The judge overseeing the proceedings was moved to tears.

"You have been, and you can be, a role model for others that are struggling with addition," the judge said.

Her sobriety journey has been more than three years in the making and her family, and friends, were all on hand to witness a moment, some believed, would never come.

During a virtual meeting of Becker County and White Earth, DWI court on Thursday, Feb. 11, Tara Griess, 39, of Rochert, graduated her treatment-based probation program after nearly two years. Since deciding to give up alcohol, Griess has kept up her sobriety for two years, two months and three days, and has had zero violations of her treatment program during that time.

In fact, she did so well during her rehabilitation that the Becker County Mothers Against Drunk Driving made her the new panel program coordinator. Griess will help facilitate future panel discussions and hopes to open up the process so members of the public can hear their stories of addiction in a hope they can offer help to someone who needs it.

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"I'm really emotional about all of this," Griess said, during the proceedings. "I feel overwhelming gratitude for the incredible people who have supported me along this sobriety journey."

Fighting through tears, Griess continued: "I cannot begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am, enough to pursue my authentic self, who I used to be in the past. Now, I can be that person. I can be happy, and everybody around me can be happy, and not have to worry about me out drinking, or using drugs, or whatever. I'm just very grateful, and thankful, that this program was available because I don't think I would have survived in prison, or things would've been different when I got out."

The Becker County MADD panel program didn't exist in February when Griess began her treatment regiment. However, as the story-sharing panels expanded, her story resonated with attendees and became a powerful lesson in asking for help after hitting a final breaking point.

Griess grew up in Clara City, a small town southwest of Willmar. She played basketball through high school and continued playing into college. However, college is also where she started drinking heavily on the weekends. Griess received her first DUI while living in North Dakota in 2006.

Tara Griess, center-right, laughs with family and friends after graduating from a treatment-based probation program for alcoholism. Through the program, Griess became the new panel coordinator for the Becker County chapter of MADD. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)
Tara Griess, center-right, laughs with family and friends after graduating from a treatment-based probation program for alcoholism. Through the program, Griess became the new panel coordinator for the Becker County chapter of MADD. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

"Nothing happened for that one," she said. "It was pretty much a slap on the wrist, so my drinking continued."

She moved back home to Clara City and met up with old friends while continuing to binge drink.

On a night like any other in 2011, Griess said she was bar hopping with a friend. While she was driving them to the next pub, her car was T-boned by a semi-truck.

The truck hit Griess on her driver's side, which caused her to suffer 22 broken ribs, collapsed lungs and a lacerated liver. In her first week in the ICU, she needed to be shocked back to life after flat lining, which compounded her rib injuries due to the chest compressions. Griess would spend almost three months in the hospital recovering from her injuries.

She was charged with criminal vehicular operation due to the additional injuries suffered by her passenger; two broken ribs and other various injuries. Griess spent 14 days in jail and lost her driver's license for the next two years.

In 2015, she married her husband, Brad Griess, and the couple moved to Becker County. Brad worked for the railroad and was gone for long stretches of time, which left Tara with less social connections and a lot of time to herself.

"I didn't have any friends up here, so what do I do? I go into the bar," she said.

Tara Griess, center, talks with family and friends after graduating from a treatment-based probation program for alcoholism. Through the program, Griess became the new panel coordinator for the Becker County chapter of MADD. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)
Tara Griess, center, talks with family and friends after graduating from a treatment-based probation program for alcoholism. Through the program, Griess became the new panel coordinator for the Becker County chapter of MADD. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

Griess said she made friends at her favorite bar in Detroit Lakes and she would day drink while waiting for her friends to get off work so they could then continue partying, which led to another encounter with law enforcement.

"Two years ago, I got pulled over on my way home," she said. "I was going 81 m.p.h. ... I got pulled over and I spent the weekend in Becker County (jail)."

During her weekend in jail, Griess said she swore to God that her days of drinking were over.

"There and then, I told God that I'm done, I've had enough," said Griess. "So I put myself in treatment at Drake Treatment Center in Detroit Lakes and I had 42 sessions (three or four months) of that, and after that was done, I started going to Alcoholics Anonymous."

She said she found a welcoming AA group in Lake Park and goes every Thursday.

"I'm kind of a role model in that group now and they think I'm an example of the big book," she said. The big book being the AA manual.

Griess was also ordered by the court to attend MADD panel discussions where individuals share their stories about addiction, which she did beginning in August 2019.

She ended up serving 56 days in Becker County jail, but was able to participate in a work-release program, which landed her a dishwashing job at her favorite bar, Roasted. Through all of this, she continued sharing her story through the MADD panels.

"I started speaking in Moorhead, I've spoken in Willmar, I spoke in St. Cloud, and I spoke down in Granite Falls," said Griess.

She also said, during one of her DWI court dates, she even apologized to her arresting officer and thanked him for picking her up that night because it changed her life for the better.

"To see her grow from where she was to where she is now, it's amazing," said Brad Griess, Tara's husband. "Her attitude, her mental wellbeing is all changed for the better. The way she touches people with her story ... to try to get them help."

Brad said Tara is just at the beginning of this exciting new chapter and is looking forward to see where it takes her, and the both of them.

Tara's mother, Kathy Lalim, said, before Tara decided to seek treatment, she was asked how many chances she would give her daughter to straighten out.

"As many as it takes," said Lalim. "She's my child, and you give your child as many chances as it takes."

Tara Griess will be hosting a MADD panel discussion at the Holiday Inn in Detroit Lakes on March 17, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The meeting is open to the public and she said she hopes this will be the first step in a more community-oriented county MADD program.