This story originally appeared in the winter edition of Indulge magazine, a twice-a-year publication published by Peace Arch News.
Ryan Young hasn’t looked forward to Christmas in a long time. In fact, many years – including the most recent – he’s spent the holiday behind bars, where the festivity of the season has been a far cry from the expectations one might glean from many made-for-TV holiday movies.
“You get a turkey dinner, but the turkey’s processed meat,” Young said, reflecting on the estimated half dozen Dec. 25s that he’s spent in custody over the years, largely as a result of addiction.
“In the Kamloops jail, they had a reverend there and he used to come by and he’d give everybody a bag of chocolates, and they’d have people who sing carols.”
And while that latter experience might not sound so bad for jail, overall, “it’s pretty hard,” Young said.
“Christmas, to me, was for my daughter. Before that, it was me and my mom and my brothers. Other than that, I’m not usually around for Christmas. I’m either locked away or in a different town.
“The last few Christmases just meant nothing to me, just a bunch of emotions that I’d rather stay away from. This year’s different, obviously.
“I think I can change, like I’m worth something.”
Stability isn’t something Young, 40, has had much experience with.
He spent his first three years on Vancouver Island, then after his dad left, “bounced around a lot” with his mom.
“She always tried to stay working and take care of me but we were always bouncing from town to town and school to school, so I never really had many friends when I was little,” he said.
“She did good, she brought me up the best she could. She had a party life, too, so there was always people in the house using drugs, alcohol, so it was pretty chaotic in that sense. Kind of traumatizing for a kid, I guess.”
When Young was eight, his mom remarried and the family relocated to Australia, where they remained for three years and, “life got a little more stable, in a sense.”
After two siblings, brothers, were added to the mix, though – one born in Australia and the other after the family returned to B.C. – Young felt like he didn’t quite fit in, “kind of like they were a family and I was just kind of in the way, almost.”
Left to “screw up” on his own, he started using drugs at age 13 – LSD, mushrooms and “a lot of weed,” as well as drinking.
They were experimental things, he said, “but I never put them down, I kept doing it.”
Young said drugs got him kicked out of every high school in Vernon; he kept getting caught selling them or having them on hand.
He started with hard drugs in his 20s, when he was working and could afford them. Eventually, even heroin came into the picture.
Things weren’t all bad, though. Young started a number of companies over the years; the first was construction-related, and more recently, he was doing fencing.
But he’s the first to admit that holding on to success hasn’t exactly been one of his strengths.
“I’m the kind of person who will do good and then I’ll throw it out the window,” Young said, thinking about the path he’s followed for much of the last three decades.
“As soon as I get successful, I have the tendency to throw it all away. I’ve done that several times.”
Hitting rock bottom
Young’s daughter is nine now, and he started that first construction company during the decade he spent with her mother. He also got a mortgage during that time, and bought a brand-new minivan for his family.
“Life was good for me then; it made sense,” he said.
But he couldn’t quite elude his dark side, and continued to quietly sell drugs. His “criminal mind and guilty conscience” came to light after he was robbed one day on the street and ended up in hospital.
With a tube coming out of his rib cage, he couldn’t lie and say he’d been hurt at work. He had to come clean.
The penalty was harsh.
“She told me to hit the road. That’s when she took my daughter and said she didn’t even want her knowing who I was.
“That’s when I really hit rock bottom. I lost my mind, all the way up until now. I just didn’t care. I started using heroin, which I never used before.
“I basically threw in … the towel. I didn’t care if I was dead the next day, whatever. Nothing made sense to me.”
For most of the next six years, right up until his release earlier this year from the Okanagan Correctional Centre in Oliver, Young was homeless, couch-surfing “and whatever.”
‘Part of humanity’
One month into his stay in transitional housing on the Surrey campus of the Phoenix Society – where he transferred to after completing the three-month Intensive Residential Treatment Program – and for the first time in years, Young is hopeful.
He has a sense of belonging that he’s not felt in a long time.
“Connection is a big thing for me. Usually I’m pretty isolated, and just in myself or with the wrong people, or locked up,” he said.
Housed in the Quibble Creek building, each morning’s “checking in” session – where everyone sits in a circle and shares how they’re doing – has resonated, he said.
“It just gave me a chance to be able to listen to people on an honest level, and to also be heard,” Young said. “Just to know that I’m with everybody else.
“I’m not outside of a circle looking in, like most of my life, now I’m actually part of humanity.”
Phoenix Society, a registered charity since 1992, is dedicated to helping those, like Young, who face barriers related to addiction, mental health, housing, education and involvement with the criminal justice system.
Last year alone, more than 2,000 individuals accessed services ranging from substance-use treatment and counselling to supportive housing and home-ownership programs.
A key goal is helping people break free of the cycle of addiction and homelessness.
The society’s residential substance-use services are provided largely out of the main campus, located at 13686 94A Ave., near Surrey Memorial Hospital. With 60 treatment beds and 80 transitional housing units between two buildings on site – Quibble Creek and Phoenix Centre – the campus can be home to as many as 140 individuals at any given time.
They may stay for up to two years, however, even if that limit is reached, no one is discharged into homelessness.
Young is currently aiming to get back into working. His resumé is good to go and he’s established connections with a local shelter as part of effort to “kind of give back.”
He’s also taking courses for commercial fishing.
While he has no real plans for Christmas, there will be “a ton” of activities on the Phoenix campus, fund development and communications manager Amy Reid promised, naming parties (staged within the guidelines of the provincial health officer), music and gifts among the festivities.
“We do our best to make things bright around here, because we know it can be tough,” Reid said, describing Young’s mentorship of his peers at Phoenix as “inspiring.”
Young said one thing he won’t be doing this year is running from his feelings.
“I’m going to hang out here. Just stick around here and help out if I can.
“It means a lot to me that I can help somebody else, that they can connect with me that way,” he continued. “I’ve been through it and I’m covered in tattoos, so people look at me when I talk to them and they respect what I have to say, and I’m grateful for that.”
He holds tight to his ultimate goal.
“I always have the hope that one day my daughter’s gonna want to meet me, so that’s what my aims are today – to be good and have something to offer.”