Nicki Hennessy: Continuing sobriety by helping others start theirs

Words by Tesla Mitchell, painting by Brianne Daniels

Nicki Hennessy knows how hard it is to stay sober.

Since 2011 she's been on a recovery journey, each day making the conscious decision to stay clean.

It takes willpower, tenacity, and a whole lot of community.

That last part is especially important and that's why Nicki and her husband have opened the Winona Recovery Center — to give those struggling with addiction a community to support them.

"The best thing for recovery has been watching everyone else get sober," Nicki said.

Masking the Trauma

Like a lot of people with addiction, Nicki's drug-use was masking trauma.

When Nicki was young, those around her thought she was bipolar.

"I wasn't," she said. "I was emotional."

Little did others know, those emotions were coming from events that were happening behind closed doors. Events like being molested at nine years old. And being beat up on a continual basis.

Her first time running away from home was when she was 12 years old.

A while later, a guy who was 25 years old started coming over. He started molesting her too. He bought her alcohol. Let her drive his truck.

Eventually, he went to prison for molesting little boys.

"That bothers me more now because I never opened my mouth," Nicki said. "I found other girls who he had done that to."

She had her daughter at 17 years old and her son at 18 years old – which was the same year she got married.

"My husband at the time beat the crap out of me," Nicki said. "That was for 8 years."

By the time she turned 22, Nicki was ready for an escape from the trauma.

"I thought I was doing cocaine and it was actually plant food," she said. "It was the worst feeling of my life but I still ended up going back."

Next someone offered her methamphetamine.

"I loved it," Nicki said quietly. "My world was completely wide open."

It gave her a feeling she hadn't experienced in a long time.

"I was happy and smiling," she said. "And I hadn't smiled in so long."

First it was every other weekend while the kids were away. Next it was every weekend. Then it was every day.

With her parents helping take care of her kids, Nicki started experimenting with heroin.

"It went downhill," Nicki said.

It wasn’t until 2011 when Nicki was 98 pounds and pregnant while living on the streets, that she finally hit a breaking point. Child Protection Services (CPS) had told her she needed to get to treatment and gain weight or they were going to take her kids away.

"I was freaking out in the middle of Third Street because my boyfriend was cheating on me," she said. "But it was more that he had drugs and he was doing them with some other girl."

For the next 2-3 days, Nicki did nothing else but sleep. When she woke up, she decided to take the CPS warning seriously and within 2 weeks she had gained 30 pounds.

From there it was a slow climb up, focusing on one step at a time, while acknowledging the occasional steps backwards — she relapsed for 9 days in 2021.

"It's hard some days," Nicki said.

Feeling the Impact of Support

A big step for her was leaning into faith and getting closer to God. She started listening to what her kids now call "Mommy's Jesus music" all the time.

What made the most difference though, was the community she found to support her — one that she could be honest with and rely on to be there for her. She found support meetings, like Narcotics Anonymous and Crystal Meth Anonymous.

The meetings, in combination with support from her loving mother and with the determination to do right by her kids, got her through each day.

About 9 years into her recovery journey, she met one more person who would become part of her closer support team — her husband.

In 2020, with COVID making in person meetings next to impossible – support meetings were hard to come by.

"As an addict it's just so hard not having that in person contact," Nicki said. "Everybody was so isolated and depressed, and stuck in their homes and stuff and so I decided to start an NA meeting down by Bud King Ice Arena outside so people could have an in-person meeting."

It was there that she found the love of her life.

"That was where I met my husband," Nicki said with a big smile.

A Better Atmosphere for Recovery

Nicki is thankful for all that the support groups have given her. In many ways, they've saved her life.

But many times, the churches or places where meetings were held weren't made with meetings in mind. They would be filled with plastic tables and metal chairs in a circle.

"That's what you would sit on for an hour and a half for a meeting," Nicki said.

When Nicki and her husband Brandon had the opportunity to open a space of their own, they jumped on it.

They put in couches and comfy chairs to sit on, and carpeting to bring in the warmth.
"It's homey and reminds me of my very first NA meeting," she said. "It makes people want to stay."

They even have toys for kids to play with and a memory wall of all those they've lost to addiction.

"I want people to feel like they're part of a family," she said.

She certainly counts them as such.

"I'm glad that I have my recovery family," she said. "I can be more honest with them than I can with my own brothers and sisters."

And like any good family, there's fun involved too. Every Saturday the Winona Recovery Center does game night together.

"That's super fun!" Nicki said. "We have some people who come in and they're not really in the mindset and then they end up having so much fun."

Nicki's only hope for the future is that they continue to stay open. With constant fundraising they've been able to make ends meet, but sometimes it's pretty difficult.

"I just want to be able to keep it open," she said. "To still be sitting there 10 years from now watching these people grow and teach others how to stay sober. To keep coming back."

Learn more about Winona Recovery Center at

Tesla (Rodriguez) Mitchell is a digital storyteller, journalist, and social media content creator. Learn more about Tesla and her passions for fitness, motherhood, and art at
Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.