Wilson Nicklie Jr. reflects on his past alcohol dependence during an interview at his Juneau apartment in early May. Nicklie was recently filmed for a documentary for the Salvation Army.

Wilson Nicklie Jr. reflects on his past alcohol dependence during an interview at his Juneau apartment in early May. Nicklie was recently filmed for a documentary for the Salvation Army.

The road to recovery: Juneau man shares story of addiction with LA Salvation Army film crew

Four years ago, Wilson Nicklie Jr. would have reached for a bottle of alcohol — most likely some whiskey — to celebrate anything that was going right for him, which sums up everything that was going wrong for him.

“My life was just really ugly,” Nicklie said. “I’d seen a lot of drugs, I’d seen a lot of poverty — I’ve seen it all.”

Nicklie, a 54-year-old Tlingit man from Petersburg, grew up on fishing boats with his family. He was only 12 when he picked up his first drink, not realizing it would be 37 years before he could put it down. Alcohol, he said, helped sever ties between him and his family.

Now, living in Juneau, Nicklie is four years sober after two divorces and several lost jobs became too much for him to tolerate. He said he tried sobriety several times — and failed several times — before he finally overcame the disease in 2011. The topic isn’t something he shies away from either. If given the chance, he’ll tell someone his story starting from that first drink he took all those years ago around his big brothers. It’s a story he thinks can help heal people. A documentary crew from Los Angeles agrees.

The Salvation Army’s LA branch heard about Wilson’s transformation and his dedication to spreading the word at his church, the Salvation Army, and anywhere else people are willing to listen. A film crew flew up from California to film Wilson and several people close to him for a short documentary that will be featured on the Salvation Army’s website and YouTube channel.

The Salvation Army film crew travels across the country to search for stories that will inspire people nationwide.

“Everywhere (Nicklie) goes, he talks about his recovery, and being a soldier, and the lord,” Juneau Salvation Army Pastor Lt. Dana Walters told a documentary crew under bright lights while she was filmed earlier this month. “It’s changed his life, and he in turn is changing other peoples’ lives. … Not everybody does that.”

Although Nicklie is known for sharing his story at church and at work — he’s on staff at the Juneau Polaris House, a club for people battling mental illness and addiction — he’s not used to the spotlight. He said when he heard the documentary crew wanted to capture his story to share with millions of people, he was nervous and excited. That used to make him want to grab a drink.

“It was kind of just different, I’ve never, you know, experienced something good happen,” Nicklie said in an interview at his apartment. “As an alcoholic, I would have drank about it, I would have celebrated. … I wouldn’t have been able to experience the natural feelings.”

Instead, he stays busy to keep his mind of things. He tries to fill the hours with church, then work, then cleaning or tending to one of the several fish tanks in his Lemon Creek apartment. The fish calm him and remind him of his days as a fisherman, before he became an alcoholic.

“My vision of an alcoholic was someone in an alley, standing around drunk, drinking out of a brown bag. That was my idea of an alcoholic,” Nicklie said. He didn’t know it was possible to have a job and a family and also an addiction — until it happened to him.

He became an “ugly” person who became verbally abusive to his wife, drinking half a gallon of alcohol a day by himself. He said he would wake up and his first thought would be, “Where am I going to get my next bottle? How am I going to get my next drink?”

Then, on Dec. 11, 2011, it all changed. He was couch surfing, this time at his brother’s house and woke up around 6:30 a.m. to take two sips of wine. He was trembling from uncontrollable anxiety. He knew he’d fallen too far and needed help.

“Can you please take me to the ER?” Nicklie asked his brother. “I’m done.”

Nicklie received treatment at Rainforest Recovery Center and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but it wasn’t until he walked into the Salvation Army Church on Willoughby Avenue, just like he had when he was a child with his parents in Petersburg, that he started to feel whole again.

It’s that transition — out of the church, then into a world of alcoholism, then back to the church — that grabbed the filmmaker Jeff Prahl’s attention.

“He’s been there, done that, and now, to be able to come out of it,” Prahl said, shaking his head in awe.

Prahl said the documentary crew selects people to film who are a reflection of issues in their community. Alaska has one of the highest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the nation, according to the National Alcoholism Center. Nicklie said has felt the truth of that statistic, especially within the Alaska Native community where he says drinking at a younger age is common. That’s why he said he’s glad, as difficult as it was to do, that his story will reach others. He said he especially hopes it will reach young people so they won’t have to face the battles he has.

“I was never educated, no one ever told me, ‘No Wilson that’s not good, you’re just a child, you shouldn’t drink,’” he said. “And if I had been educated, I might have been different, you know, really successful. Who knows? But I’m here now.”

Nicklie’s story will be published online, via the Salvation Army’s YouTube page, later this year at www.youtube.com/user/SalvationArmyUSA.

• Contact Empire reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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