Recovery: A lesson in perseverance

Kara Nelson has tried again and again, enduring relapses and returns to jail
Kara Nelson pauses in October 2013 outside the Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility, where she was once incarcerated.

Addiction doesn’t discriminate and it doesn’t let go — ask Kara Nelson. She came from a good, supportive family, she said, and she tried many times to prevail over her disease.


She was a seemingly normal mother of three when things spiraled out of control, but trauma struck young and her attempts to find some kind of escape with substances began at age 13.

Nelson grew up in Southeast Alaska, mostly in Ketchikan. Her father was a logger and raised his family mostly in logging camps across the region.

“I drank — I didn’t even know what it was, I didn’t care — I drank the whole thing. And I felt like it was a place where I belonged for the first time,” she said.

At that age, she didn’t use drugs or alcohol a lot, but when high school came along in Ketchikan, fun with friends meant partying. It meant drinking and smoking pot. She tried acid and cocaine.

“I didn’t feel that I was different from anyone else, we were just people hanging out who liked to party. It was a normal teen experience,” she said.

Later in high school, though, it became more than casual partying, and she moved out of her home because she wasn’t allowed to go to a party on a school night. From that point on, she was in survival mode and her substance abuse was a numbing agent.

Despite her extracurricular drinking and drug use in high school, she said she was a good student and an athlete, she took college-credit courses and got good grades — then she dropped out with only two credits needed to graduate. She said she didn’t care.

“I felt like nothing was real,” Nelson said. “I somehow managed to get through all these situations that I can’t think for the life of me how I got through them.”

She found herself in an abusive relationship and had her first child at 21. Not long after, she had twins. Not long after that, she got her third DWI charge.

She went to treatment but didn’t view herself as having a drinking problem, and though she took prescription pills, they were prescribed to her. She acknowledged that there wasn’t a single day since her sophomore year of high school that she could remember not using some sort of substance.

“That was my first intro to recovery. That was the first time I saw there was a solution,” she said.

She stayed sober for several years and caught a glimpse of herself without substance abuse. She couldn’t shake her insecurities, though, and she re-entered a relationship with the father of her children.

“Next thing you know, I was high and wasted and had no idea how I’d gotten there. Obviously it was a process, but it happened so fast,” Nelson said. “I went to the darkest places I could ever even imagine at that time.”

Having been in recovery, she knew there was a solution, but at that time it led to so much shame and guilt that she said she didn’t want to be alive.

“I wasn’t suicidal, but to be there every day I just had to be completely gone, out of there,” she explained.

She had a job, three children, a home, a car — “we looked normal from the outside,” she said.

Addiction meant her life and actions were anything but normal. She used cocaine at work, smoked pot, drank, used heroin — whatever she could get her hands on.

“I lost my job, I lost everything because of using, and ended up starting to sell drugs,” she said.

She got addicted to that, too.

It felt like she was at rock bottom for years, she said, describing it as being brought to “a place beyond brokenness.”

The day she was arrested in 2007 she calls “the best day ever.”

It started her journey to recovery — a winding path with time in jail and halfway houses, relapses, returns to jail and a lot of failures.

Her two drug-related felonies got her six years in jail with four suspended and four years of probation. During these years her children were living with her parents, and they moved to Juneau. Nelson was transferred between different facilities but finished her time at Lemon Creek Correctional Center and moved into a halfway house in Juneau.

She wanted to rebuild relationships with her children and she wanted to be clean and sober, she said, but when she found herself in a three-quarters house, she said it was not a sober environment.

She relapsed and went back to jail, ruining any headway she had made with her children.

“Several times I didn’t make it,” she said. That changed in 2010 and 2011 when “something was different.”

Nelson was able to shed some of what was holding back her recovery as she learned to accept herself by being around people who accepted her, she said — “That’s where my recovery really started.”

She has been in recovery and sober since early 2011 and has made changes in herself and in her life. She said she’s stopped dwelling on feelings of guilt and instead finds pride and joy in having overcome her substance abuse problems and the resulting obstacles.

Every day she does something for recovery, she said — recovery is a day-by-day state of being. That often manifests as trying to help other people with experiences similar to her own.

She is part of the Juneau Re-entry Coalition and is working toward getting the sober-living group home Haven House on line.

“I love to advocate recovery,” she said. “And I feel so passionate about showing the community that we are worthy and we’re not people to be afraid of. Recovery is a beautiful thing.”

Recovery: A lesson in humility


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