Brian MacDonald shares his story of how he survived trauma and drug addiction. (Aaron Hinks photo)

Brian MacDonald shares his story of how he survived trauma and drug addiction. (Aaron Hinks photo)

‘Trauma equals addiction’: Why some seek solace in illicit drugs

Part 2: Many pushed into addiction by ‘toxic stress,’ says White Rock psychologist

In the second part of this series, Black Press Media explores why some British Columbians are reaching for substances – at a time when overdose deaths have hit record highs – in order to find temporary relief or pleasure.

From a homeless person openly shooting heroin in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to an over-achieving radio broadcaster with a secret $15,000-per-month problem, in more cases than not, people who suffer from the illness of addiction have at least one thing in common – a history of trauma.

Langley filmmaker Brian MacDonald, 61, who by the end of the ’90s was in the throes of addiction, was consuming more than an ounce of heroin a month.

He puts it bluntly: “Trauma equals addiction. In my experience, it’s over 90 per cent of the people have sexual abuse in their stories, physical abuse, alcoholic families, so on.”

MacDonald recently revamped his award-winning documentary – A Ravaged Soul – that tells his story of addiction, and how it took him from being a successful media entrepreneur to trolling the Downtown Eastside looking for a fix.

The self-narrated documentary is a reflection of his life, where MacDonald explains the reason he reached for drugs was to cope with trauma he was once ashamed to talk about.

His first traumatic experience happened when he was three years old, MacDonald said, after his father was upset that he came to the dinner table with dirt on his clothes. His father picked him up and threw him headfirst into the bathtub, he said. Two years later, his dad left the family.

PART ONE: How COVID-19 has exacerbated the drug overdose emergency

By the time MacDonald turned 12, he had been sexually abused by an extended family member for two years. He started drinking and smoking weed not long after.

MacDonald kept his trauma to himself and raised a family, while running a successful media business and making a name for himself in the market.

After 25 years of having no contact with his dad, MacDonald looked him up and learned he was living in Seattle. Less than 24 hours after an uneventful meeting with his father, MacDonald tried heroin for the first time.

“A file got opened and exploded in my head in regards to what he did to the family, the grief he brought to it and all of that stuff,” MacDonald said, adding that meeting with his father brought the trauma to “the forefront of my consciousness.”

“Heroin is a very powerful drug. It just shuts your emotions down and shuts your physical pain down, shuts your anxiety down. I thought, honestly, for the first three months, I actually found a medication to help what was going on – the spinning in my head.”

As heroin’s ability to mask his emotional stress started to fade, he became trapped in a cycle of using and seeking, which eventually drained his bank account and led to the collapse of his professional life and personal relationships.

He wasn’t eating, he was frequently sick and fighting infections and had even tried to kill himself.

He was on the edge of death when he reached out to his mother for help. She managed to raise enough money to send him to a treatment centre in Nanaimo in the early 2000s. It would be his ninth and final attempt at rehab.

During 18 months in treatment, MacDonald said he finally addressed his trauma, released it, and forgave his abusers.

However, his resilience was tested a couple years later. MacDonald was in a car accident and required more than a dozen surgeries.

The doctor prescribed him pain killers.

Rather than become addicted once more, he was able to stop once his prescription ran out because the root cause of why he’d used drugs – his trauma – had been “modified.”

“The will to go back into it is just not there anymore. It really dissolved.”

SEE ALSO: ‘Lifeguard’ app launches as made-in-B.C. solution to help prevent overdose deaths

White Rock psychologist Jennifer Mervyn, who is a leader in the field, says every client she’s worked with who suffers from addiction shares a common thread – they’ve experienced trauma in their life.

She describes trauma as any stressful life experience, perceived or otherwise, that keeps a person’s nervous system hyper-aroused for six weeks or longer.

“Because that’s when we shift our baseline. It’s our cortisol, our adrenaline, our stress response. Once we have practised six weeks of having our heart beat faster, our blood pressure raised, stress hormones at elevated levels, they tend to not shift back down to a normal baseline,” Mervyn said.

Drugs allow people to escape that stress, she added.

“You want to run away and substances give us this chemical shortcut that allows us to get to that place really quickly,” Mervyn said.

“It’s never sustainable and it’s not long-acting, but for that short, brief moment, they can escape their body and their brain’s response to the toxic stress they’ve experienced in their life.”

Facing trauma head-on, whether through professional help or otherwise, is a critical step on the pathway to recovery, she added. It gives a person the ability to change the narrative of their trauma story.

The first time MacDonald talked about his trauma was when he walked into a police station in 2001 to report his experience of being sexually assaulted.

Halfway through the police-filmed interview, RCMP officers started to emotionally break down, they showed that they believed him and didn’t dispute his comments, he said.

Officers validating his feelings gave him “huge strength” to be more open about his experience.

“I ended up being this little Amoeba when I walked into the police station and I left 10 feet tall. It really psychologically switched, big time in my head, the shame factor.”

“I’ll never forget that.”

In next week’s third and final instalment of this series, Black Press Media explores how stress caused by COVID-19 could result in a wave of new people suffering from trauma, and how this might be prevented.

Just Posted

(File photo)
Poverty reduction survey identifies 10 poverty themes

Poverty reduction plan will be finalized in July 2021

Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Paul Manly says he has no intentions of leaving the Green Party. (House of Commons image)
Island Green MPs have “no intention” of leaving the party after ‘heartbreaking’ departure

Manly, May only remaining Green MPs after Jenica Atwin left for the Liberals over internal disputes

New COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island by local health area for the week of May 30-June 5. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control image)
COVID-19 cases drop again almost everywhere on Vancouver Island

Nanaimo had four new cases last week, down from 22 the week before

Justine Keefer’s Cedar Elementary School Grade 6/7 class put together a student paper, as part of a school project. Pictured here Andrew Gregory, left, Felix Leduc, Addison Armstrong, Lucia Walker and Anise Dick. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Cedar Elementary School students create their own newspaper

Grade 6/7 class publishes Wolf Pack News as part of language arts and social studies

Évangeline Laforest and Oscar McClements’ invention La Méduse (the Jellyfish) removes oil from the ocean. The invention was one of 15 out of 700 inventions submitted to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Little Inventors contest. (Cole Schisler photo)
‘Little Inventors’ from Ladysmith showcased in national science challenge

Évangeline Laforest and Oscar McClements were one of 15 finalists in the Little Inventors Challenge

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

The Queen Victoria statue at the B.C. legislature was splattered with what looks like red paint on Friday. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)
Queen Victoria statue at B.C. legislature vandalized Friday

Statue splattered with red paint by old growth forest proponents

Most Read