‘In that moment, everything changed’: Alaska voices of recovery

SPONSORED: Four Alaskans share their unique journeys of healing from substance use disorder and loss, and what life in recovery looks like for them.

Presented by State of Alaska Department of Health

There’s no sugar coating it: Recovery from addiction can be really, really hard.

It also can take a long time, spanning years or even decades. Those healing from substance use disorder often say long-term recovery is a lifelong journey.

But Alaskans who have found recovery say it’s also full of deep joy. Each victory, large or small, can be especially rewarding when shared with others; their stories and experience may inspire people to take their own steps toward recovery.

Here we share the stories of four Alaskans who have found their own, distinct pathways to recovery, and all the hope, sorrow and hard work that came with it.

Naomi: ‘Life and recovery are one and the same to me’

Not everyone knows the exact day their path to recovery began, but Naomi Watkins does.

“My recovery journey began December 28, 2012,” Watkins said.

That’s the day after she had her last drink, and the start of a decade-long journey through recovery from drugs and alcohol that she said is always changing and evolving.

Watkins, a clinical social worker and chemical dependency counselor, said her story might not be one you’d expect from a middle-class mom living in Southeast Alaska.

“Now, I have the whole husband and kids and dogs, and that whole suburbia lifestyle,” she said, with a laugh. “And from the outside, it looks like, ‘OK, you’re just living a normal life.’”

Watkins said the home she’s built today is a result of her recovery. While she experienced setbacks like many people who seek recovery do, she acknowledges that she was fortunate to have support and resources that others may not.

Her addiction to stimulants started when she was just a teenager in Ketchikan. She dropped out of high school so she could live a life centered around using drugs, she said. Even after returning for her GED and enrolling in college in Oregon, she didn’t stop.

That changed when her best friend passed away.

“They drank and used like I did, and it killed them,” she said. “It was a big slap in the face (in regard to) my own mortality.”

At that time, Watkins’ mantra was straightforward: Don’t drink, don’t die.

Importantly, she found people who helped her keep that mantra and encouraged her early recovery efforts. Watkins took advantage of the support at her university, turning to counseling, medication for addiction and mental health disorders, and support from peers — all while slowly making changes in other parts of her life, too.

She quit her bartending job and joined a campus recovery community where she could meet other students in recovery and access support any time of day.

Still, her recovery has not been linear, nor easy. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she returned to rural Alaska to spend a year with her mom before starting a graduate program.

With her support network hundreds of miles away, she had to start new.

“I very much felt like the rug was pulled out from under me and I just had to completely rebuild,” Watkins said. “I had to completely redefine what my community looked like because I didn’t have any of the tools I had previously.”

The experience gave her a lot of strength. And Watkins has continued to grow and add new supports into her life and tools to her emotional toolkit.

Today, it’s rare she has a feeling that she wants to drink or use drugs. Those thoughts, when they do occur, are more fleeting.

“I’m not saying I’ll never be triggered again,” she said. “But it’s just a really different experience now.”

Gone is the constant pain and discomfort of her early recovery days.

“Today I get to feel joy, love, and contentment as my baseline state of being,” Watkins said.

Abstinence doesn’t work for everyone, Watkins said. She was privileged to have enormous support from her family and peers, and access to recovery support services at her college.

Not everyone is in an environment where abstinence is possible, she said, and harm-reduction is another successful recovery path that should never be stigmatized.

“A person is in recovery the moment they say they are in recovery,” she said.

For her, it has been key to living a successful, productive, and “normal” life.

“I get to live today because of my recovery, so life and recovery are one in the same to me,” Watkins said.

Tim: ‘It’s about doing the everyday stuff’

Normalcy is a centerpiece of Tim Easterly’s recovery, too.

“When you’re really using, when you’re deep into the lifestyle of drugs and partying — you forget how to do everyday stuff,” he said. “When you’re in recovery, it’s about doing the everyday stuff.”

It’s the most mundane things — grocery shopping, barbequing, watching TV with his family – that felt so out of reach when he was addicted to methamphetamines. Easterly doesn’t take those aspects of his life for granted.

“It’s how I’ve always pictured recovery,” he said. “Just being alive and living a life that’s normal.”

Unlike Watkins, Easterly wasn’t necessarily looking for recovery when he started his journey. The state got involved in his case and he reached a sobering point: face his addiction head-on or lose his kids.

Easterly enrolled in the Alaska State Court’s therapeutic court program, which allows participants to enroll in a treatment program overseen by a collaborative team of attorneys and case managers in lieu of incarceration. In those early days, he was in hearings every week.

“I think that was the key for me,” he said. “There was not just someone checking to see if I was messing up, but they were there to praise you if you did well. It was a constant check in.”

He said he liked that program because it meets people where they’re at. When Easterly started in the program, he was still actively using.

Today, he’s five years into long-time recovery, driven by a deep motivation to be a better father — not just for his kids, but also for himself. He said finding that intrinsic motivation is huge for long-term success.

“You have to make it your own, however that looks,” he said. “And once you do that, you don’t question every day why you’re doing it.”

And for him, recovery truly is an everyday battle. Some days, when he wakes up and his back is aching or his knees are creaking, using drugs is the first place his mind goes.

“I will be in recovery the rest of my life,” he said.

He’s channeled his personal passion into action, distributing life-saving opioid overdose reversal kits through Project HOPE. They are distributed across the state to public health centers, libraries and fire departments — anywhere that will take them. Today, Project HOPE is focused on other pathways of harm reduction, distributing fentanyl test strips, medication disposal bags and educational materials.

Like the court program from his early recovery, Project HOPE is all about meeting people where they’re at.

“That’s what harm reduction is to me — it’s acknowledging there are people who need our help, now,” he said.

Stevi: “I’m in the process of my anger turning into power”

Recovery eluded Stevi Angasan for so many years. That’s why sometimes, she has a hard time believing people are now turning to her for help.

“To be able to network with people who used to arrest me, and people who used to just dread me coming into the clinic — It’s a pretty amazing transition, to be able to do that,” she said.

Angasan lives in Naknek, on the shores of Bristol Bay.

For 15 years, she was on the other side of substance misuse, hitting lows she didn’t think she could ever rebound from. She said she couldn’t fathom a life outside of her addiction.

“I just took a good look at myself, and I just accepted that that’s where I was — broken and damaged and on the street,” she said.

She tried to sober up, many times, for her daughter’s sake. But an impenetrable sense of anger at the world around her kept her from ever reaching that point. It didn’t help that the nearest treatment was in Dillingham, a short plane ride away.

Pieces started sliding into place when she found faith-based recovery through a friend. Then, in the middle of a three-month training program in Dillingham, the walls she had built around herself came crashing down.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to tell these people everything,’” she remembered thinking during a group session. “It came my turn to talk, and I just told them everything I could think of that I had done wrong my entire life.”

When she raised her gaze, every person in the room was crying.

“In that moment, everything changed for me,” she said. “In that moment, I felt so loved, when I knew I wasn’t loveable.”

Treatment was followed by a six-week aftercare program at home, in Naknek. Finally, recovery was working.

“They helped me come up with a plan of the things I was going to do: church, my parents’ house, (spending time with) family who (were) healthy and didn’t drink,” she said.

Naknek and neighboring King Salmon don’t have all the resources of a bigger city.

But Angasan —who’s now an advocate for sexual assault domestic violence victims at Dillingham shelter and advocacy agency, SAFE — is building an addiction recovery community from the ground up, including a kuspuk crafting group and a women’s wellness group, called Sisters, that brings women together over home-cooked meals.

She’s trying to bring in Alaskans certified in peer support, too. Agencies that utilize peer support connect people in the early stages of recovery with a peer in recovery who can play a vital role in supporting them in their journey.

“Getting peer support in rural Alaska will be such a game changer,” she said.

Angasan knows it gives others hope to hear about her experience. She said if she can recover, anyone can.

But beyond those individual relationships, she’s also using her experience to rethink the systems surrounding addiction and recovery, from advocating for more suboxone clinics in rural Alaska, to encouraging better treatment of incarcerated individuals who struggle with addiction.

She said she used to harbor deep anger at those systems and the ways she was treated when she was in active addiction.

But I’m in the process of my anger turning into power,” she said.

Denise: ‘I feel closer to Gabe when I talk about him’

She’s not in recovery from substance use. But Denise Ewing is moving through her own sort of recovery, from loss.

Ewing, a public health nurse based in Sitka, lost her son Gabe Johnston to an overdose in January following his long-standing battle with opioid misuse. Now, her mission is to pay tribute to him through Project Gabe — an initiative that places opioid response kits into seafood processing plants and other businesses amid rising overdose-related deaths statewide.

Along with those kits, Ewing is spreading Gabe’s story.

“He left a large hole in a big family. And everybody deals with that in their own way,” she said. “But we talk about him, and we celebrate him. And we talk about the good.”

When it comes to Gabe, there’s a lot of good to talk about.

Gabe, Ewing said, was one of those people who brought the party with him. He was witty and loyal and could make a friend out of anyone.

“We would say, ‘If you don’t know Gabe, just give him five minutes,’” she said. “Just give him five minutes and he would win you over.’”

But there was another side to him, too, Ewing said, that was more withdrawn and quieter. He became addicted to opiates in high school after trying pills from a friend’s supply, prescribed after a bad accident. From there grew a painful addiction that led him to heroin and meth.

“It has been a very personal journey to me, to watch how opioids can infiltrate and destroy and manipulate and change a person to somebody sometimes you don’t even recognize,” she said.

Ultimately, his addiction led him to a fatal drug supply containing the potent and deadly carfentanil, which is chemically similar to the synthetic opiate fentanyl, but 100 times more potent.

But Ewing said she focuses on what characterized Gabe in the best of times, like how he made a point of including everyone in conversation and how he could make anyone laugh, from his grandmother to the best friends he kept since high school.

“The hurt will always be there. But to be able to share with other people helps,” Ewing said. “And to hear where other people are at and know that you can help them, that helps.”

August 24 would’ve been his 31st birthday. Ewing said on that day, she spoke with a group about Project Gabe.

“It really is a healing thing,” Ewing said. “I feel closer to Gabe when I talk about him.”

Helping others in recovery

Project Gabe has been growing steadily since launching in March, right before herring season in Sitka. Ewing said they’ve distributed 200 kits in Southeast. This fall, she’s traveling to Kodiak to bring the program there.

Giving back has been important to Tim Easterly and Naomi Watkins’ recovery journeys, too.

Even as deaths linked to overdose continue to rise, Easterly said Project Hope is trying to stay nimble and keep pace with the times, connecting with more organizations to house overdose reversal kits.

“How lucky am I to everyday be able to give back and help other people that are in a similar position,” Easterly said.

Angasan found that her personal experience with addiction — once a deep source of shame and anger — has been a credential of sorts in her advocacy work.

“I never would’ve thought I’d be a part of some kind of change in that area,” she said. “Just saying, ‘We need a suboxone clinic.’ And people are listening to me.”

Watkins participated in the 2022 Medications for Addiction Treatment conference in September. In addition to conferences and clinical talk, she often tells her own story of recovery to show others that it’s possible.

“Let’s hear it from the people who have been through it,” she said. “Let’s hear it from the real-life people who are on the other side.”

From Watkin’s place on the other side, watching others find the same joy in recovery, she said the view is pretty good.

Recovery Resources

· End Stigma. Find Treatment. Begin Healing.

· Treatment Resources

· Get Naloxone (Project HOPE)

This story was sponsored by the State of Alaska Department of Health. The Department’s mission is to promote the health, well-being, and self-sufficiency of Alaskans.

This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the State of Alaska Department of Health. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.