Every time Nick Mathews returns to the North Coast it’s bittersweet. It’s where he grew up, but it’s also where his battle with addiction began.

“There’s a lot of things I feel when I come back,” Mathews said. “I feel excited to see my family, but there’s a lot of fear and apprehension. There’s a lot of memories there, there’s a lot of scary things that happened. I am very much afraid of the person I was and what he was capable of doing.”

Nick Mathews

Nick Mathews

Mathews was born in Vancouver, Washington, and moved to Astoria when he was very young.

He spent his childhood tinkering with vintage cars, wandering forest trails and fantasizing about being one of the Goonies.

Addiction problems surfaced when he tried to fit into a specific crowd in high school. He started hanging around other teenagers who were also experimenting with drugs.

“I was so desperate to find my group and find my people,” Mathews said. “Looking back now, I found my people with other addicts.”

When he was 15 years old Mathews entered his first treatment program. It would be the first of a series of attempts to get sober. He would later find out that past trauma contributed to his need for narcotics.

Eventually, Mathews’ addiction became so severe that he developed hepatitis C and other health issues from daily drug use. His overdoses became dangerously routine.

In 2013, Mathews traveled to Los Angeles to seek treatment for a final time.

“I had to leave,” Mathews said. “When sobriety is the goal everything else is a possibility. Whereas without the sobriety there are only three (possibilities): jails, institutions or death.”

When Mathews attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with hundreds of others, he felt heard for the first time. He was surprised that so many people shared his experience, whether they were 50 years or 30 days sober.

“I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t really speak,” Mathews said. “Then, I identified as a newcomer, and everyone cheered for me and hugged me. I would hug someone and they would tell me, ‘I promise it’s going to be better.’ So I just stayed and kept coming back.”

At that point, Mathews knew he wanted to work in the recovery field. He began working as a support staff of a treatment center one year later. He started a consulting firm with his wife to assist treatment centers.

Years later, Mathews became the CEO of his own treatment center, Stillwater Behavioral Health in Southern California.

Stillwater Behavioral Health operates detoxification and mental health programs out of a facility in Santa Barbara, California, as well as other inpatient residential buildings.

Backyard 2

The backyard of the Stillwater substance abuse treatment center.

On any given day, patients can see Mathews wandering the facility, sitting in on support group meetings. Interacting with patients on a personal level is exactly what he wanted while he went through his own recovery.

Throughout his work Mathews has noticed a lack of support services for patients experiencing addiction. He says substance abuse cases have significantly spiked during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen an increase in overdose deaths, suicide attempts, mental health and substance abuse. All of it,” Mathews said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there were more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in the 12 months ending May 2020, the largest number ever recorded for a 12-month period.

Mathews recommends top quality care when it comes to achieving long-term sobriety, but acknowledged the cost to check into a facility like his is not feasible for everyone.

On the North Coast, efforts are being made to offer more inclusive treatment options to historically oppressed and marginalized groups and communities.

The Lower Columbia Q Center offers weekly meetings of Queer Edge Sobriety Support Group for the LGBTQ community.

Tessa Scheller co-founded the center and serves as the facilitator of Queer Edge Sobriety Support Group. Scheller said the meetings give people a chance to speak freely.

“We have members tell us, and people from the community tell us, that they were not comfortable as queer or trans people, at some of the meetings that you weren’t able to talk about their relationships comfortably,” said Scheller. “They weren’t able to talk about who they are.” Scheller said.

Awakenings by the Sea in Seaside provides treatment exclusively for women.

Virtue at the Pointe in Astoria provides services for both behavioral and substance addictions.

Mathews said being around others with similar experiences can be critical for recovery.

“For me, that was so wildly important, you know, when I was talking to somebody, and they were trying to help me, if I could believe that they had been through what I had been through and had experienced something similar,” Mathews said.

Isa Kaufman-Geballe is a contributor for The Astorian and Coast Weekend.