When a step back into prison is really a jump forward on the road to recovery

Community members gathered for a conversation at Anvil Mountain Correctional Center. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Slingsby.)

Alexandria Niksik has been in and out of prison for seven years. Her most recent return home only lasted 16 days. But what might look like failure from the outside is actually a key step toward success and recovery from alcohol misuse.

When Niksik was a kid in St. Michael, a village in Western Alaska, she learned some lessons pretty quickly.

“With just violence being a part of growing up in my childhood, it was always my first instinct to react violently,” she said during an interview at Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome in the late summer. “Because I never knew any other way to express my emotions properly.”

Niksik saw some of the adults in her life using alcohol as a way to cope with their trauma from childhood, she said, so she started doing the same thing.

“Either numbing or enhancing my emotions, whether they were negative or positive, I’d always turned to alcohol to express my emotions,” she explained.

By 18, Niksik was involved with the criminal justice system. For a few years, she moved between Anvil Mountain Correctional Center and her village where she stayed with her family and her children. Eventually, she was sent to Hiland Mountain, the women’s prison in Eagle River – a huge change for her. There she received intensive outpatient treatment for alcohol misuse.

“I learned things that my parents didn’t have a chance to learn, and it played a role with how I should be a better person,” Niksik reflected.

She learned things like coping skills and ways to deal with her emotions. And then, she was released. Niksik went back to St. Michael, back to her old friends and her old life. She said she was okay when she was with her children because they motivated her to stay sober. But when they left to stay with other family members, “when they weren’t with me, I felt lost completely.”

She paused, looking down.

“Just lost. I didn’t know what to do with myself when I didn’t have my children around,” Niksik said.

Niksik said she starting hanging out with the same people as before and she gave in to peer pressure to start drinking again.

“It’s hard to change when you’re the only one who knows the steps to change and want to change,” she said. “Because those guys in St. Michael, they don’t have the opportunity that I did. And I was very overwhelmed with the step-up of showing them how to be there for them in the proper way that people were for me.”

After 16 days, the State Troopers took her back to Anvil Mountain.

David Patterson Silver Wolf, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis, said Niksik’s situation is common. He has worked as a treatment provider and a researcher.

“Behavior changes is hard, right?” Silver Wolf said. “And it’s really hard to do when you have people who are convincing you that you don’t need a change.”

Patterson Silver Wolf is also a person in long-term recovery. He said having a support system of people who understand the changes you are trying to make is essential.

“I had these routines of using alcohol and drugs and doing those things,” Silver Wolf said. “I had to reinvent my whole self, which required that I had to make new friends and go to another community and oftentimes avoid the community where I gave in where it was easy to give in.”

He said he also needed hope and motivation for change, just as Niksik needed the motivation of supporting her children.

Finding new people to hang out with is easier said than done in a village of 400, but Niksik said that her brief trip back to her village this summer actually gave her hope that she could do that.

“With the time that I was home, I learned who to avoid and who I was most vulnerable against when it came to questioning on whether I wanted to party with them or not,” Niksik said.

The experience was a reality check about what she needs to do in the future.

“I not only hurt myself or my parents, but I hurt my son. That hurts me the most because the look in his eyes when the Troopers came to pick me up again. It’s still tearing at my heart,” Niksik said, her voice catching. “He still questions on why I had to come back to jail.”

Now, Niksik is heading to a long-term residential treatment program where she can live with her son. She said she’s ready to focus on her sobriety and prepare herself to return home.

She has plans for her future in St. Michael. She’s going to care for her parents and open a restaurant. And she’s going to be a supportive mother for her children.