After a hard path to sobriety, Nanwalek couple helps others find the way

A couple in Nanwalek is sharing their story to help create a supportive space for others in the village on the path to recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

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Burt and Sherry are sitting side by side in the main room of an old, sparsely furnished clinic. We’re the only people in the building.

They’re both a bit nervous, and understandably so. They’re going to share something a lot of people wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about to a complete stranger.

“You know it’s actually a really scary process to go into when you’re coming out of something disastrous and life threatening,” says Burt.

He’s talking about alcoholism and addiction his long and often trying journey to sobriety.

“In the beginning, I was going through all this chaos, drinking and drugging. I think I was just like honed in to it. My life was kind of dwindling, hanging by a thread, literally,” says Burt.

And then, Burt got into trouble. About a year ago he ended up with a court order to enter a recovery program. Part of the program was a requirement to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But there was no AA group and Burt had no long term plan or support system for staying sober in the village where he developed his addiction.

“At first I was, why do I have to do this? Why do I have to be sober just because he’s in trouble and he has to do it?” says Sherry.

He turned to his partner of a decade, Sherry. And she stepped up.

“But, it’s like, you know, then you start seeing in order to really share your life together, you have to be in the same mode, and so you have to understand each other. So, it’s a lot easier. I knew I had to put my foot down and stop my behavior in order to help him,” says Sherry.

She stopped drinking. She stopped using marijuana. It wasn’t easy, but Sherry says it was absolutely worth it.

“He’s been so different. It’s great because I always knew he had it in him,” says Sherry. “This is like anything else in life. If you really care about each other and you want to help each other, you see that, and you will do anything to keep that relationship going.”

“I think she’s like the best person I’d ever meet to help me with this struggle that I’ve had a lot of my years, you know, being in the drunkenness world and just out of whack. Honestly, I feel like the luckiest man alive,” says Burt.

Sherry says they don’t worry so much about the future and about the small things. They take life one day at a time.

“There’s more light in my life. I’m happier. I just have a good strong sense of stability with myself and I think it’s just the awesomest thing. I never thought I could find it where I live at or in my own hometown,” says Burt.

That’s the key. Being home, in the village. There used to be an AA group in Nanwalek, but it dwindled to nothing over the years. Like with Burt, people would be forced to leave the village to fulfill court order requirements. That meant relapse was common when people came back home, removed from the treatment environment. So Burt decided it was time to change that. He got all his paperwork in order, and in January of this year, restarted the local AA group once again, with Sherry by his side.

“I think a lot of people feel safer and more secure to be in their own home and community,” says Sherry. “So, we worked really hard to do what we had to to keep this group going. And, we have been doing it for eight months now.”

They’ve had some success. People are starting to attend meetings. Sherry says she thinks sobriety can have a really positive effect on the entire village, economically, socially, communally.

“You know, other people are there reaching out to help you, to hold your hand. Sometimes we forget that and as a community, we need to hold on to that and stay together and trust and understand each other,” says Sherry.

“The thing I could see with the community here, it would bring us all together like the times of when I remember there was a lot of togetherness and everyone did everything together and just had fun. It was a lifting time. You just felt lifted, light, happy joyous,” says Burt.

Burt says he remembers the time before alcohol hit the village hard. He remembers when the last AA group was strong.

“Sometimes I miss those days and I’d like to see them come back and I hope one day I could do that through this program to really help and reach out with the stuff that I’ve learned and to pass it on and hope that the village will flourish once again,” says Burt.

He says he’s grateful the village has accepted the new AA program. But it’s just the beginning. He’s now working on becoming a licensed counselor in the hopes of starting a full recovery program in the village. Then, when someone needs help, their journey can begin and end right at home.