I had never been particularly well-adjusted in the school setting. It’s not that I wasn’t smart, but with my ADHD, being bullied, coming to terms with being gay, and never really having “fit in”, school just never seemed like a good fit for me.

Elementary school was hell. Looking back, it seemed I was bullied and beat up because I was smaller, shy, weak and different. By junior high, the bullying continued, but the frequency and intensity had lessened. Perhaps it was because I grew a lot in grade 7 and 8, hitting 6′, or maybe it was because I managed to make friends with a couple of the “cool” kids, which made me – at least temporarily – invisible. But when the bullying picked back up again, this time I feel it was because I was “different” (aka “gay”) – I was not masculine enough, too skinny, I didn’t wear the “right” clothes, I wasn’t a jock. It seemed that as my tormentors got older, the excuses for bullying me evolved from obvious physical characteristics to more subtle, social differences. But as we know now, emotional abuse is as damaging as physical abuse. And like other victims of abuse, what you can’t fix, you numb.

My first experience with drugs was a total cliché; I smoked my first joint in grade 7 behind the local convenience store near my junior high school over lunch break. I partook because the guy who offered was the cool new kid. He was from California and nothing like the other kids I had known. I don’t think I got “high” as I would later come to know it, but we laughed, ate a lot of junk food and slowly made our way back to school. Shop class was the first period back from lunch, and I ended up almost cutting off my index finger on the band saw. I took some pretty severe mocking from some classmates over it, but it didn’t deter me from smoking up again soon after, and over the next few years my experimentation continued.

Entering high school, like many other kids, I had hopes of being accepted as a “cool kid”. I chose to switch from my designated high school to one that some of my new junior high friends would be attending. I hoped that a change of scenery would mean a new start. But the bullying got much worse, becoming physically violent through my Grade 10 year. I managed to endure another year, but three days after Grade 11 started, after what felt like a lifetime of abuse at the hands of others, I was in a tailspin. I realized that I wouldn’t survive another year. As fate would have it, I was busted behind the gym getting high. After a trip to the vice principal’s office, some choice words on my part, my traumatizing school years were over by the end of the day. The numbing, however, was definitely not over. Not yet.

After dropping out of high school, I spent a few months in an alcohol- and drug-induced haze, staying with friends, away from my parents, and getting up to no good. I had finally found a group of people who I could connect with. Some were gay, others were straight, some were “alternative,” some were artsy, and most of them didn’t fit into societal norms. After a lifetime of feeling like I never fit in, it was a relief to find people who needed desperately to be accepted for being different, unique, or just plain fucked up. It was during this time that I was starting to explore my sexuality; I was finally able to talk to other people about “being gay” and understand “gay” culture more.

But finding a group of people to relate to was not the fairytale ending. We were all just learning how to grapple with who we really were, and often that was a very messy process. There are not many people who have successfully “found themselves” at the bottom of a bottle or between the rolling papers.

In January of the following year I was at a pretty low point, and on a whim, I took off to Vancouver, BC. I packed up a backpack and left one night telling only a few friends, and no one in my family. In hindsight, I know I couldn’t face my family anymore, not wanting to be who I was, but not knowing who I wanted to be. I needed to somehow start over. A 17-year-old in the big city with access to anything and zero supervision – things didn’t exactly “start over” for me. Just the same Foothills shit, different West Coast pile.

After a while, I crashed hard, and with nowhere else to turn, I called my parents. Luckily for me, they had never given up on me. They brought me home, and tried to help me get healthy and move forward. But as much as they tried, I still was not nearly ready to accept myself nor did I have the maturity or skills to get there. I did manage to get through another few years of high school, this time in an alternative school, but the demons were always present and the addictions were too hard to deny.

After completing grade 12, I spent some time living in Banff working a few different jobs and continued running from myself and the past. Banff was an exciting place to be for a person who loved the outdoors; I hiked, skied and went on many adventures through the mountains. But with many small resort towns, there was a lot of drugs and drinking; it was part of the culture. Every night of the week a different drinking hole featured locals’ specials with plenty of cheap alternatives to escape the hardship of everyday life.

I ended up back in Calgary after a few years and rented a place with a friend who had been there for me regardless of the stupid things I did. Although he struggled with his own issues, he supported me emotionally, let me be me and passed no judgment. It was not a good few years as far as being sober, but I felt at home and part of a family that understood me (or at least accepted me for being me).

It took me many long years to pull myself out of the immediate grip of addiction, and as many addicts will attest, you are never truly free. Each day is a renewed commitment to staying clean. The continued chipping away of my self-respect and self-worth over the years had made it that when I was sober I had an immensely difficult time being a part of people’s lives. The disguises that I had been crafting over the years felt thin and transparent, and I was always scared someone might see the “real me”. But some wonderful people, despite my efforts to deceive them, managed to see the “real me”. We have seen each other through some incredibly difficult life challenges. They have shown me what true friendship is, and they are still part of my life today. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I would be today. But I feel so fortunate that I am still here to share this story with you.