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From Heroin Addict to Treatment Facility Founder: Nicholas Mathews of Stillwater Behavioral Health

Nicholas Mathews gets it. When a new patient walks into Stillwater Behavioral Health and meets with him for the first time, they don’t just find themselves talking to the facility’s CEO and co-founder. Rather, they find themselves talking to a former addict – someone who has hit rock bottom and understands what they are going through.

When Mathews was just 16 years old, he became a heroin addict.

“Overcoming this addiction required me to practice honesty and integrity every day to clean up the wreckage I had caused in my life,” he explains. “I continue trying to make amends every day, which takes courage and confidence.”

After gaining sobriety, Mathews dedicated his life to helping others recover from addiction, becoming a consultant for various treatment facilities. However, he wasn’t happy with the clinical care he found at these programs.

“I became determined to boost the effectiveness of treatment programs,” he says. “That’s why I founded Stillwater Behavioral Health, a dual diagnosis treatment facility that personalizes care for those struggling to recover from substance addiction and mental health disorders.”

When Mathews talks about addiction, patients at Stillwater Behavioral Health know they are receiving advice from someone who has been where they are — someone who has experienced the worst and can show them the path to sobriety.

Hitting Rock Bottom

For many addicts, hitting “rock bottom” is a necessary catalyst to recovery. One of the most common rock bottom experiences is when an addict faces personal health issues, which can range from being sick to overdosing. That’s when they may finally face the fact that the disease has become too big to handle alone.

Doctors told Mathews that he had a serious blood disease and his liver was shutting down, but it still wasn’t enough to get him to quit.

“When I received my diagnosis, I left the hospital thinking ‘I’m never going to do this again,’” Mathews admits. “But yet again, I didn’t do any work on myself. I was afraid of the consequences for my health, so I white-knuckled it for a little while. But ultimately, the pain outweighed the risk, and I didn’t care about myself enough to change. There wasn’t much to care about.

“I wished I could get sober,” he continues. “I wanted to get sober. But I was using drugs to avoid dealing with an even worse pain. So try not to look at people and think, ‘Do you not see the damage that this is doing? Just stop.’ Try to comprehend that they are experiencing a pain you probably can’t imagine.”

According to Mathews, it’s all about the consequences. “Human beings are egotistical creatures. Every time we get away with something, meaning we don’t experience consequences, we build the belief that we can outsmart the system and the odds. If you’re not afraid of the consequences, it will not be enough to change long term. We all have an uncanny ability to justify behavior.”

For an addict, “rock bottom” isn’t just a cliché. “It truly has to be a ‘rock-and-a-hard-place’ kind of situation,” Mathews adds.

The Withdrawal Process

Mathews admits the process of withdrawal is a brutal one. “Kicking dope is probably the worst thing I’ve ever gone through, next to having shingles. It’s one of the worst things you can experience as a human being.”

To make matters more complex, the dangers of withdrawal vary from substance to substance. According to Mathews, alcohol withdrawals can be dangerous and include seizures. Benzodiazepine withdrawals can also cause seizures, death, and delirium tremens (DTs).

“We know that opiates are the most uncomfortable substances to withdraw from, but they’re also the least dangerous,” Mathews says. “You’re likely not going to die, but it feels like your skin is too tight, you’ve got goosebumps and cold sweats, and there’s just no position or situation in which you can get comfortable.”

Patients face emotional pain, fear, and anxiety in addition to the physical symptoms of the withdrawal process. “Opiates have this tendency to quiet our emotions, so when you feel them again, they are heightened,” Mathews explains. “It’s a chemical response in the brain. When you’re using an opiate, it will stifle that chemical. When you remove the opiate, your brain has now upped the level of stress chemical that it produces to compensate. It’s a rough process.”

At Stillwater Behavioral Health, a doctor medically supervises the detoxification process with various medications. “One thing I often tell people is that kicking dope sucks. Anybody who says otherwise is trying to sell you something,” Mathews says. “I let people know – even our prospective patients – that they need to prepare for this emotionally. It will not be a walk in the park. We will make you as comfortable as humanly possible. We’re going to get you through this, and you’ll be safe — but initially, it’s going to be rough.”

Paying it Forward

When Mathews was going through his recovery process, becoming a treatment facility founder was the furthest thing from his mind.

“When I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms, I just didn’t want to die. Your focus becomes incredibly narrow and ‘day to day’ in early sobriety, almost void of ambition. I think that helped me, because I had to learn how to be a person before I could help anybody else.”

Stillwater Behavioral Health encourages patients to stay focused on the present. “Don’t worry about what the future will hold,” Mathews advises. “Stay in the present, stay in the moment, and walk through the process with grace and integrity.”

Mathews believes that if he had been more ambitious during his process, it would have been detrimental to his recovery. “I probably would have put all of my focus in that rush to complete the goal, or become impatient when I couldn’t get what I wanted,” he explains. “Addicts thrive on instant gratification. It’s a learned behavior when you’re using. If you’re upset, you take a drink, and you feel better. You’ve instantly gratified yourself and trained your brain. You have to un-train that need for instant relief.”

Walking Miracles

Recovery is not the end of the journey, but the beginning.

“We are all going to have bad days,” Mathews warns. “That’s a part of being a human being. It’s part of sobriety. It’s not perfect all the time, but we’re strong. We can walk through the difficult times, growing and changing, finding compassion for ourselves, and righting our wrongs.”

Mathews is passionate about making a difference in people’s lives. “The most rewarding part is when people get better,” he says.”

Some patients even come back after treatment and work with the center.

“I get to see these literal walking miracles,” Mathews says. “A year ago, they were a client in that bed, shaking, sweating, and fighting to make it. Now here they are today, working for us and helping other people. I can’t think of a better way to spend a workday.”

Nicholas Mathews is the CEO and Co-Founder of Stillwater Behavioral Health, a state-of-the-art drug and alcohol treatment program with locations in Montecito and Porter Ranch.

Release ID: 290621

Prodigy Press
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