Jen lives in a cozy Shawnessy apartment with two cats and works at Calgary’s Drop-In Centre.
She’s been earning straight A’s upgrading at Mount Royal University where she recently acquired an addiction studies certificate.
Her sights are set on the University of Lethbridge and a B.H.Sc. majoring in addiction, maybe psychology, one of which she will get come hell or high water.
Having first smoked crack at the age of 11 with a decade of seizures, jail stints and horrors to follow, she’s been to hell already.
Jen, 24, has plumbed her own depth of depravity squeaking through a cycle of drugs, crime and institutions that nearly killed her. Now, she’s not only on the mend, she’s reaching out to others still trapped in the deadly world all unto its own: Crack city.
At 11, Jen didn’t understand why her mother left her father, and she often snuck away to stay with him.
“And that’s when I had my first crack hoot,” she says.
She can’t remember who handed her the pipe, her dad or brother.
“It was a pretty (messed) up time, I more or less walked into a situation where everybody was getting high,” she says.
School went out the window as Jen descended into a drug-addled hazebefore winding up in foster care. She was 13.
“I was a handful,” she says, reflecting on those early days.
At 14, Jen went AWOL from social services and, with her sibling, took off to Sylvan Lake with a pile of magic mushrooms and booze, where “it just kind of went downhill.”
Her mother rescued Jen again, hoping to rehabilitate her wayward daughter. She was placed in the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre.
“But at that point I wasn’t ready to get sober,” she says.
“For me, I had just found my solution. I started doing drugs and I wasn’t ready to give them up yet.”
Misery loves company
“If you don’t want to get sober after a treatment centre, you find a whole heck of a lot of new using friends that have done bigger, badder things than you,” Jen says.
She was 15 and clean with AARC in her rear-view mirror and a clique who knew where to score rock.
Her and her mates hit the pipe harder than ever. She can’t remember how she spent her Sweet 16 birthday, but can vividly recall her first overdose from that year.
“Three seizures back-to-back,” she says. Her father cleaned up the house before calling 911. He was too high to ride in the ambulance with her.
It wasn’t long after that first brush with death her father left town and Jen began stealing to fund her addiction.
She was nearly raped during an encounter with a man outside the Cecil Hotel during one excursion to score rock with stolen loot. Police took her to the hospital and then arrested her on outstanding warrants.
Her first stint in Calgary Young Offenders Centre was a breeze and she found herself back downtown where she met a crack dealer who took a shine to her.
“He took me under his wing,” she explains.
“I had it made. I had nice clothes, I was selling, I got to know everybody downtown … and then the house went down,” she says.
Cops raided their crackhouse and seized half an ounce of rock and a machete they kept under the couch.
Jen wasn’t a rat. She was sentenced to nine months at Lethbridge Correctional Centre, her first stretch as an adult.
“It was tough, but at the same time it was kind of like what I found in treatment. There’s a bunch of people that had done worse things than I had and they had better tricks than I did. I found a bunch of people with better routes to take,” she says.
Jen was 19 upon her release and, with her buddy in jail on unrelated charges, she gravitated to Forest Lawn with others fresh out of jail, all of whom were still driven to feed crack addictions.
“I did what I needed to do, I was doing whatever I had to do to get high,” she says.
She dealt drugs, ripped off other dealers, johns, stole cars and assisted in what she estimates to be hundreds of car and house break-ins.
Car wash vacuum machines were particularly appealing. “If you could get them open, we’re talking hundreds of dollars in loonies,” she says.
Even newspaper boxes weren’t safe, particularly those belonging to this paper.
Jen bounced from one crack den to the next, a witness to stabbings and beatings and addicts squabbling over money and respect.
Every now and then she’d call her mom, “just to let her know I was alive.”
Police arrested Jen several more times.
Were it not for those brief stints behind bars, Jen says she might not be alive today.
“I got to sleep, which I rarely did on the street unless my body just gave up on me, and I got to eat, which I rarely did, as well,” she says.
“It gave me a break to recuperate a little bit. I was sick.”
There was no singular turning point, but a series of eye-openers, including acquaintances going away for murder, others dead and the realization she had become a fiend capable of anything. She went to a police station, placed her hands on the counter and told an officer her name and her outstanding warrants.
A new life
“I called my mother and I told her I was done,” she says. “She had heard that before, but she was willing to take me where I needed to go.”
Jen finally realized what she needed was treatment and, while in jail and on her mother’s suggestion, made daily phone calls to Servants Anonymous Society, a facility that provides support for young women at risk of sexual exploitation.
A bed awaited Jen upon her release and she hit the ground running, attending meetings, getting a sponsor in the 12-step program and soaking up education she never acquired on the street, things such as budgeting and structure to prepare for a job.
She was 22 when she left Servants Anonymous Society and landed her first real job working retail at Chinook Centre.
Her mother and stepfather rented a small place for her near the mall and helped her get back in to school. She never went downtown.
“You need to change your playmates and your playground,” she says. It wasn’t easy. Despite the madness, Jen had forged strong bonds with certain addicts.
“But at the same time, I wanted a better life,” she says.
She kept her head down and worked steady.
“It was definitely something new for me, learning how to conduct myself in a normal manner around normal people, the F-bomb doesn’t fly out of your mouth every two minutes. I had to learn how to be professional, but I was willing to,” she says.
When she’s not attending school, Jen is at the Drop-In Centre where she works as an adult care worker.
She’s been clean for more than two years.
At work, she runs into old faces, who are still high and others on the verge of full-blown drug psychosis.
“I see women who have been down there for years, and it’s tough. Some of those women used to be my friends,” she says. “But if I can do it, why can’t they?”