LETHBRIDGE - She didn't aspire to become a drug addict when she was a little girl. No one does.
But at 23-years-old, "Sam" has been addicted to drugs on and off, for 14 years.
I was introduced to her by Jill Manning, ARCHES Managing Director. Sam was tall, had short brown-ish hair, wore dark-rimmed glasses and had several facial piercings. She was dressed in a number of warm layers, but I couldn’t help but notice how thin she was. I thought I might unintentionally bruise her when I shook her hand.
We went to a separate, quiet room in the basement of the building where her interview was taking place, and Manning asked her if she'd eaten that day. She had not. Manning then went upstairs and brought down a small container of apple sauce and what looked like a granola bar. She told Sam she also had half a wrap she could give to her after the interview.
I told Sam if there were any questions I asked that made her feel uncomfortable, she should tell me. What I wasn't completely prepared for, was just how candid and matter-of-fact she would be. Her story brought tears to my eyes.
I began by asking her about her childhood.
Sam grew up in the Calgary-Strathmore area. Her father worked on the rigs and was well-paid, her mother was at home and had a problem with prescription pills. When her father would come back from work, he would use crack-cocaine, heroin and meth – sometimes trying to hide it from her mother.
She told me her parents broke up when she was in the third grade. She and her sister, who's seven years younger, would spend time at both homes, until the end of the fourth grade when they both went to live with their dad. By that time, he wasn't even trying to hide his drug abuse.
"Because he didn't have to hide it from my mom anymore, the entire house just became a big crack house, basically. People were staying there, and I was watching my sister and taking care of her, while my dad kinda did his thing.
"I saw a lot of things. My dad brought prostitutes home all the time. There was like, different friends of my dad's who were drug users sleeping on air mattresses downstairs, which was where my bedroom was. I saw people smoking crack, you know, people cooking crack. I learned how to cook the heroin for my dad and stuff like that."
Being raised by a parent in that kind of environment, and seeing it as everyday acceptable behaviour, it wasn't long before Sam tried drugs for herself.
"I was nine. It was a line of cocaine. I just saw it on the table and I knew what to do with it, 'cause I'd seen people using it and stuff. It was normal to me. Nobody was around, so I did it."
After that day, Sam began using whatever she found around her home, or whatever anyone would give her. That included pot, huffing chemicals, hallucinogens... anything.
Even with her unstable and dangerous home life at the time, she said she loved school, her teachers and her counsellors. But they all believed something was very wrong at home.
"It was my escape," she says. "But a lot of the time I couldn't go to school, because my sister was home and she needed to be taken care of, 'cause my dad couldn't, or just wasn't there. He just wouldn't show up for days at a time."
Her grandparents entered the picture when Sam was around 12-years-old, taking her younger sister to their home to live with them. Sam was left to stay with her father until the age of 13.
By that time, though, she says it was too difficult to live by their rules. She had never had parental discipline as a young child, and frequently ran away. She was sent to a group home at one point, but ended up at her father's place once again.
When she was 16, she was sent to the Lethbridge Youth Treatment Centre for opioid addiction after she badly broke her finger playing sports and was prescribed painkillers by a doctor. It was also at that time that her mother re-entered her life.
"I found out I was old enough to decide, and so I moved in with her. It was like moving in with my best friend, because she had a bunch of pills and I had all these pills and I realized she was abusing her pills. There was pills everywhere."
She spent three months in treatment, and went back to Strathmore, where she became addicted to cocaine. Another time back to rehab in Lethbridge and Sam decided to make the city her permanent home. She found an apartment and was clean for a few months, before she relapsed.
She stayed at the homeless shelter countless times when there was nowhere else to go. There, she also met her girlfriend, whom she described as "amazing." The two of them knew each other for about two years, before getting together.
Sam said they now live in the Galt Gardens area, a place she called "the heart of addiction," using either meth or heroin two to five times a day. To fund their habit, in the last year, they went through at least $24,000 in loans.
She knows when she buys drugs from any number of dealers in the downtown Lethbridge area, that they could be laced with Fentanyl or Carfentanil. She even described seeing a number of her friends die and her fear that she or her girlfriend could as well one day.
"When I use heroin I'm scared I'm going to die. I have died. I've overdosed one, two, three times. It's so easy for it to happen. My girlfriend has overdosed in front of me, and I've overdosed in front of her. I just make sure I'm around people I trust when I use."
The day of her interview with LNN, she said was on 'Day One' of sobriety again. She hadn't used, and was hoping to get a bus ticket to go see her sister – her best friend. Her face lit up when talking about her.
"When I go there, I stay sober...she's just so cool, she doesn't get stressed out. She plays ringette and is one of the best goalies in her league. The game will be so crazy, and she'll just be chill. She's got this Zen happening."
Even though Sam tried kicking her addiction a number of times, she said she wasn't ready to give up. She has dreams for her future, possibly working in addictions--especially with younger kids and teens, working on her music - which many say she has an incredible talent for - and helping others at ARCHES. She comes there, because there's no judgement. Even if she's begun using again, the staff is her support system.
As ARCHES Executive Director Stacey Bourque explained, "When they want the help, we're where they come...The more access we have to people who use drugs, the safer they feel, the longer we can keep them alive. It means they can make a better decision on another day. If they die, obviously they lose that opportunity."
Right now, Sam is working on the 12-step program from the Narcotics Anonymous meetings she tries to attend; something she says she hasn't done until now.
"I'm not a criminal. I may be an addict, but I've never committed a crime to get my drugs or money. I never have. I'm not a bad person, I would give anyone on the street the shirt off my back, if I could. I have a family, I have a life and I have people who care about me.
"I'm a human, just like anybody else. Just like they are. We have different experiences, that's for sure. They don't know the things that I've gone through. Feelings are the same in every human, doesn't matter what their story is."
She wants people to know her story because she's watched other people tell their stories and has seen how it can help.
"Everybody else has their own skeletons that they're hiding and they're scared of. What's so different about me? Nothing. It's life, and this is how it goes."
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