Chris is a father, an avid outdoorsman, a talented guitar player and a natural leader, but has faced challenges throughout his life. Having survived his darkest times, he now looks back on his experiences and channels them into shaping a better future for himself and others.
Born in White Rock, B.C., Chris, through adoption, is a member of the Semiahmoo First Nation and the eldest of six siblings. “As a child, I bounced around from home to home,” he says. “I had a lot of positive role models, a mother who loved me and did the best she could. I had parents who themselves endured significant trauma in their lives. My mom was only 16 when I was born, and my biological father was 15. It wasn’t a stable upbringing. I had trouble with identity and self-acceptance.”
As he grew up, Chris looked for male role models. He met his biological father for the first time at age 12 and Chris was further exposed to substance use witnessing his father struggle with addiction to cope with his own childhood trauma.
"Whenever I am using, I isolate myself from other people. I run; I ghost. When I got to the correctional centre, I knew I wanted to turn things around, so I did the exact opposite of isolating. I jumped at every opportunity."
As a teen, Chris heard the gunshot sound of his cousin, Waka, who took his own life, and saw the aftermath of a classmate who had been fatally hit by a car. To cope, Chris turned to alcohol, and as he got older, relied on harder substances. “I didn’t know how to cope with anything,” he said. “Losing Waka hit me hard, and I now know that I was also struggling with other traumas.”
Chris always knew he wanted to help people and began working with the Canadian Coast Guard. But he experienced a painful setback in 2019, when he was detained under the Mental Health Act following a relapse and a period of psychosis.
“When I look back at those events, I can still feel the stares,” he says. “I have a mental picture of me walking through the ER at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria in handcuffs. I had relapsed, I hadn’t slept for days and I was taking in the looks people were giving me as I sat in the hospital waiting area. I remember feeling scared, anxious and concerned for my life. The stigma was real.”
Chris’ substance use continued, and when he found himself facing charges of robbery and dangerous driving, he knew he had reached a crisis point. He wanted to get help and readjust his path — but he needed help.
Fortunately, he met a psychiatrist at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital who worked with him to unpack his story and better understand himself. For the first time, he began to understand the connection between his childhood and his addiction. “I myself am a father,” said Chris. “So when this psychologist spoke to me as a fellow father, it felt different. He really understood me, he gained my trust, and he spoke with hope.”
Chris later went to the Vancouver Island Correctional Centre, during which time he continued to see a psychologist. They worked on distress and tolerance skills, and he learned how to cope with grief, loss, trauma and fear. Chris said that learning to ask for help was a big part of his recovery.
“Whenever I am using, I isolate myself from other people. I run; I ghost,” he said. “When I got to the correctional centre, I knew I wanted to turn things around, so I did the exact opposite of isolating. I jumped at every opportunity. I participated in a university class, practiced yoga, took up carpentry — I did it all. I even started connecting with family and friends again.”
Chris recalls how he felt about being accepted onto the “Right Living Unit” at the correctional centre — a community where clients in recovery are held to a higher standard of behaviour. “If I had stayed with the general population, I don’t think I would be where I am now. When I first got to the centre, I was making a plan to score enough fentanyl to overdose. All I could do was to focus on the people I had let down. I was separated from my son and feeling hopeless. Thankfully, the First Nations liaison worker suggested I go to the Right Living Unit, and I did.”
After 10 months, Chris transferred to Nanaimo Correctional Centre, where he was able to participate in a four-month treatment program. There, he met another psychologist who helped him with his PTSD using a treatment known as EMDR trauma reprocessing.
“I learned skills and visualization techniques to help me cope with distress,” he said. “I now have a safe space in my mind that I can go to whenever I need. I also learned how to visualize my traumas so I can place them in a secure container and ensure they don’t spiral.”
Now in recovery, Chris is dedicating his life to helping himself and others. He says relationships are key to his healing. “For me, recovery means being in community, being in relationships. When I’m not actively seeking relationship with others, I isolate, and when I’m in a place of isolation, the loneliness leads to feelings of hopelessness. Whether it was compassionate correctional officers, health professionals, or my own friends and family, relationships have kept me going.”
Chris believes embracing one’s purpose, regardless of stigma or barriers, has power. “When I was in custody, I would read of people who were in worse situations than I was. People who would refuse to accept the stigma of having a criminal record or concurrent disorders and went on to achieve great things. I don’t believe that because someone has a criminal record, or suffers from concurrent disorders that they can’t participate in society. We all have life lessons that we can put to good use.”
"I don’t believe that because someone has a criminal record, or suffers from concurrent disorders that they can’t participate in society. We all have life lessons that we can put to good use."
Chris is proof of those words. Today, just six months after his release from custody, Chris is a member of the Patient and Family Experience Council at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, is the Co-Chair of the BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services Health Literacy Working Group, and has participated in executive hiring panels and other projects. He is also working Emily Carr University of Art and Design to develop a series of videos that tell his story and other stories like his, with the aim of eliminating stigma. Using carpentry skills he honed in custody, he is currently volunteering at The Helm Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia helping to build a 12-bed treatment facility for men living with addiction.
Chris is also pursuing education through Temple University in Philadelphia, studying criminology in the “Inside Out” program, which he started at Vancouver Island University through Nanaimo Correctional Centre. His goal is to complete studies in social work and help people with mental health and substance use issues. “I once wanted to work with the Coast Guard to pull people out of the water. Even though my life has gone in a different direction, I can still save people who are drowning — just in a different way.