Niki Minjares performs at the Roxy Wed., July 18, at 7:30 PM. Free with the purchase of two concessions.
The second time she overdosed, Niki Minjares had just totaled the car she was living in by driving it into a pole in a Walmart parking lot. If it wasn’t rock bottom, it sure was close: She had already lost her home, her job, her friends, custody of her daughter, and the will to save herself. Charges were pending on her third DUI.
“There was nothing left,” she says. “I had ruined every chance I had been given. I saw it as a way out.”
And it was a way out — just not the one Minjares expected. Her mom found her, she woke up in the hospital, and then she was transferred to Providence’s psych ward. After a few weeks, a drug treatment center.
There, during the rawest days of her recovery, she started telling her story, with all of its pain and anger and desperation and heartbreak. And the way she told it made everyone laugh.
“I used to give people things because I don’t think I’m enough,” Minjares says. “But in treatment, you can’t give people anything, so instead, I’d tell my stories and people would show up just to hang out and listen. It made me realize I had something that still brought me joy: making people laugh. There was nothing else I could do except that. In every treatment group, they’ve told me it’s a defense mechanism, but for me, it’s the best way to understand and to cope.”
Now, more than two years clean — after a few fits and starts — Minjares has pieced her life back together again. Exceedingly quiet and professional, with a sharp hidden edge of matter-of-fact realness, she now has a new place and a new job, and her daughter is finally, permanently back under her roof. More than that, she has something new and surprising in her life: stand-up comedy. She dipped her toe into performing by trying a couple of open mic spots at The Roxy (most of the other stand-up shows happen in bars, where she no longer treads) and then signed up for the annual Missoula Homegrown Comedy Competition. There, the virtual unknown was not remotely favored to win her semi-final round, but her fresh, open-hearted and hilarious set about her life left the crowd in ruins and easily clinched her first place and a ticket to the finals.
“My mom is skinny, and that means she has high expectations,” Minjares quipped on stage. “Not expectations about my future, but about the real me, the me that matters: my body.”
Her jokes were personal but also universal: capturing her own story, but also deeply relatable to many.
Minjares’ talent for comedy started young, growing up with a single mom in rural Montana.
“My sense of humor comes from being uncomfortable,” she says. “I grew up in a household where there was always fighting and yelling between my mom and her partners, and I dealt with it through making fun of them, through breaking the tension. I’ve always seen my joking as an asset. It makes me cry less — and who wouldn’t want to cry less?”
But her developing humor came to a screeching halt, around the same time she discovered opiates at 24, shortly after the birth of her daughter. Minjares had a friend ask her for painkillers because he said he couldn’t get them prescribed. She got some from her mom, and then watched, shocked, as her friend crushed up one of the pills and snorted it in front of her.
“My whole life changed,” Minjares said. “I thought I could never do it, but within 24 hours, I had done it. It became a sometimes thing, but within a year I was dependent and using every day.”
As if opioids weren’t enough of an issue, a local police crackdown on her drug of choice meant that she was often so sick from withdrawal that she couldn’t get out of bed. When one of her friends brought over some meth, she tried it.
“I didn’t want to smoke it, because I still had my daughter and didn’t want to expose her, so I started shooting it up pretty quickly,” she says.
Her life quickly spiraled out of control. She sat her daughter in front of the television and computer while she used.
“It was either that or subject her to me,” she says.
She lost custody of her daughter to her mother in October 2015, after her first overdose.
“That night I had had enough,” she says. “It was a suicide attempt. It was anything I could get my hands on: meth, opiates, benzos, everything in the house. My ex was at the house with me, so I knew my daughter wouldn’t wake up alone. He found me and called the ambulance.”
It would be a year and a half before she got her daughter back again. And while she’s deeply thankful for her mom, who not only cared for her daughter but helped her through her addiction, she still suffers thinking about what her daughter went through when she was using.
“When your child is not with you it hurts — it was the biggest pain I had ever felt,” she says. “I stopped acknowledging her. I didn’t think about her or talk about her, because it hurt so much. A lot of people lose custody forever, and I knew that couldn’t be my story. I couldn’t lose her.”
Her daughter and her sense of humor have been key to her ongoing recovery (defense mechanism or not: it works for her), but Minjares mostly credits a few surprising sources for saving her life: her parole officer, Child Protective Services, Evolution Services, her social workers and her therapists.
“Everyone says they hate all those institutions, but they put bumper lanes in my life,” she says. “These women are overworked and underpaid and never thanked. They are some of the most amazing women I have ever met. They believed in me and never treated me like a drug addict. They taught me how to love myself and how to be a healthy parent. My addiction is all on me. My recovery is only here because I made so many essential connections on the right side of the fence.”
Still, recovery is an ongoing process and a daily fight.
“So many emotions trigger me — anger, happiness, frustration,” she says. And triggers even happen in stand-up comedy. After owning the semifinal round with her confident, candid real talk, Minjares froze on stage during the finals and experienced her first bomb in front of a packed house.
“I felt so ashamed, I was crawling in my own skin and I had to get away,” she says. “I drove to go get my daughter as soon as I could because I wanted to relapse and use, because seeing my daughter keeps me grounded most.”
But unlike the destructive behavior she’s explored, comedy is ultimately a force of good, even on the worst nights. For an introverted, quiet woman who had to re-learn how to wash and brush her daughter’s hair, a bad night on stage is just an opportunity to learn and come back stronger next time. “I really like my life,” she says, wiping a dark strand of hair out of her eyes. “But I’m not done fixing it.”
“Comedy just makes me excited,” she continues. “I feel less vulnerable. The things I say on stage I would never say to someone I just met, but I will say them to everyone. And everyone, hopefully, will laugh.