Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Service Works

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People used to tell me that giving was more rewarding than receiving. But once I started using alcohol and drugs in my early teens, my vocabulary reduced to “Gimme, gimme.” I started on a road to nowhere and no one cared. Not even me. I wanted more and more but ended up with nothing.

The seeds of my addictive behaviours were planted early, though I had no idea it was happening. By the time I was twelve, my home life in Montreal was dysfunctional. My mother had been a single parent for eight years by that time. For the first six years, we had our ups and downs, but she managed to hold things together for my two brothers and me. Then, literally and figuratively, she was all over the place. She couldn’t pay the rent so we stayed in an apartment only long enough for the eviction notice to be enforced, usually about three months. We moved so often we barely had time to unpack. There was no food in the house, no new clothes or shoes or school supplies. I remember coming home one day after school, so hungry. I opened the fridge and found only a dried up piece of ginger. Yet Mom always had wine and weed; she stopped caring about anyone or anything else. I just wanted stability—and food. I got it by leaving.

Remnants/Survivors by Sarah Mosher

I stayed with friends at first and often met my basic needs—food, clothes, toiletries—by shoplifting. Soon needs became wants. I wanted more clothes, better clothes, name brands, the best brands. I thought these things would make me an achiever. I wanted all the time—and I got what I wanted without paying for it. I didn’t end up on the streets, at least not until I was about forty years old. I found an apartment with a young couple and continued to go to high school often enough to keep the authorities off my back. I was six months pregnant at graduation.

After I had my daughter, we moved to Toronto as I knew my French would be an asset in finding work. I’d left my baby’s father and so, like my own mother, I was a single parent. I found work in Toronto—but I also found crack/cocaine and developed a habit I would keep for twenty-eight years. During those years, I travelled around the country and the world, wreaking havoc in all my relationships and committing crimes on an ever larger scale. I needed money for the poison I inhaled into my bloodstream and shoplifting would no longer cut it. I started importing. I threw in a bit of fraud. I felt shame and regret only when I got caught, which I often did. During my twenties, I also gave birth to three boys. I then had four children, all of whom I neglected on a regular basis to make ends meet and to have my substances. My daughter suffered the most. She was old enough to witness, if not understand, my bizarre behaviour. I would often leave my kids with my mother when I went off to import and when I was incarcerated. I knew it wasn’t a healthy environment for them but thought it was better than being with me.

I tried to slow down after my boys were born and actually managed seven good years. I moved to Jamaica with the kids. It felt like home and I found the man of my dreams. The children did well. I got married. Things were stable. But even though I wasn’t using crack/cocaine, my addictive behaviour was still very present. It lingered in the background of our lives and in the back of my mind. Every once in a while, I would allow it to come forward and go off for a weekend to smoke crack. But mostly, as always, I chased the money. I got involved in telemarketing scams and travelled back and forth to Canada many times. A rift formed in my relationship with my husband, and when we eventually split apart, drugs took over my life again. I did not want to feel. I would not return to reality for fourteen years.

During this time, I did so many things—and so many things were done to me—that I could never list all of them here. When my money ran out and I had nothing left to sell, I sold myself. I lived and worked as a prostitute on the streets of Jamaica and went to jail there several times. One night, I refused to have sex with a man because he couldn’t pay. He tried to kill me by stabbing me in the head.

But the worst, the most excruciating pain, was yet to come.

My kids had moved back to Canada and were living with my brother. Eventually, I moved back too but I didn’t see them much; I didn’t want to see anyone. I served time for crimes I’d committed before leaving the country and then went back to shoplifting to pay for more drugs. When my boys started to get into trouble, I felt guilty about being such a worthless mother—but only when I wasn’t high. Like me, the boys were drawn to fast money like magnets. My second son, Devon, started a street gang when he was sixteen. He handled guns; sold drugs. When he was eighteen, he was shot dead by drug dealers.

I would love to tell you that my son’s death woke me up, that I stopped using, got clean. But that would be a lie. He was murdered in 2008. My recovery came six years later.

In late April of 2014, I found myself back in jail. My lawyer, the crown, and the judge recommended that I go to rehab. It would be my third stint. I figured I had nothing to lose but I also sensed some sort of shift or awakening—my “moment,” as I would later learn in the 12-step fellowship. I had been to AA meetings in the past and found they held no interest for me but I knew I had to try again. I had to open my mind to possibilities. I started going to 12-step meetings at the rehab facility—Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous—and started to take their suggestions seriously. Service was one of their first recommendations. It made sense. Most of the people I knew who’d remained abstinent were involved in service. Some had even started within a day of being clean. So when I got home from rehab, I volunteered to help within my 12-step groups.

Soon afterwards, I was invited by the NA Hospitals and Institution Committee to share my story at another rehab in Montreal. The residents were so enthralled, so inspired, that when a volunteer coordinator position at that rehab facility opened up, I was nominated. The position involved organising weekly speakers. I knew other addicts at the facility depended on me. I couldn’t mess up. Finally, I felt accountable. And that’s how it started for me: I realised I could help others.

I have been clean since May 1, 2014. The 12-step literature says that once we are on a solid road of recovery, we should also do service in our communities; we should give back to society for the help we have received and for the damage we have caused. I’ve had my share of both so for the past few years I’ve shared my story at 12-step meetings, rehab facilities, and outreach programs. I’ve encouraged people to seek out 12-step fellowships; some do and stay; others don’t. I’ve also taken a volunteer position at the local Y in Montreal where I greet guests, swipe their pass, and direct them to various locations and activities. Mostly, I’ve been available to support addicts as they find a new way of life.

I remember when a young woman contacted me early one Saturday morning. She had been to my talk and reached out because she was having suicidal thoughts. I talked her through things; told her there is always hope. She asked me to be her 12-step sponsor and she’s over nine months clean today. I am so proud of her.

I now sponsor six women in the fellowship and support many others who call or text me daily. I never say no to speaking engagements and hope to one day do this work for a living. My biggest dream for the future is to offer community service in Devon’s name. I’d like to open “Devon’s Place,” a house for women who want to stop using drugs and have nowhere to go after leaving jail or rehab. This would be the ultimate service position for me: giving women a chance leave the deepest, darkest place and start a new life.

The Trouble with Margaret

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In my forty-eighth year, in exchange for free rent, I chose to become an overnight caregiver to eighty-five-year-old Margaret, survivor of one broken hip and a stroke that transformed her speech into a restricted language of gravelly utterances.

My move from Vancouver to Salt Spring Island the year before meant work was hard to come by, though I did find a part-time job at the island’s employment centre. One morning, I answered a call from a woman seeking a caregiver for her mother. I toyed with the idea. I’d just finished caring for my own mother: midnight trips to emergency, regular visiting, and lending a hand as she struggled with kidney failure. I wondered if my willingness to consider this new arrangement had something to do with missing a mother figure. I accepted the role—and became one of Margaret’s seven caregivers in an around-the-clock caregiving relay.

I am not a patient person. I do not suffer fools gladly. But with Margaret I was patient because she was no fool and I’d made a choice. So, four nights a week, I climbed the steps from my tiny suite, surfacing in her living room at eight o’clock. All that winter, we travelled through India, courtesy of Knowledge Network. When Margaret tired of a program, there was no asking my opinion. Click. She was onto the next. I remained quiet and tended the fire. The least I could do, given her lack of privacy, was leave her be with her thoughts. Every evening at nine, she clicked off the TV and her burgundy La-Z-Boy propelled her behind upwards until her feet touched the floor: bed time. I squeezed past her like security clearing a path for royalty. I picked up crumpled Kleenex, ensuring path from world-of-chair to bedroom remained obstacle-free. My fingers, hints at her elbow, guided her.

When I helped Margaret change into her nightgown to ready for bed, I snuck glances at her naked flesh. Her white breasts reminded me of cake decorating bags emptied of icing. After her flannel nightie had been slipped over her head, and she lay back down, I’d ensure the bulky material was not bunched underneath her. Sometimes it required all her strength to lift her small bottom millimeters off the bed as I reached up mimicking an obstetrician preparing to yank out a breach baby. I’d whip down the material in a most unceremonious fashion and my maneuver never failed to make her laugh.

Timeless by Annette Sawers

Once she was settled into bed, I moved about the house, apparition-like. I set the table for the next morning and stared at photos, younger versions of my elderly charge. There she was leaning up against a wall in a dusty back street in a hot foreign country. What had her adventures been? I’d then go to sleep in the adjoining upstairs bedroom where I stayed the four nights I was “on duty.” At seven the next morning, I’d pad quietly towards the kitchen. I’d stare outside while stirring the porridge, watching timid deer tiptoe down the road. I’d gather ingredients for Margaret’s special shake: flax, hemp hearts, blueberries, yogurt, soy milk, and chia. The whir of the blender signalled that breakfast was ready. Everything was timed. Shake. Porridge. Fair Trade coffee. Toast. Margaret definitely liked her routines.


I became nun-like in my service to Sister Margaret. Small acts of repetition measure out a lifespan. It didn’t seem that long ago that I’d been a child, listening to the cacophony of my own mother’s placement of cutlery on our family’s breakfast table, rarely time made for social intimacies with her children. I began to wonder about myself at eighty-five. Where would I be? Who would care for me? Would I still be at all?


Sometimes I couldn’t predict what would make Margaret laugh, like the day she pushed the button on her Life Force alarm. “My head. My head doesn’t feel right,” she said. I thought she might be having another stroke. When I returned from calling the ambulance she was chuckling.

“Why are you laughing?” I asked, annoyance in my voice.

“The look on your face,” she said, laughing more softly.

On a good night, it was what I didn’t hear that mattered. I didn’t hear that brass bell beside her bed jarring me awake. I didn’t hear my name being called out in darkness, though if I did, I could pounce through the adjoining bathroom in under a minute. I’d arrive tense and bleary-eyed upon a half-lit scene. The water glass had toppled. She’d be splayed on the carpet, as flexible as Gumby, that childhood toy.

Before her latest fall, I’d drive her the ten minutes to St. Mark’s Anglican Parish for morning meditation. The short, steep road leading to the church cast me as a reluctant character in a Margaret Laurence novel. I’d park the car and hover, moth to flame. She’d push her walker, its metal parts jangling across the gravel parking lot. Inside the musty museum of Christianity, a handful of others at the front of the sanctuary would greet us. I’d sink into the brilliant collage of light twirling through stained glass and inhale the whiff of polished mahogany. The red rug transported me back to my own Sunday school days. I’m beside my grandpa there. His cane taps its Presbyterian way, braille-like, towards his pew. Halfway through the sermon, he unwraps a Lifesaver and hands me one. Our very own religious ceremony. Following childhood, I rarely found myself in a church—until, that is, I returned with Margaret. The calm and the quiet. The feeling of being close to an elderly person and yet with others nearby, not solely responsible for Margaret’s well-being. St. Mark’s engulfed me like a reprieve.


When I agreed to my new living arrangement, there was no indication of the battle brewing between Margaret’s three adult children, her doctor, and her bevy of caregivers, a battle every bit as contentious as a child custody dispute. The disagreement centred on Margaret being moved off her beloved Salt Spring Island into a Victoria care facility. Margaret preferred to stay. Her caregivers needed their jobs. Her daughters were bent on a mission of removal.

Initially, I’d emailed her eldest with updates. I hadn’t even considered Margaret’s privacy. Only natural, I thought. Kids should know. Within months I felt like an informant. Who else was seeing my words? Secret meetings among the other caregivers reached epic levels. Whispers everywhere.

As Margaret’s condition deteriorated, her middle daughter scoured Victoria for the perfect care facility. “Best for her,” she told me. The eldest daughter agreed: “She hands over six thousand a month in caregiving!” I tried to imagine what it would feel like to have to pay people to care.

One rainy morning in March, I awoke to footsteps and muffled voices overhead. A short time later, there was a knock at my suite’s door. “They’ve gone,” said the middle daughter, meaning Margaret and the eldest were enroute to Victoria. Her husband got busy changing the locks. I wondered whose access, specifically, they were barring. They handed me the new keys in keeping with a verbal arrangement we’d had from day one: “Regardless of what happens with mom, you can stay in the house.” For insurance purposes, I’d assumed.

I felt queasy after Margaret left. Had she agreed or had she gone under duress? We never spoke of these matters: caregivers overstepping boundaries; middle-aged children kidnapping elderly parents to deposit them in places where others got paid to do what they couldn’t or didn’t want to do. Margaret didn’t talk very much, and when she did I found her hard to understand, so we kept communication to a minimum. But all by myself in her house, Margaret’s presence loomed in her empty La-Z-Boy, in the absence of our morning routine, and in her lingering personal scent. I moved out within the month.


Throughout my ten months with Margaret, I often thought back to my former life in Vancouver where I’d spent a few hours a week volunteering at the cardiac wards at St. Paul’s Hospital. I delivered warm blankets, filled water glasses, got ice, and diverted minds from upcoming operations. My first shift was nerve-wracking. Instinct told me when to go and when to stay by the bedside. Patients surveyed me with curiosity. Tubes snaked out of blankets and slithered down bare legs. There was no predicting which patients would inexplicably delight in showing me their serger-line scars.

“I’m not a nurse,” I’d said, urgently, the beeping of their heart monitors the white flags of fragile reassurance between us. “Just a volunteer.”

After a few hours, I’d lock my red smock away and head down Robson Street. My heart felt lighter. It was as if, patient by patient, loving angel hands had woven fuzzy threads around my own heartbreaks. I was the baby in a family that didn’t know lovey-dovey loving. Except with my closest friends, I’ve always held my connections at an orchestrated distance; independence has meant separate, in control. Before I volunteered at the hospital, before I cared for my mother and cared for Margaret, I would not have called myself a caregiver. I was a caring person, but never had responsibility for anyone. I didn’t even babysit as a child.

But somehow, by putting myself into these situations, just the simplest form of responding to people’s needs, being there for ten minutes or an evening, I realized it was something I craved. It felt good. It felt like I belonged. Despite my single, childless status, my unheralded acts of service have added me to an evolutionary line of caregivers eternal. Small ceremonies. Daily life. Heart open.

A Profound Call to Serve

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The church sanctuary is huge: wide rows of dark-wood pews with a centre aisle and four red-carpeted steps up to the pulpit. Behind the pulpit is a large choir loft which sits under a vaulted ceiling elevated to accommodate not one but two stained glass windows.

It’s the kind of elaborate building the Methodists put up in the late 1800s to the glory of God but which also showed off their wealth and standing in the community. It seems rather contrary to the message of their founder, who famously said, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

I think of this every week I stand behind that pulpit and look over the small congregation gathered in that lofty sanctuary. As a writer and first-time author living in rural Nova Scotia, I’m fortunate to find part-time employment using my speaking and writing skills: I’m a lay worship leader, providing services to churches when they don’t have a minister due to vacation or sabbatical, illness or retirement.

Service. This word has several meanings associated with the work I do. I create a service of worship that includes hymns, prayers, and a message (a sermon); I am called to be in service to these congregations; and each week we listen to a brief message from the United Church’s Mission and Service Fund, which supports a variety of national and international organisations.

Before I became a lay worship leader, however, I learned what it meant to be in service when I became a caregiver for my father after he was diagnosed with dementia. This happened in 2002, when my father was sixty years old and before “early onset dementia” was even a type. My marriage had ended at about the same time, so after I’d landed back home and learned of the diagnosis, I knew I would live with my parents to help take care of my father. It was a struggle, partly because of the changes the disease produced on an almost daily basis and partly because of the lack of resources, but mostly because of me.

House and Home by Amber Solberg

After my father died in 2009, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my time as a caregiver and, in hindsight, the degree of my selfishness shocked me. To this day, I’ve not let go of the guilt of not giving myself—my time and my energy—entirely to my father and his care in those seven final years of his life. The worst thing that could happen to my father became the best thing to happen to me because it taught me about compassion, acceptance, and advocacy. The single most important lesson I learned from my father’s illness, from his suffering and his death, was this: Dementia is a profound call to be in service to someone.

I still weep when I type that.

I weep because there was one way I could have been of greater service to both my father and my mother and I failed to realise it, failed to act on it.

“Would you take your father for a drive, please? And end up at Tim’s so he can have a coffee and a muffin,” my mother had asked me one Sunday afternoon.

Not an unreasonable request and I’d have been happy to do it. But, one, she shouldn’t have had to ask me and, two, I should have done it every day.

Every single day, I could have given my father some pleasure, some feeling of normalcy, of familiarity. Every day, I could have made life easier for my mother by giving her time to herself at home. Yet I was so caught up in going through a divorce, in feeling lost, in not knowing how the rest of my life would unfold that I couldn’t give myself over completely to the urgent needs of my parents.

The epiphany came too late.

Becoming a lay worship leader also happened unexpectedly but rather necessarily. I was working for the local community newspaper and part of my responsibility was to update the church notices each week. It became apparent that one rural pastoral charge, made up of three churches, didn’t have a regular minister. I thought, “I was raised in the United Church, I know what to do.” I phoned the person who provided the information to the newspaper and learned that they were scrambling to find enough people, ordained or otherwise, to provide long-term pulpit supply while they figured out how to attract a minister. She booked me for right after Christmas.

On January 6, 2013, I walked into a small, white, clapboard church on a country road surrounded by snow-covered blueberry fields. The sanctuary was small enough to make the congregation of twenty look like a full house. It was Epiphany Sunday, when many Christian churches mark the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus; the theme of this service often involves the idea of a journey. I called my sermon “Going Out Not Knowing” and talked about the signs that pointed me in the direction of home just when my parents needed me most. Little did I know it would be the same with becoming a lay worship leader: a sign showed me an opportunity I’d never anticipated, taking me on a journey that has taught me about myself and what it means to give yourself over to someone’s needs.

In that first sermon, I wrote, “Journeys aren’t just about understanding others; they are about understanding yourself. All you need to do is listen to your heart, listen to what the voice inside you is saying. That knowledge, even if it’s scary or confusing or surprising, is your true path, your star-lighted way.”

Supporting my father through his dying could have been a scary and confusing time but it was only surprising. Being with him through his final days and hours, through the drug withdrawal and his return to awareness, provided my first epiphany. After he’d passed, after we’d sat with his now-peaceful body and listened to the finches chittering at the feeder outside his room, after the nurses came in to say it was time for his removal, I walked out of his room and thought, “I will never be afraid of anything again.”

I still weep when I type that.

My father was a funeral director and he set an example of what being in service means. When he was responsible for the funeral of a person who had no family, particularly those considered “indigent,” my father would ask my mother to sit in on the service. He offered respect and dignity to everyone. He offered himself in service to everyone. Yet he made an even greater effort for those who needed more.

I’m now into my fifth year providing pulpit supply to rural churches in my area. This experience, however, has not convinced me to pursue full-time ministry. I would not be great as a minister; I am more suited to being a lay servant. But whenever I stand in a pulpit looking over a vast sanctuary built for two hundred people and see only a few dozen scattered around the pews, I remember what my father taught me and also recall the words of that guy I quote a lot: “Where two or three are gathered, I am there.”

Chemistry of Fire

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I have a bomb in my purse. Its presence is constant. It could go off at any hour, as long as I’m in range of the detonator. Across the province, the country, the continent, there are hundreds of thousands of people carrying their own bombs, strapped to belts, tucked in pockets, clipped to sun visors in cars. And here’s the thing I’m not supposed to say out loud: I can’t wait until the bomb goes off.


Every Christmas when I was growing up, my sisters and I would wake in the cold, dark morning and gather together in one of our bedrooms to open the stockings that had been left on our beds. Then we would bundle ourselves in fleece housecoats and slippers and take our opened stockings into our parents’ room, unveil our gifts, and watch as Mom and Dad opened theirs—painstakingly it seemed, as we were anxious for bigger presents under the tree. One year, we had just gathered on my parents’ bed when my father’s bomb went off. He was up, dressed, and out the front door into the cold Christmas morning while my sisters and I looked at each other. The presents would have to wait. Someone was having a bad day.

My father joined the fire department in our village on the South Shore of Nova Scotia before I was born. As a young child, I grew accustomed to getting out of the way when he bolted from the house at the squeal of his pager, the tires on the car kicking up gravel in the driveway. When he got home, I would hug him and take in the smoky-diesel smell of his turnout gear. And when the fire trucks visited my school during fire prevention week, I clung to him, showing my firefighter Dad off to my friends.


In grade school, students learn about the “fire triangle,” that fire needs heat, fuel, and oxygen to burn. Take away one of those elements, according to the triangle, and the fire will go out: heat cools with water, fuel is finite, oxygen can be depleted. But I now know that the chemistry of fire is more complex. These three elements alone cannot create a fire. Something more is needed: a chemical chain reaction that allows the fire to build through ignition to the stage of flames and smoke. Heat, fuel, and oxygen can be present but they are futile—even innocent—without the chain reaction. It’s like attraction, the thread that ties lovers together, the roots that tie family together. You can trust someone and respect them, but without love, what kind of life can you build together? You can love someone and respect them, but without trust, would you go into a burning building together? This is a firefighter’s highest, or lowest, praise. I would—or would not—go into the flames with you.

Adrift a Sea of Hidden Fire by Meena Chopra

I left Nova Scotia at eighteen. I jetted off to university in Toronto and then spent nearly a decade in Ghana and South Africa, where I worked as a journalist. These were wonderful, lonely years. I swung through work, friendships, and relationships, looking for something to make a happy life. I found I could create a spark but couldn’t sustain it. I blamed the long hours at a tiring job. In Ghana, I blamed the exhaustion that comes from living in a place where daily necessities like electricity and running water are often luxuries. I blamed the passive alienation, the persistent feeling that I didn’t fit in, that I would always be seeking a link in the chain reaction, no matter how long I lived away

I began to think, increasingly with the passing years, about moving back to Nova Scotia. It might have been a flight of fancy, a grass-is-always-greener dream, but after sixteen years away I wanted to believe that the place where my roots were the deepest would provide that missing link. So when I finally found a job I could do from anywhere—no office required—I was fuelled. I went home.

I spent a summer in my parents’ house, in the village where I grew up. As I watched my Dad go to weekly practices and meetings at the fire hall, watched him peel out of the driveway when the pager squealed, I began to ask him more about the fire department. I saw how it fulfilled an innate need to work together, to serve, and sacrifice. It was the opposite of that feeling of unbelonging I had during my lonely years abroad. Some people thrive as the outsider. I didn’t. In Ghana, the local term for foreigners—usually white people—is Obruni. It’s often friendly and harmless, an expression of curiosity but as the years went on it grated on me more and more. Every time I was called Obruni, I was reminded that I didn’t belong and never would. I realized that belonging was the link I was missing.

Nine months after moving back to Nova Scotia, I bought a house. Shortly after I moved in, I applied to join the local fire department. I was interviewed by two of the department’s officers, got a criminal record check by the RCMP, and was voted in at the department’s regular meeting. Within a month, I became a volunteer firefighter.


My resting state is now anticipation. When I stand in line at the grocery store, I wonder if people will think it’s rude if I drop my basket and run. In the drive-through, I look for escape routes and feel anxious if there isn’t one. If I leave my house without the pager-bomb, even to take out the garbage or hang clothes, I chide myself and go back to fetch it. Once, I fled from a meeting because I was so certain I heard my pager go off. I was halfway to the fire hall before I discovered I was wrong.

I am aware of the pain in my shoulders from practice, the blister on my foot, the mystery bruises that appear and later silently slide off my skin. Anxiety, aches, and nerves: these are the runoff from my service, the quiet badges I carry to belong.

A few weeks after joining the department, my first call came. I had dinner cooking. I remembered to shut off the stove but then took too much time to switch off the television and use the bathroom. I’d wondered how I’d react when my pager went off and found it brought a surge of adrenaline. And this, too, is part of the belonging. The rush. The sudden need to drop everything. I knew that all the firefighters were doing the same and that for the next hour or two or six we’d be joined together by a silver thread. We would rely on each other. The lights and sirens cut through the still evening as we prepared for the work ahead. The call was to a car accident. We were there to control the flow of traffic and help clean up debris, not the glamorous work of storming a burning building but vital to aid someone’s bad day.

In our department, we have office workers and mechanics. We work in health care and retail. Some of us are retired. We write and ride motorcycles and go south on winter holidays. We all carry the pager-bombs and we all have families who are left, like my sisters and I were left that Christmas morning.

When I was an outsider, an Obruni, I belonged to universities and jobs and professions—the necessary, easy belonging of adulthood. But I found little satisfaction there. Jobs change, classes end. Now, as I tug on my heavy yellow gear and try not to trip over my own feet, I realize it is the excitement and camaraderie of service, of answering the pager-bomb, that has made this rural Nova Scotia village more of a home than any other place I’ve lived. I have always had oxygen, fuel, and heat. But we just sustain the elements. In fire service—in fighting fire—I’ve finally found the chemical chain reaction to keep my own fire burning.

Filling the Void

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She was young. Many would say too young. Jasmine was fourteen years old when she first tasted alcohol. Being homeschooled until grade six hadn’t been an advantage when it came to fitting in at middle school. She wanted to be popular, as many young girls do. She looked at the different groups of kids and at the top of the pile were the jocks. She knew she would never fit in with them. She was never very sporty and although the jocks were considered popular she thought they were kind of dull and boring. Then there were the band geeks and the artsy kids, but they were losers in her eyes and she didn’t want to be looked at that way. One day while exiting the school, she noticed a group of kids smoking outside and she thought they looked cool and tough and everyone else seemed to be mildly afraid of them. Everyone called them the druggy group. She decided she would become part of this group.

Jasmine befriended a girl who she thought of as a “total druggy” and asked her to hang out. This girl suggested that they get drunk. Jasmine lied, saying that she had “been drunk many times before,” although it was her first time and she felt a bit scared but the desire to impress this girl was stronger than her fear. The two went to a liquor store and waited for a stranger to come by who was willing to “boot” for them. They got a 2-6 of vodka and went home to Jasmine’s basement where her strict parents were upstairs. They opened the bottle and the girl took a swig. Now it was Jasmine’s turn. She put the bottle to her lips. The unfamiliar smell almost turned her insides but she didn’t want to look stupid in front of this girl so she forced herself to take a large gulp. It burned as it slid down her throat and hit her empty stomach. It made her ill but she loved the feeling that it gave her, it was euphoria. She continued, she simply couldn’t get enough of the fiery liquid. She eventually blacked out and then threw up much of the night and felt terrible the next day but that didn’t matter. The feeling she got from the alcohol was so addictive that she couldn’t stop herself. In her own words, “This was where my journey began.”


Jasmine was now fifteen and, all too soon, alcohol became boring and no longer filled that forever-hungry, growling void inside her. Although she still indulged in alcohol and weed whenever the chance presented itself (and that came often), she needed more. In fact, there weren’t many days when she wasn’t under some kind of influence. She drank and smoked at school with her friends and the teachers never seemed to be the wiser or, if they were, they didn’t seem to care. As time went on, she had to imbibe more and more to feel the effects. She had to move on to bigger and better things. She moved on to ecstasy. Life got progressively worse and she ran away from home shortly after turning sixteen. She couch-surfed or slept wherever she could. It didn’t matter, it felt good to live her own life. She had been expelled from school by then and maybe that was good because she was mostly checked out when she was there anyway. Her parents called the cops and the police caught her and her seventy ecstasy pills. Even Jasmine’s friends thought she was crazy to buy so many pills at once but she was never the kind to do something half way and she had a stash of money that she had been saving to buy a car. The police couldn’t hold her or maybe they thought she would be fine now—just a young girl on the wrong path. It was a mistake to release her though because shortly afterwards she overdosed for the first time.

Her parents knew they had to do something drastic but also knew Jasmine wouldn’t willingly go to rehab. They told her they were going on a trip to visit some family in a nearby town. Jasmine didn’t suspect anything and resolved to not do any drugs on the short trip but she constantly thought about getting her next hit when she got home. She wouldn’t get home for a long time. She was checked into rehab. Her life had gotten out of hand so quickly. Even Jasmine knew she could not continue in this way. She met a councillor at the rehab centre and they connected because the councillor articulated what Jasmine was feeling. Other than that, rehab was all about getting through each day, making it out, getting back to real life. Jasmine did well in rehab and made lots of progress. She was released and it lasted … but not for long.


Jasmine finished rehab and everything was going well. She had a job and was developing friends in a new town where there were none of the old temptations from her home town. But soon the void inside her reared its ugly head yet again. This time, weed, alcohol and ecstasy were not enough, the void needed something stronger. Being sober had been a good thing for Jasmine. She knew this but was unable to resist the need to be numb. Cocaine was the next step on her journey and, luckily, it would be her last step before she knew she had to quit.

Her second relapse since leaving rehab was longer and much worse than the first. She continued to feel more empty the more drugs and alcohol she had. Coming down from coke was worse than anything she could imagine and the only way to make it better was to do more coke. At first, it was exhilarating because she was able to convince herself that she was better on the drugs. More productive. Faster. Smarter. But that soon faded away and all that was left was a shell of a human being. She cared about nothing except drugs and alcohol. She cared least about herself. She was so empty that it was unbearable and the cocaine made her forget for a little bit but eventually nothing would be enough to calm that inner voice, that inner fear and self-loathing.

Jasmine knew, just knew, deep inside that she couldn’t continue down this path. She had the sudden realization that she would die if she didn’t stop. Maybe part of her didn’t mind dying but another part wanted to live, for her family and for the hope that things could really get better. So she made a deal with herself: get sober for good or die. Jasmine decided to check herself back into rehab and make it work. If she wasn’t sober in six months, she would commit suicide.


Jasmine’s last attempt to get sober worked. She has been sober for over five years now. She has a good job and has just finished getting her high school equivalent. She is also a budding photographer and enjoys capturing lasting moments. In fact, she shot the photographs in this essay. On taking these photographs of substances that once plagued her and almost killed her, she says: “I don’t feel like I am a slave to those substances any longer. I can be around them and be unattached to them and what I went through. It’s a letting go of the past.”

Disclaimer: Names have been changed or omitted to protect the identities of the involved individuals. However, all events are true.
Related reading: “In the Museum of Your Last Day” by Susie Berg