Fixing the fix
After a horrific high school experience, Maya Kereliuk
struggles with powers of addiction and trying to stay sober
By Renée Gulayets
Around 11 a.m. after a painfully long night of partying, 21-year-old Maya Kereliuk, sits in a miss-buttoned pajama shirt and drinks a whiskey and coke.
“I wanted to kill myself,” she says.
She’s talking about the horrors of high school and how they contributed to substance abuse.
Before high school, Kereliuk had been a bright young girl who played soccer and volleyball, and wanted to grow up to be a teacher or psychologist. Her first week at Strathcona High School changed a lot of that.
There was a “Grade 10 draft,” in which new female students were invited, in a ranked order, by Grade 12 boys to a party. Kereliuk was the first girl drafted. Not suspecting anything was wrong, she went.
At the party, she got drunk like everyone else there. But when she passed out, things got worse. Unconscious, she was undressed and, some people took a Sharpie and wrote “Grade 10 slut” all over her.
That label stuck to her through high school.
Walking through the doors of her school every day, she knew she was going to be bullied.
“People would sneak into the art class and write ‘Grade 10 slut’ all over my art projects,” she recalls. “In the hallways, they would push me a little bit and call me a slut and yell out ‘Slut!’ from the classrooms as I walked by.”
The teachers would not do nor say anything, she says. Rather, they just ignored it, pretending that nothing had happened.
Though she describes Strathcona as a toxic environment, Kereliuk says she felt a sense of belonging there with her friends. So, she stayed and tried to ride it out.
She turned to drinking to dull the pain, and as the pain persisted, the drinking got worse. She lost friends, some because they didn’t want to be associated with her and her label, and some because of the drinking. This only made things harder, making her feeling like even more isolated.
The atmosphere within the school would have been hard for anyone in their mid teens to deal with, says Mark Miazga, who went through high school with Kereliuk.
Miazga succumbed to those same pressures and found himself using cocaine. The desire to be known and to fit in was a top priority, he says. And the confidence and instant respect that came with being a dealer was like a drug
“We were the coke boys. We weren’t just doing drugs. We wanted to deal. We wanted to be hard.”
Many students came from well-off families, so it was easy to find a market for the glamorized hard drugs within
school, he says.
In Grade 11, Kereliuk had began using cocaine, and what everyone was doing on the weekend became a dependency.
The dealers at her school would give her the drugs and she would use them there. She says she tried to hide her addiction as to the best of her abilities, but she only wanted to be drunk or high on drugs while at school.
“That was when I realized it was more than just fun,” she says.
Kereliuk’s father, a teacher and coach at Strathcona high school, knew that something was going on with his daughter, and he set up a meeting for her with the school’s counsellor.
She didn’t think the counsellor was equipped to deal with her problem, so it would be no help to her. However, she admits that she held back on revealing the severity of her addiction for fear that it would reflect badly on her father.
“It wasn’t the right time for me. I didn’t really want the help at that point.”
Kereliuk escaped high school, but things only got worse. She enrolled in psychology at the University of Alberta, but never attended class. Instead, she would spend her days drinking and using. She didn’t even bother to withdraw from her classes, and got a slate of Fs on her transcript.
Though she was still living with her parents, she’d go on week-long benders, crashing with the people with whom she was partying.
She had no idea what she was doing with her life, and didn’t much care.
“I didn’t even know what day it was,” she says.
During one binges, when Kereliuk was staying at a dealer’s house, she was sexually assaulted.
When she got back home, she was a complete mess. While she was telling her mother what happened, she realized that she had hit rock bottom.
“I need help,” she recalls telling her mother. “I need to go to rehab.”
At this point, she was just 19.
She applied to Aventa, a trauma-based clinic for women with addictions in Calgary. During the several weeks that it took the centre to process her application, Kereliuk stuck to her destructive ways.
She couldn’t get into the program unless she was clean, so she stopped using just before she made the trip to the clinic, where she was to spend the next three months. So, her first day at the clinic, she was still in withdrawal.
Sick and exhausted, she felt extremely awkward and uncomfortable about being in rehabilitation. All the patients in young adult treatment were women between 18 and 24. One of her roommates was a pregnant 18-year-old who was addicted to methamphetamine.
Although each woman’s story and type of addiction was unique, “they all became comfortable with each other when they realized that they had all gone through similar experiences,” Kereliuk recalls.
“It kind of reminded me of Orange is the New Black,” she says, comparing the environment to the popular TV series about life in a woman’s prison.
Bizarre situations were common occurrence. Once, a patient smuggled drugs into the clinic by attaching a spoon to a string and throwing it out her window. Her boyfriend bent the spoon around the drug, to keep it from falling out, and she reeled it in.
The staff at Aventa were well trained and had experience with this type of scenario. Whenever patients would break the rules, they would be punished by losing their privileges like calling time or free time. They know that the back-pedalling and outbursts are all part of the process.
Edmontonian Courtney Theroux, now 31, was also a patient at Aventa. After being sexually abused though the majority of her teenage years, she turned to alcohol and cocaine. At St. Francis Xavier’s soccer academy, she would show up to practice every day with vodka in her water bottle.
“No one ever said anything to me,” she recalls. “It was just like ‘Oh, yeah. That’s what Courtney does.’ ”
Like Kereliuk, she says she didn’t think talking to the school counsellor would help.
Coming out of Aventa, Theroux remembers feeling stronger than ever. But when she got back to Edmonton, she found herself surrounded by friends and family who were still drinking around her. They didn’t respect the fact that she was still battling her addiction.
“Its not something where you go in and come out, and you’re fine,” she says. “The work you put in at rehab – Sorry but, like, no one wants to fuck that up. That’s why, when people relapse within the first year, it’s a heavy guilt.”
“And that’s why some people don’t go back to sobriety.”
At Aventa, the women have their whole day scheduled. Wake up is at 6:30 a.m., followed by chores, medication, meals, group therapy, meditation, free time, and smoke breaks. The day ends with lights-out at 10:30 in the evening.
Kereliuk says her hardest day in rehab was when her parents drove down from Edmonton for family therapy. During the session, she talked about being assaulted, something she found almost extremely difficult. She recalls that it was just as hard to say goodbye to her parents, knowing she wouldn’t see them for several weeks.
As the program progressed, Kereliuk worked learning to be assertive, how to deal with triggers, and what coping strategies worked best for her.
One strategy that she found particularly effective was Playing the Tape.
“You imagine yourself using and think of what will happen – how fun is it really going to be?”
When she got out of Aventa, Kereliuk went back to her family and friends in Edmonton and, within a week, she relapsed.
“It was so easy to say yes,” she says.
Without the counsellors watching over her, Kereliuk found her coping mechanisms begin to fail in Edmonton, where the triggers were inescapable.
“You get excited and happy right before it,” she says about taking the first hit. “But as soon as you start coming
down, it’s the worst thing ever. All those emotions come back but 10 times worse.
“When you’re an addict, every time is shitty.”
She was back at Square 1, but she slowly began to pick herself up. She tried to keep herself busy and avoided people and situations where she might be tempted to use. But that just made her lonely and bored, and that drove her to use again.
Like her, Kereliuk’s friends were in their early 20s, and they wanted to go out and party on the weekends.
She says she often thinks about what could have helped her. If she had changed schools or if a peer had reached out to her, things might not have gone down the path that they did.
The fact that she always suffered from depression and anxiety, Kereliuk says, may have made her more susceptible addiction.
In October 2016, the Alberta Health Services Addictions and Mental Health High School Team launched a new program: weekly visits to Edmonton high schools by three mental health therapists and two addiction specialists, who work with teachers, counsellors, and students.
The program works on prevention and early intervention by taking biological, psychological, and social factors into account when dealing with young people. The idea is that educating students and staff about mental health and addiction will help to break the stigma and open up more dialogue about these issues. Many of their procedures are similar to those of Aventa: teaching assertiveness and building confidence, or developing coping mechanisms.
Addiction counsellor Erin Black is part of the team that visits Strathcona every Thursday.
“The more prevention that we can do, the less treatment we are going to have to do,” she says. “It’s a cost-saving measure.”
Meanwhile, Kereliuk is taking it day by day, trying to get her life back on track finish her psychology degree, which she says she hopes to use to help others like her.
She says she wishes that the AHS team would have been there when she was in high school as she thinks this new approach would have helped her. But for now, she is the only person who can help herself when it comes to battling her addiction.
Looking back on everything that has happened, she says: “I think I forgot who I was.”