Escape from the alley of hell

In a back-alley apartment on the outside edge of Whitehorse's Old Town, Crystal Papequash's deepest wish came true two days before Christmas.

In a back-alley apartment on the outside edge of Whitehorse’s Old Town, Crystal Papequash’s deepest wish came true two days before Christmas. Unfortunately, it came not as a bolt from heaven above, but as a burning rod from hell below.

“I felt this pressure that went from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head,” the 35-year-old woman explains. “It felt like two big hands were squeezing the top of my head. I had nausea and vomiting for eight hours here alone at my apartment.”

Crystal always seemed easy-breezy to me, just an acquaintance. We live not far from each other and I often watched her carefree, swinging kind of walk that only tall people like her can make look great. She reminds me of the glamorous movie star, Lauren Bacall, who often played alongside Humphrey Bogart.

But last winter for six days and six nights there was nothing glamorous in what was happening. Her head was in extreme pain – she couldn’t hold down food and barely slept. Three times doctors at emergency turned her away, she says. She was, after all, just another addict.

“When I smoked drugs, I forgot all about my problems and nothing mattered,” she says. “I needed to feel that everything was going to be OK.”

Crystal likes living downtown because she can walk for anything she needs. She’d walk down Third Avenue to keep an eye on the dealings outside the 98 Hotel or the 202. But she didn’t even have to leave her home to get drugs.

“If I heard lots of voices (in the alley behind Salvation Army ), I’d look out my window and see drug deals go down and when I saw certain people it caused me to have a craving. Because I’m so central, sometimes I became a drug house where people could smoke up. I saw a girl passed out under my steps with her pants half off. I’ve seen people get beat up, terrible.”

It was the fourth doctor at the hospital who ordered a check on Crystal’s spinal fluid. There was blood in it. A brain scan revealed the worst: a blood vessel had burst in her brain. She had a double brain aneurism. Within an hour and a half, she was on a plane to Vancouver for surgery.

“In the Vancouver hospital, it hit home for me. I had intense feelings of wanting to live and wanting more in life. I prayed every day that if I lived to make it home, I would change my life. It was a decision.

“I had been stuck in nowhere. I really, really wanted to quit but didn’t know how to get out of it. I used to be this very angry, impatient person. I was angry because I wanted a better life and didn’t know how to even start to do it. I kept falling back in this hole.”

By mid-January, Crystal returned to the Yukon and I was shocked to see a long scar across her head. She got headaches easily and needed lots of sleep. We kept in touch. In spring I entered the alley of hell to find where she lived. I climbed a flight of old wooden stairs and entered a sunlit apartment.

“This thing that happened to me turned my life around,” Crystal explained.

“I find that I’m very emotional now – I cry over an old birthday card my mom gave me.

“I’m learning it’s OK to be happy. Wow, I have to learn that it is OK to be happy. Things are going well and I worry that everything is going to fall apart. But I know for sure I never want drugs in my life again.”

Crystal reached behind her couch to bring out a stained, tattered paper that I thought was a treasure map. Indeed it is a map to find treasure, but the gold is a different kind. It’s a picture of her ideal life, drawn a few years ago while she still was hooked on drugs.

“I have this diagram of how I see myself,” she says pointing to the piece of paper.

“This is my house, me and my daughter holding hands, the tree is for the environment, my son playing in the yard – autonomy, good power, control, attention, recognition that I need in my everyday life to feel whole.

“See this car – that’s for my freedom. It’s a goal. Roadblocks have stopped me before but not now. That’s why I’m still here. I’ve always kept this picture of being a good mother who takes care of her kids.”

A month later, I saw Crystal’s swinging, movie star gait as she walked down the street. The scar on her forehead was already fading. She waved and flashed a smile. Her son was at her side.

This is the second of a four-part series on Whitehorse’s Old Town by resident and writer Roxanne Livingstone.

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