by Jamie Carter-Logan, Dustyn Bailey, Bryan Roche and Peter Anania
Nathan Cermelj was headed to Alaska to visit his mother when he realized that he forgot to take his belt off before stepping through the metal detector at the Seattle airport.
He wouldn’t make it through the pat-down.
TSA found meth and paraphernalia on his person, and Cermelj was immediately thrown into jail. They didn’t, however, find the gun that was in his suitcase when he arrived at the airport. Before the flight, he quietly disposed of it in one of the trash cans.
For Cermelj, the experience wasn’t new. In his early twenties, he had six felonies behind him already, and a history of erratic, paranoid behavior. A wakeup call was coming, but not before another run in with the law.
In 2004, Cermelj was brought in for carrying around a machete — something he mentioned that he was doing for a while. Paranoia, fueled by his drug use, had drove him to think that he needed it for self-defense.
”Until you see someone in the dark, you just don’t know. You’re all about self-preservation at that point. I just had to be on guard all the time,” says Cermelj, recalling his thought process at the time.
That arrest, however, would be his final one, and the first step toward a new, productive life. Today, as the co-owner of Liberty Bay Recovery Center, he’s living a life that allows him to help others with the same struggles.
“It was nice,” Cermelj says of the arrest. “Because I didn’t have to run anymore.”
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In jail for 90 days, Cermelj read the Bible, found God and began attending recovery meetings. He was placed into the drug court program, and started to work his way to sobriety on the outside.
Six months into his recovery, he relapsed on alcohol, got sober once more, but relapsed again. After this pattern occurred a few times, he realized if he kept it up he would just end up back in prison. So, he started working the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Cermelj had been drinking since he was in seventh grade, a time when he says drinking made him feel like he fit in, but he could never stop at just one drink.
“Every time I picked up a drink I’d drink till I blacked out,” he says.
In high school, things spiraled as he became depressed — he felt lonely and started to experiment with drugs. First, marijuana, but then he tried cocaine and meth. By the time he graduated, he had been arrested twice and his plans to join the Air Force had fallen apart. With no college plan, he picked up whatever odd jobs he could.
Within just three years, he was out of control and in jail for his seventh felony. But once he took the steps to get sober, his noticed his life begin to turn around. He met his now-wife in recovery, and in 2014 the two found out they were going to be parents.
Jasmine, Cermelj’s wife, was a nurse and had a good job; he had returned to school, and was also working in treatment centers as a group leader and an admissions counselor.
Recognizing how much he enjoyed working with people starting their journey on the path to recovery, Cermelj began looking for a way to make a difference and start a career. He also wanted to find a place where the couple could do that, and raise a family.
Jasmine was from Bar Harbor originally, so they began looking to the East Coast. Their research led the then Arizona-based couple to Portland, where they saw a need for an addiction recovery and treatment center. He poured hours into doing the necessary work and research to get proper state licensing for a treatment center, found a property and began the moving process.
“The move to Maine was scary,” Cermelj freely admits.
The couple started Liberty Bay Recovery Center in 2015 by borrowing capital and putting much of their costs on credit cards. It only took two weeks after opening for them to admit their first client, and it wasn’t until 2017 that Cermelj says he finally felt secure in the business.
Now, three years after opening, Liberty Bay has helped over 350 people on the path to recovery — a path that Cermelj himself is all to familiar with.
The center offers short-term, mid-term and long-term residential stays, giving people options if they can’t take a full 30 days away from a job or their kids. They also offer outpatient and partial hospitalization programs, and are committed to taking an individualized approach to clients’ treatment.
Liberty Bay has been able to expand in the short time they’ve been in operation, moving into a two-story building on Forest Avenue in Portland and increasing staffing levels from just four in 2015 to 38 today. And some of those employees are former residents of Liberty Bay. Able to turn their lives around, they’ve found employment helping others on the road to recovery.
”I’m glad to be in Portland, helping people get their lives back and giving people jobs,” says Cermelj. “It’s really full circle for me and I’m really blessed for sure.”
And how does Portland feel about having Liberty Bay in the city?
Cermelj says the state of Maine has been welcoming. City leaders, such as Mayor Ethan Strimling and Assistant City Manager Michael Sauschuck, have shown their support for the center. Cermelj himself visits Augusta to speak about his work.
While Liberty Bay has seen success in its three years in operation, Cermelj has no plans to rapidly expand or build the center into any kind of corporate model.
“This isn’t a franchise for me; when I came to Maine I invested my heart and soul,” he says.
In his youth, Cermelj was facing a reality that is all too common in Maine and across the country right now: A life fueled by drugs, crime and no hope for a productive future. But in a jail cell, he was able to claw his way out of the hole he had dug himself into. With help from recovery programs and the drug court, he turned things around and is using his own experience to help hundreds of others do the same in Portland.
That’s why Nathan Cermelj is an Emerging Icon.
All photos by Peter Anania