Their days aren’t as exciting as they used to be, and that’s exactly how they want it.
Finishing a morning shift as a barista/bartender at the Juneau International Airport, Nick Waterhouse got home a little after noon on Wednesday. His girlfriend Meagan Dayton was there, spending time with their baby daughter Brooklynn.
Their schedule was open, as it usually is these days. Instead of spending their mornings promising each other that this would finally be the day that they’d get sober, now they spend their mornings either at work or staying with Brooklynn. Instead of getting high, now they like to take walks along the Dredge Lake Trail or the Back Loop Trail by the airport.
Sometimes Meagan makes dinner, like fried or baked chicken. Sometimes they go bowling.
“It’s great,” Waterhouse said of their new life. “I love it. But it’s not exciting. That’s for damn sure. It’s not as exciting as it was before.”
Waterhouse started smoking pot at a fairly young age before moving on to harder drugs around the time he was 18. Dayton began with Oxycontin before moving on to heroin about six years ago.
Both of them have spent the vast majority of their lives in Juneau. Dayton was born in St. Louis but moved to Alaska’s capital when she was 2.
Waterhouse was born and raised here. He was sent out of state when he was younger for getting in legal trouble due to drug use. He enlisted and spent almost two years in Afghanistan. But every time he left the state, it wasn’t for long.
“Of course I found my way back,” Waterhouse said. “Everybody does. It’s Juneau.”
For both of them, being back in Juneau meant continuing to use.
“I think it’s just the epidemic in this town,” Dayton said, laughing humorlessly. “A lot of peers do it, so starting at a young age, it just becomes your lifestyle.”
Though it’s not on the road system, Juneau has been unable to avoid the spread of the nationwide opioid epidemic. In 2015, there were 112 emergency room visits in Alaska due to heroin overdoses, and 10 of them were in Juneau, according to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. In the same year, 5 percent of the state’s prescription opioid emergency room visits were in Juneau.
Dayton and Waterhouse have been close friends since middle school before becoming a couple last year, and it became clear over the years that to get sober, they’d need to cut themselves off from the others.
Dayton said she’s tried to quit a few times, and learned something from each time she did. One of the biggest lessons, she said, was that “you literally can’t talk to anybody you were once using with.”
Different than treatment
Both had tried different treatment methods and had tried to quit multiple times, getting discouraged and “jaded,” as they said it, toward the idea of treatment.
As Dayton and Waterhouse struggled to get clean, a group of doctors at Bartlett Regional Hospital were working to bring a new treatment approach to Juneau. The treatment method, known as Medication Assisted Treatment, had been used in a few places throughout the country with great success.
The approach uses a drug called Suboxone to help balance brain chemistry to clear the mind. This allows recovering addicts to focus on the task at hand, whether it’s applying for jobs, interacting with family or going to counseling sessions at Rainforest Recovery Center. The treatment allows addicts to go through recovery program without being admitted to an inpatient facility.
The hospital received a grant in December 2016 to start the program, which ended up getting off the ground in April of this year.
Word of the new treatment method reached Dayton and Waterhouse, and they jumped at the opportunity. Dayton was immediately accepted into the program, while Waterhouse had to wait a couple weeks before he was accepted.
Almost immediately, they began making progress. Waterhouse said the Suboxone was even more effective than he thought it would be.
“There’s a million and one excuses not to take it,” Waterhouse said, “but as soon as we started taking it, that was the ‘ah’ moment for me, realizing how much it was helping. Like, I felt normal again.”
There were days when cravings were bad, and days when one of them wouldn’t feel great, but they’ve made it through since joining the program earlier this summer. Both said that they feel less tempted to relapse now than they have in past recovery attempts.
The only critique Waterhouse had about the program is that it took a couple weeks to get in. Both he and Dayton said it’s vital that when an addict is ready to seek treatment that the addict gets into treatment as soon as possible. Otherwise, the desire to get clean might pass.
Medical Director of Behavioral Health Jenna Hiestand said the program is getting better at this.
“Whenever you start a new program, you’re kind of working out the kinks and trying to figure out what’s necessary and what isn’t necessary with regulations and what paperwork and what forms need to be done,” Hiestand said. “As time has gone on, we’ve been trying to remove unnecessary hurdles.”
They’ve eliminated requirements and steps to getting into the program, Hiestand said, such as a patient having a primary care physician prior to starting the program.
Hiestand said that more and more people are joining the program, as she’s written almost 100 prescriptions for the treatment since April. Not every treatment will work for every patient, and some have struggled with the program, but there are success stories such as Dayton and Waterhouse.
If people are seeking help, Hiestand said, getting started in the program is as easy as calling 796-8690 and in some cases she can meet with prospective patients the very same day.
Hiestand said patients start off by meeting with a doctor once a week, and then as the program goes along the meetings spread out a little. Dayton and Waterhouse said their meetings are about once every two or three weeks at the moment. They’re still in the program and continuing to take Suboxone every morning.
Life began to get a little easier for Dayton and Waterhouse after entering the program. Instead of getting turned down for jobs, Waterhouse got multiple offers. They both want to tell others struggling with addiction that if they’re ready to seek treatment, this program works.
“I’ve always been iffy about treatment,” Dayton said. “I’ve always felt like, if you wanna quit, it’s gonna happen because you want to. I’ve never really believed in treatment, but this program’s completely different to me than ‘treatment,’ I guess.”
‘My one reason’
Dayton and Waterhouse were telling their story in the parking lot at Rainforest Recovery Center on Wednesday afternoon, speaking during a rare half hour when the rain wasn’t falling.
Wearing a white fleece jacket, Dayton held a heavily-decorated car seat by its handle. In it, Brooklynn slept calmly, wrapped in a blanket. As if staying sober weren’t incentive enough, Dayton acknowledged that she has an even bigger motivator to stay clean now.
“I think it’s different for each person,” Dayton said. “You find that one reason to get sober and I found my one reason.”
Dayton said she’s hit rock bottom a number of times, but now she’s at the opposite end of the spectrum. Waterhouse, even after serving two years in Afghanistan, said he’s prouder of himself than he’s ever been.
To cap it all off, Brooklynn’s healthy and happy. Taking Suboxone every morning helps them go about their day with a clearer mind, but they have another source of motivation every morning.
“It’s nice to find happiness not revolved around something,” Dayton said. “Before, it was like, you were happy when you had drugs in your hand and you were feeling OK, and happiness came after that. Now it’s like, the simplest little thing of waking up and …”
“Her smiling,” Waterhouse said, looking down at Brooklynn.
“…seeing your baby and her smiling,” Dayton finished, “or being in a really good relationship. Little things make you happy again that didn’t before.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.