Charles Santa lives on a quiet, leafy street in Prince George with his girlfriend, Jordan. He has a beautiful home and an impressive collection of remote control cars and drones—his prized possessions. He is surrounded by a strong support system of friends and family, but for Charles, life didn’t always look like this.
Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Charles experienced a life of trauma and pain that would bring many of us to our knees. By the age of 12, he had experienced homelessness, running away from his father who used to beat him and his brothers. By 13, Charles was using drugs, often with his mother and siblings. In the 15 years that followed, his life was fraught with mental illness, problematic substance use, criminal convictions, trauma and grief.
“It’s a cycle of trauma,” said Charles. “My Mom was heavily addicted. She’s such a caring person and in her right mind would never have been the way she was, but she was going through a hard time herself. I remember crying in my room because she just wouldn’t leave the house. She stayed in and smoked all day. I didn’t get to do the things kids should do, and I thought that smoking crack was the only way I could bond with her.”
Charles was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which was exacerbated by heavy substance use. He hears sounds that are not there and often thinks people are listening to his conversations. Because of this, he sometimes doesn’t feel safe and, in the past, he has turned to drugs to cope.
“Hearing these voices and having this paranoia made me scared, anxious and depressed. That in turn would make me turn to drugs."
“Hearing these voices and having this paranoia made me scared, anxious and depressed. That in turn would make me turn to drugs. The opiates calmed my nerves, so that was how I would deal with things. Overall, I now know it was making it worse. It was intensifying my paranoia.”
Charles’ drug use continued for many years. In December 2020, he stopped using substances, largely thanks to the desire to live a meaningful life with girlfriend, Jordan.
“For people who use drugs, the reason to stop using can’t just be about being healthy, or not wanting to be addicted. It has to be bigger than that because, honestly, we like the feeling of being high. We need to find something in life that we like even more.”
Jordan has played a big part in Charles’ recovery.
“For the first time, I believed there was hope for me to be happy,” he said. “I always wanted a job, a family, but coming from a poor community, I didn’t think I could have those things. When you’re poor, you have to choose between things like paying your phone bill or rent, or supporting yourself or a child. I thought I couldn’t have it all, but meeting Jordan showed me the possibility of a real future.”
Charles has felt the effects of stigma all his life. This stigma has impacted his mental health, behaviour and path to recovery.
"Being poor or addicted doesn’t make you a bad person. But in our society, there is so much stigma. If you look like a ‘bad guy,’ you are treated like a bad guy, and that just perpetuates bad behaviour."
The first time Charles was arrested, he was 13 years old and living in a friend’s car. His friend asked him to take care of a stolen quad-bike for the night. When the police came and found the bike, Charles was arrested and charged. He believes that because he was homeless, the officers assumed he had committed the crime.
“Being poor or addicted doesn’t make you a bad person,” said Charles. “But in our society, there is so much stigma. If you look like a ‘bad guy,’ you are treated like a bad guy, and that just perpetuates bad behaviour. People would tell me I’m a junkie and this would fuel my anger, rebellion, and drug use.”
Throughout his life, Charles was in and out of both provincial corrections and federal prisons. At one point, he recalls an incident in transitional housing, where stigma played a part in putting him back in jail.
“I got kicked out of my halfway house. I was on medical marijuana at the time, and they assumed, because of my past record, that I was high on opiates. I had to do six days in jail because of that, and I lost my bed in the centre. I was so frustrated at being wrongly accused that I ended up turning to drugs again to manage those feelings.”
Stigma is not just an external factor. Seeing judgement in people’s eyes when they interacted with him is all too familiar to Charles and, over time, he began to see himself the way others did.
“I would tell myself over and over that I’m a drug addict,” he said. “I really believed that was all I was. Having that kind of low self-esteem led to even more bad behaviour. No one cared about me, so I didn’t care about myself. I got into fights in prison and then got more convictions on top of the existing ones. It was a spiral.”
Conversely, when Charles was treated with respect and got the support he needed, it helped him understand he was worthy of happiness. Together with Jordan, their families, and a strong support team including a psychologist and counsellor, Charles is managing his schizophrenia and continuing with his recovery.
During his last period of incarceration, Charles facilitated a program about harm reduction and the stigma surrounding substance use. Now in recovery, he works as a peer coordinator for the POUNDS Project, a non-profit organization in Prince George that provides peer-led overdose prevention services and supportive housing for people who use substances. He is working with BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services on a Stigma Awareness and Reduction Initiative, sharing his story to help shed light on stigma and its impacts on people’s lives.
Having a solid support system made a difference for Charles, and though he knows how hard it can be for families to support their loved ones, he encourages people to stand by those in need.
“What I would say to people whose loved ones are dealing with addictions is that more than anything, they need to know you really care, that you care enough to stick by their side,” says Charles. “People need connection, someone to believe in them. This brings back the connections that are lost because of addiction.”
For people dealing with addiction and mental health issues, Charles believes that finding a meaningful reason to live a happy life is important in overcoming these challenges.
"Look for the reasons to get well that matter to you, whether that’s reconnecting with loved ones, overcoming homelessness or having a family. Find those reasons and keep coming back to them."
“When you’re using, you do whatever you need to do to get drugs. If we have the strength to do that, we have the strength to get through recovery. Look for the reasons to get well that matter to you, whether that’s reconnecting with loved ones, overcoming homelessness or having a family. Find those reasons and keep coming back to them. If I can do it, anyone can.”