From addiction to instruction

September 22, 2018

Nikki Kemp was a pregnant addict with nowhere else to turn when she got a hand up from the Women’s Outreach Center of Highland Rivers Health.

Six years later, she’s poised to direct a brand new Highland Rivers program for other Northwest Georgians in need.

“When I first walked through those doors, I didn’t even realize I liked butterflies or the smell of fresh-cut grass because I was focused on drugs,” Kemp said. “Women’s Outreach believed in me until I could believe in myself.”

The center is celebrating its 20th anniversary of serving residents of Floyd, Gordon, Bartow and nine other counties in the region.

Kemp, her staff and some family volunteers are putting the finishing touches on Polk County’s Mosaic Place, slated to open next month. It’s named, she said, to reflect the possibilities in rebuilt lives.

“Beautiful art has been created out of broken pieces,” agreed Ansley Silvers, director of addictive disease at Highland Rivers.

Silvers said Kemp caught her attention as an inpatient and continues to impress. She’s earned state certifications as an addiction recovery empowerment specialist and peer specialist for mental health. Kemp’s also on track to graduate from Grand Canyon University in April. Her bachelor’s degree in human services will have an emphasis in addiction treatment counseling.

“There’s a lot of pride and dignity she carries with her,” Silvers said. “A couple of things have been happening very quickly with Nikki in her month in this (Mosaic Place) role, but she stands firm. She has a good footing.”

It didn’t start out that way, said the 28-year-old Kemp, who was born the child of addicts.

She started drinking and using marijuana at age 12. She tried methamphetamine for the first time at 14 — with her mother. By 15, she had dropped out of school and was shuttling back and forth between her parents.

“I grew up in a very chaotic home-life,” Kemp said with a wry smile.

She attempted suicide, she got in trouble with the law, she went in and out of rehab facilities. At 17, an abusive 27-year-old boyfriend nearly beat her to death. A social worker came to the hospital and, since she didn’t have a parent who could pass a drug screen, placed her in the Open Door Children’s Home.

Kemp said that was a welcome refuge, where she was able to take some classes, find a job and experience stability with people who cared. But when she turned 18, she had to move out.

The struggle to survive

She started using drugs again and the next few years are a blur.

“My sister provided a lot of support to me but she got tired of having to come to the hospital, tired of having to come ... By the time I was 21 and pregnant with my daughter, I had burned every bridge I had,” Kemp said.

Kemp said she stayed clean while she was pregnant, but gradually drifted back into her old ways. She started with alcohol, then pills, telling herself it wasn’t meth. Then someone offered her meth and her last resistance crumbled — until the Division of Family and Children Services intervened.

“What it took for me was the day DFCS knocked on my door and took my 18-month-old child out of my arms,” said Kemp, who was pregnant with her son by that time. “I was done. I didn’t know how to get clean but I was done.”

She was court-ordered to the Women’s Center, she said, but by the time she left she was in control of her life. The father of her children, Terry Kemp, also got clean during that period. The two married in 2014, he started a successful business and they’re buying a larger home now.

Silvers said addicts in a 12-step program are told to cut ties with their addicted friends and family members. But the relationship between Nikki and Terry showed her the need for individual assessments.

“I had an epiphany ... Instead of saying, ‘No, Nikki, you can’t be with your husband,’ we rethought it as, ‘What can we do to help,’” Silvers said. “It’s part of how we’re evolving to treat a family unit.”

When Mosaic Place opens, it will include a couples support group. Nikki Kemp said her husband will join her in guiding it, to help tell how they’ve been able to remain together through addiction and into what they call their active, never-ending, recovery.

“Being with somebody you’ve used (drugs) with becomes your identity as a couple,” she explained. “We really had to get to know each other, and that’s hard. Once you take the drugs away, what do you have in common?”

Whatever it is, they found it. Nikki Kemp said their lives are different now, filled with hope and love, and they’ve reconnected with family members who had given up on them in the past. They take vacations together, celebrate holidays and special milestones together, and look toward the future together.

“I’ve struggled. I’ve been hurt, but I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor,” she said.

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