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Counselor's recovery from addiction help him better treat teens

POSTED: April 30, 2008 5:01 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Mike Nixon runs Three Dimensional Life, a residential drug rehab program for teens. Nixon has struggled most of his life with addiction and shares his experiences with the teens he tries to help.

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When Mike Nixon counsels teenagers at his residential drug treatment program, he can say he’s lived their lives.

He drank at age 9. Smoked pot by 12. Snorted cocaine at age 16, and was shooting it up at 21.

He tried, and failed, numerous treatment programs before his last relapse with alcohol six years ago. Now 30, he understands why it’s so hard to reach teens with addiction issues.

"It’s the whole issue of, ‘I’ve got so much life ahead of me, and I’m so far away from real consequences,’" Nixon said. "When I was going into programs, I would be sitting with people who had lost their homes and wives and their families were estranged. And I had lost my prom and my license. There’s this overwhelming feeling that I’m not ready for sobriety yet."

Through his program in East Hall, Three Dimensional Life, Nixon tries to offer alternatives to what he believes is the tough competition that drugs and alcohol present for the minds and spirits of some teens.

"Stepping out of that safe environment and into an unknown world is very enticing," Nixon said of teen drug use. "When you come out of that realm and into sober thinking, it feels like you’ve been grounded and deflated."

Nixon’s students, who range in age from 13 to 19, take part in "character-building adventures" that have included hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail, snowboarding, rope climbing and watersports.

"My goal ... is to put some of that risk back into sobriety and show these guys that there are different ways to chase a rush," Nixon said. "They may be just as risky, but they don’t trap you in addiction."

Much of Nixon’s own misbegotten youth was spent, by his account, in pursuit of the next high. Running with a circle of largely privileged friends in Athens, he managed to avoid any real trouble with the law, dropping out of school at 17 and graduating to more and more serious drugs until he was shooting dope and smoking crack.

"I was just hemmed into the fabric of the (drug) culture," he said. "And that, I would say, is harder to break out of than the chemical addiction itself."

Nixon’s precipitous slide came to a jarring halt when he committed a strong-arm robbery of a woman at an Athens convenience store and was quickly arrested. The judge showed mercy and ordered him to a residential treatment program, where changes finally took hold.

In 2004, he began laying the groundwork for his program on a 55-acre tree farm near East Hall High School, with a 4,500-square foot log cabin as the center. The first class of teens moved in February 2005. Currently there are eight students, ages 16 to 19, taking part in a Christian-based program that lasts nine months on average.

The "guys" as Nixon refers to them, go through phases of self-analysis that include "Welcome Home," "The View," "Equipped" and "The Journey."

Nixon says there are two main highways that lead teens into substance abuse.

"Fantasy and boredom play a big role," he said. "I think if you don’t fit into Beta Club or the other extreme of athletics, there’s a huge middle ground where there aren’t that many options to plug into activities."

For teens like he was, a latch-key kid with little adult supervision, "the imagination just begins to run wild," he said.

The other road to addiction, he said, comes from home stresses of divorce, violence and substance abuse by parents.

Nixon says of his students: "I have the guys that started socially drinking, and it graduated to pot, and it graduated to other drugs because it was fun and exciting. Then I have the other guys who are dealing with serious traumatic events that take place in the home."

"People don’t necessarily come into drugs and alcohol trying to self-medicate, but I think they discover it temporarily fixes that stress or trauma," he said. "A kid finds himself enveloped in that addiction trying to medicate that wound."

Nixon says the youth drug culture is "a lot bigger than I think people realize. There’s a lot more kids who are smoking pot that people are aware of."

The prescription anti-anxiety drug Alprazolam, known commonly by the trade name Xanax, is widely abused by teens, Nixon said. And alcohol remains, as always, among the most destructive of substances for young minds, he said.

Nixon’s advice for parents whose children are just entering the danger zone of drugs is a message that he says has been broadcast in "surround-sound" in today’s culture: communication.

"I think the biggest stifle with families is obviously communication," he said.

Effective parenting of teens means "not having your head in the sand, not being in the dark as to what’s going on in their world, and not being shocked by the reality of the world your kid is growing up in."

"You don’t want to lock them down or stifle their maturity, but just be aware," he said. "And not being afraid to talk about things is a big issue."

As many recovering addicts do, Nixon says he struggles at times with his life of sobriety. Having the lives of eight young men depending on him helps, he says.

"It’s a huge factor for me to know that I have to come and face these guys," Nixon said. "Knowing that’s something I have to do every day is just a huge accountability for me. And I think just giving back, alone, for someone whose battled addiction, that’s a key factor. You need to find a way to pour back into someone’s life."

"There’s a sense of satisfaction when you see a light turn on in somebody’s head, that, ‘Wow, I can live a life of sobriety if I work at it.’"



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