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Nikki Ray, on growing up in a family struggling with drug addiction, run-ins with the law, getting clean and serving her community.

(Publication Date: 9.6.22)

Overview: Nikki Ray and We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream host Adam Williams talk about Nikki growing up in a family that struggles with addiction, and how she too would end up experiencing many years of active drug addiction, starting at a pretty young age.

 

Nikki and Adam talk about her growing up in that environment and how it would lead to some significant losses in her life. They talk about why those losses pushed Nikki deeper into using drugs, rather than being the wake-up calls that might have helped her to shift course. In the process, she gives listeners insights into the disease, as experienced by someone in active addiction.

 

They talk about run-ins with the law, and shame and guilt. And, ultimately, self-acceptance and recovery, and getting clean and sober. Nikki now serves the community as a crisis peer at Sol Vista Health in Salida, Colo., and as a peer coach who leads a local meeting for others struggling with addiction, through Peer Empowerment Recovery Community Solutions.

 

Nikki also talks about how her lived experience affects her perspective as a mother to a teenage daughter and a toddler son.

SHOW NOTES, LINKS & TRANSCRIPT

The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.

Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.

 

Peer Empowerment Recovery Community Solutions (PERCS)

Website: chaffeeresources.com/resource/ark-valley-recovery

Facebook: facebook.com/percs.recovery

 

Sol Vista Health

“Substance Use” web page: solvistahealth.org/services/addiction-recovery

 

We Are Chaffee

Website: wearechaffee.org

Facebook: facebook.com/WeAreChaffee

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffee

CREDITS

Looking Upstream Host & Photographer: Adam Williams

Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray

Producer & We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin

We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby

Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom

Director of Chaffee Housing Authority: Becky Gray

 

TRANSCRIPT

Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service. Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.

 

[Intro music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (00:08): Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a human-forward conversational podcast based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm your host, Adam Williams. Today's guest is Nikki Ray. As you'll hear, Nikki does such an amazing job sharing her story.

 

It's one that's raw and real, and she's so endearingly willing to be vulnerable and candid. And that's what we're after here with this podcast, connecting through personal and vulnerable stories, to engage with our community on a human level. With empathy, and compassion, and understanding.

 

Underlying these stories are what are known as upstream health factors. They have a big, big impact on all of us, even if we don't immediately recognize it. Factors such as housing and living conditions, social inequities, and many related policies and systems. And it's about how those lead to downstream effects on social behaviors and health, and ultimately the wellbeing of all of us as a community.

 

So again, today's guest, Nikki Ray. Nikki grew up in a family that struggles with addiction. And she too would end up experiencing many years of active drug addiction starting at a pretty young age. We talk about her growing up in that environment and how it would lead to some significant losses in her life.

 

We talk about why those losses push Nikki deeper into using drugs, rather than being the wake up calls that might have helped her to shift course. In the process, Nikki gives us insights into the disease as experienced by someone in active addiction.

 

(01:35): We talk about run-ins with the law, and shame, and guilt. And ultimately, self-acceptance and recovery. Not to spoil anything, but Nikki has been clean and sober for more than three years now. She's become a public presence. She serves the community as a crisis peer at Solvista Health in Salida, Colorado, and as a peer coach who leads a local meeting for others struggling with addiction.

 

The last area I'll mention right now that we got into in our conversation, parent to parent, is how Nikki's lived experience affects her perspective as a mother to a teenage daughter and a toddler son. It's a packed hour of conversation with a ton of heart. Here it is, a conversation with Nikki Ray.

 

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

 

Adam Williams (02:24): Nikki, welcome to Looking Upstream. I have been looking forward to talking with you. I'm excited about what you have to share today. So again, welcome.

 

Nikki Ray (02:32): Thank you for having me.

 

Adam Williams (02:34): I know that you have a deep story of extraordinary experience and we're going to get into those deeper waters pretty soon. But I want to start with where you are today, what the work is you're doing today as a crisis peer with Solvista Health, and working on your education as well. So take that away, tell us what is it you've got going on right now?

 

Nikki Ray (02:54): So right now, like I said, I work with Solvista Health on the crisis team. I am also just getting enrolled into school for the certified addiction technician training program, part of that. I am also a recovery coach for an organization called Perks, which is Peer Empowered Recovery Community Solutions. And we're very passionate about the things that we're trying to do out in the community. I love helping people in crisis, I love the crisis work. And it just really gives me a sense of belonging and helping people.

 

Adam Williams (03:32): And it means something to be a crisis peer, there is story to that, and that's where we're going to go with this in today's conversation, right? That is based on lived experience. There's a lot of lived experience you have to share, more than we're going to get to in this hour. But please start at wherever you feel like is the appropriate beginning. What has led you to this place of that experience that you now share with people in crisis?

 

Nikki Ray (04:01): So lived experience is a huge thing with people in crisis. It's really hard to be a peer and understand where people are coming from without having that lived experience. I would have to say that my journey began a long time ago. I was 14 years old when I started experimenting with cigarettes, weed, things like that. What I consider a little bit of, not the strong stuff.

 

I was raised in addiction, so both of my parents were addicts. Both of my parents passed away from drug related problems. It was completely normal in my family to go and ask another family member for a pain pill, or to go and ask a family member to go and buy you some illicit drugs off the street. And that was just the norm for me.

 

(04:59): My dad was in prison my entire life, well, not my entire life, but all the way up till I was about 15 years old. So I, every other weekend, remember going to the state prisons in Arkansas to visit my father. And I would say that at about 15 was when I really started experimenting with some of the harder substances like Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Adderall. And where I was from, in the small town that I'm from of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, there's really not much more to do there. And it just kept going, getting harder and harder.

 

I was doing LSD, acid, mushrooms. Anything that I could pretty much get my hands on. And that was the continuous story for the next two or three years. I caught some charges as a minor, some pretty serious charges as a minor, that we worked through. But living in the life of substances is really all that I had known growing up.

 

Adam Williams (06:11): When you got in trouble, that first time for it, I can only guess then that if this is what you're surrounded by, that wasn't necessarily a big deal? Was how was that looked at by the family and dealt with?

 

Nikki Ray (06:28): So it wasn't a big deal, but it was, because I was bringing attention to the family as well. The eyes were on us now because of what I had done. My mom tried to take me away from Arkansas so I didn't have to face the charges because I was a minor.

 

Adam Williams (06:53): As in flee law enforcement?

 

Nikki Ray (06:56): Yes, flee my court date.

 

Adam Williams (06:57): Okay. So how many people are we talking about in your family? Do you have siblings? Are we talking extended? How deep did this run? And then also, I'm curious if you can paint a picture of what this was like. Maybe especially before you're a young teenager who started working with these substances yourself. Because as you're an even younger child, you're watching whatever's happening, you're seeing it, you're feeling it. It's got to have an impact on you in school and everything.

 

Nikki Ray (07:30): So it runs very deep in my family. I don't think that there was an immediate close person, maybe a random cousin or here that wasn't involved with substance use. I have a little brother that's seven years younger than me that is currently struggling with substance use disorder right now. Aunts, uncles.

 

I was smoking methamphetamine with aunts when I was 15 years old in Arkansas. It's not that it was a glorified thing to do, and I really don't know why they felt so comfortable doing it with me at a young age. But it does run deep in my family. And some people have gotten help, and have sought recovery, and have stuck with it. But the majority haven't, and it's unfortunate.

 

(08:21): When I was younger, before I even started messing around. Like you had mentioned, because of the lifestyle that I had lived in, my mother went to rehab for six months when I was in the sixth grade and I had to stay with family because I couldn't go. And I knew what a track mark was when I was 11 years old because my mother struggled with IV use of crack cocaine. And I didn't understand back then. I remember one time me asking my mom why couldn't she stop? She had track marks all up and down her arm. And I asked her why she couldn't stop, why she didn't love me enough to stop.

 

(09:01): And I was 10, 11 years old. I didn't understand at that point how bad the disease had her. And I had friends that weren't allowed to come over. It was one of those things where I could go over there, but they couldn't come over to my house. My mom was in our local newspaper because she had gotten busted selling drugs, manufacturing and selling drugs, which is initially what made her go to rehab afterwards.

 

And I was from a small town, something similar to Salida, and I was very stigmatized. I'm lucky that I still have a few really good friends from back home. But for the most part, it was a very lonely experience.

 

Adam Williams (09:50): I'm wondering about the stability in the house in general, because I can only imagine that's very difficult then for you. If you're feeling these things, there's got to be hurt, anger. Because you brought up love. It's like, well, if you don't love me enough to stop this, what's going on? And then the environment in general in terms of, well, how did that affect you in schooling, your brother?

 

How does that affect your parents and all these other relatives in terms of work? Which there's a domino effect. How does that affect where you're living and how you're living? And are you getting the care and all those things that you need? I mean, am I on track there?

 

Nikki Ray (10:26): So I would have to say that my mom was, in a sense, a functioning addict. She made some mistakes. I always had a roof over my head, I always had food on the table, I always had everything that I ever needed in front of me. She just struggled. And I know now that she loved me, because I know now what that disease can do to someone and how it can completely overtake your body.

 

As far as routines go, there really wasn't much routine other than when school happened. But my mother did work. She worked all the way up till she got disability. And after she got disability, it seemed like everyone in my family realized how easy it was to get disability. Nobody really works. Everybody just hopes, files for that unemployment or disability and hopes that they can get some type of state or government assistance.

 

Adam Williams (11:29): I'm thinking that probably plays into the stories that some people, we're a society that for those who don't have this experience in their background, if we look at the collective of society, it's very easy to not have compassion, not have understanding of what it does to your body, how that consumes your life, and your focus, and things like what you're describing.

 

So then to hear you say that, where they figured out the system that would kind of enable them. I think for someone who's already got this in mind, that's exactly what I think when I think of people in this situation. So what do you have to say, maybe to those people, that might encourage some empathy from them to come back and say, okay, maybe I understand this a little better now. It's not just a stereotype.

 

Nikki Ray (12:22): So you're talking about from an outsider's perspective? Okay. So an outsider's perspective, just know that this is 100%, most definitely, this is a disease. We are affected by a disease. People that suffer from substance use disorder. You don't stop giving insulin to a diabetic just because they ate some sugar.

 

Our brains are not wired like other peoples. Just like ADD, ADHD, the wiring is different. And we don't choose this lifestyle. Nobody chooses to be an addict. It is one of the most grueling and tough lifestyles that you could live. And nobody, I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, that's not something that's like, oh yeah, let me go be an active drug user today.

 

(13:19): And it's the way that you approach the situation. It's knowing that they want to stop. Not everyone wants to stop, some people love living in that lifestyle. But just because they're actively using doesn't mean that they don't want to stop or that they deserve any less help than anyone else around them that is suffering.

 

Maybe they just need a little bit more of a support system to know that people are there, and care for them, and love them, and want to help them through this situation. But also know your boundaries so you're not enabling that person as well. Because there's a very fine line between enabling someone and being there for support for someone.

 

Adam Williams (14:03): I think what we're talking about is maybe something like a coping mechanism. If what they found in being able to get disability, it was not about an easy way out of life to have this luxurious life. But rather it simply was one piece of how they were coping with where they were. What you're describing as this disease and the way that it affects the brain. And again, what that focus is, if you're so driven, I mean, is it almost all a person can think of?

 

Nikki Ray (14:34): Pretty much. It really is, when you are in that lifestyle, it is very consuming. And people will do whatever they have to, manipulating paperwork to get on food stamps, to get on government support, Social Security, disability. They do that so it can help them live their active using lifestyle. And it makes it easy. And I'm not saying that everyone that goes through active addiction, or everyone that's on social security, doesn't need it.

 

That's the furthest thing that I'm saying. But a lot of people do take advantage and abuse of that resource that we have for people just to benefit themselves. And it's really easy to do it when you have some issues, some health issues, and you can just go file this piece of paperwork and you get free money every month. And that some people really do take advantage of that. And it's just easy to be able to continue that lifestyle. If nobody steps in and says, "Hey, this is wrong, let me help you."

 

Adam Williams (15:50): For someone who is an outsider and thinks that's exactly why we shouldn't have that program. We shouldn't have food stamps for this reason. We shouldn't have disability and support for these people for these reasons.

 

Nikki Ray (16:04): So are you saying that you want to basically vet every single person that goes through having give them a substance use evaluation to see if they are going to use the funds correctly or not? That would be a really hard expectation to set up. And picking and choosing what people deserve it and what people don't, that shouldn't be our choice. Oh hey, you don't have a history of being an addict, so here you deserve this. Or hey, you do have a history of being an addict, so we're only going to give you a hundred dollars a month to live off of instead of 700 to live off of because of your history.

 

(16:51): And that kind of goes back around to the diabetic situation. We don't stop giving insulin to people that have diabetes, even though they're not choosing a healthy diet. And we need to show more resources, we need to show more support, and break that stigma, and let these people know that we're here for help. Because most of the time substance use disorder and mental health issues go hand in hand.

 

And most of the time there's an underlying cause as to why people are using. And if we can just expand these resources, and be able to help people more and get to that underlying problem. It's not taking their money away, it's getting to the root of the problem that is causing these urges for them.

 

Adam Williams (17:42): Yeah. We all have the ways that we react to life, act out, the underlying causes of whatever it is we're doing right now. Maybe not all of us go to hard drug use. Alcohol is obviously a very common one that people abuse, and how that affects lives and families all up and down whatever socioeconomic scale you want to choose in this country.

 

We all have our ways of maybe not dealing with something, or not knowing how to, or not getting the help to deal with what's inside us, right? So this is just another example of that, and it's a serious one.

 

You mentioned the mental health matters. You have experience with that, that started also at a young age. Do you care to share about that?

 

Nikki Ray (18:25): Yeah. So my first trip to a mental health institution, I was 15 years old, and I had taken some Xanax. And I was completely uneducated, I didn't really know what I was doing that much. And I took some, and I didn't get high, so I took some more. And I ended up getting too high. And the neighbors ended up calling the cops on me, and said that I tried to kill myself, and they took me off to an inpatient facility. And there I was pumped with several psychotic medications.

 

(19:13): And during that time, my mother who was also suffering from addiction, was trying to move away from her area so she can recover. She was trying to get sober from her drug of choice as well. So when I got out, she had moved us to a different city with a man that she knew very well. And I was given Lithium, Seroquel and Depakote, very strong milligrams of those three drugs. And I was basically a walking zombie at that point.

 

And my mom's best friend would give my little brother a Flintstone vitamin and say, "Hey, there's your vitamin." Then give me my vitamin and say, "Here's your adult vitamin." And it would be a 20 milligram Oxycontin. And that happened for a period of a few months. And I didn't know at that time that I wasn't supposed to be getting messed up.

 

Because I was getting messed up for my meds that I was prescribed anyways. And I just didn't know that I wasn't supposed to be getting that messed up. And yeah, it led to him sexually assaulting me, which led to another mental institution shortly after that.

 

Adam Williams (20:39): Okay. Were you still living in Arkansas at the time?

 

Nikki Ray (20:42): Yeah. Yeah.

 

Adam Williams (20:42): Okay. Is there more you care to share about that experience in those institutions, those facilities? Did those provide you any sort of support and help? Any motivation or view to what your future might be outside of what you had been experiencing?

 

Nikki Ray (21:02): Personally? I was so young. I mean, I was a minor. I don't think I let it help. And I wasn't there actually doing treatment. It was just almost like a vacation for me. I was getting away from my family, everyone else, everything that was going on. So I really can't give you an honest answer to that, because I really didn't let it work.

 

Adam Williams (21:31): Okay. Yeah. I think a lot of times when we're young, that certainly is a common experience. It's like, whatever you bring to us and you tell us this will be a good thing. We're going to push back, we're going to resist, right? How long were you there?

 

Nikki Ray (21:44): Two weeks. Both times.

 

Adam Williams (21:46): Okay. And then let's say after that second time and you come out of there, life proceeds as it had been?

 

Nikki Ray (21:54): Oh yes. Life proceeds as it had been. And shortly after that was when I caught the charge that I was facing in Arkansas, that my mother wanted to take me away from Arkansas for.

 

Adam Williams (22:08): Where did she want to take you? What did she think was this plan to evade the law?

 

Nikki Ray (22:14): She actually took me here to Colorado until I was 18.

 

Adam Williams (22:17): So she did, it wasn't just that she wanted to, that's what happened?

 

Nikki Ray (22:20): Yeah. That's what happened. She took me here until I was 18. And then I went back after I was 18.

 

Adam Williams (22:28): In order to face that and deal with whatever the consequences would be?

 

Nikki Ray (22:32): Yeah.

 

Adam Williams (22:32): What were those consequences?

 

Nikki Ray (22:34): Nothing, because I was a minor. And I was over 18 by the time that I had come back.

 

Adam Williams (22:41): So I mean, her idea seemed to have worked out then, in terms of how she wanted it to.

 

Nikki Ray (22:47): Yeah. I'm pretty sure that they were looking for her because of what she did. She was facing charges. But she passed away shortly after that, within a year, year and a half after that.

 

Adam Williams (22:59): After you had gone back?

 

Nikki Ray (23:00): Yeah.

 

Adam Williams (23:01): Did you live there then?

 

Nikki Ray (23:03): Yeah, I went back to live there. Cause we had moved, had all moved here for a little bit. And then she went back, and then I went back after I was 18. And then I went to my town, and turned myself in, and they didn't do anything.

 

Adam Williams (23:21): Thanks for showing up. You can leave now.

 

Nikki Ray (23:23): Yeah. Now that you're 18 there's nothing we can do now.

 

Adam Williams (23:26): Okay. Well, so then your mom died, you were young. Or saying based on the math there, it sounds like 18, 19 years old when she died. And then your dad also died, and not too long of a period different than that, right?

 

Nikki Ray (23:40): So my dad actually passed away when I was 18 and my mom when I was 20.

 

Adam Williams (23:45): Okay. Both from...

 

Nikki Ray (23:48): From drug related causes. My dad had stayed up for a few days on Methamphetamine and drank a half gallon of whiskey and took a handful of Xanax to try to come down. And he had a heart attack in his sleep.

Adam Williams (24:01): How old was he?

 

Nikki Ray (24:03): 47.

 

Adam Williams (24:04): So was the heart attack then considered related to what he had been doing to his body throughout his life with drugs?

 

Nikki Ray (24:10): So they didn't have a toxicology or an autopsy done. But I know personally, because of my stepmom, drugs were involved in the story that happened. But I don't know if all the stress that he had put on his body through his entire life is what caused it. But I know, I mean, you're mixing uppers with downers and that's not good for your heart in any way. So I'm assuming that was a big part of it.

 

Adam Williams (24:37): Okay. So you were young, barely into adulthood, both your parents have died from things related to a life of using drugs. I'm curious, and of course this is said without judgment, because part of that is what we have this program for is I feel like it's for me to listen with compassion and to help facilitate that story with compassion getting out.

 

But I do wonder, to the question then, does that not set off some sort of wake up for, whether it was you, which I'm talking with you, but anyone else in the family, as well, to say, this is where this leads, maybe now is the time that I get help.

 

(25:23): Walk me through that, in terms of understanding, helping all of us who don't have your experience. And if I haven't said this already, admittedly, I don't have the experience with the harder substances that you're talking about. I have some experience with alcohol and some of the lesser drugs. Alcohol being the primary drug that I would abuse and did for many years. But I don't know the harder substances you're talking about. So can you help me, and vicariously listeners who don't understand, understand why you would say, "Nope, I'm going to continue with this."

 

Nikki Ray (25:56): So that all comes down to the disease. As a person who watched both of her parents, and several loved ones, friends, not just my parents, but other family members of as well that have passed away from this disease. You would think that would be a wake up call for myself. I have a 13 year old daughter and I have a two and a half year old son, and I lost custody.

 

I lost my parents. I lost custody of my oldest daughter. And you would think that all of those would be wake up signs. I would slap myself in the head now just looking back thinking of it. But when you're in that mindset, actively using, you don't care who you hurt. And it's not that you don't care, it's that is the last thing that is on your mind. The first and foremost is getting high, or getting better from not getting sick. And how you're going to get that way tomorrow, the next day, and the next day. It's very interesting, and I'll have to look it up, and maybe we can put it on the website for the podcast.

 

(27:12): But there are certain drugs raise your endorphin levels so high above the normal range, that once you do that for so long, once you're using those substances and increasing your endorphins for so long, and then you just stop. Life is miserable. You're not even getting your baseline endorphins that your body's supposed to be creating because you have been off the scale from all of these substances that you're putting in your body. And we don't want to hurt the ones we love. We don't want to steal, lie, cheat. Those are all things that come with it. Just because when we're in active using, we just want to get better. We want to not feel that way.

 

(28:03): And for me, I was using to cover up, suppress the things, losing my parents, losing my daughter. I was suppressing those feelings. And that's where for me, mental health and addiction come hand in hand usually, and I really needed to work on those root causes. I've seen my parents pass away from addiction, but that just made things worse. I had more stuff that I was trying to cover up. I had more guilt, and shame, and remorse, and regret, and things that I was trying to cover up. And especially after they passed away, because in my heart, I knew better. But I couldn't stop it, I couldn't stop my actions. It's like I had no control over my body.

 

Adam Williams (28:49): You mentioned shame. But what I notice about your talking here now, and you and I had talked prior to this conversation today. And what I can really appreciate is, it's not shame that's in your voice now, but rather that somehow you have walked that path from those experiences we're talking about you having, it would seem to me, please, correct me if I'm wrong, but there is self-acceptance, there is love for yourself. There is a sense of dignity and accepting who you are and what your whole story is. Which of course is not only the addiction.

 

We started off by talking about you're now helping and serving in the community as a crisis peer. In other ways, there's recovery. What should we talk about with your recovery? Because that's so important. And that's actually, I think, where we need to shine light today, is that it didn't stay in addiction. This isn't a story about addiction. That's the foundation for the story of recovery.

 

Nikki Ray (29:51): So I would like to say that I'm here, and I'm recovering out loud. And it is possible for anyone. I've had so many people say, "You're too far gone. You're not worth it. She's never going to be anything. We might as well not even waste our time on her. She's not going to be anything any day." And it is possible. It is possible to climb out. Where you're at right now, it's not where you're going to be forever. You have to make that choice and you have to be ready to make that choice. But everyone hits rock bottom.

 

And here I am in the community today, I run an all recovery meeting on Monday nights at the Methodist church here in Salida, from 6 to 7:00 PM. I am a recovery coach. I help people through their journey of recovery, whatever that may look like for them. And I help people in crisis.

 

(30:51): And there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And I know that's such a cliche saying to do. But I promise you, there is a light at the end of that tunnel. And I have done some things in my past that I did feel a lot of guilt, and shame, and regret for. Especially things that I've done in this community. And I'm here today. I'm over three years sober. And I'm trying to help people on their journey. And we're here, we're recovering out loud, we're not going anywhere. We're trying to break the stigma with the groups and community organizations that I work with. And you can do it. You can get out of it. They say only one in ten people make it through the first year of sobriety. And I'm really here to help up those numbers.

 

Adam Williams (31:43): It's been more than three years being clean and sober now, correct?

 

Nikki Ray (31:47): Yeah. Just a little over three years, February, 2019.

 

Adam Williams (31:50): Okay. When you say that you've done things in this community, I'm thinking back to when you and I had talked initially, and you said that you had three felonies, you told me, I mean, you're so open with all of this and I thank you for that. You had said that you have a reputation in this town. And those people who are sort of condemning you, writing you off.

 

Would you care to share some of all that story? I know that's a key piece too, that you also are recovering from, and have faced down. And you're still here. Your mom took you away from Arkansas, but you've not left here. You're not running from that story. You're standing here and saying, "Yeah, that was part of my story. And I'm still here."

 

Nikki Ray (32:36): Right. So I'm a three-time felon. And all of my charges are identity theft. And I was on bond for two felonies. And I was working at a local establishment here. And I got caught going through employee's bags and purses to get their debit card and credit card information, to buy gift cards to trade for my drug dealers for drugs. And that caught me my third felony. And I endured a lot of shame, guilt, and stigma from this town. And I just want to let everyone know that I am sorry for what I did and I've forgiven myself for what I did. And I'm just trying to make this community a better place for us all.

 

Adam Williams (33:32): I think you just said forgave yourself. And that is ultimately, for any of us, whatever it is we're dealing with, I think one of the key pieces, right? It's so hard to forgive ourselves. And so often that's why I think we end up acting in whatever ways we do. We're lashing out based on that guilt, that shame, that fear of who we think others see us as. And we don't forgive ourselves.

 

So I love that you're sharing this with others. I can only imagine that working as a crisis peer, as a coach, leading a meeting in those roles, that's what you're encouraging others to do. What can you tell us about that experience of what it is you're offering and doing in the community with others who need to hear it?

 

Nikki Ray (34:15): So Perks is a really good organization that I work for, that's who I am the recovery coach for. And we are just a network of people with lived experience. All of us are recovery coaches with lived experience. And we help you through your journey. We don't identify with AA, NA, we don't identify with one particular pathway to recovery. We are, essentially, resource brokers to help you with what you need during your recovery.

 

We're not going to force you to walk through pathway of recovery if you're not ready. You reach out to us and we will be there for you. And we're trying to do really good things with that organization. We are putting on a meeting Monday nights, like I said, at Salida Methodist Church, from 6 to 7:00 PM. And we're hoping to do more community outreach stuff, some more barbecues. We're here to recover out loud. And we're really here to want to help break the stigma that comes along with people in recovery.

 

Adam Williams (35:26): That recovering out loud phrasing. Is that yours? Is that something that Percs uses or is that a commonly used expression and concept?

 

Nikki Ray (35:35): So that's something that me and Mike, the co-founder of the meeting, Andy Panther, him and I used that. Yeah. Recovering out loud.

 

Adam Williams (35:45): Because that brings me to what we do here, and with this podcast, and why I'm grateful to talk with you, and that you do share this. I believe everybody has a story and there's value in that. And I've used the word compassion many times, that's a key piece of this. That if we get to know someone else's story, you feel like you have a reputation in town that some people have a certain view that they might be a little slow to change, or unwilling to change. But for those who you might never encounter on the sidewalk, having a conversation, this is a chance to share that story. That's my perspective.

 

Why is it that you share all of this? What is it that you see in that recovering out loud? Is it to benefit you and your recovery? Is it to connect with others?

 

Nikki Ray (36:32): So I would have to say it's a little bit of both. To help benefit me. This helps me in my recovery, helping other people. Helping them find what they may or may not need throughout their journey. But it's also for them.

 

I'm hoping that maybe just with my story, that if just one person listens and comes up and talks to me out of a hundred, that does my heart good. I'm reaching at least one person. And that's all that really matters. If I can just change one person's life throughout this entire career, I will be satisfied.

 

Adam Williams (37:10): You mentioned that you are a mother, you have a 13-year-old daughter, 2-year-old son. You had lost custody of your daughter some years ago. I think you're in process of regaining custody. Is that right?

 

Nikki Ray (37:25): Yes, she is. This will be her first school year here. So she'll be back here tomorrow.

 

Adam Williams (37:30): Great. Okay. You're excited, I assume?

 

Nikki Ray (37:33): Yeah, I'm very excited.

 

Adam Williams (37:34): Okay. And your 2-year-old son. I'm also a parent. I have two boys. And so I think down that train of thinking, that what we have in our experiences, maybe things we might consider mistakes or those regrets, might be the best places that we have to teach from.

 

When my boys do something that they might think, wow, I'm really going to be in trouble for this one. But if it's something that I've actually done, they'll get a nice surprise and find out that's where I'm the most compassionate, that's where I have the most to share with them.

 

Adam Williams (38:08): So I'm curious about your perspective. You're obviously into helping in the community, others who have your experience. To me, you're conveying a story here that helps people who don't have your experience, learn something, hopefully find a little more compassion. How do you view your role as a mom and now getting your now teenage daughter coming back into your home? How do you view that role and what you teach? And maybe specifically related to addiction, recovery, because you came from a family of it, what's their future that you see for them?

 

Nikki Ray (38:44): I'm very happy that you asked that, because that is a very important topic for me. I am very open with my daughter. And so is her father. Her father also is a person in recovery. So we are very open and have talked about being open with her and letting her know the reality of where she comes from and what she needs to look out for as a teenager in a junior high school here.

 

And I plan to bring my daughter to some of my meetings. We're really hoping to get more youth in there to help educate. And especially with my son, my son is he's a little over two. He turned two in April. I was on Suboxone when I had my son. And what Suboxone is, is a medication used for medicated assisted treatment. It is specifically for people with opiate use disorder.

 

Nikki Ray (39:41): And I was taking that medication while I was pregnant with my son. And there was a chance that he could have come out with withdrawal symptoms from being on that medication. And so I am a huge advocate for mothers on MAT, and breaking that stigma with mothers on MAT. And I'm really going to be open with him. And I am open with my daughter about it.

 

And I think that's something that doesn't need to be hush hush. Because it's here, it's in our schools. Kids are experimenting younger and younger these days. And with fentanyl being such an epidemic right now, I think that education on everything is more important for our youth than it is for the adults, in my opinion. They're our next generation, and we're currently facing an epidemic right now, and we need to help educate them so they know better.

 

Adam Williams (40:45): It occurs to me that your daughter is a very similar age as to when you started using drugs. I don't know if that's something you've thought about in particular. But she's coming back to your life at a time when you are clean and sober, when you have gotten to this point in your journey of life and experience. And can offer her maybe some different perspectives than what you received from parents and family members when you were her age.

 

(41:14): I'm also wondering if, it sounds like a good number of years between when custody was taken from you to now her coming back to your life. Have you been in contact with her and been able to patch that up in any way? I know she's young. In any way, have her come to understand.

 

And I'm also thinking, sorry, there's so much to this. There's depth in layers here. And I'm thinking of how you wondered at a similar age as her, why doesn't my mom love me enough to not have these track marks and instead be with me? And you weren't able to be with her during that time. She might have similar questions. Is that something you've explored with her?

 

Nikki Ray (41:55): And I have talked about that. We separated when she was four, I lost custody of her when she was four. But I never fully left her life. She lived in Arkansas. I, most of the time lived in other states. There was a little short period of time where I did live in Arkansas, but I was never fully gone from her life.

 

And it does scare the crap out of me that she is at that age that I was when I started experimenting. But because we have such an open relationship and we can talk about things, I think that helps bring a little bit of weight off my shoulders. Because I'm very, very open with her to look, this is what happened, this is what I've been through.

 

(42:52): And she's not going to learn from my mistakes. She's going to have to make her own mistakes. And that's something that I've come to a realization and I just got to understand. She really is a good kid, so that really helps me a lot. But just having that open and honest communication with her.

 

And just knowing that if she does get into something at school, with friends, whatever it may be, that she can come to me. And that I'm not going to judge her. I'm not going to stigmatize her for it. I'm not going to yell at her. I'm not going to ground her or beat her for it. We're going to sit there and try and come to a resolution on how we can resolve this and what the steps need to be take for it to be done.

 

Adam Williams (43:38): That's that understanding that I was referring to a little bit ago with me and my sons. I feel like, how can I be a hypocrite and judge, and yell, and be mad about something that I've also been there? And so I feel like that's such a rich resource in the understanding you have to share with her. And then your son as he, of course, grows up. Yeah.

 

I think it's so important that you're sharing this. And I love where you've come to in your life. What else in this period of more than three years of being clean, being sober, becoming a crisis peer. What else is going on in your life, that in hindsight, as you look back at all those other years, you're like, Oh, I'm so glad to be here. I'm so glad to have this in my life. This feels so good. Or whatever you would use for words.

 

Nikki Ray (44:34): So this feeling that I get in sobriety is a completely new feeling that I've really never felt before in my life. I have trust from people that I've lost it from in my past. I have trust of coworkers. I have starting to get a better rapport with this community. I have financial stability. I've never had a savings account before in my life ever. And now I have a savings building up and it's been amazing. I have a car that's worth more than a thousand dollars. I've lived in one place for more than three years.

 

(45:17): All of these things are things that I've gotten from my recovery. Working with Solvista, I call that my first big kid job, because I've only ever done waitressing and bartending and club work. And I get a sense of reward and accomplishment. And it's amazing the things that I have gained. I'm getting my daughter back. I actually got a chance to be a mother with my son, and make that connection that I wasn't really able to make with my daughter when she was first born. It's been amazing. I could go on and on.

 

Adam Williams (45:59): Oh, you're welcome to if you've got more you want to share for sure. Like I said, toward the beginning of this, I know that we have so much we could talk about, there are many side roads that I'm curious about in your story that we've skipped on past, just out of necessity. But this experience, and coming to this lighter place where you clearly, and from what you just said, just feel so much better. I'm wondering what the lynchpin, kind of pivotal moment was, that went from addiction to this place. To put you here where you have now built up and continue to build years of feeling as well as you do.

 

Nikki Ray (46:42): So essentially you're asking what my rock bottom was?

 

Adam Williams (46:45): Yeah. I guess that's a way to put it. Yeah.

 

Nikki Ray (46:48): So I had mentioned that I had two felonies, and I was on bond, and I caught a third charge. And I was facing prison time, I was facing a pretty good sentence. And I do not like jail or prison. I've had tons of stays at the local jails, but never prison, which I'm very thankful for.

 

But soon as I was able to get on probation, I very narrowly escaped going to prison. Because I actually started doing what I was supposed to be doing on my bond supervision. I stopped popping dilutes, which is just drinking a bunch of water to basically where you just pee water and you can pass a drug test that way. It comes up diluted, so it's not really passed, but they can't see what's in your system.

 

Adam Williams (47:41): It minimizes what's there. So it doesn't show.

 

Nikki Ray (47:43): Yeah, exactly. That's when I stopped really messing up, because they were like, look, you're going to go to prison if you don't stop. And I was like, oh crap, I better stop. So it took me a little bit, but I got on Suboxone, which is the medicated assisted treatment. And then shortly after that, within months, very few months, I found out that I was pregnant with my son. So being very early in recovery, I was still trying to prove myself in probation. That was really a turning point for me.

 

Adam Williams (48:21): Did that become motivation? You're saying that now you recognize, I'm at risk of going to prison, now I'm pregnant. Not only do I want to not be pregnant in prison, I assume is part of it. But then to also of course be there for your son. Was that just more of the awakening? I need to keep seeing this through?

 

Nikki Ray (48:42): Yeah. That's what kept me on the road. Cause it was about three months before I found out I was pregnant, after I got sentenced for my third charge and got put on probation, it was about three months. And then I found out I was pregnant. And that's really what kept me on the straight and narrow.

 

Adam Williams (49:00): Okay. I'm going to ask you, what feels to me anyway, like a tough question. I know that beforehand, you told me you're an open book and you're willing to share, and I really appreciate that. But I'm curious about how you feel right now. You said you feel so good, you have things going on with your kids, and life is going well. But for somebody who's in recovery, I don't think this is just cliche or stereotype. Isn't it truly a risk, a challenge, every day? Or do you feel like you're past that? You tell me, I don't want to put words in your mouth.

 

Nikki Ray (49:37): So I would say, it's weird analogy to put, but it's a little bit of both. I no longer struggle with cravings and just wanting to go out there and use every second of the day. But I stay pretty, I wouldn't say drowned in work, but I stay pretty busy. I stay really busy. I stay very involved with my recovery community and that's what helps a lot.

 

But I will always have this bird on my shoulder, devil on my shoulder, whatever you want to call it, there will always be something there. And I always have to be self-aware of what is going on in my life. I have to constantly work on myself every day, to make sure that I don't fall back into those patterns and those behaviors that I had before in my active use.

 

Adam Williams (50:31): How do you work on yourself? What are some practices or ways that you continue to reinforce the positive you have going?

 

Nikki Ray (50:39): So running my meeting is one of them. That really helps me a lot. Just knowing as many people as we get that come to our meetings, that it really gives me a sense of accomplishment. Helping people with recovery coaching, self-care is huge.

 

I make sure that I take time for myself, whether that be going to the hot Springs for a day, going to get my hair done, spa day, nails done, going and getting a new tattoo, driving to Colorado Springs by myself. Those things can really help as well. Having a safety net built up, I have my community that I can reach out to if I ever feel like I'm having a weak moment.

 

And just continuing my education. I'm going to college now, I just enrolled in some college courses for the certified addiction technician training program that I just got in with Solvista. So just staying involved with your community and self-care. And having people that you can reach out to really helps a lot.

 

Adam Williams (51:52): That education process. What you're looking at now to become a CAT, would be the acronym, right? A certified addiction technician. What's important to you about pursuing that education and getting that certified addiction technician education?

 

Nikki Ray (52:10): So for one, it's better pay. No. I am actually getting trained by trained professionals because I have all the lived experience. I have all the street experience that you could possibly get. But it's also nice to have that classroom training too. Because some of us with street experience may not be the most professional. And it's just going to help me progress. I don't want to stop there, I want to go on and get my CAS after that. And these are just little steps that I can take to not only improve my life and my recovery, but to help improve other people's life.

 

Adam Williams (52:56): Yeah. This brings to mind a quote that, at least, is often attributed to John Lennon, let's hope it's true. That life is what happens while you're busy making other plans, right? Something to the effect of that. And where you are in life, and where you are in pursuing this education. And you have now these visions of growing and progressing with this. I can only guess that when you were a child, that's not what you dreamed of.

 

If somebody said, what do you want to be when you grow up? Do you remember having any thoughts of what you might have wanted to do with life? And then here we are, you were busy making those plans, but life intervened.

 

Nikki Ray (53:35): No. I really wanted to be a mermaid for the longest. I wanted to be one of those live action, live mermaids, that were at SeaWorld. I wanted to be a real life mermaid for the longest time. And then I started experimenting at a very young age, so quickly all dreams and aspirations went out the window,

 

Adam Williams (53:55): But it led you to where you are now. And I know that's been a very hard road. But I feel like so commendable to be able to walk the lives that we have. And when there was an opportunity to kind of rise, and you're recollecting your family now, and you have a career going, and you're really benefiting so many people with your coaching in those things. I know this, for a lot of people, it's not easy to share some of these stories. So I'm really grateful that you're here doing that today with us Nikki. Yeah. Just thank you. I'm really grateful.

 

Nikki Ray (54:33): Thank you for having me. I really do appreciate it.

 

Adam Williams (54:34): That was my conversation with Nikki Ray. If what Nikki shared here today resonated with you, you can email comments to Lisa Martin, one of the podcast producers, at lmartinatchaffeecounty.org.

 

We also invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or whatever platform you use, assuming it has that functionality. Otherwise, and as always, spreading the word to family, friends, coworkers, the person behind you in line at the grocery store, on your social media pages, and so on. It's all good stuff.

 

[Transition music, instrumental]

 

(55:09): Once again, I'm your host, Adam Williams. John Prey is engineer and producer. And thanks also go to KHEN radio, where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado. Heather Gorby, for her expertise in graphic and web design. Lisa Martin, producer and community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Initiative. Andrea Carlstrom, Director of Chaffee County Public Health and environment. And Becky Gray, Director of the Chaffee Housing Authority.

 

(55:34): The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Public Disparities.

 

You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org. And on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee.

 

Lastly, thank you for listening. And until next time, as we say at We Are Chaffee, be human, share stories.

 

[Outro music, instrumental]

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