Tuesday, December 6, 2022
HomeHealthTrauma was my gateway drug. Love was my pathway back

Trauma was my gateway drug. Love was my pathway back




This First Person column is written by Maria Volk, who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My head was pounding from a migraine and the sound of my cell phone ringing non-stop. After the third call, I realized I should answer. 


“Maria. We lost Dana last night,” says my brother-in-law Derek. 

“Well go find him for frick sakes. I’m in Saskatoon. What do you want me to do?”

Irritated, I hung up. Immediately the phone rang again. 

It was Derek, repeating the same thing. I hung up a second time. But within seconds, I realized what he was trying to tell me: that my brother — my best friend, the man my kids’ called Daddy Uncle — was dead. 

This was the moment when my journey of pain and addiction began — not with pot or another so-called gateway drug — but with grief and trauma. 

Lucky for me, the love and support of family and friends has kept me around to also share my story of my healing.

A man and a woman take a selfie with the Christmas fire log playing on a screen behind them.
The last photo Maria Volk, right, took with her brother Dana before he died in 2020. (Maria Volk)

That night two years ago, I stepped outside gasping for air and looking for escape. I tried to light a joint but wasn’t able to breathe. I couldn’t get the hoot in as deep as I needed to numb and calm my soul. In disbelief, I called my brother’s cellphone, then home phone, then checked his Facebook Messenger.

My family was mourning, but I wouldn’t join in. I couldn’t accept this new reality. So I cared for others instead — my daughter in college, my brother-in-law. He was the one who found his husband of 15 years dead in the tub. My brother was 48 and we still don’t know what killed him. 

Stuck in that trauma, I discovered cocaine. Man, what a drug! I was hooked instantly. It was exactly what I needed to keep me numb and dumb, yet quick enough to work. 

One day using cocaine turned into two; sometimes three in a row. Then I would crash for 24 hours and have a little bit of food. I spent rent money, borrowed from my family to pay for my drug habit. I was spiralling and spent my days staring out the window, crying even through a cocaine high. 

Finally, my boyfriend said he couldn’t take it anymore. He said, “I feel like I’m sitting here with two ghosts. Your brother’s and now slowly watching you die.” 

That finally shocked me to get help, because I realized I was killing my brother’s memory. 

A boy drapes his arm across the shoulders of a girl as they both smile.
Maria Volk, left, and her brother Dana as children. (Submitted by Maria Volk)

At the hospital, the psychology staff were amazing. I left there on a new high filled with hope. 

Next stop — the bank. I needed a new account for just my paycheque and rent. I’ll never forget the look in that poor teller’s eyes when I explained why. She looked at the box of tissue, then at me. I thought, “Oh no, lady. You and the others listening are going to need them.” 

I giggled weirdly because they were so blown away and full of genuine questions.

The hardest part was to admit my silent struggle to family and friends. But every response was so powerful and encouraging and my brother’s two closest friends even paid for the cost of rehab.

Waiting for rehab meant fighting to resist the skin-crawling voices in my head, tempting me to call the dealer. I fought the urges with walks by the river, baking and making my brother’s favourite dish, meatloaf. 

But when the time came to leave for the rehab centre, I started to panic. I caved and texted the dealer. We were going to stop at Home Depot on our way for 15 minutes. When he texted back and said he would be there in four minutes, my sick head figured it was a sign from the universe that this was OK. 

Oh, but wait. The universe had a different sign. The dealer only read “Home.” By the time we figured that out, there was no way he could make it in time without getting caught. 

It was crushing but sobering. I finally fully realized how much I needed treatment.

And that’s how I finally found peace. At the treatment ranch in B.C., I picked sage and yarrow, dried and braided them according to a spiritual practice from my daughter’s Cree heritage.

A small green lake surrounded by forest.
Maria Volk found peace by washing in a creek at her treatment facility in Calgary. She also swam in other lakes on the property. (Maria Volk)

With the guidance of a spiritual advisor, we smudged and I asked the universe to take my sadness and anger away, to replace them with understanding and forgiveness. Then I climbed into the crisp, clean sparkling water of a creek and washed the pain away.

After two weeks, it was time to head back home to Calgary, where drugs are everywhere if you look for them. It makes resistance a daily struggle.

But with assistance from the staff at the hospital and the programs I put in place to return to, along with a shift in my attitude, I’ve been clean for three months. And I’ve met some amazing people, including through a writing workshop at the library.

That’s where this story comes from and it’s kept me moving through this shame, guilt and grieving. I am trying to be open and honest and not ashamed of what I went through. It doesn’t define who I am now, and it won’t define the future I’m fighting to have.

A dark blue tattoo of a mythical bird on a woman's calf.
Maria Volk got a tattoo of a phoenix on her calf to encourage herself to continue her journey of healing. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. Read more from this workshop, run out of the Central Library in partnership with the Women’s Centre of Calgary.

To find out more, suggest a topic or volunteer a community organization to help host, email CBC producer Elise Stolte or visit cbc.ca/tellingyourstory.

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