"Surviving the Streets"

Theresa Coleman

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I've been asked to speak today about drug abuse. Well, where there is drug abuse you'll find me. I'm not sure I can fit the whole story in this time span but I'll try.

Back when I was 20 years old, I (like many young adults) was tempted to try cocaine. Living in Alberta the drugs were costly so, needless to say, one had to do something to make money. I turned to prostitution.

Finding the money to be plentiful, so were the drugs. I went from cocaine to morphine, soon finding to be addicted to both. This went on for a number of years: as long as I could make money I could stay wired.

I even tried to detox a couple of times but to no avail ó I always went back.

In 1991 I moved to Vancouver and, boy, did a wild beast emerge. A full-fledged addict, in a city where I'd never seen such cheap drugs, and so much of it on every corner, every doorway. As time went on I became so wired that things like rent and groceries were neglected. I lost my daughter to the courts; she was 10 years old.

After I lost my daughter I believed I really had no hope. I just cared about getting my next fix. I would go out in the morning, make some money, buy my morning fix just to get straight. On mornings I was too sick to actually make it to the corner, so weak and ill, I would call my dealer and beg for a front. I have already pawned or sold anything I owned and anything, say a John/Sugar Daddy would buy for me would get sold, pawned or traded for drugs.

I continued on this path for the next 3 to 4 years. In 1994 I became very ill, needed to be hospitalized. I was diagnosed with endocarditis, HIV and Hep B & C. They said I was so sick I would need 6 weeks of antibiotics. I stayed only 9 days. I was feeling better so I left: boy, was that a mistake!

I went right back to the skids and the dope, full force. I stayed out so long and just got sicker, seeing as the virus was still in my system. Eventually I was rushed by ambulance back to St. Paul's, approximately 6 weeks after. My fever was 104, my skin colour was grey, and I was not expected to survive the night. The virus had moved into my lungs and heart, leaving embolies on my heart and heart valves. My lungs were full of blood clots, and I was not supposed to live the night. I also had pneumonia.

I surprised everyone. I lived but it took fine medical care for 14 months, 14 months in hospital straight, no releasesóa couple of day passes only.

During my stay in hospital I was put on the drug methadone to monitor my heroin addiction and make my withdrawals less severe. I went under a parade of tests during the next 14 months. They found I had damaged my lungs and heart valve so severe, I was put on blood thinners (Warfarin) and oxygen 24 hours a day. I was then told I would never be off the oxygen. As long as my heart valve is in its condition I will be on the oxygen and blood thinners.

After 14 months of exceptional treatment (the nurses and doctors were so good to me, very caring and concerned) I was released home on oxygen, but did I stay clean and only on methadone? No, I ended up using again. After being clean so long, but to be released right back to a Skid Row hotel, you're fighting a losing battle.

I was living in a Skid Row hotel with 3 oxygen machines going 24 hours a day. Needless to say my living conditions were deplorable.

My doctor at that time, we had many conflicts. For some reason we never seemed to hit it off. He was in control of my methadone treatment, so he had a big hold on me. As I said we never hit it off. The treatment I received from him was terrible, making me turn to drugs all the more.

When someone has no faith or belief in you, you have none in yourself. And that's how it was.

One day my oxygen company came to my hotel and took it all away, the machines that were keeping me alive. I telephoned by doctor who advised me to go to hospital. The oxygen company claimed my hotel room was a explosion waiting to happen. When I was found suitable living conditions I would be reinstated.

So in hospital for another month, when I was accepted to live in a subsidized apartment downtown/West End. Finally I was off Skid Row. I had wonderful home care nurses, who generally cared about me and that gave me some hope.

The problems with my doctor continued, so did my self-esteem. Even though I now had a nice apartment I still used drugs. A couple more years passed on methadone and still using drugs. The only thing that changed was my address. Until I met my present doctor, Carol Murphy.

Boy, did my life change. After so much abuse from my previous doctor, to meet her was a blessing. Here was someone who I believe cared about me. Trust was there. She picked up the pieces of my life like a broken porcelain doll and started to put me back together, piece by piece. For some reason I wanted to start living life again. This woman had given me hope. Her gentle manner and sincere care made it easy for me to trust. Then I want wanted to show her compassion was not in vain. I wanted to prove to her that I could do it. She had faith in me.

The next few months were hard, the cravings almost unbearable, but with my meth and Dr. Murphy I was determined to succeed. You might say she was the light at the end of the tunnel.

I am happy to say after much struggle and bumpy roads, I've made it through the tunnel. I am now clean and sober almost 2 years. Because of my achievement I became healthy enough for surgery on my bad heart valve. It was a grand success.

I owe my life to God, all my care providers from my nurses, my doctors to my pharmacist, my caring & loving man. Today my relationship with my daughter is great, I have a beautiful home, and my health.

Life is good. Life is grand.

Ah, but wait. Thereís more . . .

My life was going so well. I had some trying times during that 2 years of sobriety but nothing major enough to make me slip and fall off the wagon. The man I was with through all my turmoil, my sickness, my getting clean, all my stuff. He too was trying to get his life together again. He had a dependency problem of his own. But together we did it and life was great for those 2 years. I even got my credit back and all my credit cards back, bought new furniture and a new car.

My daughter started upsetting me with her teenager antics ó boys I did not approve of and behaviour I did not agree with. Still, things were good until my man had a couple of slips. I didnít fall back then but a couple of months later he really screwed up. He was gone for days and the bank was calling. He had taken money from our joint account used for car payments, the insurance was almost up on the car and I had no idea where he was. I just knew he was downtown doing dope.

I was so upset but still felt strong enough to not use. Returning from the bank, I spotted our car on the street. I jumped from the bus, ran to the car and confronted him.

He was so stoned, all he could do was hang his head. Out from the Money Mart came a woman he was with ó a prostitute. She tried to confront me but I took the car keys, thinking he would come home with me, I was so surprised when he chased after her and disappeared down the street. I was so devastated. I started to take the car to the bank when I looked around the car and saw crack pipes, syringes and alcohol swabs. I think that is what did it ó having to pick up those things and throw them into the garbage.

I believe that was, as they say, the straw that broke the camelís back.

I believe now that it was too much for me emotionally to handle. During all this stuff, I was keeping in contact with Susan and Evanna, my home care nurses, unloading all this on them. I guess I was trying to reach out. Needless to say, I fell and boy did I fall hard.

Somehow, and you know itís funny. I searched and searched and donít know why but there I was on the drag, using!

I stayed downtown for the next 30 hours using, using, using. I donít know why. I just did. When it was all over, then came the anger and remorse.

I was so angry at myself for being so stupid. I knew better. All the reasons I got clean in the first place came flooding back. I felt so useless and unworthy of living. All I could do was ask myself Why? Why? All I can come up with is Iím not that rock I thought I was. I am human and I have a very powerful disease.

All I can do is take what happened and make sure I am not ever in a situation again to test my strength. I pray every day, minute by minute, hour by hour, that Iím strong enough to battle this thing and stay clean.

I have not fallen again since and I am glad to say I am back on the right road. My clock has been reset and I am at 21 days and counting.

I hope that my story can go on to be used to help even one person to not go down the road I took. Perhaps it can be used in your field of work as a teaching tool.

Thank you.