Gwen is first tentative as she approaches conversation. The young woman, now 22, was betrayed and hurt by those she treasured the most, and her trauma is palpable.
One year after her best friend Abbe was brutally killed, Gwen has every reason to be cautious.
But when she glances over at Susan Raphael, her former therapist and confidante, she feels more at ease, and warming up, her once deliberate sentences become energetic and honest.
Gwen, who was spiralling and desperately looking for help, found Susan when she was 16-years-old. She was struggling with addiction and depression, both resulting from childhood abuse.
All she needed was reassurance, to not be judged and instead guided.
“When I was drunk, I was like this angry Tasmanian Devil that was wrecking the town,” Gwen says of herself before she found Susan. “I felt like this other side of me, one that I was not acquainted with, was taking over my personality and trickling into my everyday life. And to deal with the shame I would drink more and do more drugs, so it was a vicious cycle. It was like I hopped on a carousel and it kept spinning faster and faster until finally I had enough.”
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ADDICTION AND A DISCONNECTED FAMILY
Growing up, Gwen didn’t have the support that every child needs so she mistakenly found solace in alcohol and drugs.
Her single mother, a madcap drifter, met her father on a spiritual pilgrimage that spanned more than eight months. He was absent through Gwen’s life, until she recently found and reconnected with him.
The majority of support came from her mother’s family and though they were well intentioned, they just didn’t know how to help the young girl.
At only 12-years-old, Gwen had to divorce her mom in a two-year, heartbreaking court battle.
Gwen was collateral damage of her mother’s mental illness.
As a pre-teenager, Gwen knew that she was in an unsafe environment. Her mother’s substance-fueled erratic behavior was highlighted by late night parties, random visitors, and abuse at the hands of boyfriends.
“My mom has two polar opposites. One minute she’s not even in reality and the next she’s so with it and seems so together that you would never guess she’s unraveled. At one point, she was drinking every night and taking me with her. I was up at 3 a.m., seeing my mom belligerent and drunk. This is what I was learning when I was about nine,” Gwen said, adding she feared what would happen when she was taken from her mother. “She told me every day that I was the reason that she was alive, and she kept saying that she was going to kill herself. There was so much manipulation.”
Speaking with her today, Gwen appears to be an exemplary model of a 22-year-old.
No one would ever guess that she has a troubled past.
Through her young life, Gwen was mentally, emotionally, physically and sexually abused. At one point, resulting from her own indulgence, she was also kidnapped by a human sex trafficker.
Gwen recalls her life, and though there’s a hint of sadness in her eyes, her face lights up with every mention of Abbe.
The two girls were kindred spirits. She met Abbe while attending an alternative school in Toronto. Abbe, a social nomad, welcomed Gwen to a new tribe with a mantra of excessive indulgence.
Initially, drinking was manageable. It was an intoxicating novelty and feeling tipsy made Gwen feel less inhibited.
When she 15, she started experimenting with drugs, mostly the ones immortalized by pop culture. Like in the hit song We Can’t Stop, which had Disney doll Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) “dancing with Molly.” It’s not surprising that Cyrus’ easily influenced young fans wanted to join the hustle and make their own memories with Molly, the street name for the recreational drug MDMA.
And for Gwen, a beautiful young girl, drugs were at her disposal, at no charge.
By the time she was 17, she was completely out of control.
“My morals were just twisted. I’ve never been the kind of person to steal or fight, but all my morals were gone. I had no self of sense at this point – that’s what drinking and drugging does to you,” Gwen said.
Before seeking guidance from Susan, Gwen almost overdosed. Suicidal, she created a deadly blend of antibiotics and her prescribed antidepressants.
Antidepressants, oddly, that only bolstered her will to die. Antidepressants according to a study reported in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, “double the risk of suicidality and violence…in healthy adults with no signs of mental illness.”
And, the medication had the same effect on her.
Abbe found her lying on the bed, semi-conscious and having seizures. She was rushed to hospital, where Abbe comforted her until she was well enough to leave.
The party girls realized they needed help.
Gwen had terrible experiences with therapists in the past so Abbe referred Gwen to Susan, whose coaching strategies were commonly praised among the young community overcoming addiction.
It was Susan that listened and helped Gwen realize that she had an unhealthy relationship with drugs and alcohol. Also, thoughtfully supporting Gwen’s newfound will to live, using a personal approach that’s void of judgement, Susan helped Gwen get into rehab.
MIGRATING TOWARD RECOVERY
When Gwen’s life was on the upswing, Abbe’s continued to spiral downward.
Abbe failed to get help herself and though she went to rehab in California for a year, she slipped back into old habits.
Gwen had to create a distance from Abbe to avoid a collective decline, but she was still mindful and silently watchful.
In the two years since Gwen was in recovery, she kept an eye on her friend through mutual friends, who spoke of Abbe’s continued wild nights, and through social media, leading Gwen to think “…she looks so cool now and she’s probably living it up.”
And Gwen dreamed of a day the two pals would reminisce about their youth and revel together in sobriety.
“I always thought that one day we reunite and talk about how crazy we were as teenagers. It was kind of a fantasy that I had,” Gwen said. “But that was not the case and when I got the call from Susan, the fantasy came crashing down. I would never see her again and I never had the opportunity to see her in a happy place, in recovery. She had a beautiful soul and I know she could have done it, but she was mixed up with the wrong people.”
THE DEADLY CONSEQUENCES OF ADDICTION
On May 2018, 21-year-old Abbe was fatally stabbed multiple times. Soon after, two men were charged with first degree murder.
Susan, hearing of Abbe’s death on the news, acted quickly and made the dreaded call, letting Gwen know that her best friend was dead.
After knowing Gwen as a substance user and in recovery, Susan grew fond of her client, and was integral in her development as a sober young adult. Gwen had often spoke of her friendship with Abbe, whom she had known for about eight years.
Gwen and Abbe hadn’t spoken in a couple of years, she hoped the two would reconnect.
Susan knew that Abbe’s death would break Gwen’s heart. She also knew that Gwen was still vulnerable and that there was a potential risk of relapse with another trauma.
“I was so happy that I didn’t hear it on the news. Susan called me right away right when she found out and she just thought of me immediately. When she called, she said to make sure I’m getting support. She was very considerate and thoughtful,” Gwen says with immense gratitude of Susan, who stayed in touch with, but no was longer treating Gwen.
She smiles softly as she speaks of how Abbe and Susan refused to give up on her and says now that alcohol is “irrelevant.”
“It’s right there, whatever. There’s no need for me to get drunk – I think life is way more precious and beautiful than not being able to really experience it,” Gwen said.