Before I became a mother, I’d often share a story about myself that never failed to blow people away, mainly because it was in such opposition to the standard first impression of me as “nice” “friendly” “sweet” and possibly “shy” or “quiet”. In other words, a normal person without a dramatic or colored past.
I’m certainly guilty of rushing to the same conclusions. When I meet someone who seems normal and together, I tend to imagine that they’ve had a happy childhood with lots of pleasant memories of growing up. And time and again, I’ve been proven wrong.
However, after I had kids, I stopped telling people about my past for the sake of my children. Not because I was ashamed of it, but because I didn’t want my kids to suffer a stigma of something that they were too young to understand. But, in the back of my mind, I knew that this story was an important part of who I am and I’ve been waiting for the right time to tell it.
The other day, my youngest son, now 12, asked me straight out “Mom, have you ever done drugs?”
And I knew it was time.
So now I will share my story with you, and give the history, the struggle, the reason - and the humanity - behind SoYoung. The journey of how we came to be, and why we do what we do in the name of living a healthy, empowered life.
LIVING A NIGHTMARE
It is the middle of the night when the reality of the nightmare I am living descends upon me once again, having steadily worsened over the past three and a half years. I have the blankets over my head and I am praying. “Please, whatever happens, don’t let him find out about the money. Please, whatever happens, don’t let him find out about the money. Please…” over and over.
Here is the truth: I am an IV heroin drug user. I am financing my drug habit by skimming off the top of my dad’s life savings, which he has entrusted with me to invest and manage. If my father ever finds out about the money I’ve stolen, my plan is to end my life because I could never, ever face him again.
I was born in Montreal to Korean immigrant parents who weren’t the least bit progressive. While I knew that they loved me, my parents didn’t give me much in the way of positive and nurturing messages like “You can do anything you set your mind to” or “You’re so special and loved”. It was more like “You’re stupid” and “Don’t eat that - you’re too fat.” My dad had a drinking problem coupled with anger issues, which spilled over into occasional beatings. At home, my sister and I lived in constant fear of things suddenly blowing up because of a misstep.
One of the subconscious beliefs that has held me in its grips for as long as I can remember is that I am inadequate and not worthy of love, attention or success and that anything good that has happened to me in my life has been an accident and not of my own doing.
I still battle with this “programming” but as a child becoming a young adult, I had no awareness of these beliefs. I just knew that I felt tremendously insecure and was convinced that, with the exception of a few safe friends, most people didn’t like me.
MY STUNTED SOCIAL LIFE
Fast forward to my university years at McGill in Montreal. I would have loved to escape my home and move away for school but my father refused to allow my sister or I to live anywhere but home, where he could continue to control us.
I had very little personal freedom, and even when I was allowed to go out with my friends, my dad wanted me home so early that I seldom participated in the “club” scene - not that I really missed it. Social situations like dances and clubs were always a source of discomfort and I much preferred the more intimate part of the early evening at someone’s house while everyone else got ready to go out. A party girl I was not. I spent pretty much every weekend of my university life at the library just so I didn’t have to be home.
It was also at McGill that I met the boy who I would be with for the next 7 ½ years, Sam. He was Italian, his family was in the construction business and he was somewhat of a rebel. The funny thing about our relationship is that I chose to be with Sam not because I was so in love with him but because he made me feel safe. To me, never having been in love before, that was the equivalent of love.
NO GATEWAY DRUGS
For me there were no gateway drugs. The first drug I ever tried was heroin.
I was 23 and, having graduated from McGill, was working at a local bank branch. My father had reluctantly given into the idea of letting me move out after I had threatened to move away altogether, so I was sharing an apartment with my girlfriend Rheanna which, unbeknownst to my parents, also housed her boyfriend and my boyfriend, Sam.
For the first time in my life, I was free to do whatever I wanted with whomever I wanted. The funny thing is, I didn’t actually feel free. I had always thought that if I could just get out from under the grip of my parents, that I would be happy. But I wasn’t. I was filled with insecurities, unhappiness, and a sense that I was being judged. Stranger still, I actually missed my parents.
But not on Friday nights.
Sam had a friend from high school - let’s call him Mario - who had opted out of University, still lived with his parents, and worked nights in a button factory. He was also a heroin junkie and was thrilled that he finally had a place other than his basement or his car to go to get high. Mario came over to our place every Friday evening to use and, in exchange, he shared his drugs with us. When I say “us”, I mean, Sam and myself because my roommates were pot smokers. But the 5 of us would sit around and get high together.
Heroin actually seemed pretty harmless to me at the time - mostly because we were smoking it rather than shooting or snorting it, which removed much of the stigma in my mind. Of course, now I know how wrong I was, but at that point, it didn’t strike me as a particularly dangerous activity.
In fact, Friday nights were now the highlight of my week, and I recall practically skipping home from work in anticipation of the evening ahead. It all seemed like fun and games to me - until the night when it all changed.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
We were sitting around the table, as usual, getting ready to get high. I looked at my roommate, Rheanna, and wished she weren’t there. I was annoyed with her laziness and messiness and didn’t like the way she treated her boyfriend.
Then, as the drugs were passed to me, I turned away from her and took a toke. In that moment I was suddenly hit with an overwhelming experience of peace and love - everything fell away except this feeling of total and utter wholeness, unlike anything I had ever felt before. I turned back to look at Rheanna and, where not one minute prior to that I had practically despised her, now all I could feel was love.
When I look back, this was the pivotal moment when I changed from being a recreational drug user to an addict. From that moment on, my drug use was 100% driven by the yearning to recreate that powerful feeling of love and peace. The sad thing is, over the next three and a half years, I never experienced it again.
Fast forward 3 years and I have transformed from someone who was hardworking and responsible into a disaster on wheels. My life is a facade. I am always late for work and I am useless at my job. When I am finally fired, it actually comes as a relief.
My journey of addiction has been a slow and steady decline into despair, humiliation and isolation as the threshold of things I say I would never do keeps getting lowered. Things like “I would never do crack cocaine”, “I would never steal money from my loved ones”, “I would never stick a needle in my arm”. Been there, done that. And that. And that too. And I blame Sam for all of it.
In my powerless state, I often find myself haunted by a conversation between Sam and me in the early phase of our heroin use:
Me: “This stuff is dangerous. We should stop doing it. Look at what happened to Mario. I don’t want to turn out like him.”
Sam: “We’re not like Mario. He’s an idiot. People like us don’t get addicted to drugs.”
I remember making a decision to believe him because that’s what I wanted to believe. But even then, deep inside, I knew it wasn’t true. This was where my low self-confidence had cost me the most. Pivotal moment #2.
It is early 1997 and, like nearly every day during this period, I am alone in my apartment. Having lost my job, my sole purpose in life has become scrounging enough money for my next fix. I don’t feel hunger and my main source of sustenance is drinking herbal tea with white sugar and some kind of instant food. I am bone thin but couldn’t care less about what I look like.
When I look back on this time, I recall a moment of clarity that has stayed with me. It was a moment where I experienced a knowing that something was going to change. I didn’t know what that change was going to be - whether I was going to die or whether I was going to get clean, but I just knew in that my days living like this were numbered.
The phone rings and it’s my sister who immediately sets off alarm bells. “Have you been doing something in Daddy’s bank accounts?”
Me: (calm and cool) “No. Why?”
My sister: “He called me and said that he went to the bank today and when the teller updated his passbook, there were hundreds of transactions and none of them were his”. (This was part of my elaborate scheme in financing my drug habit).
Me: "Oh, that’s weird. No, I have no idea. Let me call you later - there’s someone at the door.” And I hung up the phone.
Immediately the phone started to ring off the hook, with call display showing me that my dad was trying to call me, as well as the bank.
This was it. The moment of truth where I had said that, if my dad found out, I would end my life. I didn’t know how I was going to do it yet, but I knew was that I needed to get out of that apartment, away from my ringing phone. I put the leash on my dog, and we escaped.
While I was born and raised as a Catholic, I’ve never been religious. I have, however, always believed in God, in a removed sort of way. Kind of like, God exists but has little relevance to me, because I am too insignificant to be bothered with.
But my mom was quite religious, and she must have had some sense that I was in trouble, because she had given me a small bookmark with a picture of Mother Mary on one side and a prayer on the other. I discovered the bookmark in my purse one day, having forgotten about it. The prayer was a version of the Hail Mary which, in my most painful moments, I had repeated this like a mantra so that I could distract my mind.
This day while I walked the streets with my dog, I did nothing but repeat this prayer over and over again in desperation. With all my being, I wanted a miracle. I wanted to turn back the wheels of time, back to that pivotal moment when Sam said to me “ People like us don’t get addicted to drugs” and I wanted to be that strong, independent person who said “Fuck you, you’re wrong” instead of the weak and insecure me who decided that someone else knew better. I wanted the miracle to be that none of this had ever happened and that I had my old life back. As unhappy as it was, it was still better than this.
PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE
Two things saved me.
One was the fundamental belief that, despite it all, suicide is never the answer. During the hours that I wandered and walked through the streets pondering things like, “Does it hurt when you jump in front of a subway?” and “what do I do with Natasha (my dog)?”. The idea of actually following through on it seemed less and less likely. I mean, what if my problems just went with me when I died? That would totally suck.
The other thing was less tangible. Even though I’d never enjoyed going to Church, I had, on a number of occasions, experienced a sense of peace while sitting in an empty church auditorium. There was this beautiful church in downtown Montreal that I would on occasion visit for this very purpose during my years of struggle. I remember being grateful that the doors were always open no matter what time of the day it was and that, even though no one was ever there, it didn’t feel empty because there were always candles lit in prayer for others. So on this day turned evening, I once again found myself in this church, thinking maybe - because I’ve never been so desperate - maybe this time God will grant me a miracle.
I do believe in miracles, both the big flashy ones like spontaneous healings and the quiet shifts that occur almost imperceptibly and could be construed as simply changing your mind about something. I can’t tell you exactly what happened at that church for me except that I decided that maybe despite all of these horrible, shameful things I had done, maybe what I had created in my life was forgivable and that maybe someone could help me.
So I went home and picked up the phone and called my sister.
I had never experienced the East End of Montreal prior to spending 2 weeks in detox there. I recall being shocked at seeing syringes lining in the gutters as I walked from my sister’s car to the door of the detox centre. The centre itself was a down and dirty place, but it was the only one we could find that had space and offered a medical detox, rather than the brutal cold turkey method, which terrified me.
But despite the no-frills atmosphere, I felt at home as soon as I walked in. Within minutes I had befriended the only other English speaking person there, a guy named Lorne, who had been clean from heroin a full week or so - an eternity to me at that point. Plus, it was his second time there in the last few months, so he was a pro.
“So the nurse is going to come this evening and you’re going to be given a cocktail of pills, which you have to take in front of her,” Lorne advised. “Don’t let anyone convince you to give them some of your pills. And then you’re going to pass out and I won’t see you for a couple of days. But once that part is over, the worst is done.”
Prior to getting clean, I had never really felt the presence of a higher power. Where was God when my dad was drunk and beating me up? And what about all the praying I did over the last few years, pleading and begging for help?
But, I noticed something from about the time I picked up the phone and made that call to my sister, the one where I finally broke down and told her everything and we cried together and she told me she knew and she had just been waiting for me to call. We got to a point in the call where she said “OK, so now what are we going to do?”
“Do?” I thought. “There’s nothing that can be done. This is why I never called before. Because I can’t stop. I am going to die an addict.” But I didn’t say that.
At the same time, I couldn’t exactly make this kind of a call and then backtrack, “Actually, I’m good. It’s ok, I’ll figure it out from here.” and hang up. So I played along.
My sister said, “ I think you’re going to have to go to detox, and then after that, a treatment centre.” (She’d really looked into this).
In my (very limited) mind, treatment didn’t work. Our friend Mario (the one who’d started it all) had gone to treatment twice and then came home and started using again. So had a number of people I had encountered over the last few years - I’d only met them because they were still using.
But, because I couldn’t exactly say no, I said, "Yes. Fine, I’ll go." (But it’s not going to work).
As soon as I gave in and decided to go with an idea other than my own, something else took over and paved the way for me. I still had to take the action but, in the course of doing so, it was like I was being led. This included meeting Lorne the minute I walked into the detox and the countless other people and places I was led to over the course of the next year. It just kept happening and all I did was put one foot in front of the other.
For over 3 years I was convinced that every hit I did was the last one, that tomorrow was the day I was finally going to get clean. But the actual last hit I ever did on the morning I left for detox didn’t feel anything like it: there was simply no finality to the moment. In fact, my devious mind was already construing a plan for how I was going to score between the time I left detox and went to long-term treatment.
But something happened to me which, to this day, I cannot explain.
After taking the first cocktail of pills and laying down to pass out, I have very little recollection of the next few days. I know that I wasn’t entirely unconscious the whole time, as I had to get up to receive the tapering doses of meds, and I must have taken a call from my sister because afterward, she asked me “What happened to that woman who was stealing your clothes?” Huh?
But the incredible thing was that on the 3rd or 4th day, I woke up from this delirium perfectly clear - and for the first time since this nightmare had begun, I had no desire to use. In fact, the only thing I wanted to do was take a long, hot bath, which I did (after I got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed the bathtub).
And since that fateful morning in August 1997, I can honestly say that I have never experienced the desire to use again. For this, I can come up with only one explanation: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
The story doesn’t end here but suffice it to say that getting clean was just the tip of the iceberg. What followed after that was months of treatment, years of 12 step meetings and countless therapies and therapists. After those three and a half long years of yearning to have my life just go back to the way it was, I realized that would have been the worst thing to have happen.
The person I was before my addiction was tremendously disempowered, vulnerable and unhappy. In order for this to change, I needed to wake up and see that I was responsible for my life and that I had made choices along the way that led to my nightmare drug addiction. As difficult as the lesson was, this experience woke me up to a new way of seeing the world and my place in it.This was a world in which I was not the victim of Sam, Mario or my father but rather one where I was a powerful creator of my own life.
As a mother, my deepest hope is that my children will be spared this type of pain in their lifetime, that somehow they can bypass the pain and just get the lesson. However, as a human being (or maybe, a spiritual being having a human experience), I know that this is highly unlikely. So instead I hope that I can instill in them the knowledge that within their core lies a strength that they have access to that holds the key to creating a life of empowerment and wonder - they just have to make the choice.