From a life of crime and addiction to working as a Street Outreach Worker with the ASK Wellness Society, Brian Wells' story is an example of how somebody can turn their pain into positive action to help their community.
Brian grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, a place he remembers as “good but grimy”, and from an early age, addiction and trauma played a major role in his life.
“I grew up with both parents, but my father was an alcoholic,” Brian says. The deep familial roots of addiction are evident when listening to Brian talk about his own father’s upbringing. “Basically, his mom got told if she drinks again, she will die, and she died the first week out of the hospital. His dad, I didn’t know my grandpa, but he shot himself. And my dad’s sister died of a cocaine overdose at 21.”
“He ended up waiting four years for a liver transplant and he was the successful candidate,” Brian states. “He got a liver transplant and it bought him 22 more years. He just passed away this past year due to cancer.”
Even though his parents stayed together growing up, Brian still remembers it as being a tough upbringing. While his father worked and provided for the family, his drinking took a heavy toll on the family. “And my mom,” Brian says, “She always let me go with my father. I’d make a scene and she always sent me out with my dad. I never wanted to be with my mom. So, I saw a lot of addiction with my dad.”
Brian’s own story of drug use and addiction began at the age of 12, when he began smoking marijuana and hanging out with a rougher crowd. By 15, he was using crack and cocaine and was regularly in trouble with the law.
“My first time I got in trouble, I was 13 and got into a fight with my brother and this other group of kids,” he recalls. “The police came and I got charged with assault, so they arrested me and brought me to the detention centre, the jail, and while I was in there, there were four other young offenders in the big bull pen and we basically played hacky sack with a sock and toilet paper. It wasn’t a bad experience.”
When he reflects on his first time being ‘punished’ by the justice system, with the wisdom of hindsight and the time that has passed, he realizes the trickle effect that first experience has had on his life. The leniency he was shown ended up playing a major role in his apathy towards the rules of society, as he advanced through his teen years. Following his first time in a detention centre, he completed his probation and community service. Shortly after that experience, things began to quickly progress to more serious and harmful behaviour.
“When I was 15 I had already built up my addiction,” he says. “That’s when an older guy convinced me I was able to cash a stolen cheque out of the mailbox and bring it to Money Mart and that I’d be able to cash it. When I was in there, they knew something was up; I was 15 with no ID. I ended up walking out of the place and buddy’s like, ‘Go back, it’s working and it’s going to be good’. So, I went back in and I just didn’t like the vibe, so I walked out and as I walked out, there were two police cars that rolled up and I just kept walking. When I got out, they apprehended another guy that was sitting there because they looked at me as a kid and left me be. So, I kept walking and the teller came out of the Money Mart and said ‘no, no, no, it’s this guy’ so they actually apprehended me and I got told I was going to jail.”
After his first experience interacting with the justice system, Brian expected to see his most recent actions resulting in a bit of a harsher treatment, maybe even some harder time in a more restrictive facility. Instead, he describes what most would think sounds more like a summer camp experience.
“My first experience was pretty kosher,” he says, “well, the second experience the judge was like, ‘You’re going to jail’ and they sent me to a young offender open custody place. The first week there, I was going to the Wild Waterworks, we went to the movie theatre. We started smoking weed on the property because people were having visits, so it was quite the experience being that I’d broken the law and told I was being punished. So, I actually got rewarded, in a sense, because it was a time.”
It is sufficient to say that with this being his ‘penalty’, he was less than inspired to begin walking down a different path in his life. Upon his release, he continued to get into trouble with the law and served a couple more stints in open custody. This was until during one of those sentences, he fled the facility. He says he can’t remember why he chose to run, but it didn’t take long until the law caught up with him.
“Because that time I had left an open secured facility, they said ‘OK, now you’re going to secured custody young offender’,” he recalls. “When I got to the jail, I literally knew twelve out of the twenty-five people in the range. So again, there was really no punishment. It was just a cool out period with a bunch of hoodlums.”
Brian continued the cycle of incarceration, law breaking, being on the run, and ultimately being caught throughout his teen years. For most young adults, reaching the legal age means you begin to try new things with the new freedoms you are given. For Brian, it meant it was time for a dose of reality.
“At 18, I’d already racked up a few charges and the judge is like, ‘OK we’re sending you to prison, you’re going to the penitentiary now’,” he says. “When I went to the pen, I was 19 by the time everything transpired. So, I thought I was going to go to low-medium, but I had already had a few altercations inside the jail with fights, which unfortunately are a normal affair because violence in jail is normal. So, my thought is, ‘I’m going to be out in one-sixth my time because I’m a young person’. Well, they classified me as maximum security and I ended up having to do two-thirds of my time.”
Brian’s periods of incarceration did little to change his behaviour as a free man. The things he was exposed to in prison were things he would have ended up seeing while out on the street with the circle of friends he was running with. Now, with the step up to an adult facility, he was about to be led down a very different and more harmful path.
“While I was there, I had done heroin and stuff but I never touched a needle,” he says. “That was my first time I ever did IV drug use, was in prison. There, the saying is true: you can find a flap of heroin quicker than a mail stamp.”
Three years later when released at the age of 22, Brian was a heavy IV drug user. He was released from prison with no support, other than being sent back to his parent’s house. He began taking methadone to combat his opiate addiction, but old habits die hard. He once again found himself on the run and missed his dose for three days. When caught and sent back to prison, the doctors said he couldn’t be prescribed his dose again as it was so high, it could kill him.
“So, they cut me off cold turkey and I’d say for a few weeks I was laying on that prison floor and vowed never to touch opiates or narcotics ever again,” he remembers. “I basically lied to myself, of course, and I got right back on it.”
He then spent another twenty-two months in jail, before being released at the age of twenty-four. Previously, the lack of discipline the justice system had doled out to him as a youth had helped guide him down an addictive path. As irony would have it, it was during a final stint in a jail cell that created a new path to help turn his life around. However, it still wasn’t the justice system that led to his change. It was love.
“I met her when I was incarcerated because there was a guy getting visits and I was like, ‘Well if you’re getting visits why don’t you give me somebody to talk to or something’,” he says. “She had a friend and she showed up at the jail and basically she fell head over heels for me.”
When he was released, Brian continued to see her and was introduced to her sixteen-month-old children. Suddenly, he found himself changing his ways for the kids. “I’m the only dad they’ve known,” he says of his relationship with them. “They played a big part. I still got into trouble with the drugs, but I wasn’t committing crime at that point.”
It was not long after his release that Brian and his family felt it was time for a change. “We left Ontario with a one-way ticket in 2005 and ended up in Kamloops,” he recalls. “I thought the geographical change would help because it was just a matter of time before I was going to go back to the addiction and go back to incarceration.”
New Place, Same Demons
When Brian and his family moved to Kamloops, they found themselves living in an apartment building that has long been synonymous with drug use and all the issues that come with that scene.
“I got there, there was a drug shack right next door,” he recalls. “A shack in the other building, and then there was a station wagon out in the parking lot where this girl was running her operation out of. Wasn’t long before I started using drugs again and ended up in the [Greystone Apartments] over here. I was just driven by drugs.”
Brian says at this point, he was using heroin, crack, and cocaine, but his drug of choice was opiates. It got to the point where he realized he needed to get some help. He recognized that, like many of the people he knew who had gone down this path before, he would not survive.
“In 2005, I went to what is the Kiwanis recovery place and I successfully did the program in 28 days, which was awesome,” he says. “It really helped. But I feel like in 28 days, you are just putting a band-aid on without really taking care of the problem or the wound. It takes time to dig in and you have to have other supports. Luckily for me, I did get into the facility, but that was ’05 and it’s 2021 now and the problem arises: if you need help today, there is no help today. It’s a process and to get into the detox you have to be actively using. By then you’ve either got a good kickstart and you can do it, or you are just entrenched, and I know people that didn’t even get the opportunity because they’re dead now. When people need help, they need it today, not next week. When you make that commitment or hope to do it, you need to do it now.”
A New Hope
As a Street Outreach Worker, Brian works with those who are homeless and/or battling addiction to provide harm reduction and support.
From there, Brian began to ween himself off methadone and in 2008, at the age of twenty-six, began thinking about what the rest of his life was going to look like. He reached out to the ASK Wellness Society and was introduced to a program that offered construction skills and a chance at a new life for people with a background like his.
“I did six months with a fella here that ran it and it definitely inspired me to learn new skills,” he says. “And the appreciation of ASK Wellness that they do deliver with the main slogan of ‘hope’ and they definitely offer hope.”
After finishing that program, he got a job as a painter. He did on-and-off for several years before he found an opportunity to not only use some of the skills he had learned, but to also give back to the community.
“I saw an opportunity with ASK Wellness about a general building manager at the new property Stollery Suites, which is independent living, a seniors’ building, and a lot of people there with the same background and story as mine and I just ran with it,” he says. “Every day I showed up to work and it was a very awesome opportunity to have.”
After that, another opportunity came available and he moved to the evening outreach position with the Overdose Prevention team. Now, he was working on the street with young men and women who were living the same life he lived as a young man.
“It’s essentially saving lives,” he says of his new role. “Harm reduction, making sure people are cared for and listen to them and do what we can do to offer supports. In the other sense we can offer and do anything, at some point in your life, you have to take responsibility for your actions. That was something that I hadn’t done in my life prior to getting clean and realizing that all my problems were basically at my own hand.”
While he may not have the same education and background in social work as some of his peers, Brian says his background has given him skills you can’t learn in a classroom. He hones in on those skills when he finds people who remind him of his former self.
“I just listen to them and talk to them,” he says. “You can hear the despair when they’re talking. Some of them are like ghosts in shells out there with the drugs. It’s the reality of this disease. I lost hope myself and hope only came back to me by somebody else. Just to be able to talk with them and I know I won’t have the answers to everything, and we all have different life circumstances and pain and trauma. Essentially that is the forefront of the interactions I deal with, is pain.”
“I just encourage and say ‘I was that. I was an IV drug user. I was in incarceration, and I’m a changed person today by my higher power and hard work and determination.’ I just really encourage people to love themselves because that’s ultimately what they don’t have.”
Aside from his work as a Street Outreach Worker, the now thirty-nine-year-old Brian says he lives a quiet life these days. While he is no longer with the woman he met while incarcerated many years ago, he is now engaged to his fiancé, who he describes as his best friend. He loves to spend time with her, his dog, and to live a healthy lifestyle. He also spends time writing rhymes about some of the things he has gone through and what he sees today (click here to see some of his work). Despite his new lease on life and the positive changes he has made, he continues to fight off his old demons.
“As an addict, I fell back into the addiction about six months ago of drinking,” he says. “It put me in a situation that I put myself in of being intoxicated. So, I quit drinking September 26 and haven’t had a drink since. This is a life-long battle [you fight] with the right support network and your own will, and to some a higher power. But, at the end of the day with addiction, you are powerless if you’re entrenched into it. So you’ve got to find something to dig yourself out.”
Having lived on both sides of a life of addiction, he believes what is currently needed is support for people who are willing to enter a recovery program now. It needs to be immediate, when they have something happen that inspires them to change, not weeks or months or years later, depending on the length of a waiting list.
“I’m a big supporter of these programs now that they have like the Dilaudid program and the supports,” he says. “They are preventing crime and stopping people from committing crime and just being a different person.”
As for what’s next for Brian and what he thinks about when he reflects on his life to this point?
“Even superheroes trip on capes,” he says. “Just trying to be a good person and do the best I can.”