March 12, 2015 - Nikki (7th person I approached)
I believe there are many 'firsts' throughout life. First love, first fight, first car, first room mate, you get the drift. I think that living life out loud, invites more firsts. Today was another first for me. My first time wondering around the Downtown Eastside (DTES) looking for someone to share their story with me. I've done that before, today however, it was going to be over lunch at Save-On Meats diner.
My approach didn’t change; I still told people about my project, asked each person if they’d chat with me, let me take their picture and post it online. Then I mentioned lunch. I only got that far three times. There’s can be a sense of caution with people on the DTES. Either people don’t want to share their story, or they don’t want to share their story and have their photograph included. I will always continue to operate with nothing but respect, and won't ever try to convince someone to chat with me.
I saw Nikki sitting in Pigeon Park. She had sprained her ankle, and was trying to repair the zipper fastening on her boot, that had come apart. When I asked Nikki to chat with me, tell me about herself and let me take her picture, she was more than happy to do so. When I asked if she would chat with me over lunch, she hesitated, and then agreed. We walked to the diner and took seat in a comfortable booth.
Nikki was born at Burnaby General Hospital. Burnaby, once a suburb, is a city within the metro-Vancouver region.
“I have one sister, she’s ten years older than I am. I was raised by my mother, a single parent. The ‘typical’ welfare alcoholic,” she told me.
“I never met my father. I know his name, but that’s about it.” Growing up, Nikki and her sister were removed from their home a number of times.
“Because my sister was ten years older than me, she went to group homes, and I went to foster homes. They usually don't send kids under twelve or so, to group homes. It would be too traumatic for a young kid. It’s already scary enough,” she said.
Nikki doesn’t remember much about the first foster homes she went to.
“My mother would get better and we’d go back home with her, then it would start all over again,” she told me.
“I remember being in and out of foster homes from around the age of five until I was about ten years old.” Nikki played with her hair throughout our conversation, wrapping it into a pony tail and twisting it all around her hand.
“I was teased all through elementary school, that’s about all I remember of that. I was overweight as a child and I got picked on and called names daily. They called me ‘Miss Piggy’ and I would hear oinking noises everywhere I went,” she told me.
“I do remember there was one foster care placement that was a great home. It was not only a nice house, but the family were nice to me. The thing that stands out for me, is that there was a real sense of family there in that home. Something that I longed for. but of course, that said, I didn't know at the time, that it was missing from my life. I thought my life was ‘normal’ because that’s all I knew. The mother packed me really good lunches for school. I do remember that!” she said, pulling her hair into a ponytail again.
“When I was seven, my sister moved out of the house. She never got the addiction gene. We had different fathers and I guess the gene skipped her. I seem to have gotten everything that my mother had,” she said.
“I really bloomed in high-school. Things turned around for me. I was big for my age, and I guess I was going through puberty and developing into a young woman. I was tired of taking shit from the mean kids."
"One day, I saw the main group of girls who were my tormentors, all sitting together in the hallway. I marched up to them, stood there and said ‘So, do have anything to say to my face, now!?’ I was just tired of their shit, and I wasn't going to take it anymore. The bullying soon stopped. It gave me confidence. I realized that I was in charge and that by confronting them like that, made them know what what it felt like,” Nikki told me, proudly. She started making friends and became one of the popular girls in school.
Occasionally Nikki would go to church with her mother.
“When she was clean, we’d go sometimes. My mother wasn’t religious but she was spiritual. She wasn’t a bad person, and I knew she loved me. She just had her own troubles. I told a lady at church what it was like at home. She asked my mother if I could go and stay with her family. My mother agreed. This lady was well intentioned, and also very religious. For example, there was no watching television because it was 'the work of the devil.' After being there for a week, I told my mom what they thought about the devil's work, and she wasn't too happy. My mom didn’t want me to become brain-washed with religion,” she said.
Nikki’s older sister was living in Alberta, and Nikki went to live with her.
“She saw what was happening to me, and knew what my life was like. She didn’t want me to become like my mother. My sister had gone in the completely opposite direction, with regards to drugs or alcohol. Even at only twelve years old, I had already developed a lot of bad habits. I lied, and was really good at it. I would lie about stupid things to my sister, and she’d ask me why. I only did it because it had become a survival mode for me,” she said. After a year, Nikki wanted to come back to the city, and her mother. She had started using drugs in high-school.
“I would go to parties with my girlfriends and there would be guys there and we’d get drunk and, well, you know. Boys will buy you alcohol if you like to party. And I liked to party,” she told me.
During the last three years of high-school Nikki was enrolled in an alternative program called ‘Take a Hike.’ It was two days of regular school curriculum, a day of doing volunteer work in the local community, and two days of outdoor activities.
“We went kayaking, and climbed the Grouse Grind (local mountain trail). We learned rope skills and tying knots. We went swimming and running. They were teaching us leadership skills. Not with the intention of becoming leaders, but so that we could develop as individuals,” she said.
“I surprised everyone by being really good at long boating. I made it onto the honour role for that program. I even had a chance to get a scholarship to go to college if I had stuck with it, but I didn’t. I used to show up to school drunk. They tried everything they could to help me. I had councillors, and so many chances. I went to meetings and rehab programs. But the thing is, you have to want it before anything will work. At that time, I didn’t want it,” she said.
As she wrapped her hair around her hand, Nikki told me that she started to make money prostituting when she was seventeen.
“I’ve worked the streets off and on since then. It isn’t enough to have guys buy me alcohol. I needed drugs and clothing and things.”
“My mother had been bringing men home for years. She was always trying to fill that void. She was dating this one guy and I could see that he was being emotionally abusive to my mother. He wasn’t physically abusive with her, and he never tried anything with me. He knew he couldn’t. I told her she had to choose - it was either him or me. Much to my surprise, she chose me. Then a year later, he was back on the scene. I moved out. I was about fifteen then,” she said. She spent her time at the homes of various friend's, crashing where she could.
A friend took her to party where she met a guy that was a drug dealer.
“That was the first time I smoked crack cocaine. There were three other people sitting at the table with us. They told me not to do it, that I’d regret it, but I didn’t care. And I didn't listen. That was that. I woke-up the next morning still at my friend's place. They guy I had smoked crack with saw me and handed me the crack pipe. All he said was ‘Here, you’ll need this’ and I’ve been addicted ever since. The funny thing is, I had grown up with addiction, but didn’t realize I was an addict myself,” she told me. The man she had been doing crack with that night was thirty-five years old, and Nikki, at seventeen, became romantically involved with him. That lasted for a year, in which time, she also sold drugs for him.
“I went back home to live with my mother. I would see signs of her drug use, more and more. Then one day I pulled out my stash, and we got high together. I regret that. I wish I had never used drugs with my mother, but I did. She knew I was working the streets and would let me bring tricks home. She knew it was how I got money for my drugs, which meant she got drugs as well,” she said, tears running down her face.
“I got pregnant. I had been dating this guy, and he completely took responsibility for the baby. For him, there was no question, he was going to accept that the baby was his. I continued using and that’s when I realized I was an addict. I thought having a kid was going to fix me. It didn’t,” she said.
“I went to Fir Square (Combined Care Unit). It’s a resource centre for new mother’s with addiction issues. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. They help new mothers learn skills to look after their newborn babies, providing guidance and support,” she said. (*Fact Check - see links below).
“I got clean a couple of times while I was with my boyfriend. When my son was not quite a year old, I got an unexpected cheque in the mail. I cashed it and immediately scored drugs. It wasn’t what I had been planning to do. Once the decision was made, the fuck-it-muscle took over,” she said. Nikki’s mother looked after her son for a while. Then her son went into the foster care system.
“In the end he (her boyfriend) couldn’t take my addiction any more. I did some horrible things. I was a terrible, horrible person. And he put up with a lot of shit. He was an alcoholic, but didn’t use while we were together. He left me. Sadly, he’s using now,” she said. Nikki had been in that relationship for nine years.
“My mother passed away last year. A bottle in one hand and a pipe in the other, that’s what killed her. She had Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, and she continued to drink and use crack," she said.
"My sister was the one who told me my mother was going to die. She, my mother, was in hospital, and I went to make amends with her. I understood my mother, and she understood me. We understood each other because of the addiction,” she said. Her face was stained with tears. Nikki continued to pull her hair into a ponytail. I’m sure she wasn’t even aware she was doing it.
“I went to Hannah House, a residential treatment centre. I went to avoid dealing with my mother’s death. I was in and out of there a few times. I had become a really good cook, and every time I was at Hannah House, that was my job. I stayed at Hannah House and got really busy there. I was cooking, helping with volunteer orientation and became the health and safety supervisor. I got clean because I wanted it," she told me.
"My mother’s death changed my life. Some of it for the better and some for the worse,” Nikki said.
“I was just about to get into level one counselling. I had been working hard with some of the other girls at Hannah House. I learned that the most important thing anyone can do is share their story with another person. I was never going to become an actual counsellor, but the training was going to help with my own growth and emotional development. It was to be a tool I could use in my own life.” She relapsed after her mother’s death.
“I got back into that dark emotional spiral that is addictive thinking. The black void. The self pity, the poor me, the poor woes me, my mother died, why does this always happen to me. I told people they’d use if they had to deal with the things I’ve had to deal with. I wallowed in self pity. Addicts like to live in a shitty diaper. I made the switch from ‘normal’ thinking to insanity. The fuck-it-muscle was back in action. And yet, I was fully aware of my behaviour. Once you get clean, the seed is planted. even when you use again. It’s not the same,” she said. As a sober alcoholic myself, I knew exactly what Nikki was talking about. Addiction is addiction, no matter the substance or behavioural pattern.
“I’ve been dating a guy since last September and we fell in love. He’s an addict as well. He wants to stop using. We’ve talked about getting clean together. But you can’t get clean just because your boyfriend or whoever wants you to. If I don’t want it for myself, then it won’t happen. Not with any longevity anyway. I don’t honestly know if I’m ready right now,” she says, with stark honesty.
“He wants to marry me. He wants to get married on August 12th. That’s my mother’s birthday,” she said.
“I’m still using, yes. I smoked some heroin and some speed this morning,” she told me.
“My son has been in the foster care system for years now. He’s nine years old. I’m trying to remove myself from the situation, and to consider what is best for him. I mean he’s only a child still. He could be a doctor, or a scientist, or an astronaut if he wanted. I’m trying to think of the situation not with my heart or my ego. It’s so very hard to even say this,” she says, catching her breath.
“I think it’s time to let him go. All the time that he has spent in care, he’s always been with the one family. His foster mother has been so kind and supportive of me. But recently she’s been talking to me about his future, and letting him go. Putting him up for adoption, so that he can have the best chances in life. I’ll always be his mother, and he will always be my baby boy. But I need to think of what’s best for him. And I’m not able to provide that for him,” Nikki told me. The tears were running down her face, but her voice and conviction was clear.
“I need to think about him, and not about me.” She had stopped playing with her hair.
Nikki didn’t finish her lunch and asked if she could take the leftovers to go. I had taken pictures of Nikki while we talked. She told me she had to get going.
“I’ll be honest, I have some dope in my bag, and I need to go smoke a bowl. When you asked me to chat with you, I thought it would be fine. Then when you mentioned having lunch, I almost said no. I just had to fix my shoe, then I was going to go use, when you approached me. The most important thing I can do is share my story. If I share my story, it not only helps me, but it might make a difference for someone else. I decided I could wait to get high until after we chatted.” #notastranger