Russ Mayhew recounts her life as a drug addict in the ’60s and 70s. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Lessons from the life of a heroin addict

More than 30 years after she quit opioids, Russ Mayhew wants to share her story

It started in high school.

Red-haired, attractive and top of her class, Russ Mayhew was the eldest child in a large Catholic family. She took a half-year break from Saint Patrick Regional Secondary School to attend a local public school and “get to know the neighbourhood girls.”

In that half year, Mayhew was introduced to drugs.

She tried pot: “I couldn’t stand it.” She tried LSD and MDA: “that kind of scared me.” She then moved onto speed, cocaine and finally heroin.

She doesn’t remember how often she was using it, but she does remember not being able to afford the $10 or $15 it took to buy a hit. She started selling, and soon she always had it around.

Her family knew she was doing drugs, she said. But, “it wasn’t until a few years later that they found out I was a junkie.”

Sitting outside her assisted living facility in Willowbrook, 64-year-old Mayhew remembers those days, a cigarette dangling between her fingers.

Her body is gaunt, the type of thinness often associated with chronic illness and drug addiction. Ash lingered on the tip of her cigarette. Nicotine is her vice now — she wants to quit, but hasn’t been able to make it stick. More than 30 years ago, her drug of choice was heroin.

Mayhew, who requested to be identified by her maiden name only, was addicted to “junk” from her mid-teens to her late 20s. She quit, cold turkey, when she decided she wanted to go back to school.

Now she wants to share her story. She wants to help others who are addicted by showing them it’s possible to overcome addiction.

When Mayhew first started doing drugs, she didn’t know it was possible to overcome her addiction. She didn’t think she had an addiction.

Mayhew said she was just 15, newly introduced to heroin, when she was raped by her boyfriend.

She gave birth to a baby girl a few months before she turned 16. She held her and “sung to her in the baby’s room” before her parents forced her to give the baby up for adoption. It was for the best, she said, “because of the lifestyle I was into.”

Soon after her birthday, she dropped out of school and ran away from home.

The next decade is hard for Mayhew to remember. “Some of it I have no memory of,” she said. “A lot of it actually.”

What she does remember is very specific: going through the windshield of a ‘55 Chevy when she was 17. Travelling around Canada on the Greyhound. Going to Oakalla Prison when she was 19 or 20 for selling drugs.

Mayhew’s mother kept in touch, and Mayhew would often go to see her when she needed money.

“She stayed close to me at least. I’d go to her sometimes for money. Just for a place to stay, wherever I was, to pay for rent,” she said. “I usually found someone to pay for rent and I used it for dope.”

In the early 1970s, when Mayhew was in her late teens, her mother took Mayhew around to as many treatment centres as she could. None of them worked.

In a November 1972 letter to Vancouver Sun journalist Simma Holt, her mother explained the hardship of having a daughter struggling with addiction. “I’ve stopped blaming myself for not being able to help her and I’ve even accepted the fact that she will probably be dead by 20,” she wrote.

“I’ve been told to just forget she was born and live for the other eight children I have,” she wrote. “But Lord knows … I can’t refuse her when she comes home sick and lost — even though I know I can’t help her.”

Eventually, Mayhew’s mother stopped trying. Mayhew continued doing heroin, moving from city to city around Canada.

It was only in her late 20s that she decided it was time to quit.

“I guess I was just tired,” Mayhew said. “I wanted to get to know my family, because the kids were getting older. I missed weddings, I missed kids. Nieces and nephews.”

She also wanted to go to school, get a job as an registered nurse. She applied to Sprott Shaw College “when I got straight, and had a head on my shoulders that could think properly,” she said.

Getting clean wasn’t easy — she went cold turkey, along with her roommate. But she said, “I think it’s easier, to an extent, if you’re bound and determined.”

Times have changed since Mayhew was an addict. Back then overdosing “was because you were just doing it too much and liking it so much,” she said.

Today, B.C.’s opioid overdose crisis has been declared a public health emergency. Between January and July this year, there have been 876 suspected illicit drug deaths.

Fentanyl was detected in more than 80 per cent of those deaths. Five years ago, fentanyl was detected in only 4 per cent of overdose deaths. First responders are armed with the anti-overdose drug naxolone, and police departments are reminding people to not use drugs alone.

As the crisis continues, Mayhew says the lessons she learned from her days as a heroin addict still apply to those struggling with addiction today.

“You don’t do the right things and you learn it too late” as an addict, she said.

“You could do well in school, you could work so that you’d be able to afford things,” she continued. “It’s a lot better than still doing drugs.”

Mayhew did get clean, but it wasn’t a happily ever after.

She reconnected with most of her family, but wouldn’t see her father for 40 years. She became a licensed practical nurse, but a car accident took her out of school before she made her goal of becoming a registered nurse.

Even though it’s not perfect, Mayhew said her life is better since she stopped doing drugs. She just wishes she could remember the decade she lost.

“I don’t know if it was a dream or not, because I still think about it at the oddest times,” she said, recalling one memory from her young adult life.

She was going down the road, hitchhiking. It was night, and the long grass stood tall on the ground beside her. Maybe it was weeds; maybe it was a corn field. She can’t remember.

“You know, a dream like that. It’s always the same. Wouldn’t you wonder if it happened or not?” she asked. “I mean, it bothers me all the time when I have it. I just wish I knew.”

She paused for a long time. “I truly wish I knew.”

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