Marie Riley remembers the first time she saw someone drinking alcohol.
Riley was a young girl at the time, living in her home village of Napasiak near Bethel. Her father was a Village Public Safety Officer, and she never saw her parents or parents’ friends drinking. One day, she saw a man who was drunk, and it shook her.
“It was somebody in the village who scared me,” Riley said, “and I ran from one end to the next.”
A couple decades later, the roles were switched.
Riley turned to drinking in her early 30s after multiple family crises, and she didn’t stop. Riley, now 58, ended up going to jail multiple times during the next two decades as a result of her alcoholism.
She ended up at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, and then in Juneau’s Haven House, a faith-based home that helps formerly incarcerated women re-enter society. Haven House Executive Director Julee Douglas said Riley was a difficult case at first.
“She was an angry little lady,” Douglas said. “She really was. Her presence, she exuded anger.”
Looking at Riley now, it’s tough to picture that ever being true. On Nov. 15, Riley graduated from Juneau Therapeutic Court, a program that serves as an alternative to jail for people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.
The graduation took place at the Dimond Courthouse and drew a crowd, including people from Haven House, people from the faith community, prosecutors and other people who were also going through the Therapeutic Court program. When Juneau District Court Judge Kirsten Swanson handed Riley a diploma to mark the occasion, one man in the back of the courtroom who was also in the program whispered, “wow.”
After the ceremony, Riley held a chocolate cupcake and reflected on her journey. She hardly drank until she was 32, she said, but then a string of turmoil in her family, including her daughter’s murder, led her into drinking.
“Things just started going down,” Riley said. “It was one thing after another.”
She said most of her legal trouble stemmed from driving drunk. She was in and out of jail for years, eventually landing in LCCC. She got connected with Haven House, and was there for a few weeks before getting sent back to jail in early January because of a probation violation and driving with a revoked license, according to the police report at the time.
When Douglas came to pick Riley up at 7 a.m. on a frigid January morning, she immediately could tell there was something different. Riley had thought about her children, and how she needed to change for them.
She had even thought about how she viewed herself and how she needed to change that. Riley said she had long joked that she was the black sheep of her family. After a while, part of her really started to believe it was true.
“I realized, ‘No, I’m a good person. I can change,’” Riley said.
Douglas said some people talk about wanting to conquer their addictions but don’t ever fully commit to making lifestyle changes. Riley did. She never missed a class of court-ordered therapy sessions. She took Alcoholics Anonymous seriously. She did everything that Swanson asked of her in Therapeutic Court. She committed to the Haven House program, getting more in touch with her faith. Riley even saw a counselor in her free time, Douglas said.
During her time in Therapeutic Court, her resolve was tested. Her father died. Her son was having health problems. Instead of turning to alcohol in these situations like she did earlier in life, Riley used them as motivation to stay strong and sober. Riley said she knew she had to take control of her own actions and her life, but she made sure to give credit to those who supported her in her adopted community of Juneau.
“The big tip is be open and be surrounded by positive, encouraging people,” Riley said. “That’s my No. 1 thing. That’s what really taught me what I needed.”
Riley headed back to Napasiak the day after she graduated to be with her family. She’s putting together a celebration of life for her father and her daughter. After that, she said she’s heading down to Anchorage where she can be near counseling and an AA program.
People at Riley’s Therapeutic Court graduation spoke adoringly of her. Swanson stood up and applauded her. Douglas has been at Haven House for three years and has seen many people come through and make major life changes, but she said during the graduation that she’s never seen one like Riley’s.
Douglas said she’s confident that Riley’s change is a permanent one.
“It’s in her heart,” Douglas said. “She’s never going back. Ever.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.