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Accidental Miracles and How Addiction Policy Forum Started

July 11, 2018

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I was at a cookout recently when someone asked about what I do for work, and I happily spoke about Addiction Policy Forum, and the Brimley Group. They asked how I came to set up both of these organizations and my honest answer was: “A total accident.”

Turn the clock back 10 years ago. I was working for a national nonprofit leading their federal advocacy efforts. I had left Capitol Hill but still wanted to work on issues I cared about, like criminal justice reform. I was also a mom ‒ trying to make everything work was a delicate balancing act of keeping 27 plates spinning in the air with me teetering on tiptoes and bird like hand movements to keep everything going.

I had my third son that year, Tyler, who joined his big brothers Jack (2 1/2 years) and Conner (4 years old). My heart and my hands were full. But then in February 2008 my mom died, suddenly, when my newborn was just four weeks old. My mom lived with me half the time to help with those spinning plates and that delicate balancing required and just generally made everything better. My best friend.

I had to navigate the loss of my mom, raising three beautiful boys under 5 years old, and work. And when I went to my grandma, bereft and overwhelmed, she told me to build something where I could work on things I was passionate about and still be home for supper with my babies. She reminded me I wouldn’t get that time back.

So I started the Brimley Group, which wasn’t much of a “group” at the time unless you counted my toddlers or my puppy, but I started it anyway. And I worked on grassroots advocacy efforts and federal policy issues that made my heart sing — from the Second Chance Act, to the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, to the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). I even eventually hired some folks to make it really a group, which was a gift. I accidentally became a boss, and taught myself how to run a company, a small company, but still a company. 

I called it Brimley for my grandma, Zoe, who comes from Brimley, Michigan, the home of the Bay Mills Indian Reservation and my family. It was my thank you and a nod to the woman who raised me and gave me the courage at 31 to open my own shop.

And not only did I have rewarding work, I made my own schedule. I was a room parent in kindergarten, and a PTA volunteer, with music class and swim team and crafts after school. In this world it can be so difficult to be a mom and balance work, so I made my own place. An accidental miracle.

Focusing on addiction has always been my core passion, and I increasingly worked on treatment and prevention. And then one day while on Capitol Hill, about four years ago, a congressional office told me that I should have a nonprofit if I wanted to really build a comprehensive response to addiction and make sure families were included at the table. My grandma had since been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I could no longer seek her counsel, but I knew what she’d tell me: build it.

So the very next week I started Addiction Policy Forum and we laid out a plan to unite the field, to represent patients and families, to advance the science — goals I think I’d been secretly dreaming about since I got started in this field at just 15 years old. I filled out the 501(c)3 paperwork and invested $13,000 of my own money as the inaugural donation in the newly opened bank account. In the beginning, I did most of the work on weekends in my jammies, even scheduling social media posts since I couldn’t spend much time during the week. And it was just me, with a puppy again keeping me company, learning how to run a nonprofit this time instead of a small company.

I am overwhelmingly grateful to the two women who gave me the strength to build new things and take chances, invest in my being a mom, and try to always do right. My work is my love letter to both my mom and my grandma, and I hope I’ve made them proud.

Looking back, I think accidents sometimes aren’t accidents at all. I’ve learned that if we dare to build the things that don’t exist in the world — whether that’s help for families struggling with addiction or a way to balance work and life as a mom — I think we can surprise even ourselves with the wonderful changes we can make.



Jessica Hulsey Nickel

Jessica began working in prevention at 15 years old through an anti-drug coalition in southern California. The next chapters included an appointment by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Drug-Free Communities Commission, serving as a legislative aid in the U.S. House of Representatives, and work to pass and fund the Second Chance Act to help individuals returning home from prison and jail. In 2015, Jessica founded the Addiction Policy Forum to help families and patients struggling with the disease of addiction. Frustrated by the lack of progress in improving outcomes for those individuals and families struggling, she started the nonprofit with $13,000 from her own savings account and long hours at the dining room table. Read more about Jessica Hulsey Nickel.