Their stories are strikingly similar: Two young Minnesota men whose lives were upended by substance use. For years they both struggled with addiction, treatment and relapse before finding sobriety. Later their winding roads led them to long careers in leadership at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
This fall, those two men — Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer, and Nick Motu, vice president and chief external affairs officer — will be retiring from the nonprofit addiction treatment giant after decades with the organization.
William C. Moyers, Hazelden Betty Ford VP of public affairs and community relations, said that Motu and Seppala’s personal histories, and their willingness to share them, have helped to shape the nonprofit and its place in the world of recovery.
“Individually and collectively, personally and professionally, with their own journeys,” he said, “Nick and Marv have highlighted not just what it means to overcome addiction, but the impact their recoveries have had on the lives of thousands – more like hundreds of thousands – of people who struggle with the same illness.”
Recently both men took time to talk about their tumultuous pasts — and their long careers promoting addiction treatment and recovery.
Marvin Seppala: ‘I’m just like them’
Growing up in the southern Minnesota town of Stewartville, Marvin Seppala began drinking at a young age. Back in the mid 1970s, it wasn’t that exceptional.
“I started drinking in seventh grade,” Seppala said. “At the time, it wasn’t that unusual in a small town in southern Minnesota.”
By the time Seppala was 15, he was using drugs and alcohol every day. The oldest of five siblings in a “100 percent Finnish,” family, Seppala said he lied to his parents and other adults in his life to cover up his substance use until his senior year in high school, when he could no longer hide the extent of his problem: “I got kicked off athletic teams and was struggling academically,” he said.
Once, he recalled that he took speed and stayed up all night completing his physics homework. The next morning, still wired, he went to class. “I remember I was able to go up to the board and complete problems that none of the other students were able to complete,” he said. That night he got wasted again: “I smoked a lot of pot, drank alcohol. The next day we had a test on the same type of problem that I had completed the day before.” Seppala couldn’t remember how to do the work he’d completed successfully 24 hours before.
“The only thing I put on my paper was my name,” he said. “After that, I walked out of class and straight out of school and never went back. I was so ashamed of myself.”
Without school to ground him, Seppala drifted in and out of his parents’ house, staying out all night and returning in the wee hours of the morning. One day, he was in his bed, sleeping off another tough night, when his mother woke him. With the help of a local physician, she persuaded Seppala to get in the car, saying they were taking him to the hospital. But they actually had a different destination in mind. After stopping in Rochester to pick Seppala’s father up at his job at IBM, the four drove north until they reached Center City and Hazelden.
At the time, Hazelden had been around for 25 years, and still served mostly adult men and some women. With the help of their physician, Seppala’s parents had managed to get him an appointment with a counselor at Hazelden Betty Ford, and when they arrived he was rushed into his appointment.
With his defenses down, Seppala came clean about the extent of his substance use. “This was the first person who had come to me with an understanding of what I was going through and could talk to me about it,” he said of the counselor. After the interview, the counselor recommended Seppala for admission.
That recommendation made Seppala the first adolescent to undergo inpatient addiction treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford. He was less than enthusiastic about the idea. “When I realized at that point that I would be staying here, I said, ‘I’m not going to stay here,’” Seppala recalled. “My father said, ‘If you don’t, we are going to go to a judge and force you to be here.’”
Seppala isn’t sure if his parents could’ve actually followed through on their threat, but he agreed to stay at Hazelden because he didn’t want to go to court. For the first two weeks of his four-week stay, things went poorly. “I argued that I didn’t belong there and compared myself to the older men I was with,” he said. “I even used information from the Big Book of AA to prove I didn’t belong there.”
The other men in the treatment program didn’t buy Seppala’s argument, but instead of dismissing him as an angry teen, Seppala said the men listened to him and shared their own stories of addiction.
“They just cared for me,” he said. “The really cared about me and I started to hanging out with the guys who were really serious about recovery. I didn’t admit that I had it, yet I found I was attracted to them and how they talked about it. All of a sudden I realized, ‘I’m just like them.’”
When the month was over, Seppala graduated from treatment, but relapsed five days after going home. Eventually his parents disowned him and kicked him out of the house. He crashed with a series of friends until he got a job as a lab assistant at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
The job turned out to be an inspiration — and a challenge.
“I loved this job,” Seppala said. “It was incredible. Suddenly I was in this lab with physicians and Ph.D.s. It was fascinating.” Excited by this new opportunity, he stayed sober for two weeks until he relapsed, stealing cocaine used for research from the lab. Feeling desperate, Seppala went to an AA meeting in downtown Rochester. For weeks he observed the meeting without contributing, but eventually he worked up his courage and asked another man to be his sponsor. After that Seppala said he had one more relapse, but since has remained sober for 46 years.
His time as a lab assistant inspired Seppala to want to become a doctor. Though he’d walked out of high school just months before graduation, administrators at his school agreed to grant him a degree. He went on to college, married his high school sweetheart and eventually enrolled in medical school at the Mayo Clinic, becoming a psychiatrist with a specialization in addiction medicine.
Seppala is fascinated by substance use disorder and its treatment. He believes that his own addiction has a strong genetic component, and that knowledge has helped him to see it as an inherited illness.
“The Finnish government was the first country to admit that the No. 1 cause of death there was alcohol,” he said. That understanding of his own predisposition for addiction made Seppala worried that he might pass it on to his own children.
“I figured it was too huge a genetic load to have children,” Seppala said, “but my wife prevailed. We have two wonderful kids who are now in their 30s. They have no evidence of this disease.”
As Hazelden Betty Ford’s chief medical officer, Seppala has been a strong advocate for medication assisted treatment [MAT] for opioid use disorder.
“I drove this when buprenorphine was first available,” he said. “At the time, most traditional addiction treatment programs would not use it at all. They thought of it as just relapsing from one drug to another.”
Though the decision to offer buprenorphine to patients recovering from opioid use was controversial, Seppala stuck to his guns.
“I insisted on starting this medication and brought that to bear for the organization, which turned a lot of heads in the field,” he said. “We have such a reputation, and suddenly we were using this medication. It helped a lot of other treatment programs make the same decision. I thought it was the right decision, and it has worked out extremely well.”
When he officially retires at the end of October, Seppala, who’s finished a memoir blending his own experience with addiction and his treatment expertise, plans to keep his hat in the ring.
“I am going to keep working, but move to some part-time job where I can just focus on one thing at a time,” he said. But he’s not rushing into anything: “First, I’m going to take a couple of months off and take a good look at my life. I also want to go skiing and fishing and spend some time with my granddaughter.”
Nick Motu: ‘I drank from the time I woke up in the morning to when I went to bed.’
As a young man, Nick Motu showed promise, but alcohol kept getting in the way. He enjoyed drinking with his buddies in college, but his use blossomed into addiction when he graduated and got a job as a reporter at a daily paper in Wyoming.
“In journalism, there was a culture back then of heavy drinking,” Motu explained. “We put the paper to bed every night and then we’d go out and drink. My alcoholism flourished in that period.”
Motu eventually moved back to his home state of Minnesota, where he took a job at the New Ulm Daily Journal and as a stringer for the Associated Press before moving to marketing jobs at insurance companies. Though from the outside it seemed as if his career was flourishing, on the inside Motu was struggling.
“By that time my alcoholism was in full bud,” he said. “I drank from the time I woke up in the morning to when I went to bed.” It got to the point where he didn’t want to do anything but drink, so he quit his job so he’d have more time with alcohol. “That’s how strong the power of alcoholism was. It was a really, really tough time.”
Motu had been married, but his first wife left him, he lost his house, and he moved back in with his parents. “I was 35 or 36 at the time,” he said. “That whole time is vague. I was in blackouts.”
Life didn’t get any easier for Motu, though he tried to sober up on his own. He might stay away from alcohol for a few days or weeks, but he’d relapse, blacking out on the street and ending up in the emergency room. One such experience sent him to addiction treatment on the sixth floor of what was then known as Ramsey Hospital.
He finished that treatment, walked out and immediately began drinking. He made it back to his parents’ house, where he blacked out and had a grand mal seizure.
The experience was a turning point. “My mother decided I had to get help,” Motu said. “I didn’t want to do it on my own. She went to the Dakota County court and had me committed under a Rule 25.”
During the court hearing the judge asked Motu if he was willing to go to treatment. “I said I’d go to treatment if I could to Hazelden,” he recalled. “She agreed and under a Rule 25 order I ended up at Hazelden and spent 32 days here.”
That one visit wasn’t enough to get Motu sober. He went to a halfway house, kept drinking, and ended up at two other treatment centers before he finally was able to quit for good. In 1995, he got a job at Hazelden in the marketing department after a friend called and told him about an opening.
“It felt like a great opportunity,” Motu said. He relished being able to combine his marketing skills with his commitment to recovery. That combination was recognized by his colleagues, and when Mark Mishek was hired as Hazelden Betty Ford’s president and CEO, he expanded Motu’s job. His new title? Vice president and chief external affairs officer.
“He gave me the responsibility of managing all of the marketing and business development for the entire foundation,” Motu said. “It was an exciting opportunity.”
Motu is proud of the work he’s been able to do at Hazelden Betty Ford. On the publishing side, he helped shepherd the nonprofit into the digital age, moving from print to electronic publishing.
“When the iPhone was introduced into the market place in 2007, we began to embrace this new form of communication,” Motu said. “We developed some of the first recovery apps.” Those apps won awards and recognition, including special recognition from then-President Barack Obama.
Motu appreciates how technology makes recovery accessible to a broader audience.
“My biggest satisfaction in publishing was reading letters from grateful parents and folks in recovery saying that they got help from something that we published or had helped them and their family member manage their addiction and support their recovery,” he said.
Because he wants to make addiction treatment available to all, Motu said he is pleased that he was able to support the organization’s decision to accept commercial insurance: “We were
self-pay only until Mark Mishek came on board 13 years ago. Now more than 90 percent of our clients come on board with commercial insurance.”
He thinks the next step for Hazelden Betty Ford and other treatment centers is to further expand their services to people who do not have insurance coverage. “Our biggest issue going forward is trying to increase access to treatment for those who cannot afford it. Years ago, I was in that situation myself. I could not have afforded treatment at Hazelden had the judge not sent me there.”
Motu said his heart told him it was time to retire.
“Coming to work every day was feeling like déjà vu,” he said. “The same challenges, the same issues, the same plans, the same processes. At some point, after 26 years, you just want a change. I want to do something else.”
For Motu, doing something else includes “trying to continue to help people that need help — not only with addiction but also with behavioral health issues.” When he finds work in that space, he adds, he hopes he can focus on kids and adolescents, maybe helping to turn the tide early, so that young people don’t have to struggle the way he did.
One thing Motu is certain of is that Hazelden Betty Ford will go on without him. “An old boss told me once, ‘Everybody is replaceable,’” he said. “You think you’re not, but you are. There are plenty of people who can backfill the void left by myself and Marv. I’m not worried about that. We’re too solid an organization and the bench is too deep.”