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

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

Okanagan Lake (File photo)
Thompson-Okanagan ready to welcome back tourists

The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association expects this summer to be a busy one

Aerial view of a wildfire at 16 Mile, 11 kilometres northwest of Cache Creek, that started on the afternoon of June 15. (Photo credit: BC Wildfire Service)
Wildfire at 16 Mile now being held

Wildfire started on the afternoon of June 15 at 16 Mile, east of Highway 97

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Most Read