Kara Nelson, an addict in long-term recovery, recovery coach and director of Juneau's Haven House, is one of the movers and shakers striving to strengthen Juneau's recovery community.

Kara Nelson, an addict in long-term recovery, recovery coach and director of Juneau's Haven House, is one of the movers and shakers striving to strengthen Juneau's recovery community.

Lives worth saving

Christina Love needed to come home.

She had just learned that the woman who took her in and raised her for 18 years — a waitress in Fairbanks who took pity on Love’s mother, an Aleut woman with autism — had cancer.

Love fondly refers to her as grandma.

“She wanted me to come home, but I felt like I couldn’t until I was clean,” Love recalled during an interview at AWARE, Juneau’s emergency women’s shelter, where she now works.

Love’s father, a convicted pedophile, was out of the picture by the time she was 2. Life wasn’t easy for her growing up, and by the time she was in her early 20s, she was stripping for money in Anchorage to feed her addiction to alcohol, heroin and Benzodiazepines.

When she learned about her grandma, Love was down to 100 pounds and her liver was failing. Her arms were so damaged from shooting up she couldn’t raise them in the shower to wash her hair. She was also in an abusive relationship and had already been sexually assaulted throughout her life too many times to count.

“I couldn’t stop using at all,” she said. “I had a lot of shame, and I also had this incredible criminal record. I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t want to detox in jail. And in my mind, I had all these different things that I knew that I was going to have to overcome to get home.”

But she had nowhere to turn for help. She had already been kicked out of all the treatment centers in Anchorage. One she sold drugs in. The others, she just couldn’t follow the rules.

“I had a huge problem with authority, and that just goes with survival,” she said.

Despite her own doubts, she flew back to Fairbanks, still on drugs. Her family took action. They drove her out to a cabin in the middle of the woods, about 45 miles outside Fairbanks, for her to detox.

“They figured that when I started to freak out, I wouldn’t try and leave because it was 60 below,” she said. “And little did they know, I still wanted to leave in my heels and jacket. That’s the insanity of it.”

Though the intervention was well intentioned, her family didn’t know that withdrawal from alcohol and Benzodiazepines can be life-threatening. She started having seizures, and they immediately drove her to the hospital.

She would end up spending the next two weeks there, detoxing under medical supervision. It was one of the most awful experiences of her life. She couldn’t hold a pen. She didn’t want to be alone. She didn’t want to be with people. She didn’t have the energy to get off the floor.

“I’ll never forget that,” she said. “I just wanted to lie there.”

“I told myself that if I get clean, then there is nothing I can’t do. If I overcome this, there’s not going to be anything I can’t get through. This has got to be the world’s most difficult thing. And to this day, I haven’t encountered anything as difficult as that.”

A clinician at the hospital encouraged her to get a Vivitrol shot, a once-a-month shot that Love described laughingly as a “giant pudding cup that they inject in your ass.”

“It’s the world’s biggest shot, and it hurts so bad,” she said. But it blocks the effects of alcohol and opiates like heroin and helps with cravings. And if a drug user uses drugs while on Vivitrol, they don’t feel any of the illegal drugs’ effects. And those who do use illegal drugs while on it can become violently ill. Love was scared of getting sick and never tested it.

“They said that you’re level of disease is so high, you’re going to die,” she remembered the doctors saying. “’You can’t stop using, and if you continue to keep using, you are going to die.’”

Love made it through the ordeal, and had a bed date scheduled at an in-patient drug addiction treatment center a few weeks out. By the time the bed date came, she was still off drugs but no longer interested in seeking treatment.

“I ended up going back to work as a stripper because I didn’t know what to do for money,” she said. “I had to work under the table because I had these warrants out and all these criminal charges.”

She went to face her grandma and to explain her new plan.

“I told her that I had it all figured out,” Love said. “I had this apartment that was attached to a bar, and I had a car again, and it was going to be fine.”

Her grandma looked her in the eye and insisted she needed professional help.

For the first time, Love really listened. She said she researched centers she could go to, and picked the one with the nicest sounding name: Rainforest Recovery Center in Juneau.

Love almost made it through the 28-day in-patient program Rainforest offers. She was kicked out on day 26 because she met a guy, who was also in treatment. He would later become her husband and the father of her child.

But she never did drugs again. And to keep herself on the right track after doing Rainforest’s program, she said she enrolled herself in “the school of NA and AA.”

“I went to every single 12-step meeting that we have,” she said. “That’s all I did every single day.”

It was there at one of those meetings where she would meet her new best friend, Kara Nelson, who was already clean but was still in the middle of an epic battle with the local probation office.

 

Enter Kara

Kara Nelson had already served her jail time on a drug charge out of Ketchikan, and was clean a year and a half when she was hit with four probation violations that could have sent her back to Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

The violations weren’t for using drugs (OxyContin and heroin were her drugs of choice), but for breaking other rules of probation.

What happened next set her on a path where she had to come face-to-face with “that deep, dark soul of who you are” — a path that paved the road where she is today as a recovery coach with Love and as the director of Haven House, a faith-based, peer-run sober living home for women recently released from prison.

“For me to be in the position I’m in right now is a miracle, to say the least,” she said, sitting next to Love during a recent interview at AWARE.

What happened was that one of Nelson’s friends had relapsed and gone back to jail. They were close friends, and the woman called Nelson every day from behind bars. (They had permission to talk.)

But one of their conversations caught the ear of the authorities, who then went back and then listened to three month’s worth of her and Nelson’s conversations. There were 10 CDs worth of evidence.

It was nothing drug related. It was Nelson completely annihilating the probation office and her probation officers.

“Mimicking, making fun — I mean, I couldn’t hide from it, couldn’t minimize it, it was just there. Ugly. Ugly talk,” she said.

She later had to listen to it in court, and cringes now thinking about it.

“It was horrifying to hear myself talking like that,” she said. “It was a behavior that I couldn’t stop. I knew that I shouldn’t be talking like that because I was changing. But it was just something like you’re talking to your best friend, and you just can’t let go of.”

The probation officers didn’t take to it kindly. They found out from the phone calls that Nelson had been talking to convicted felons she didn’t have permission to be talking to, so they charged her with the four violations. The probation officer told Nelson she was going to do the rest of the jail time hanging over her head: three and a half years.

Nelson thought it was unfair at first — she was already a year and a half sober and was already involved with getting Haven House started.

“To me, I’m like, I’m not using, what more do you want?” she said of her initial thoughts. “That phrase right there gets so many people in trouble.”

She added: “It’s not just about not using. It’s about living life, and being a person with integrity and moving forward with boldness.”

Her lawyers told her that they would fight it. But something came over her, and she made a different decision.

“The thing was I broke the law,” she said. “When we’re on probation, we have different rules than the rest of the world, and this is the reality we live in.”

She set about making it right. She tried to go see the probation officer to apologize in person. The probation officer refused at first. Finally, the officer let Nelson in the office and chewed her out for everything, which Nelson said she deserved.

But then, Nelson kept coming in the office. She kept apologizing, and she also made a promise.

“I just kept going in there, saying, ‘I’m not only going to make it, I’m going to be up here,’” Nelson said, lifting her arm above her head. ‘’’I didn’t know what that would look like, but I kept moving forward.’”

Over time, the two were able to develop a relationship based on mutual respect.

“It wasn’t like I was kissing their butt to get what I wanted, it wasn’t like I was ‘F-you’, but we were on very solid ground of respecting where we were at that time,” she said.

Eight months passed. For some reason, it took a long time for Nelson’s sentencing hearing to take place in court (wherein probation officers make a recommended sentence for the judge).

About two weeks before it was scheduled to take place, the probation officer called Nelson in.

“She finally said, ‘I don’t know what it is, you’re still a master manipulator, you still have this criminal mind going on, but I cannot ask for jail time for you,’” Nelson recalled. “And this was after eight months of just knowing that I was going to prison. I was told all the time that I am going to prison.”

But the sentencing is up to the judge, not probation officers. When the court hearing finally took place, Nelson had mentally prepared herself to go back to LCCC.

“I knew who I was and I was almost excited to go into the prison and share with other women, that’s how peaceful I was about it,” Nelson said.

The judge had other ideas though, and agreed with the recommending probation officer that jail is not where Nelson belonged. He agreed to restart Nelson’s probation from the beginning and to add an additional six months.

 

Lives worth saving

After meeting and becoming friends, Nelson and Love went on to join forces. Together, they lobby the legislature. They help active and recovering drug as recovery coaches. They march in rallies in Washington, D.C.

They’re the two biggest movers and shakers in Juneau advocating for a stronger recovery community.

They envision a community where people are more accepting of those struggling with drug addiction, and that provides more services to help those on their journey to long-term recovery.

“We need to really do this whole paradigm shift of acute-care to long-term recovery care, just like every other illness that we have,” Nelson said, adding, “This is a chance to really shift all systems, especially within the public health and social services.”

They’re not the only ones who think it’s time to rethink how the community perceives and treats drug addiction.

Concerned citizens are getting involved and seeing what they can do to help battle heroin and get more services in place for those addicted. New community groups are forming, and public forums and discussions are taking place. Lawmakers for their part have shown up and are listening.

“I feel like Juneau, even though we have this destruction going on, we have all the ingredients here. We have the people. We have an amazing community of people that want to do more,” Nelson said.

A lot of the community action has been a result of the spike in fatal heroin overdoses which has claimed seven lives in the capital city so far this year. But Love stresses that heroin, alcohol and methamphetamine addiction, and all the rest, are the same thing: drug addiction.

And jail shouldn’t be the only option for treatment, both Nelson and Love said.

“People always say, ‘Jail saved my life,’ but that’s because it was the only option there at that time,” Nelson said. “And that is the message I love to get across to people because they do say, well, this saved someone’s life. Yes, it did, but how about if we actually give them proper care and have recovery services in place?”

In the meantime, Nelson and Love tell their own personal stories. Their stories have power, and sharing it with others emboldens themselves, and helps fight the stigmas society attaches to felons and drug users.

“We really do allow others to define us when we’re silent,” Nelson said.

They want to show the world that theirs was a life worth saving.

It’s also inspiring for others struggling with drug addiction to hear. They want to be an example of what life looks like sober, and how beautiful it can be.

Nelson, in her 40s, is devoted to working at Haven House, her three grown children and being a Roller Girl.

She hopes people struggling on probation can look at her story and think to themselves, “Maybe I can do this, too, because look what Kara went through. Oh my god, she was annihilated, and she made it through.”

Today, Love celebrates her 30th birthday. She wants people to know that not only can they “make it and survive, but they can thrive.”

Her last sip of alcohol was March 3, 2012. She began volunteering at Juneau’s emergency women’s shelter, AWARE (Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies) as part of her amends in a 12-step program.

“Shelters have kicked me out in the past, and I was so angry because they couldn’t help me,” she explained.

At AWARE, she was welcomed as a volunteer, and ultimately offered a job.

“They are so incredible,” she said. “They don’t just accept me. They celebrate me, and the path that I’ve been on. And they do that for every woman who works here, and for every woman who walks in the door.”

It was through AWARE that she met Stacie Arnold, a 24-year-old Juneau resident who had waited two months for a bed at Rainforest, only to complete the month-long program and relapse a few months afterward. After meeting Love, Arnold said she began going to NA meetings and then re-enrolled at Rainforest this June. She finished the month-long program again, and then transferred immediately to a long term treatment facility in Anchorage. She is getting ready to graduate from the facility in a few weeks.

“I’ve got six months and six days clean, and it’s amazing,” Arnold said by phone from the Akeela House.

As for Love, she did end up being able to spend some time with her grandma before she passed away.

“We got to spend that Christmas together,” Love said. “And she told me that she was always proud of me, and that she always loved me. And that there was nothing that I could ever do to change that.”

That level of acceptance and unconditional love was crucial to Love’s recovery. She said that’s how she treats others in her volunteer efforts as a recovery coach.

“There’s no judgement, and there’s an absolute level of acceptance, and that compassion is where healing starts for ourselves, and for other people.”

“And if anything,” she added, “that’s the component that is the missing component of agencies. That level of compassion, and that level of hope that people so desperately need.” 

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final part of a series. To learn more about the work Love and Nelson are doing in the community and what drug addiction issues Juneau is facing, read Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here.

Christina Love, an addict in long-term recovery who now works for AWARE and is a recovery coach, s one of the movers and shakers striving to strengthen Juneau's recovery community.

Christina Love, an addict in long-term recovery who now works for AWARE and is a recovery coach, s one of the movers and shakers striving to strengthen Juneau’s recovery community.

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