The ASK Wellness Society would like to acknowledge that our programs and facilities operate on Secwepemcúl'ecw, Nłeʔkepmx Tmíxʷ, and Syilx tmixʷ traditional and unceded territories. 
October 2, 2020

Breaking the Cycle

In 2017, Chelsea Johnnie was one year into a deep depression following the death of her mother. She began hanging out with the wrong crowd and found herself in a position she never expected to be in: battling addiction, struggling to raise her children, and not knowing how she was going to manage putting a roof over their heads.

 In 2017, Chelsea Johnnie was one year into a deep depression following the death of her mother. She began hanging out with the wrong crowd and found herself in a position she never expected to be in: battling addiction, struggling to raise her children, and not knowing how she was going to manage putting a roof over their heads.

 During her depression following her mothers passing Johnnie says she would just stay home and sleep all day. She knew it wasn’t a healthy way to live but didn’t know what to do about it. Before she knew it, she was living a lifestyle didn’t ever think would be part of her story.

“I never thought I would be that person who hurt myself just from not dealing with any of my childhood traumas or unresolved issues in my life,” Johnnie says. “I think it had something to do with being around it growing up as well. Both of my mother and my father were alcoholics and I think it was more of a learned behaviour. That’s how they coped with their issues and I learned from them. It’s a bad cycle and it’s pretty amazing to see now that I’m sober and I’m glad that I’m able to deal with that now.”

Having become a mother at 16 years old, Johnnie feels a lot of her self-destructive behaviour came from not having much of a childhood herself. When she lost her mother she was not only angry about that loss, but she was also trying to reclaim some of that lost childhood. She now realizes she spent a lot of time trying to deal with it in all the wrong ways.

  “I’m really happy I snapped out of it,” Johnnie says. “It took for something bad to happen though. I did end up in the hospital not long after my mom died because of my liver and my kidneys. I just totally abused substances and alcohol and I damaged my organs.”

With her mother having died of Cirrhosis of the liver, despite having quit drinking a year before her death, Johnnie found herself in that same path. After her own hospitalization, Johnnie was sober for about a year and a half. In that time, she gave birth to her third child. Despite her apparent recovery from addiction, old demons continued to plague her.

“I just mentally wasn’t in the right place,” she says. “Even though I had quit drinking I didn’t work on what was bothering me inside. That anger and pain was still there and I hadn’t dealt with it. I just went through the same emotional trauma all over again.”

That is when Johnnie was first introduced to the ASK Wellness Society and the Adult Addictions Supportive Housing Program (AASH). The goal of the program is to link people who are ready to manage their addiction and its causes with safe and affordable housing in which to live while completing the program. This is delivered in partnership with Interior Health’s Daily Addictions Recovery Program (DARP) and is offered in both Merritt and Kamloops.

In December of 2018 Johnnie’s mother-in-law knew somebody who had been through AASH before so she helped her get into the program. Though they lived in Lytton at the time, the pair had plans to both move to Merritt so Johnnie could go through the program while her mother-in-law was enrolled in school. 

“We were going to do it together,” Johnnie says. “She was helping me get my life back on track. Then she got into a car accident and she passed away.”

Johnnie opens up about her journey from her home in Merritt.

The accident happened just one week after Johnnie began the AASH program so once again, devasted by losing somebody very close to her, Johnnie found herself reliving the cycle all over again.

“I was totally ashamed of myself after that,” she says. “I was totally embarrassed with the person I became. Like I had no control over my life. Addiction and alcoholism completely took over.”

She began couch surfing and found herself homeless in Kamloops then back to her hometown of Lytton. She would stay somewhere for a while but inevitably she would burn that bridge and need to move on to the next person who would be willing to help. The cycle continued.

“I was known and well respected in my community,” Johnnie says of her time before her battle with homelessness. “I just feel like people look at me now and people don’t look at me the same. Even to this day I know I don’t need to prove nothing to nobody because I’m doing good for myself but there are still people out there who just don’t believe in me and it hurts.”

Losing loved ones, beating addiction only to find herself wrapped up in it all over again, homeless, and running out of people to turn to. This is where the story ends for so many people. But there is something different about Johnnie, and she says what brought her out of the darkness is something her mother used to tell her.

“My mom, she always used to talk about breaking the cycle,” she says. “My mom and dad both went to residential school and even though they were alcoholics they did their best raising us and giving us the life they never had. Even though I grew up in a dysfunctional family my mom did her best raising us and I just want to make her proud.”

Johnnie re-enrolled in the DARP program but admits, even in her second attempt at it, she was not taking it seriously and continued to relapse for the first few months.

“I was scared,” she says. “I didn’t really want to feel all the emotions I would feel while I was sober.”

That’s when she began having issues with her kidneys again and was in pain every day.

“I was scared for my life, I was scared for my kids,” she says. “I didn’t want my kids to have to live without me had something bad happened just because I was selfish in my own ways trying to mask my feelings in the only way I know how.”

Chelsea Johnnie and her family.

That is when something changed in Johnnie. One day she walked into the office of her AASH Life Skills Worker Brenda Major and basically said enough is enough.

“When she figured out that sobriety is what she really wanted, one day she came in and just said ‘I’m done’,” Major describes. “From that day forward, it was just change after change. She started going to NA meetings and AA meetings and really working the program for herself and ever since then she’s been sober. It just blew me out of the water.”

Even with the newfound commitment to her recovery, it was not without challenges. That is where having the support of somebody like Major played a key role in continuing down the path to sobriety.

“When she’d have moments, she would give me a call and say ‘Hey, I’m struggling right now I really just need to talk’,” Major recalls. “Then we’d go and do a one on one, which is part of our program as well, to go see them and have coffee with them and sit there and let them say what they need to say and support them.”

It was clear to Major that Johnnie’s children were her biggest inspiration to continue in her recovery. 

“She wanted them to have a sober life and to see what it’s like to have sober parents,” she explains. “She wanted to make life fun so in the program we do bowling and swimming and all sorts of outdoor activities, she actually took that home and now she does those things with her kids. To me it was just amazing.”

Today, Johnnie is renting the apartment in Merritt which she was placed in as part of the AASH program with her kids. She says she is thankful for the support she has received not just from the ASK Wellness Society but also Interior Health, Lytton Restorative Justice, and all the other supports along the way.

“My patience finally paid off,” Johnnie says. “I’m here, I’ve got my home. A year ago I was homeless. I didn’t have a home, my family totally pushed me away, I burned all my bridges and nobody wanted to help me anymore because I was in my addiction and it was a sad thing to see. I know my family wanted to help but in reality there is nobody who can help you but yourself.”

Despite only being 27 years old and having gone through everything she has already, Johnnie says she knows life is short and does not want to waste any more time.

“Every day there’s a test,” she says. “I’m just getting tested every day and there’s something that pops up that’s just seeing if I’m really built for this life of being a mother and being who I need to be for my children.”

As for what Johnnie would say to somebody in her position just a few short years ago:

“Take in what other people have to say because they care enough to put in the time,” she says. “Give it your all. You’re the one who signed up so you have to put in your 100%. I feel like I wasn’t at the time and as soon as I started putting in 100% it was a beautiful feeling.”

Article written by Michael McDonald
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