A vigilant voice

UND alumnus and Grand Forks businessman Jonathan Holth shares his personal story of addiction and recovery

Jonathan Holth

UND alumnus and local businessman Jonathan Holth and partner, Shawn Clapp, got started managing the Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo before opening the Toasted Frog in downtown Grand Forks in 2006. But an unlimited access to alcohol began paving a dark path for Holth until he found his own road to recovery. Photo by Sam Melquist/UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

We all have a story — a journey in this life. Sometimes, it can be terrifying to take off the mask and be real about the past.

Jonathan Holth,’98, isn’t afraid to tell his story. It’s not because he is looking for attention or notoriety. He tells his story simply to help others and advocate for change. Is it uncomfortable and painful to talk about sometimes? “Of course,” he says.  But, he believes it could be the difference between life and death for whoever is listening or reading. So he tells.

“If I can even help one person, it is worth it,” says Holth.

His story likely begins very similar to yours or mine. Holth grew up in an all-American family with a nice home, an older sister and a younger brother, and two family cats named Scratches and Smokey. He attended Red River High School and played hockey, golf and football, wearing jersey number 46. His journey continued as he enrolled at UND where he studied political science and soon began working at the iconic downtown restaurant Sanders. It was then Holth realized his love and passion for the food industry.

He and his business partner Shawn Clapp went on to manage the Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo before opening the Toasted Frog in downtown Grand Forks in 2006.

“After the Frog opened it was a situation for me where all of a sudden I had more freedom than I ever had as my own boss. I was making more money than I ever had before, and I had continuous access to alcohol,” says Holth.

That unlimited access to alcohol was paving a dark path.

Four reasons

Holth says he often stayed awake drinking until 4 or 5 a.m., slept until mid-afternoon, and then went back to work and started the cycle again. “I realized it was bad but I also had the ability to drink those feelings away. I would just sort of say, ‘I will deal with it tomorrow.’ Then tomorrow would become a week, and a week would become a month and a month would become a year,” Holth says of his alcohol addiction.

Jonathan and Emily Holth

Jonathan Holth met wife, Emily, shortly after he got sober. Without her, his recovery would have looked totally different, he says. Image courtesy of Britta The Photographer.

As he thinks back to his life during that time, Holth realizes the pain his actions caused for those he loved. “I wasn’t being a good business partner. I wasn’t doing a good job at managing the restaurant. I was missing family functions. I wasn’t being a good friend. These are all the things that go to the wayside when addiction creeps in.”

“Simple tasks like paying the bills and doing laundry, all things people just do, I wasn’t doing those things,” he recalls.

When Holth’s business partner and family confronted him about his addiction he didn’t fight it.  “I knew I had one shot to make things right or I was going to lose my business I had worked so hard for.  Now I realize it was also my chance to save my life.”

Holth entered a 30-day alcohol treatment program in Granite Falls, Minnesota, followed by a 30-day stay in a sober living facility. Since that day, he has not looked back and has been sober since May 17, 2007.

“I realize I am not the norm.  When I was in treatment there was a 65-year-old man who was there for the 18th time. Less than 10 percent of people stay sober after treatment,” he said.

When asked why he has succeeded in staying sober, Holth smiles as he tells of his four most important reasons named Emily, Sophia, Evelyn and Violet — his wife and three beautiful daughters.

“Shortly after I got sober I met Emily (Hafner), ’98, and she has such a huge heart and has been supportive of me from day one. Without her, my recovery would have looked totally different. All of my greatest joys in life, my wife and my three daughters, are directly tied to my ability to get sober,” he smiled.

In addition, Holth explains that he had to set some safeguards for himself such as never being alone at the Toasted Frog and always heading home before 10 p.m. He put these rules in place to avoid situations where he may feel tempted to take a drink, though he says that really hasn’t been an issue.

“Most of the time when people relapse and go back it is worse than it was the first time. For me, that is not a consideration and it’s easy to say that because I just don’t miss it at all. I really don’t miss it.”

He points out that everyone has a different story and recognizes what works for him may not work for the next person.

Holth is very open when talking about his addiction in hopes of helping others; but also to keep himself accountable. “I want everyone around me to know so that if I ever were to take a drink again people would see me do it and I would feel like crap about it. I said from day one, ‘If I am going to do it, [go to rehab and get sober] I am going to own it.’

“I have always been really competitive, so I said to myself, ‘I am going to be the best at it.’”

Need to do better

Holth’s story started out like the all-American dream. His loving and supportive family provided him with every chance at success. He didn’t have any devastating life events he could blame for his addiction. In fact, he says a common misconception is that people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol have a reason rooted in hardship or trauma.  That is not always the case, or even the norm, and he wants people to realize it can happen to anybody.

Jonathan Holth with Sophia, Evelyn and Violet

When asked why he has succeeded in staying sober, Holth smiles as he tells of his four most important reasons named Emily, and daughters (above) Sophia, Evelyn and Violet. Image courtesy of Britta The Photographer.

“The disease touches pretty much everybody’s family in some capacity. It permeates every workplace whether we know it or not. It might not be your co-worker right next to you who is struggling with addiction, but their mom or dad or brother or sister might be,” Holth said. “It’s everywhere, but it’s still in the shadows so much.”

That is why Holth was appointed to North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum’s Office of Recovery Reinvented Advisory Council, which First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum chairs.

Helgaas Burgum, who is in long-term recovery from addiction, made it her platform to eliminate the stigma and shame associated with the disease.

Holth says, “Our overlying goal is to make North Dakota the best state in the nation for recovery services. When I needed to get sober I had two things: I had access to resources and I had love. Not everybody has money to go to a treatment center and a lot of people don’t have love in their corner either because by the time they realize they need help they have lost their families.”

He adds that the number one difference maker for positive change is normalizing alcoholism and making people feel comfortable to admit they have a problem. “People are losing their lives every day because society hasn’t said it is a normal thing yet. Society looks at addiction as failure. So until we talk about it more and normalize it people are going to continue to die. Statistics say that, data says that.”

Providing better recovery services and a stronger recovery community are areas where the Governor’s Advisory Council is stepping up to help.

“If somebody comes to the doctor with diabetes you don’t just say, here’s 28 days of diabetes medication; I hope you get better in 28 days. I think our society has been hyper-focused on treatment. There’s early intervention, prevention, treatment, and recovery. We need a balanced approach to focus on all four of them.”

As Holth contemplates his future, he recognizes recovery is a lifelong journey. He lives one day at a time and takes nothing for granted. He remains vigilant day in and day out to do good and give back to the community that gave so much to him when he was in his darkest times. As a way to contribute, he’s taken on a new career at JLG Architects in Grand Forks as the Community and Client Development Manager. In this role he’s able to translate his love for the community into his work every day.

When asked what he would tell someone who is spiraling downward on the same path as the “28-year-old Jonathan,” his answer is powerful, and his tears are real. “I just wish they could jump inside my body for one day and feel what it’s like because it’s a better life.

“People sometimes think they’ll be missing out if they don’t have a drink at the football game or that glass of champagne at the wedding. But, I can promise you, this is the better life.”

Holth serves on the UND Alumni Association & Foundation  Board of Directors.

About the Author:Leanna Ihry

Leann Ihry, ’02, is an Impact Writer at the University of North Dakota Alumni Association and Foundation. Since graduating from UND with a degree in communication in 2002, Ihry, a native of Leeds, N.D., has had an extensive career in public/community affairs and local television media in Grand Forks.