Irma Scarff had a 35-year ride with heroin that took her to the mean streets of Canada’s largest cities and to a cell in the notorious Kingston Penitentiary for women. She’s been clean for many years, but heroin still haunts her.
“Still today my arm aches to the point I cry and they itch and I have to take a pain pill. I dream about getting high.”
Now, the Whitehorse-born woman wants the city’s drug addicts and alcoholics to know they can come to her for help. Scarff sees what’s on the street and doesn’t want anyone to suffer as long as she did.
“Heroin can take you on the ride of a lifetime. I want users to know they don’t have to take the long ride. I can show them shortcuts to get clean,” she says.
Her life unravelled early. Scarff says at age four she was trucked to residential school where she was sexually abused. When she was 12 she hitchhiked to Vancouver and was introduced to heroin right away.
“By the time I reached my 13th birthday, in the late 1960s, I was a full-fledged heroin addict with a $120-a-day habit.”
To earn money for heroin the teenager was taught robbery. Later she became an enforcer.
“I ran girls for different organizations. I kept the girls in line for the pimps. I made sure they went and did what they were supposed to do and put the money in my paw. I was not scared to hurt these girls. A lot of these women were sex slaves, kidnapped from God knows where and not allowed near the windows and so on. I had to make sure they didn’t escape.
“I had turned off my feelings and didn’t know how to turn them on again.”
At age 18 she gave birth to a 3.5 pound girl who, the doctor’s didn’t understand, was addicted to heroin. “I remember sitting in the hallway and hearing my little girl scream for heroin. To hear her cry for a fix was something else because I knew what she wanted, what she needed.”
One day on a high she murdered her own sister. Scarff served a decade in Kingston Penitentiary for women where she says there was more heroin than on the streets.
“When I got out of the Kingston pen I was so institutionalized I couldn’t cope by myself on the street. I was in a halfway house and had quit heroin but the nightmares made me sweat so much my hair stuck to my head and my bed looked like I pissed in it. Some days I couldn’t wake up from the nightmares.”
“I carried anger and could slice people and not think about it. I’d never known love.”
This Tlingit/Irish woman eventually made it home to the Yukon but was binging on heroin, which, to her joy, she found was available in Whitehorse too. Her determination to get clean dug in when she got pregnant again. She could not bear for her baby to suffer what her first daughter went through.
Then her old drug buddy, now a born-again Christian minister, invited her to discover the cure that worked for him.
“Of all the people, what really made me change is when Andy Nieman invited me to church. When I first walked in that church I got so slap happy I just about fell down in the doorway. It told Andy, ‘I want what these people have.’ I got it. When I entered there was no turning back.”
Scarff has been upgrading her education for years now and hopes to be a certified counsellor someday, although she insists no textbook can teach what she knows about heroin addiction.
“When you’re working with addicts from the street you have to know how they think and feel. Most addicts only think about one thing – that’s to get another fix. And they’ll say anything to please your heart.
“Young people are losing their limbs and their lives because they don’t know what they’re doing. I walked around with a syringe of salt water. If you’re over-dosing you use this. New addicts need to talk to an old addict like me.”
Scarff has been helping people for a decade. She goes wherever she’s called, including to the hospital in the wee hours when there’s been an overdose.
“Anyone can leave a message for me at Salvation Army and I’ll come at any hour of the night or day to help. They don’t have to take the long road I took to getting clean… I’m one in a million with this knowledge because no other addict is alive this long.
“There are so many young addicts now coming. I am grounded and ready with arms open for the addicts coming along.”
Roxanne Livingstone is a freelance writer in Whitehorse.