Early one morning in March 2014, Kodiak native Zola Nelson took her last shot of methamphetamine and heroin — just enough to keep the feeling of sickness at bay.
She had been addicted to drugs for many years, but now she was determined to get clean and focus on saving herself and her family. Her path would eventually take her far from Kodiak to a new life in Colorado, where she would dedicate her life to recovery, get married and start helping others facing their own challenges with addiction. Earlier this year, she also earned a bachelor’s degree.
But the journey to recovery would not be easy. Poverty, chaos and dysfunction dominated Nelson’s life in Kodiak, where she was also the victim of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. It all added up to a series of obstacles and setbacks that, at times, seemed insurmountable.
Nelson, whose maiden name was Morris, spent years struggling with her addiction, as well as with societal stigmas against drug users and lack of support from her own family. Through it all, the inspiration that kept her going, that gave her strength to move forward, was the thought of becoming the mother she always hoped she could be for her four children.
Nelson said her rough path started earlier than she can even remember, when her father was sent to prison after he burned down the family’s house in Kodiak. Her mother was left as the sole provider for three children.
Because her mother had little support, Nelson was often left unsupervised. She said she was sexually assaulted by multiple caregivers as a small child.
Her mother eventually saved enough money to buy a one-room trailer, which was placed on the property where the family’s house had once stood. Nelson said that her mother did the best she could. Also born into poverty, her mother had been raised by parents who suffered from severe alcoholism.
“She had a rough life too,” Nelson said. “She didn’t know how to be a mom. Her mom was a nightmare.”
When Nelson turned 9, her mother married a Coast Guard service member who moved the family to Florida. For a while, Nelson’s life became a little easier. She remembers those days as being among the best of her life because her stepfather treated her and her siblings like his own children.
But that happiness was fleeting.
Eventually, her stepfather moved out of the house and her siblings moved away: Her brother joined the Army, and her sister moved in with her boyfriend.
Nelson’s mother also left after taking a job in another town. She would come back on some weekends, but not always. For days, sometimes weeks, on end, Nelson found herself on her own. The situation left her feeling lonely, confused and abandoned.
“It was a really stressful time because I went from having people all the time to being alone,” she said.
To survive, she often ate meals at her neighbor’s house. She tried to take life day by day, but the neglect and poverty hammered her self-esteem and affected her health as her body weight dwindled.
Nelson said she was also targeted by bullies, prompting her to start skipping school. By the time she was 13, she had missed so many classes that a truancy officer threatened to arrest her mother.
Consequently, Nelson’s mother sent her to live with her father in Kodiak, where her living situation and mental health went from bad to worse.
Nelson said her stepmother treated her like a second-class citizen — like a modern-day Cinderella without the prince or the happy ending. She was forced to live by rules that were imposed on her but not on her stepsister. Nelson recalled instances of her clothes being thrown out the window and bleach poured onto them when she forgot to wash or fold them.
“I was tired of feeling unloved. I needed love. I needed direction. I needed guidance,” Nelson said, noting that her father did nothing to help the situation. “I was just a teenager. I had been unloved. I felt like a throwaway kid.”
The abuse became too much for her to handle, and she moved out of the house when she turned 15. To get by, Nelson worked at the Orpheum Theater and held various jobs around town while also attending an alternative school.
“I tried to get through school but I never made it past freshman year. I had so much going on, I was drinking a lot and partying a lot,” she said.
When she was 17, she was charmed by a star high school athlete. They often drank alcohol together, and she soon became pregnant with their first child. Understanding the challenges that come with growing up in a single-parent household, she decided it was best to maintain her relationship with the father of the child, despite her misgivings.
“It’s hard,” she said with a sigh. “I didn’t want to spend my life with this guy, but I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Nelson had three more children with her partner, one of whom was diagnosed with autism. Her sole focus at the time was her children and taking care of her special-needs daughter.
But after the couple started living together, Nelson said, her partner became emotionally and physically abusive.
“I had zero confidence. He would tell me I was ugly, and a piece of (expletive),” she said, adding that the criticisms became so frequent that she started believing them herself.
On many occasions she thought about leaving, but she lacked the money, prospects and self-confidence to do so. Even staying at the Kodiak Women’s Resource and Crisis Center was not a viable option: With four children crying for their father, and one of them a special-needs child, Nelson always ended up returning home.
“I tried to leave their dad right after I had Taryn,” Nelson said, referring to her second child. “It was so hard. I just felt stuck. I felt like I had no other option but to stay with him.”
She said that after the family moved from town out to the Monashka area, her partner started bringing painkillers home and urging her to take them with him. Then he began bringing methamphetamines and opioids home.
The move to the isolated house, surrounded by forest, meant that Nelson was closed off from help or support. She said it quickly turned into a “torture house.”
Nelson said that although she would sometimes willingly take the drugs to cope with her depression, at other times her partner resorted to physical abuse to force her to take them. Once she had drugs in her system, he would sometimes threaten to call the Office of Child Services to take away her children.
“That was his hold on me,” Nelson said.
The State of Alaska’s court record database shows that Nelson and others filed multiple restraining orders against her partner. He was also charged with multiple assaults and misdemeanors.
Nelson said the last straw occurred when her partner beat her so badly that her eyes and ears were swollen shut. Afterward, he left the house. In the aftermath, her oldest daughter Erica, who was 9 years old at the time, brought the car keys to her and begged her to leave the house and hide.
“I had asked her to leave more than once, but that one time it really stuck and that’s kind of when everything started to happen,” Erica said.
But without a place to live, Nelson’s only option was to move in with her partner’s mother, which meant she was often forced to face her abuser whenever he visited his mother’s house. Nelson said she also felt like she was constantly under scrutiny from her partner’s family, as well as from the Office of Child Services.
“I couldn’t take the pressure. I fell into my drug addiction — it was my safe place. I didn’t have to feel fear,” she said, adding that her partner continued threatening her children, further feeding her fear.
Nelson said that by this time, her drug use was getting out of control. Her will to fight for herself and her children took a huge blow when two OCS case workers assigned to her case did little to help her.
Nelson said that as she crumbled under the mounting pressure, she started disappearing from the house and going on “benders” of extended, continuous drug use, during which she stayed in other people’s houses or otherwise lived off the grid.
“I didn’t want to admit I was an addict because I was afraid,” Nelson said.
But living in fear of her partner and being homeless eventually started wearing on her, and she started realizing that she needed to make a change.
“I was beat down and I was done,” Nelson remembered thinking to herself. “I can’t keep living like this.”
She knew she needed help, and in 2012 she checked into Serenity House Treatment Center in Soldotna for rehab.
She returned to Kodiak two months later, rented a small apartment and found a job at a pizzeria. To stay sober, she attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and intensive outpatient therapy through Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center.
But a couple months of rehab were not enough to undo a lifetime of trauma. Despite her best efforts, Nelson felt overwhelmed by loneliness and by the stigmatization she felt from the community in general. The drug-using community seemed to be the only group that accepted her, she said.
“When you are in the drug world, at least they accept you for who you are,” Nelson said.
She relapsed, lost her apartment and became homeless once again, sleeping in the streets or at the KWRCC shelter. In wintertime she walked all night to avoid freezing to death. She avoided the Brother Francis Shelter over fears that her ex-partner, who was still stalking her, would find her there.
“I hate that I felt like I chose drugs and homelssenes over my kids,” Nelson said. “I knew that if I got on my feet, I’d always have to worry about him hurting us.”
She said her will to get better and fight for her kids continued to diminish after experiencing a slew of deprecating comments and lack of action on the part of people who she thought should be helping her — including OCS case workers, law enforcement and even hospital staff.
In 2013, Nelson signed papers allowing her children’s grandmother to adopt her kids, thus losing all custody rights. To this day, Nelson maintains that she was under the influence of drugs at the time, and did not understand what she was doing when she signed the papers.
Kris Arnold, a former OCS worker, said she delivered the adoption papers and described the scene as “heartbreaking.”
Nelson’s downward spiral continued, and she hit bottom when she overdosed on her daughter’s birthday.
“I went to the hospital and I asked for help. I was sick of the life,” Nelson said. “I hated myself and I thought maybe I deserve that, but this is my daughter’s birthday and she doesn’t deserve this. My kids don’t deserve this.”
She finally decided to get clean again, this time for good. But without a support system, access to resources or health insurance, it proved to be the biggest battle of her life.
Much-needed help came in the form of Kodiak locals Mike and Gina Friccero, who bought Nelson a plane ticket to return to Soldotna.
“Drug use is a choice but addiction is not,” Nelson said. “You can’t get better in the same environment that made you sick … I had to get away from all of my family and just everybody.”
Nelson stayed on the couch of a contact she had made when she had gone to rehab a few years before. Her friend picked her up at the airport and took her straight to a meeting to begin the recovery process.
She returned to Kodiak for a court case in which she was found guilty of a misdemeanor. After serving jail time and finishing her court hearings, her aunt bought her a plane ticket to Colorado to stay with her stepsister. Once there, she continued taking steps to get long-term help.
Nelson immersed herself in the recovery community, attending meetings, opening up about her story and implementing healthy daily practices that she learned from rehab, the 12-step program and therapy. She had to distance herself from her Kodiak friends who continued to take drugs.
Nelson also took classes at community college and eventually graduated from Colorado State University Pueblo with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminology.
Through the program she met her current husband, who was also in recovery. She delved deeper into the recovery community, eventually reaching the point where she was able to offer help and support to others in need.
Tabby Hardy was one of the people who Nelson helped stay clean. Hardy is a military veteran who suffered from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, and who was also a victim of sexual abuse.
“She helped me get through a lot,” Hardy said. “She was there listening to me crying in the middle of the night from nightmares, and she became an advocate for women in domestic violence situations. She opened up about her story.”
Nelson said her own self-confidence increased with each class she took and each job she worked after she started her recovery. She had to re-learn how to be around people, how to talk to people and how to do everyday things.
“When you are in the drug world, you get so isolated you forget,” Nelson said. “You lose all your confidence. The only thing you know is how to find drugs.”
Nelson said that despite the rejection of substance users in society, she wants to show people that recovery is possible.
Now in her sixth year of sobriety, Nelson said that every day is still a challenge. She battles with post-traumatic stress disorder and mild agoraphobia, but she is able to utilize the tools she has learned in recovery to live and enjoy her life.
After Nelson began to sober up, she also started working to bridge the gap between her and her children.
Nelson’s oldest daughter Erica said that as she grew up and matured, she learned more about her mother’s addiction and history, and realized her story “was not black and white.”
“I had a lot of resentment at first because I was younger and I didn’t understand why all of that was happening,” Erica said. “Why she couldn’t get better, why she needed to take all of the steps.”
But after Nelson went through rehab and started working, taking college classes and dedicating herself to recovery, Erica began to trust her again. She eventually told her mother to stop apologizing about the past.
Nelson said she “just burst into tears” the day Erica told her, “‘All was forgiven a long time ago. You don’t have to keep apologizing.”
Still, Nelson has no legal rights to her kids after signing the adoption papers years ago.
“I would take them back in heartbeat,” she said, adding, “I have to be grateful for what I can get.”
Arnold, the former OCS worker, described Nelson as resilient. As someone who has experienced more consistent trauma than most, she is also one of the few people who has gotten clean and stayed sober.
“There was nothing positive when she left Kodiak, and she managed to put her life together,” Arnold said.
Nelson recently left Colorado and moved to Washington, where her kids live, so she can be closer to them. She now works as an emergency room registrar.
She said she would eventually like to advocate for women who have had experiences similar to hers, either with domestic violence issues, or those who need help filing protective orders, or who need to plead out to be with their kids, like she did.
Nelson said she has opened up about her story to remind people that no matter how far they have fallen, they can always get back up. She also wants to remind her community to never give up on others.
Erica said her mother’s story is unique in that she overcame the almost endless obstacles that came her way to get back to the children.
“I take pride in knowing how far she has come,” she said. “I’m proud to call her my mom.”