Brenda Smith drank heavily between the ages of 13 and 19. Now 23, she’s pretty but says her behaviour when drunk was not.
“I was in government care since I was a baby. I was with one family the first eight years and then the social worker thought I should reunite with my birth family. It didn’t work. My feelings were so hurt I drank to the point of not caring. I drank to black out and did stupid shit.”
This alert, articulate young woman lived in group homes and the young offenders facility after the reunification failed. “I had lonely feelings. You know we (kids in group homes) don’t have one stable family. We get passed around. I drank because I had a buildup of issues from the group homes. I was headed for jail when I quit drinking.”
Smith’s mom is a residential school survivor and had too many problems to raise her daughter. So when Smith got pregnant at 19, she decided she was going to raise her child differently. Her toddler chatters at me with confidence and tells me about their activities planned for later today.
This young mom admits she drinks sometimes with friends, but not like her crazy teenage years.
“Young people drink whisky and Smirnoff vodka. They’ve either seen it done at home or their parents were in residential school. Or peer pressure – to fit in. Some of my friends go on a seven- or eight-day drinking binge. Then they go to the hospital to get Gravol for the hangover.”
She points out the window. “It’s so easy to get access to alcohol. You can go down the street and find a runner to get a bottle for a 15-year-old. I used MDMA once. It came in a bag of powder. I was drinking at the same time. People usually do lines of it (cut it and snort it). I think I took too much. I was tripping out, feeling the carpet, grinding my teeth. You see objects and they feel weird to you.”
Smith says a lot of people in their twenties use crack and coke. A rock of crack is $20.
Still, I wonder how a girl who was so troubled can appear to know how to raise a child so well.
“I learned how to parent by watching different families. Some don’t care if their kids run on the street. Others want their kids home after school and they have to do homework. I watched all that. I want my daughter to have the opposite of what I had. I want a relationship where she can talk to me and I can talk to her.”
Just then her daughter climbs on her lap and interrupts us. Smith stops talking to me and answers her daughter’s question. The little girl tries to impress me by drawing a picture. She need not try so hard. I am impressed, both with her and her mom.
Not far away I see a woman in her mid-20s, who we’ll call Jojo to protect her identity. She looks unusual this late August day. Normally she’s staggering in the alleys and shouting, but today her face is smooth and her hair styled. She’s sober. Jojo tells me she just signed up to attend Jackson Lake Healing Camp at Fish Lake in September.
“My drug is alcohol – it numbs the pain. I’ve been drinking hard for four years. But lately I noticed it doesn’t numb anymore. It brings on anger,” she sighs. “Lately I think too much and it makes me want to drink. I think of all the negativity. Of losing friends and family left and right. They die or can’t see me because I drink too much.”
She says she was raised in a sober household but her heart broke four years ago. She had been married as a teenager and one day found her husband cheating.
“I don’t know how it got so bad. But next month is my daughter’s birthday. I want my daughter to have a good life again. I used to have a clean home and cook meals. When I’m sober with my daughter we bake, she helps me cook. I’m going to get my ducks in a row. It’s a big step up and a big step forward.”
Jojo is unusually calm. She’s been seeing a counsellor to get to this stage and hold onto sobriety.
“This is for my daughter and the people I love and the ones who love me. I know I can do it.”
September has arrived and I haven’t seen Jojo on the streets – not even when her crowd got their social assistance cheques and blew it on booze. I hope she made it to the healing camp. I hope she’s up there inhaling the fragrance of the spruce trees and hearing the rain on the roof of her wall tent as she snuggles into her sleeping bag.
Most of all, I hope that away from the alleys and booze of downtown Whitehorse, Jojo will regain her feelings of worth and dignity. Jojo – you are a beautiful soul – peace be with you.
Roxanne Livingstone is a freelance writer in Whitehorse.