"When you find your tribe, you can rely on people—and you have to show up for them"
A Conversation with Nick Borges | Driftwood Interviews
This is the eighth in a series of posts introducing the people who make up Driftwood Recovery’s community of caregivers.
Through these conversations, you’ll get a chance to meet the people on Driftwood’s team—from its executives to its care coordinators. You’ll learn about the programs they facilitate, and about how their work serves Driftwood’s overall treatment philosophy. You’ll learn about the various paths that brought them here. And you might pick up a book or Austin restaurant recommendation.
In this post, Kuraĝo editor Matt Williamson talks with Driftwood’s Alumni Coordinator, Nick Borges.
Matt Williamson: You had kind of an interesting path to your current job here at Driftwood.
Nick Borges: I used to work in corporate finance. I came to Austin to go through treatment. I knew, when I got out, that I didn't want to be in finance at all. I’d always been a foodie, so for the short term, I figured I’d do some sort of restaurant work.
I was initially hired here at Driftwood as a sous chef. I worked in the kitchen for about eight months. During that time, I had a lot of one-on-one contact with the clients: getting to know them, giving them feedback about my own recovery—what's worked for me, what hasn't worked.
In that eight months, I figured out that direct care was the path for me. I got a job offer from another company in Austin; I’d be managing all of their sober living facilities. And I was going to accept it.
The Monday after I put my two weeks in, Peter Fluor sat me down and said, “Listen, what do you want to do?” I hadn't had that initial conversation with him. I told him that I wanted to go into direct care, that I wanted to be more involved with the day-to-day operations, to be in the trenches a bit more. And he said “What if you became Driftwood’s Alumni Coordinator?”
I didn't even think about it. I said: “absolutely.”
MW: Did you know what the job title entailed? Is “alumni coordinator” a position at other residential recovery places?
NB: At the good ones, yeah. I knew a little bit about the job just from my own experience in treatment. But I knew that a lot of things needed to happen at Driftwood that weren’t happening elsewhere.
I was going to be the first Alumni Coordinator here at Driftwood, so the scope of the job was open to some extent, and I was able to build the program.
MW: Without throwing anyone under the bus . . . what are some of the things you thought Driftwood should do that other places weren't doing?
NB: I think the biggest piece is the continual support that's provided after you leave treatment.
My own experience after completing treatment was that I got one call from the alumni coordinator. I never heard from him again. There was also a calendar of events that was emailed to me. That was the extent of my contact with the treatment center.
MW: It sounds like the kind of contact you'd have with a college you graduated from. You get the alumni magazine, and an occasional call reminding you about the five-year reunion.
NB: Yeah. We wanted to do something totally different. Once a person comes to Driftwood—whether they’re a resident, a former resident, a family member of a resident, or a staffer—we want them to feel like they’re permanently part of our community.
My part of that is to provide three kinds of opportunities for alumni: opportunities to be of service to others, opportunities to have fun in recovery, and opportunities to find fellowship.
MW: Can we talk about all three of those separately? What’s the service component?
NB: We’ve set up alumni groups, chapter groups, in Houston and Austin, and we're working on starting one on the west coast. The Austin group comes out to Driftwood regularly—they bring a meeting to the residents, and come out and have dinner with them. Alumni get to know the residents and provide a sense of what recovery looks like outside of the gates of treatment.
That's one aspect of service. And next weekend, for instance, we have Recovery in the Park. It’s an event that takes place every year during Recovery Month. A bunch of people who have gone through recovery or who work in recovery get together for food, music and fellowship. But we try and stay involved with all kinds of service projects in and around Austin.
MW: The second element of your job—helping alumni have fun—might sound less important to some people. But my impression, from talking to younger alumni here in Austin, is that it’s a big deal.
This city really emphasizes drinking. Austin brands itself as “the Live Music Capital of the World”—and getting drunk or high is part of the typical experience of going to shows—so drinking, implicitly, is part of Austin’s official identity. It seems natural for young people in cities like Austin or Portland or Miami to worry that being sober means that they’ll be excluded from most of the exciting things that are happening in town, that they’ll be excluded from the places where young people congregate.
NB: “How the hell am I going to have fun?”
The cool thing, to me, is that once you remove the drugs and alcohol, people find things that they never thought were fun before. They’re open to new experiences. They start rediscovering old interests.
The Driftwood alumni group goes to concerts, to dinners. We go rock climbing, and to the climbing gym. Hiking, kayaking. I try to go to Houston every month to meet the alumni chapter there. Last month, we all went out to the Astros game.
Austin does have this kind of connotation of a party scene, and drugs and alcohol are involved in fun in the city. But on the other side, Austin’s got the reputation of one of the best places to be in recovery. You can always find people who are trying to have fun without drugs and alcohol.
MW: I was talking to an alum about “the fear of missing out,” and how it motivates people to keep drinking and using. But then, if you're drunk and high all the time, you're missing out on everything other than being drunk or high.
NB: Whenever people ask “how am I going to have fun without drugs and alcohol?”—well, most of the time, you weren't having fun when you were using anyway. “Fun” is going to look a lot different than it did before.
MW: The friendships people form when they're sober are probably very different from the friendships people form when they're drinking.
NB: When you’re relying on alcohol to get you through your social life, you might be hanging out with people you don't even like—or who don’t know the real you. When I was using and drinking, I was so far from my true self that I was basically projecting a different person. And that projection was attracting people very different from the ones I really wanted to be around.
From the beginning of my recovery, I’ve made relationships that are so strong, and genuine, that it's hard to compare them with any relationships I had before getting sober. I still have strong friendships with folks I grew up with, but even those relationships look a lot different than they did before I got into recovery.
MW: I guess that brings us to the third opportunity you mentioned: the opportunity for fellowship. Could you explain the categorical difference between “fellowship” on the one hand,’ and “fun” and “service” on the other?
NB: You find fellowship through service and socializing, so they’re related. But “fellowship” can mean going to a support meeting. It means being around like-minded people who understand your struggles and share some of your goals. We have a term in the recovery community “family of choice.” It’s like finding your own tribe.
When you find your tribe, you can rely on people—and you have to show up for them. You have a group of people who are going to call you on your bullshit when you need to be called out. People who are going to hold you accountable.
MW: You’ve talked a lot about the ways that you’ve grown since becoming sober. Can you share something that you’ve learned specifically from your work at Driftwood?
NB: So in addition to serving as Driftwood’s Alumni Coordinator, I work in Admissions, and I’m part of the Family Program team. When people come in, I’m often the person who walks them through the whole intake process. So a lot of my job involves working with the families of residents: talking to them, listening to them, and applauding them for taking this step for a loved one. Those conversations, and the ones I have with people participating in Driftwood’s family programming, really bring home why I'm here: to make sure that the alumni can thrive after they get through their initial treatment phase here.
This disease affects the entire family, not just the person who’s suffering directly from addiction.
If people are abandoned after treatment—or if they feel they're drifting further and further from the community that helped them get sober—they’re at a much higher risk of relapse. As Alumni Coordinator, I’m helping people consolidate the gains they’ve made: turning this from a 30-day recovery process into a permanent recovery lifestyle.
I should mention also that this work has been enormously helpful in my own recovery.
MW: How so?
NB: Being a resource for people whose sobriety is fragile forces me to put that much more emphasis on my own recovery, so that I can show up in a good way for the people who depend on me. In general, meaningful responsibility helps you stay sober.
MW: I’m not sure I know anyone who’s juggling as many responsibilities as you are right now. Apart from your work life, you’re insanely busy.
NB: Yeah—I just finished my first semester in Texas State’s Masters of Social Work program. It’s a full-time program. Driftwood’s supporting me through the process—structuring my work schedule around my weekday classes.
MW: Is your plan to stay at Driftwood after you graduate?
NB: Absolutely. I love direct care. And I want to stay with the community integration piece of Driftwood’s program: working with people as they transition from residential care into healthy independence—helping people become their best selves, and thrive in life, through all stages of recovery.