By Dana Hall
Childhood Substance Abuse & Recovery
If anyone is showing the world that odds were made to be beaten, it’s Steph Beaumont. To say that she has overcome a troubled past wouldn’t be doing her story the justice it deserves. A lifelong substance abuser, Steph first began experimenting with alcohol at age five. She was exposed to hard drugs at the age of nine. By age 12, she was injecting heroin independently. Her addictions led to homelessness for several years. On top of it all, Steph suffers from a dissociative disorder; something that was being masked by her addictions while also enabling them.
Several failed attempts at rehabilitation had only resulted in a loss of confidence from friends and from the professionals trying to help her. Steph’s perspective changed following a particularly severe overdose that resulted in a five-day coma. Sitting alone in a hospital room and realizing that she didn’t want to die, she decided once and for all that she wanted to fight her addictions.
Today, at only 24 years old, Steph works as a Peer Outreach Worker for two different organizations. She has discovered a love for the outdoors and her coffee. She maintains her sobriety and works to conquer stigmas attached to the marginalized groups within her community. Her story is a reminder that climbing out of a hole is always possible, no matter how deep that hole may be.
Steph, what was it that got you into drugs in the first place?
I was a very curious kid who spent a lot of time by myself. I was quiet and independent and wanted to know everything. Once I found out that by taking substances I could attain different feelings in my body and how I viewed the world, I wanted to continue. I enjoyed how life was like on drugs or alcohol better than just being my sober self. It was also something I kept very secret, in a way, something only I knew and therefore was in my control. During times where it seemed I had no control, drugs and alcohol acted as something I could control by myself physically and emotionally.
How old were you when this started?
As young as I can remember. I started trying my parents’ beer or liquor, eventually sneaking bottles and going out to drink in the woods. I would ingest cleaning products and cough syrups as young as 5, already developing the thought pattern in my head that putting something in my body could lead to different feelings and results. When I was nine, I was given drugs for bad purposes by people I didn’t know well. I had heroin injected into me, crystal meth blown into my face and was given various pills to take.
By the time I was 12, I was drinking and injecting voluntarily on my own, doing any of the drugs I could get my hands on at that age. Because I was young and a good, quiet student, I was able to get away with it, and people didn’t take notice. I was in grade seven and using marijuana, heroin, cocaine, crack, meth, and alcohol on a regular basis, while also experimenting a lot with acid, mushrooms, ecstasy, MDMA, mescaline, nitrous oxide, and all kinds of pills.
That’s unbelievable. Can you tell us a little about your lifestyle at the height of your addiction?
At the height of my addiction, I was in and out of shelters, sleeping in tents, on people’s couches, and on the streets. I was sent to youth psychiatric institutions and spent time in handcuffs and jail cells. I lost a lot of friends who, because of stigma, were afraid or didn’t trust me. I sold drugs and traveled a lot to support my addiction, and stole items that had huge demand on the street from stores in different cities. I was witnessing and experiencing violence, homelessness, poverty, sex work, countless deaths, and mental health issues on a daily basis.
I was named the “Overdose Queen” by a local community center, which speaks for itself. I would be awake for weeks and enter psychotic states in my mind that always led to crazy events. A few people at a different community center tried an intervention and eventually had a funeral for me while I was still alive. They thought I was going to die soon and felt that they had to let me go. I had to put a needle of heroin in my arm every hour in order to not be sick; alcohol and benzodiazepines to get myself a bit of rest at night, and crack or meth to get out of bed in the morning.
How long were you living on the streets and in shelters?
I lived on the streets and in shelters for about five years. I lived in youth shelters and got kicked out, then I would go back and get kicked out again. This was all because of drug use (they have a better harm reduction approach at the shelters now). I also got kicked out of school because of drugs, so in my mind at the time, I had no responsibilities or anyone caring about what I was doing or where I was. I experienced a lot of harassment and violence, a lot of it steeped in stigma about homelessness. I went to adult shelters, rented my own places once I turned 18, and got evicted a couple times. I slept on people’s couches, in drug houses, and outside a lot.
In the summer, it’s easier, but in the winter I slept in bank lobbies, cars that were kept open at car dealerships, and outside on air vents that shot up warm air. A lot of the time, I wouldn’t sleep anyway, so I would just walk around. I also lived in the forest a lot—somewhere I always love to go. The homeless community can be vicious, because it’s the only way they have to stay alive—it’s their wall. It’s survival, but the homeless community can also be very caring and helpful. I had many people show me their secret places and let me sleep there.
It sounds like you were experiencing a lot at that time. Were there any particular eye-opening moments for you that you’d like to share with us?
A moment that really stuck with me followed an overdose. I have overdosed more times than I can remember and have been in comas or other serious conditions. I always walked away from the hospital and headed straight to the drugs, not caring about what had just happened and not telling anyone about it. This last overdose put me in a coma for five days. When I woke up, still very out of sorts, the nurse urged me to call someone, so that I could have a person next to me. I was still in rough shape. She handed me a phone, and I realized I had no one to call. Everyone that I’d surrounded myself with either wouldn’t care or wouldn’t come. I didn’t want to burden the people that would have come. I realized I was alone because of my own actions and finally realized that I was going to die if I didn’t stop.
That sounds hard. How many attempts did you make at rehabilitation before you felt you were successful? What sorts of methods did you use?
I tried stopping cold turkey, but I always used other drugs to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal. I worked with a doctor who would prescribe me “come-down kits,” which are basically blister packs full of pills to help ease the symptoms of withdrawal. There are of pills to help you sleep, pills to help with the aches and sweating, even pills that she paid for herself that are prescribed to people living with cancer for nausea because my dehydration would become dangerous.
I did apply for a two-week day program at one point, which required participants to abstain from any drugs or alcohol beginning two weeks before the program’s first day. I had my “come-down kit” ready, but because of the cocktail of alcohol, heroin, crack, and meth withdrawal, I ended up having a seizure and had to detox at the hospital. I lasted two days at the day program. I’m a very stubborn and private person, so I would always try to stop on my own. After the five-day coma, I was admitted to a psychiatric and rehab facility for a mental health dissociative disorder that I’m living with. I stayed there for a few months. With this experience, I learned the pros and cons of this style of treatment and education.
Can you tell us a bit more about the dissociative disorder and what it means to go into a dissociative fugue?
Dissociation is to disconnect from something, often from oneself. It`s different for everyone, and there is a huge spectrum of symptoms varying in severity, depending on the person. For me, it is something someone has best described as similar to multiple personality disorder. I never change personalities, but my age will change, and I’ll relive past events. It can last anywhere from a second to a few days.
That is what a dissociative fugue is for me–when I get completely lost into another age and do not see, hear, or sometimes feel the present, only whatever my brain is making me see and experience at the age I am escaping to. I don`t remember these fugues, and once I’ve emerged from the episode, I need to organize my whereabouts, time, and age in my mind.
So when you truly decided that you wanted to fight your addictions, what was the initial transition like? What sort of changes were you experiencing in your mentality and lifestyle?
Initially it was like learning everything all over again. Talking to nurses and doctors was difficult; my mouth felt swollen and numb. I wasn’t able to get words out properly, and I couldn’t say them at the speed or volume that I wanted. I didn`t feel like I was in my own body. I was experiencing my motor skills on a whole new level, and I fell many times as I tried getting my legs coordinated enough to walk. Simple things like checking the time, putting clothes on, or deciding on what tea I wanted to drink took forever and took many tries. I leaned about the damage I had done to my veins and liver and had to get used to the numbness I still feel in my hands and feet due to poor vein care and abscesses.
I also had to learn how to be awake without drugs, summon energy without drugs, sleep without drugs (still working on it), be in public places without drugs, and everything else without drugs. It was tough at first, because all kinds of thoughts went through my head, like, “am I always going to be like this? Are all of those drugs going to make me feel like a zombie forever?” and “I know I can make all of this go away with just one little hit of heroin.” Since the mental health disorder became more prominent when I stopped using, my mentality had a distraction and a motivating factor. I had to make getting better my number one priority, and I remind myself of that to this day. My mentality and lifestyle fits around this priority: knowing that using drugs would mess up the work that I’m doing.
What do you think ultimately led to your success?
I’m not sure if success is quite the word yet, but I’ve definitely made huge improvements in my quality of life. That day coming out of the coma and the weeks to follow led to my change. After detoxing in the hospital, I went home, only to be brought back due to a dissociative fugue. When they blamed it on the drugs, I made my decision. I had been service blocked my whole life. I had been unable to access proper counselling or mental health resources because I was using, and they want you to be sober 24 hours before your appointment, something that is not always possible for a person living with addiction.
Addiction-related services are also hard to access because of the long waiting lists to enter their facilities, and because some will not help you if you have been hospitalized in the two weeks prior to beginning a program at a facility (not always possible for someone living with mental health issues). I knew I had to stop using drugs in order to be taken seriously and to advocate for my mental health. This was the initial driving point for me, but after a while, having never been truly off drugs and alcohol before, I experienced the benefits of a drug-free life. I was able to hang out with people for longer than an hour, and I had friends tell me it was nicer hanging out with me because I talked more, and I wasn’t falling off my chair. There was also the plethora of opportunities that came my way right after.
How do you maintain your sobriety? Is it something you find difficult?
It is very difficult. I want to do heroin every day, but I had to make some changes in my life. I think about heroin all the time, but it only stays in my mind as a thought. I can notice that thought, tell myself to not give that thought energy, and try my best to let the thought float on by. It takes a lot of distractions. I had to stop going to certain friends’ houses and set boundaries in my own home. Today, my friends all know that I don’t want any drugs brought into my house or used in my house. If they have been using and are visibly high, I don’t want them in my house. I will, of course still hang out or visit with them–just not in my home. This is so I can keep a consistency at my house. I was also given the opportunity to work with an amazing organization as a peer outreach worker.
What organization(s) are you working for?
When I was still using, I volunteered a lot at Sanguen (an organization that treats and supports people who are living with or at risk of Hepatitis C). After a couple years, a social worker there told me I would be great as a peer outreach worker. I’d be working on the streets, talking to people, promoting both harm reduction and the needle exchange program, and challenging stigma amongst other things. I didn’t want to do it until I was off drugs.
When that happened, I joined the ARCH team (HIV/AIDS Resources and Community Health) as a peer outreach worker. I now also do the same for Sanguen. Both organizations are amazing in their values and ideals of harm reduction, education, challenging stigma, finding new and innovative ways to learn, collaborating with other agencies, [and] getting involved in the community.
They both care for all people; especially the many marginalized people trying to survive. It’s great to come from a place of knowledge of what it is like to live the street life, of looking up dauntingly at the police, hospitals and various resources and agencies. I love it.
Do you have any books or resource recommendations for people who might be struggling with similar addiction problems?
Some good books that made the most sense to me are: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by Dr. Gabor Mate (he is definitely someone to look into–he has other books and many podcasts, YouTube videos, and other internet forums) and Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari, who gives a good explanation about the war on drugs and why it’s not working. Books aside, any other recommendations I have are to be as introspective as you can and to follow your gut. Everyone is different. I’m very stubborn and like to do everything on my own, but my gut knows that I can’t always be like that. It’s something I’m still working on.
Organizations like ARCH and Sanguen can offer harm reduction based support, but there are all kinds of different agencies and groups to support different peoples’ needs, like NA/AA, day programs, rehab facilities, good doctors, support workers, friends, and families. Sometimes it takes a while to find what works for you, which can be discouraging, but the best thing is to listen to that gut feeling and to balance out the things you need to do on your own and the things you need to do with the support of people who care.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Everyone is an important member of our society and has the ability to make valuable contributions to change and help. Some people just get so lost. People put up walls for a reason. Being “clean” doesn’t mean you were “dirty” before or ever. Let’s all help to smash the horrible stigma that surrounds addiction and the plethora of issues that go hand in hand with it. Today, I am full of gratitude and am a very happy person. Caring for someone who has an addiction is hard, but I know by experience that it is one of the best things you can do for that person.
Overcoming an addiction is no easy feat. Steph truly is someone who fell down seven times and rose up eight. Having only truly experienced sobriety for the first time in her twenties, she experienced a rebirth so intense that she needed to redevelop motor skills and put herself through the ultimate process of self-discovery. Today, her willingness to help others shines above all else, and she continues to treat her dissociative disorder with the resources that had been unavailable to her for so long.
She has shared her story with us in hopes that it might help others through difficult situations. Her determination reminds us all that steering life in a new direction is always possible, and that it is never too late to make a change.
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