'I refused to quit fighting': Fargo woman celebrates recovery milestone three years after husband's death in bar fight

FARGO - Laura Gaarsland sits at the dining room table of her north Fargo home chuckling at a photo of her family in 2013. "We were trying to get a good shot. We were trying so hard to get everyone to match -- all wearing white. But it was just ch...
Laura Gaarsland sits in her family’s Fargo home on Monday, May 14, 2018. The 33-year-old mother of four will graduate from the East Central Judicial District Drug Court this week, three years after her husband, Joey, died following a beating outside a Fargo bar. Ann Arbor Miller / The Forum

FARGO - Laura Gaarsland sits at the dining room table of her north Fargo home chuckling at a photo of her family in 2013.

"We were trying to get a good shot. We were trying so hard to get everyone to match - all wearing white. But it was just chaotic. Finally, (daughter) Payton said, 'Let's just do a funny one.' And that's the one we ended up choosing."

What Gaarsland, 33, didn't know then, as she and her family mugged for the camera, was that just two years later her world would turn upside down.

In May 2015, she watched her husband of 15 years - a man she started dating when she was just 16 years old - be beaten outside a north Fargo bar; he died six days later. While trying to create a new life without him, Gaarsland fell into addiction, spent time in jail and had her children taken away from her.

But she found a way out.

On Wednesday, May 16, Gaarsland will graduate from East Central Judicial District Drug Court - a program she says saved her life and her children's future. Her bright blue eyes reflect the light streaming in from the nearby window as tells her story of redemption and recovery.

A fateful night

Related contentGaarsland's nightmare began on a Saturday night while playing pool at Rick's Bar on Fargo's Main Avenue with her husband, Joey Gaarsland. According to police reports, hours later in the early morning hours of May 17, Joey was severely beaten in the parking lot when he tried to defend Laura after she become involved in an altercation with an acquaintance, Scott A. Moen. Moen and three other men, Jessy Olson, Nicholas Morris and Jason Oien, were convicted of attacking the Gaarslands and bystander Matthew Brietbach, who tried to help the couple. Joey died from his injuries six days later. Laura, who witnessed the brutal attack, would never be the same.

"When Joe was killed I was a stay-at-home mom. All of the sudden I turned into a widow - a single mom of four kids (Joe's daughter Allison, who lived with the Gaarslands went to live with other relatives after the murder). I was in complete denial of my own emotional state," she says.

Gaarsland thought she could handle everything on her own, but she now says "that was absolutely not the case."

She wasn't sleeping - haunted by nightmares of the brutal beating. She told The Forum a couple of weeks after the attack: "The pictures just need to go away in my head. They just need to go away, and they just don't go away. They don't go away," she repeated. "I wish it was like years from now, and they would fade or something. It's a frickin' nightmare. I feel like I'm living in a frickin' nightmare."

Coping with the nightmares

Gaarsland found an unfortunate way to cope with her nightmares - methamphetamine - introduced to her by an ex-boyfriend. She started using only occasionally, but it soon became a daily habit.

"It was very easy to fall into it. Very easy. The very strange thing is when I used is when I felt normal - my head wasn't spinning in a thousand different directions," she says. "I didn't know how to live without him. Basically, I just gave up, and I looked for any easy way out."

But it was clear that her drug use was not the solution, but the problem. Eventually, she racked up eight felony drug arrests in a six month period and her children were placed in foster care. She was given a choice: go to Drug Court, a program of comprehensive substance use disorder treatment and counseling, supervision and accountability or go to prison for three to five years with a possible termination of parental rights.

"I had a choice, but it really wasn't a choice. I wasn't ready to give up. I refused to quit fighting. It was a relief to walk into Drug Court and get the help I finally admitted I needed," she says.

Rooting for her

Gaarsland says right away she felt like everyone in Drug Court was rooting for her to succeed from her attorney, to her probation officer, to Judge John Irby. She knew she was in the right place at the right time.

Jennifer Hischer, Gaarsland's probation officer, says she couldn't be prouder of Gaarsland.

"From the day Laura was released from jail to start her first day of Drug Court, I was taken with her positive attitude. This was a woman who had lost her husband in the most tragic of ways, had allowed her addiction to take control to the point that she had lost custody of four children, was homeless and jobless. Yet she was always able to see her sentence to Drug Court for what it was: a huge opportunity for both herself and her children," Hischer says. "She took full advantage of the resources we were able to provide her, but also made a point of taking responsibility for her own recovery."

Gaarsland says she learned that she could no longer pretend that everything was OK and that reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness.

"Nobody in their right mind could watch their husband get killed like that and be able to handle life OK," she says.

Counseling has helped her get past her anger at the four men responsible for her husband's death.

"It wasn't like they woke up that morning and decided to kill somebody. Something in their lives led to that," she says, " I feel bad for them and their families. It wasn't just our family hurt by this."

Helping others

Related contentGaarsland says she chose to speak at the Wednesday drug court graduation and tell her story to the public to help others realize that they're not alone.

"I'm not the only one who has made bad decisions and even lost their children," she says. "I want people to look at me and think, 'if she can do it, I can do it.'"

She says she's not even sure about the full impact Drug Court will have on her life. She calls it a 'ripple effect' that has helped her children, who now live with her again, reclaim their futures.

"If I hadn't been in Drug Court, can you imagine the life my kids would have had? A dad who died from a violent crime and a mom who had fallen into drugs. There wouldn't have been much hope for them," she says.

Instead, she's seen her kids become empathetic and active supporters of their friends who have addictions. One even wants to go into juvenile corrections for a career.

As Gaarsland continues looking at the photos on her dining room table, it is images of her, then and now, that tell the biggest story.

A Forum photo from 2015 shows Gaarsland when she called herself "an emotional mess" trying hard to pretend she could manage on her own.

Today, after reaching out and getting help, she looks happier and healthier and even seems to have a glow about her - a calm about where she was and where she's going.

"I will never go back," she says resolutely. "I feel phenomenal. Life is very good now."

If you go:

What: Celebration ceremony in recognition of National Drug Court Month and the 15th anniversary of the East Central Judicial District's first adult Drug Court

Where: Cass County Commission Room

When: 3 p.m. Wednesday, May 16