (701) 746-0929 or 1-800-792-7466
- Drake Counseling Services: (701) 757-3200
- Don Foley Counseling: (701) 746-7857
- Kovar Drug and Alcohol Education Program: (612) 418-9431
- Northeast Human Service Center: (701) 795-3000 or 1-888-256-6742 or 24-Hour Crisis Line: (701) 775-0525 or 1-800-845-3731
- Northland Christian Counseling Center: (701) 795-8550 or 1-877-795-6222
- Richard P. Stadter Psychiatric Center: (701) 772-2500 or 1-866-772-2500
- Start Somewhere Counseling Services: (701) 317-5692
- UND Counseling Center: (701) 777-2127
Source: Northeast Human Service Center