A Stepfather’s Story

I have spent the past 15 years helping raise three wonderful girls. During the early years, they were more or less typical middle-class kids. They played lots of sports, they enjoyed camping and canoeing during the summer and snowboarding in the winter. Despite the constant pace of someone doing this or taking a lesson for that, there was a good feeling in our family. Then at about the age of 14, our middle daughter Jackie suddenly began having terrible nightmares. She seemed to be doing okay but was spending a lot of time reading novels of all sorts (buying Jackie books became a bit of an ongoing game in our house). About two years later, she suffered a psychological breakdown at school. She was having flashbacks of some very traumatic episodes of childhood sexual abuse.

We had suspected something was going on, but this was the first time she had felt strong enough to tell us about it. Jackie recovered quickly and attended counselling for a few weeks for what was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She then assured us that she had everything under control. During this time we contacted the RCMP and Jackie gave a detailed video statement to the serious crimes unit. Life continued, and Jackie seemed to be on a roll. She spent her summers volunteering and working as a research assistant at a local university and graduated from high school with great marks that enabled her to get a university scholarship. Life was good for everyone that year.

Jackie seemed to enjoy living in residence at university – she had lots of friends and appeared really happy. She also developed a passion for women’s studies. Unfortunately, we now know, Jackie had begun experimenting with cocaine and methamphetamine at some of the parties she attended. She finished her first year of university with good marks and got a summer job at a local museum. It was about this time that we noticed Jackie’s behaviour changing – she became quite edgy and impulsive, and frequently gave us very vague descriptions of her activities. She then quit her position at the museum and started another less demanding job at movie theatre which lasted only two weeks. This was a very different person from the Jackie we used to know. The summer ended and Jackie headed back to residence at university. We thought this would get her back on track, but little did we know that she barely attended any classes that September – she was spending all her time and money using methamphetamine. Sometime in October of that year Jackie came to us and was very up front about feeling “addicted to crystal meth”.

When we talked with Jackie about why she felt she needed the drug, she said “It keeps me sane.” We immediately thought of her PTSD and that she must be using meth to deal with her flashbacks. Jacking and I made an appointment at the local Community Mental Health Centre where the worker asked Jackie about her problems and her drug use. Jackie was using drugs every few days and said she felt she was losing control. I explained her previous diagnosis of PTSD and asked if Jackie could get a psychiatric/psychological evaluation to try and figure out what was going on. The worker then said she would have to stop using drugs for 3 to 4 weeks before any sort of assessment could be done.

Needless to say, I was shocked – Jackie was very open with her drug use, the flashbacks and feelings she was experiencing as well as her using meth to cope with this new reality of her life. The worker insisted that Jackie try and stay off drugs for a few weeks and then return to the office for an assessment. She also suggested Jackie use a local drop-in counselling service for street youth to help her in the short term. Although this was far from ideal, we naively thought this might work.

Unfortunately while Jackie was waiting at the drop-in centre to see her counsellor, she met a girl who was a hardened crack cocaine addict. Jackie had spent most of her life in libraries and lessons and was probably viewed as an easy target by this woman. Jackie was also still getting her scholarship money for university at this time, though she had dropped all her courses except women’s studies. To make a long story short, Jackie was soon using all her money to buy crack cocaine for her and her new friend. Her life spiraled out control at record speed. Within two months, Jackie was living in crack houses and shelters.

Although Jackie would come home every few days to shower and sleep, she was a totally different person. She couldn’t think beyond today and refused to get any help for her drug use. Her mental health was a mess, and she tried to commit suicide several times. We even managed to have her committed under the Mental Health Act, though her hospital time lasted only 10 days. This craziness lasted for about a year, during which Jackie began meeting with an outreach counsellor (a drug and alcohol worker for high-risk youth named Linda) who worked with us and her to try and get some sort of treatment strategy sorted out. This was a real life saver – Linda had a lot of experience dealing with youth and knew a lot about the treatment options out there. Jackie also really trusted her. 

Despite her repeated hospitalizations for suicide attempts and related issues, the medical establishment concluded that Jackie was not posing a danger to herself or society. Meanwhile the mental health professionals were steadfast in their requirements for Jackie to be clean before she received any sort of psychiatric help. The separation of services for addiction and mental health was extremely frustrating. It seemed completely contrary to the obvious reality that Jackie’s mental illness and addiction insidiously reinforced each other in a downward spiral of trauma and despair.   

As time went on, Jackie’s mental health continued to deteriorate. She was horrifically abused and assaulted while living on the street, yet hospital emergency staff and police frequently treated her as if she was the criminal. Jackie then began experiencing intense psychotic episodes while using drugs. She was one of those young women you see twitching around in an alley in the worst parts of town, and there was absolutely nothing we could do to help her. We soon realized that the only thing that was going to stop Jackie was death or some sort of violent intervention (we seriously considered kidnapping her and taking her to a friend’s remote cabin up north).

Then one day after a three-day crack binge, Jackie tried to commit suicide yet again by hanging herself in a restaurant bathroom. Her belt broke, she moved out onto the street in a psychotic daze, wandered into a local grocery store and began threatening staff and police with a pair of butcher knives. The police subdued her with a Taser and laid charges. She served four months in jail, where she finally got a psychiatric assessment and was forced to get off drugs long enough to be able think straight. Being on medication (Zoloft/Sertraline) made a huge difference to Jackie’s mental wellbeing. On being released from jail, she entered a residential treatment centre to deal with her addiction.

After completing six months at the residential treatment centre, Jackie returned home for a visit and relapsed. Although this was heart-wrenching to watch, Jackie was able to break away from her drug use quite quickly.  She has managed to stay clean for the past few weeks and will be entering another treatment centre here in Vancouver in a month. She is a joy to have around the house and appreciates everything from a simple walk with the dogs in the park to a tasty breakfast. So we aren’t out of the woods yet, but the process has started, and there is hope in the air. Jackie is very determined to get her life together and wants to go back to school part-time once she completes her treatment program. Best of all she is genuinely happy and excited about her future. This is something we haven’t seen for a long time.

To be continued!