In the second part of this series, Peace Arch News explores why some British Columbians are reaching for substances – at a time when overdose deaths have hit record highs – in order to find temporary relief or pleasure.
From a homeless person openly shooting heroin in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to an over-achieving radio broadcaster with a secret $15,000-per-month problem, in more cases than not, people who suffer from the illness of addiction have at least one thing in common – a history of trauma.
Langley filmmaker Brian MacDonald, 61, who by the end of the ’90s was in the throes of addiction, was consuming more than an ounce of heroin a month.
He puts it bluntly: “Trauma equals addiction. In my experience, it’s over 90 per cent of the people have sexual abuse in their stories, physical abuse, alcoholic families, so on.”
MacDonald recently revamped his award-winning documentary – A Ravaged Soul – that tells his story of addiction, and how it took him from being a successful media entrepreneur to trolling the Downtown Eastside looking for a fix.
The self-narrated documentary is a reflection of his life, where MacDonald explains the reason he reached for drugs was to cope with trauma he was once ashamed to talk about.
His first traumatic experience happened when he was three years old, MacDonald said, after his father was upset that he came to the dinner table with dirt on his clothes. His father picked him up and threw him headfirst into the bathtub, he said. Two years later, his dad left the family.
By the time MacDonald turned 12, he had been sexually abused by an extended family member for two years. He started drinking and smoking weed not long after.
MacDonald kept his trauma to himself and raised a family, while running a successful media business and making a name for himself in the market.
After 25 years of having no contact with his dad, MacDonald looked him up and learned he was living in Seattle. Less than 24 hours after an uneventful meeting with his father, MacDonald tried heroin for the first time.
“A file got opened and exploded in my head in regards to what he did to the family, the grief he brought to it and all of that stuff,” MacDonald said, adding that meeting with his father brought the trauma to “the forefront of my consciousness.”
“Heroin is a very powerful drug. It just shuts your emotions down and shuts your physical pain down, shuts your anxiety down. I thought, honestly, for the first three months, I actually found a medication to help what was going on – the spinning in my head.”
As heroin’s ability to mask his emotional stress started to fade, he became trapped in a cycle of using and seeking, which eventually drained his bank account and led to the collapse of his professional life and personal relationships.
He wasn’t eating, he was frequently sick and fighting infections and had even tried to kill himself.
He was on the edge of death when he reached out to his mother for help. She managed to raise enough money to send him to a treatment centre in Nanaimo in the early 2000s. It would be his ninth and final attempt at rehab.
During 18 months in treatment, MacDonald said he finally addressed his trauma, released it, and forgave his abusers.
However, his resilience was tested a couple years later. MacDonald was in a car accident and required more than a dozen surgeries.
The doctor prescribed him pain killers.
Rather than become addicted once more, he was able to stop once his prescription ran out because the root cause of why he’d used drugs – his trauma – had been “modified.”
“The will to go back into it is just not there anymore. It really dissolved.”
White Rock psychologist Jennifer Mervyn, who is a leader in the field, says every client she’s worked with who suffers from addiction shares a common thread – they’ve experienced trauma in their life.
She describes trauma as any stressful life experience, perceived or otherwise, that keeps a person’s nervous system hyper-aroused for six weeks or longer.
“Because that’s when we shift our baseline. It’s our cortisol, our adrenaline, our stress response. Once we have practised six weeks of having our heart beat faster, our blood pressure raised, stress hormones at elevated levels, they tend to not shift back down to a normal baseline,” Mervyn said.
Drugs allow people to escape that stress, she added.
“You want to run away and substances give us this chemical shortcut that allows us to get to that place really quickly,” Mervyn said.
“It’s never sustainable and it’s not long-acting, but for that short, brief moment, they can escape their body and their brain’s response to the toxic stress they’ve experienced in their life.”
Dealing with trauma face-to-face is a critical step on the pathway to recovery, she added. It gives a person the ability to change the narrative of their trauma story.
The first time MacDonald talked about his trauma was when he walked into a police station in 2001 to report his experience of being sexually assaulted.
Halfway through the police-filmed interview, RCMP officers started to emotionally break down. The police officers, both male and female, showed that they believed him and didn’t dispute his comments, he said.
The police officers validating his feelings gave him “huge strength” to be more open about his trauma.
“I ended up being this little amoeba when I walked into the police station and I left 10 feet tall. It really psychologically switched, big time in my head, the shame factor.
“I’ll never forget that.”
In next week’s third and final instalment of this series, PAN explores how stress caused by COVID-19 could result in a wave of new people suffering from trauma, and how this might be prevented.