Before transferring to St. Luke’s Outreach Centre school in Grade 11, Kirsten Powell was doing cocaine daily in Grades 9 through 10.
The first time she tried it is engraved in her brain.
“I was so scared. I was at my best friend’s apartment. She had her own apartment her mom was paying for. It was cool,” she says. “The boyfriend was going [to] come over and we had this all planned out. I was so excited. I was so nervous to do it though. I thought I was going to die off of the tiniest bit.”
At the time, she never believed it was an addiction.
“I thought in high school I was fine, it could be controlled, but looking back it was definitely [an addiction],” she says. “In Grade 10 I was using it every day, so it was not a recreational use.”
Approximately six million people in Canada will experience addiction at some point in their lives, according to Calgary Dream Centre, an organization dedicated to help men and women caught in cycles of homelessness and addiction.
Addiction takes over a person’s life and affects every aspect of it, including their relationships. The turning point of a person’s addiction is when they make the decision to get sober and the changes that are made in order to stay clean.
Jocelyn Monsma Selby, a practicing addictions psychologist for 39 years, has personally seen the effects of addiction.
“An addictive behaviour interferes with your life, your relationships, your workplace, usually those issues are turning points for individuals,” says Monsma Selby.
For Powell, the positive step to breaking the cycle came when she made the decision to switch schools.
Powell didn’t like the idea of going to a regular school, and her mom, not wanting her to be homeschooled, found St. Luke’s Outreach Centre in Okotoks. A program which provides a self-paced style learning experience for Alberta Education, it helped Powell’s life take a turn in the right direction.
“They saved my life really. They definitely were there to just keep calling me out on what I was doing and they weren’t really putting up with it and it was what I needed.”
Despite this, Powell’s home life was still surrounded by drugs, with her mom also dealing with addiction.
“We had a drug dealer living with us. He would just give us free drugs for staying there and I would let him use my car for drugs,” she says. “It was just so stupid, but I would let him just take whatever he wanted for drugs in our house and we would just let him do it. We didn’t care.”
During her time at St. Lukes, Powell started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings to start her recovery process.
“You can really relate to other people and that got me through a ton. I admitted myself in the hospital a couple of times just to try and get my mind right as well.”
Although, after graduating high school, moving to Calgary and finding a career in the vehicle industry, she found herself yet again surrounded by drugs and alcohol.
Multiple one-night relapses occurred for Powell, but none were ever consistent binges.
The mornings after her relapses, she layed in bed, knowing she never wanted to lose the feeling of bliss she felt in her own apartment.
“When my mom passed away [from a drug overdose] a few years ago and I would relapse after that, I would really just think of my mom and that would be a huge thing and motivation for me to sober up my life,” she says. “I’d feel like I’d disappointed her so that would also be a very hard thing when I’d relapse, because it’s kind of like a two in one. Nobody wins in that situation. It’s like depressing myself.”
Similar to Powell, many individuals suffering from addiction are influenced by the repercussions in different parts of their lives.
Hijacking the brain
According to Monsma Selby’s research, addiction can be passed down through genetics.
“Addiction is 40-60 per cent genetics, to my knowledge that stat has not been changed for years. It’s very conservative because we know that in many families it is more than [just] genetics,” says Monsma Selby. “If you abuse a substance long enough and you have the genetic predisposition you’re in big trouble. And sometimes you don’t need to abuse it very long to become addicted to it.”
Those addictive genetics highly affect the brain, and the way individuals are able to practice self control when it comes to substances.
“What we now know from neuroscience is that addiction has a very strong neuroscience base. So we know that if you are truly suffering from addiction, your brain works differently, and cutting back does not work,” says Monsma Selby.
Even when addictions do not come from genetics, it is often common that family lives are impacted by substance abuse.
MJ MacLeod, a practicing addictions psychologist for 27 years, has seen those effects within family lives. She has been a part of a job training program for young adults.
“Of every group we took in every month, 80-100 per cent of those kids, like 16 to 24-year -olds had been impacted by the use of alcohol, either their parents or themselves,” says MacLeod.
Addiction can affect every part of a person’s life, including their relationships and workplaces.
MacLeod says addiction “hijacks their brain.”
Due to this, it can become a very detached time, with an individual’s sole focus being on the substance itself.
“It’s a very lonely time you feel like nobody cares even though you have all these people around you and you’re just in your own head,” says Powell. “But, at the same time you feel like you’re on top of everything and you feel like you don’t need anyone and if you’ve got drugs for the rest of your life it doesn’t matter.”
Individuals may not always realize they need help with recovery, sometimes family and friends will reach out to get the addict help because it becomes too much before they recognize the problem themselves.
Oftentimes, it is when an individual is struggling the most that they or family members decide it’s time to take this hard step towards their turning point.
“Some of them are just beside themselves because they’ve tried on their own and haven’t been able to make some changes, or made changes for a limited period of time, and then they relapsed,” Macleod says. “Some people may be sad, some people may be determined, everybody’s different.”
Powell found that during this time for herself, focusing on her mindset was an important part of her recovery.
“I’m not losing out on anything by not doing it. It’s not impacting my life in any way, so focusing on that was a big thing. It’s not getting me anywhere except losing me money. It’s doing nothing but negative for me,” Powell says. “So, really weighing out what’s important to me also kind of helped guide me.”
Powell’s new behaviours led to the start of her recovery process.
Monsma Selby describes neuro-nets from a neuroscience perspective as “addictions becom[ing] more prominent the more you engage in that behaviour.”
These neuro-nets are part of the brain that create habits within an individual’s life, creating an addiction from constant use.
Practicing new habits retrains the neuro-nets in the brain, creating a turning point, which slowly in time makes it more and more of a routine to stay sober, according to Monsma Selby and her work.
“It’s like driving down a road and the ruts get deeper and deeper and then they dry and it gets all caked over with mud and neuro-nets are like that,” Monsma Selby says. “So, if you practice those behaviours over and over again, in order to engage successfully in treatment you need to create new neuro-nets of behaviors, new patterns and new processes that you practice over and over again.”
After her mom passed away, Powell hit her turning point and began creating new patterns for herself, to make her mom proud.
Being sober now for 13 months, Powell still knows everyday is a fight, but she doesn’t let herself feel like she is losing.
“It’s important that people know and that people are aware that it happens all around us and it’s constant and it’s all the time,” Powell says. “Just by listening you can find that somebody is struggling, and that they may be turning to a substance. It’s everywhere you look.”