Christmas is Julie Melanson’s favourite holiday. She has a small family who always look forward to this time of year. No matter what personal troubles and turmoil they’re facing, Julie’s family leaves it at the door. It’s not so much about the gifts as togetherness and her aunt’s famous seafood chowder.
After dinner and a Secret Santa-style game of Yankee Swap, the family listens as everyone takes turns sharing what they’re grateful for. Perhaps this is where Julie became a good listener.
Julie, who lives in Halifax, finds herself at peace and full of gratitude this holiday season. December 16 is her 37th birthday and a milestone: she is two years substance-free.
“Enough is enough,” Julie told herself two years ago. She called her mom to ask for help.
It’s clear from the way Julie speaks about her mom that their relationship centres on perseverance. She describes her mother as an authentic, optimistic cheerleader who remains in Julie’s corner unconditionally.
Recovery has taught Julie the value of honesty. While trying to hide her substance use from the rest of the world, Julie found herself becoming a compulsive liar. The dishonest part of Julie was only one of many masks she wore to protect herself, like a chameleon trying to hide under the radar.
Sitting across from her mom, she took a deep breath. Her heart raced as she second-guessed herself. Finally, Julie reached up, peeling back a mask that felt as though it weighed one hundred pounds and had been applied with Super Glue. Julie felt her mother’s eyes seeing her daughter for the first time in decades.
“Nothing could ever be as hard as what I am doing,” she said. She meant the exhaustion of hiding her substance use and living a double life.
This was the moment Julie vowed to never lie again.
It’s easy to assume Julie’s most prized possessions must be locked up in the pirate-sized treasure chest that doubles as her living room coffee table. The unusual chest gives her studio apartment an immediate wave of character.
Look just beyond the chest and you’ll find the real treasures: her mother’s handed-down vinyl collection and Disney movies on VHS like the Jungle Book. In arm’s reach rests an electric ukulele, gifted to Julie by a dear friend when she began her recovery journey.
Since becoming sober, Julie has gone from barely surviving to positively thriving. She is both upbeat and straightforward, with a sense of resilience and perseverance that could motivate the most defeated.
Julie works as an insurance advisor, selling home and auto insurance to clients over the phone. Thankfully, she doesn’t have to deal with claims.
Routine is important, especially in a pandemic: Julie has to keep herself accountable – to herself and to her healing process.
Working from home due to the pandemic is a mixed bag. While the job serves Julie well, clocking in from her bachelor apartment can become claustrophobic.
Her two kittens, Kami and Miki, lounge around the apartment, Julie’s first real taste of independence after treatment. Miki is both the clumsy and cuddly one. She likes to use Julie’s shoulders as a bench and isn’t afraid to jump up from the counter, clinging onto her mom for dear life. Kami is older and, naturally, more calm, slinking across the kitchenette island while Julie drinks coffee.
On the refrigerator is a photo of a young Julie, not even 10, at a New Brunswick swimming pool, sporting floaties as if they’re for aesthetic purposes rather than safety.
The walls throughout the apartment are covered by predominantly abstract artwork. What makes Julie’s art collection special is that the creations are from her loved ones, including original artwork that commemorates her recovery.
The bathroom has a sign that speaks to Julie’s sense of humour: “Sarcasm: just one of many services I offer.”
In the corner of her bedroom, between a queen-size bed and the closet, is a snowboard. Her mom’s partner, a helicopter engineer who passed away, was a skier, but Julie couldn’t quite get the swing of it. She’d always end up on her back, looking up at the skis above her, blue skies just beyond.
Julie has family in British Columbia. She was there visiting when she tagged along to an intro to snowboarding class in Whistler. Now she has snowboarded the slopes across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec.
She grew up in New Brunswick, and refers to Moncton as a “meat and potatoes” kind of town while she’s a hot sauce kind of person. Julie is Guyanese-Canadian and found Moncton lacking culture and events, leaving her little room to grow.
Julie attended a French high school before studying criminology at Eastern College in Halifax.
Julie’s eyes began to open to the failures of our criminal justice systems, how harsh and arbitrary the punishments can be, and the disproportionate rates of Black and Indigenous Canadians in prisons across the country. She was determined to make a meaningful change in our justice system.
It didn’t take long for her to realize there’s more work to be done than she could do all by herself. Imposter syndrome began kicking in. During her studies, Julie was still using cocaine.
Self-doubt was fueled by her substance use, leaving Julie with a lack of confidence and a low self-esteem.
Some roller skates collect dust, stashed away for an occasion long past. Others wear down with overuse, get tears in the laces and have wheels that are too tight.
Roller skates provide a sense of freedom all their own. Laced up, they provide a boost of speed much like nitro, albeit more natural.
The bumps and bruises from roller derby have given Julie thick skin in more ways than one.
The sport gives her a sense of self-confidence and empowerment. So much confidence that Julie is taking her scrappy nature from the track to an arguably more vicious setting, politics. Julie is determined to become a provincial MLA for the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party.
Halifax-Needham MLA Lisa Roberts has encouraged Julie to dip her toes in the proverbial political pool. In March, Julie flew to Ottawa for a visit to Parliament Hill. She took a tour of the House of Commons and even had a photo taken of herself sitting in the Speaker’s Chair. It’s quite the view, like a lifeguard overlooking a beach: there to observe and protect.
This fall, Julie jumped into the race for the Halifax-Citadel-Sable Island nomination, but came up short. Julie could have easily given up, like someone hanging up their roller skates after a scary fall. But Julie’s more like her cats, always landing on her feet.
In late November, she found a letter in her mailbox. This time, not with voter registration, but a certification to run. Julie is now running for the NDP nomination in Halifax-Armdale. If she wins the nomination she advances to the provincial election, expected to take place in 2021.
Why the NDP? “They’re about the people,” Julie says. She believes that in the NDP Nova Scotians can come as they are and be accepted.
Julie is concerned about mental health and addiction services in the province. She is concerned, too, about the need for more affordable housing in Halifax and a livable wage for Nova Scotians.
It’s going to be an uphill battle if Julie secures the nomination in January. In 2017, Liberal incumbent Lena Diab secured a decisive 45 per cent of the vote while the NDP candidate trailed with a modest 32 per cent. Diab is now the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education.
Roller derby might just be the perfect training to help Julie navigate the political gauntlet. She’s been on a roller derby team for eight years, the Halifax Harbour Grudges. Her nickname on the court is Block and Deck’er. She calls the team her family away from home.
Getting on the court, a calming feeling of invincibility releases throughout her body. The knee pads and helmet are like a special armour, a shield to protect from the impending battle.
The first bad bump could make anyone second-guess this real-life game of Mario Kart or bumper cars. It will definitely take the wind out of you. Resilience and perseverance are required.
What makes a cocaine addiction so hard to quit is the abnormal amount of dopamine the drug releases into the brain. Over time, these bursts of dopamine reprogram the brain reward system.
In 2019, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction found that while less than two per cent of Canadians use cocaine, the rate of usage is rising in people aged 20-24. Experts noted that despite low consumption among Canadians, charges related to cocaine possession and trafficking incur the highest amount of expense to the criminal justice system second only to alcohol.
This year, Mayor Mike Savage offered a proclamation designating September 12 Recovery Day across Halifax. Julie organized a demonstration to celebrate. It showcased local musicians, artists and educators, with a focus on mitigating the social stigma associated with substance use. The event joined people in more than a dozen Canadian cities in celebrating the role recovery plays in improving the lives of individuals, their loved ones and communities.
Julie says there are four key elements to recovery: safe supply, harm reduction, education and policy change. She believes in multi-pronged approaches rather than Band-aids that are only bound to burst. Safe supply, for example, isn’t going to make meaningful change if there aren’t enough beds to shelter those who use substances and don’t have secure housing.
Many of us often feel we can never find a meaningful way to repay our parents for the sacrifices they make for their families.
Growing up, Julie dreamed of becoming a background dancer for Janet Jackson. Music is what makes her soul smile from end to end. Her back-up plan was a dentist. Neither worked out.
The Steve Miller Band, a popular ’70s rock band that sold more than 60 million albums worldwide, plays like theme music in the lives of Julie and her mother. Singing along to hits like Abracadabra and Rockin’ Me, Julie never dreamed she would one day take her mother to see Steve Miller live.
As soon as Julie found out that her favourite band was scheduled to play at the then-Metro Centre, she knew she had to be there. But Julie couldn’t afford to make her mom’s dreams come true. It was 2010, and cocaine had a firm grasp on both Julie’s wallet and mind. This opportunity would require something drastic.
Julie picked up the phone and dialed the Q104 contest line, begging to be the one to win the two tickets. And then she said the magic words: “I’ll do anything.”
Q104 wasn’t about to give the tickets to anyone who just asked. After all, Steve Miller’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They wanted Julie to earn her tickets and pay it forward. Employees at the radio station put their heads together, brainstorming the most outrageous challenge for Julie to earn admission to the show.
Julie had plenty of time to ponder whether this would all be worth it. That familiar relentless Canadian winter chill felt as though it were blowing through Julie’s soul. She was on the side of the road at the Windsor Street Exchange, asking drivers for quarters to donate $200 to the Children’s Wish Foundation… while wearing a bikini.
Julie felt a rush throughout her body as she ran through city streets, spectators cheering from the sidelines. She was running in the 2016 Boston Marathon.
Running gives Julie a sense of freedom, an adrenaline kick, and a finish line to keep in sight. Exercise gives off the same endorphins released during cocaine use. Endorphins are chemicals released in your brain that both calm the perception of pain and induce a positive, relaxed feeling.
For people who use substances there’s a sense of always being on guard, of keeping others at bay. For Julie, that meant isolating herself. Being here, but far away.
It all began around the same age as many substance users: in her teens. Julie lost her stepfather in a tragic helicopter crash at 15. Over the next year, there were four suicides in Julie’s high school. One of these deaths struck Julie especially hard.
How do you cope when a relentless sense of loss feels like an undertow?
To grieve, or maybe to avoid grief altogether, Julie started drinking and smoking weed on the weekends.
“I’m only doing this,” she would rationalize to herself. “So I’m better than…”
Before she knew it, the weekends had become weekdays; recreational use became routine, and routine turned into ritual. Alcohol and cannabis no longer numbed the pain. Julie moved on to party drugs. Soon, cocaine became her drug of choice, and her body developed a dependence, one Julie would battle for the next 18 years.
Julie spent six months training, but running a marathon is taxing. Using cocaine doesn’t make the 26 miles any easier on your mind or body.
There was more than one reason for the roaring, loud and passionate onlookers. It wasn’t lost on Julie that she was running the same race where tragedy had struck three years before, when two bombs injured hundreds, and killed three people.
The finish line for Julie was more than a marker on a racetrack. It signified perseverance. The marathon wasn’t about scoring a record time; it was about following something through after being away for so long.
Oak Hill Recovery is a humongous Victorian-style home nestled on the outskirts of the village of Lawrencetown, deep in the Annapolis Valley. Oak Hill is where Julie, two years ago this week, began a 41-day healing journey.
The days at Oak Hill are very structured. Julie always woke up early for meditation and reading before breakfast. Next, it was time for class. The curriculum centres on families and relationships. Clients also receive cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical-behavioral therapy. Each day includes some form of physical activity, so Julie would often go on walks and hikes.
There isn’t much television at the rehabilitation centre. Maybe a little on weekends. No cell phones, period.
Often Julie would get up especially early and slip out of her room. Oak Hill would be silent. Everyone was still asleep.
Winters in Lawrencetown are brash and unforgiving. It could take hours for a snowplow to clear the side streets. The village has only a population of 700, after all. Putting her arms in the sleeves of her jacket she could see her breath, like a cloud of smoke, in front of her. She headed out the back door and rested on a chair. The world was almost still.
On the first morning she stepped outside into the cool dark, she wondered, “When’s the last time I actually did this?” She watched as the sun rose over the North Mountain.
On another morning she had another piercing insight. “I realized I’d never allowed myself to feel grief before.”
Julie’s Christmas at Oak Hill is proof that Santa always knows where to find us.
Christmas is her holiday, after all. When disagreements are cast aside for the greater good. She had only moved four days before. She’d had very little time to settle in, get to know people and be comfortable. Still, there were presents under the tree and a realization: Julie could create her own traditions.
Even though Julie wasn’t home for Christmas, she may have given her family the greatest gift of all: a Christmas where they didn’t have to worry about her. And, best of all: they knew she was coming back.
About the author
Stephen Wentzell is an ambitious and resilient investigative writer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has been a journalist for a third of his life....