“Where do I begin? Do I start when I first saw my mom inject heroin? Or, do I start when my babysitter molested me? Do I start when my mom told me that I should hate the man that was in the house the night before because he did horrible things to her? Or, do I start when I tried to commit suicide? You see, life can sometimes be full of hardships, and bad things can happen to children. Sometimes this makes us question why we are here. But I don’t. I know why I am here. I am here to love. My story isn’t a story of victimhood, it’s a story of forgiveness and compassion.
I was brought into this world as a child of an addict. My mom became an addict as a child herself. No, it wasn’t because her parents were addicts. In fact, I don’t really know exactly why she became an addict, but that is her story, not mine. She was adopted into a middle-class family that loved her and tried their best to give her a good life, but somehow, addiction crept in. I often think it was from purely enjoying the feeling of being high. She told me many times that it helped her with her shyness. But as time went on, she started making bad choices and putting herself in the wrong places. She was abused and raped many times, which drove her further into her addiction. And then we were taken away.
I entered my first foster home at the age of five. I really didn’t understand why I was being taken away from my mom. Oh, and my dad wasn’t around then, he left when I was two. I continued to live in and out of foster homes, as my mom attempted to get clean, but kept relapsing. I lived in a total of 11 foster homes, a few women’s shelters, and an orphanage. By the time I was 11, my mom finally decided, or was made to, sign us over to the government. Yes, I had siblings, but out of respect for their privacy, I am choosing not to mention them. I always questioned why I had the life I had. I knew, even from a very young age, that there was a reason.
During middle school, I was told time and time again that I would turn out to be like my mom, an addict. I was told that addiction runs in that family, and it is genetic. I never believed them. I just knew I would have a better life. I guess this drove me to look for my ‘outs,’ to look for ‘opportunities.’ I learned when there was no food at home, I could find food at my friends’ homes. And that if I was going to move around so much, I needed to learn how to make friends quickly. So I figured out how that if you wanted to be liked quickly, it usually meant pleasing others, and not going against their opinions. I also brought this back into my foster home. You see, I needed love. I knew this. I just didn’t really understand what that was. It was something I would have to learn to let go of later in life when I realized I didn’t need others’ love if they couldn’t love me as I am.
After my mom signed us over to the government, I didn’t hear from her for many years. I think she just kept falling deeper into her addiction. During this time, I really craved normality. I wanted to stay in one home. I didn’t want to be labeled as ‘the foster child’ at school. So when I turned 12, I was legally able to make my own decisions, I decided to go up for adoption. I chose an older couple as my new parents because they seemed nice, and there were only two couples that come forward wanting to adopt me. I was placed into their home on a ‘trial’ basis. However, the ‘trial’ ended quickly as I struggled deeply with feelings of guilt.
I felt like I was betraying my mom and siblings by not wanting to be part of their family, but I also felt like I was betraying the adoptive parents by not wanting to be their child. I felt stuck. I couldn’t see a way out. Mixed with all my experiences so far, I decided I no longer wanted to be here, so I attempted to kill myself. Thankfully, I changed my mind before the poisonous fumes I inhaled did some serious damage to my organs, but I was hospitalized and put in a ‘high risk’ ward for teenagers.
The thing people don’t always understand is that beauty can sometimes be a curse. Little did I know that the teens in the ward had already started dating each other, so when I came in, I was signaled as a threat by the females. Which meant they needed validation from their boyfriends, that I wasn’t. The boys showed their allegiance by humiliating me in front of everyone. One boy went as far as smearing a sandwich in my face. But here is the thing I have come to learn about life. Just when you think you really can’t handle anything more, and death is no longer an option, something happens. You finally get a break. It might be small, but if you are willing to see it, it can change your life. Mine came in the form of a guardian. She was the caseworker for my adoption and when I attempted to commit suicide, I began to see how much this person really cared for me. She showed up time and time again, to build my trust.
Since I was no longer wanting to stay with the adoptive parents, I was supposed to be reassigned to another social worker, but this woman saw how fragile I was, and fought to keep me on. She won and soon placed me in the most perfect foster home. One that was a single mother, and I was her first foster child. This meant I came in with a clean slate and all the wrongs done by other kids were not projected onto me. I was allowed to just be me, and she trusted me. Ha, trust. You never know nice that feels, till you have it. With this new home and a stable relationship in my life, I began to feel happiness again, and then a dream came true.
While out at a nightclub, yes, I was doing better, but let’s not forget I was a teenager after all. And as teenagers do, they lie about where they are going. So yes, I got scouted, but there was a catch, he would need $3,000 for me to have the ‘lessons.’ When I went to my social worker to tell her about all of this, she saw my excitement and truly believed I could be a model. So as she always did for me, she did everything in her power to help support my happiness. She got me the funding from the government! If anyone knows anything about getting money from the government for things, they would know how difficult that is, and I will leave it at that.
The lessons proved to be useless, however, I was given the opportunity to be put in a model search with agents from all over the world. It was there that an Italian agency asked to have me come model for them. So off I went to Italy at 15 years old on my own. My modeling career had many struggles, but through it all, I was supported by the guidance of my social worker. She helped me through self-doubt, wanting to give up, and eating disorders. Meanwhile, my mom came back into my life, and I slowly began to build a relationship with her. The beautiful thing about these two women in my life is that they were never competitive with each other. My birth mom knew she was an addict and wasn’t suited for taking care of me, however, she held no resentment of another woman taking her place, she was grateful someone was there for me.
As I slowly got to know my mom, I realized the reason she pushed us away and why she ran to drugs, was because she couldn’t handle emotions. Mine or her own. She harbored so much guilt inside from her choices, as a human and a parent, which kept her running to the drugs. If I was to show her my own pain from her choices, she would take off again. She would think staying in my life would only hurt me more. But I really wanted her in my life, so again, I hid my feelings.
When I modeled in London I was watching a documentary on addicts. It was extremely graphic. I knew then that If I wanted to share my story, it had to be done in this way. I started using my modeling money to put myself through small courses on filmmaking and editing. I bought a camera and when my mom wasn’t ready to have me film her, I turned it onto my modeling life. I felt so strongly about wanting to make a documentary. I believe it would help other people going through a similar situation, knowing how alone I felt in my own struggle. I always felt ashamed to even speak about it, yet behind a camera, it somehow felt different. Which proved to be extremely therapeutic.
In 2004 I got a big modeling job that paid me $15,000. At the same time, I got a phone call from my mom. She told me she had hit rock bottom and wasn’t good health-wise. She also finally agreed to let me film her. So I flew back to Canada with my boyfriend at the time. I showed him how to shoot with my camera and together we started my film, ‘To the Moon and Back.’ I created a timeline of a week of shooting, covering all the questions and things I wanted to see. However, I had no idea what I was about to walk into.
I had never truly seen my mom’s addiction. She did her best to hide if from us as kids. However, one time I spied on her in the bathroom and saw her friend inject her with heroin. Besides that, we didn’t really see much. We just knew it was happening. I remember when the social workers would come to make sure things were ok at home, my brother and I would hide all of her needles. So when I stepped into a room that was barely bigger than the queen-sized bed including a kitchen, which and she was sharing this with another addict, I was shocked. But what was more shocking, was her state. She weighed no more than 100 pounds at 5”9”. She was mostly skin and bones, with scabs on her face and no eyebrows. She wasn’t able to pick me up because she had no eyesight, which I later found out to be a side effect of drugs she was taking. Many of them were laced with very harmful chemicals to make it look like there was more of the drug then there really was. When I entered the room, I tried to hold myself together, but I couldn’t. All I wanted at that moment was to take care of this woman I loved so much.
Love is an interesting thing. It can see past everything in front of you and just bring you back to your happiest memories. Memories flooded me of all the times she would tell elaborate stories to my friends and me on our front doorsteps. When she would make rice crispy squares with me, how she always smiled at everyone, always spoke to strangers, and how much she cared for things like the plants in our house, or any animal we came across. Sadly, she just couldn’t care for us like that because of her addiction. An addiction I still knew so little about. I guess I felt if I could understand what she was going through I would know how to help her. So I tried. With camera in hand, I kept asking questions. This went on for 15 years. As the years passed, our lives changed many times. She moved, got clean, then relapsed. I came out of a 6.5-year relationship that destroyed me and took 4 years to heal from. Meanwhile, I continued modeling, living in different places around the world, and she ended up returning in East Hastings after a few years of almost being clean.
Along the way, we slowly kept learning about each other. She learned that after I broke down when she relapsed, I needed to tell her how I was feeling. I needed her to be there for me. She listened and tried her best to be there. She helped me talk through my break up and encouraged me to follow my dreams, whatever they may be. However, her addiction at times made living my own life very hard. I remember being at auditions and receiving an email from her, it started out normal then ended with a few lines of zzzzzzz’s or hhhhh’s, or whichever key it was when she nodded off. I remember reading these then having to go in a room and smile and act like my life was perfect, so I could get the job. But that was my life. It was so drastically different. Here I was living a ‘model’ lifestyle with wealthy people around me, traveling to some of the most beautiful destinations, then I would return home to clean up my mom’s room, and make sure she didn’t fall off her bed when nodding off. It became almost comical to me how different it was. Not that it was a laughing matter, but comedy was our saving grace. My mom and I looked for the humor in it all. We had to because so much of it was so dark that we would have lost ourselves to it.
It took me a LONG time to be ok with the fact that my mom was an addict, but I came to see that things were not changing. When she needed her fix, she would end our visits without saying why, but I knew. After flying home, then usually taking a bus for at least an hour each way, to only get at most an hour visit was not cutting it for me. So I negotiated with her that if she needed to do her drugs, that she just don’t do it in front of me. Again, she listened, but there were a few times I had the not so pleasant experience of finding her with a needle in the arm. Which often broke me, but I told her how it made me feel when she came back to her senses. The thing is, I became the only family member to show up in person, so she needed me. We all need to be loved, and to be touched. My visits with her brought life back into her, and even though a lot of time I felt like I was doing it for her, I came to see I needed them just as much.
Together we healed our relationship, through love and boundaries. There were still extremely hard days, but as I got to know her, I started to understand a bit of why she used and stopped taking it personally. Mostly it was to avoid the withdrawal at this stage, other times it was because things were hard for her, she lost many friends to drugs. And yes, sometimes it was because of me because I was leaving and she knew she would be alone again. This one was the hardest to watch. To watch her fight back the tears and put herself in a state she could barely hold a conversation. I could only imagine how lonely she must feel, and she knew she was the only one that put her there. She knew the choices she made gave her this life, and that realization was hard to swallow. But the addiction was so ingrained in her, she truly didn’t know how to get out, and when she tried people would only see her as an addict. She had scars on her arm from injecting, and eyes that told you how hard of a life she lived.
I would have loved to think my mom would get clean. I kept that dream for so long, till it started to eat away at what we actually had. You see sometimes, things don’t go the way you want them to, and then what? Do you walk away? My mom and I knew this was not an option. We loved each other too much, so we had to learn to accept things as they were.
In my own life, I continued to model. During one of my travels, I went to Bali. Two weeks in I knew I wanted to live there. So I moved there. I’ve always been a bit of a free spirit, I guess I learned how to adapt to change quickly from my childhood, so it made me less afraid of trying new things. Soon after I moved there I started my own shoe company. I had no experience designing, but I knew that I loved boots, so I started there. It sure was quite the adventure, learning as I went along, in a foreign place. I also fell in love again, and when he wanted to move back to the States, I followed.
I decided to go back to school, not really sure what I would major in, but I knew due to my poor education from my childhood, it made me insecure and I wanted to fix that. I’m now 4 years in. I ended the relationship, and am slowly learning about myself again. The learning never ends and the motto I’ve always lived by is: ‘It’s never too late.’ It’s never too late to start over, it’s never too late to repair things that are broken, it’s never too late to try something new. It doesn’t mean it will be easy, or possible, but if you don’t try you will never know. Besides, have we ever really loved that which came too easy?
As for the mention of my molestation, some things don’t need to be spoken of in detail, all I know is in healing myself, I had to look for the root of what happened to me. It didn’t happen to me because ‘of’ me. It happened ‘to’ me. Cycles are often repeated until we do something to break them. Till we say I will not continue this in my lifetime. Often those who abuse were abused themselves. Besides, he was just a kid himself. I can feel sorry for the event that happened to me as a child. In fact, I should. It was unfair. However, I have learned to leave things in the past and to move forward with forgiveness. With forgiveness, I am the one who gets to sleep well at night, and I sure do love my sleep!”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Tarah Dowling. You can follow her journey on Instagram, and learn more about the film she’s making with her mother here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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