Hell and Back

by: Carrie Fiorillo

I was always an anxious kid. My earliest memories involve hopping over cracks on the sidewalk, counting out steps, tapping my foot quietly so that no one could hear and pulling the corners of my pillowcase several times before I could go to bed. Eventually I’d fall asleep and dream of death, destruction, kidnappings and roving gangs of thugs trying to hurt my family. I often awoke drenched in sweat.

There was no obvious reason for my perpetual unease. I grew up in a beautiful Forest Hill home, the second youngest of four siblings. My dad was a financial whiz who published a book on quantitative marketing when he was 26 (I can barely understand a word of it) and then ran his own marketing firm. My mum stayed at home; she later got a PhD in sociology and worked as a consultant. For most of my childhood I attended private school at TFS and Branksome Hall. When I was 12, I switched to Deer Park Public School. I remember telling a friend that the rules of private school were suffocating me. Really, I was just sad. I always felt uncomfortable in my own skin.

At Deer Park, my academic performance slid but my confidence grew. To my classmates, I was exotic: a private school refugee. My parents had recently divorced, and I started acting out. I began drinking and smoking pot every weekend, getting blitzed and messing around with random guys. When I started high school at North Toronto Collegiate the next year, it quickly devolved into something else entirely. My friends and I would drop acid all weekend. Soon I was cutting weeks of school and committing petty crimes—I’d shoplift, steal subway signs, and pocket CDs, clothes and books from house parties. My parents were stressed and exhausted. They would have done anything to help, although it didn’t feel that way to me. I told them I hated them on a regular basis. When they sent me to therapists, I told them I hated them, too.

I was having the time of my life. I was cool. I was outrageous. Every time I’d drink, I’d lose chunks of time: two hours here, an hour there. Booze and drugs did something to me that I couldn’t do for myself. They changed me, if only for a moment, and the promise of that moment was too alluring to resist.

I started dating my friend Adam in the summer before Grade 12. He gave me all the love, attention, kindness and understanding I’d been craving. After high school I started at McGill. We rented a place together in Montreal, on Avenue des Pins. I introduced him to Woody Allen movies. He taught me about jazz, literature and how to wear a black baseball hat with every outfit. My parents thought Adam was a stabilizing influence. They were grateful.
But they didn’t know we were doing drugs every weekend: coke, E and most of all speed. I don’t know what was in it, but the dealers called it “peaches.” We partied at Sona, one of Montreal’s first mega–dance clubs. The dealers were always sporty-looking dudes in Tommy Hilfiger, leaning casually against the walls. They’d throw me a pill for $30, and then I’d dance for the next 14 hours straight, drenched in sweat, biting my lips and chewing the inside of my cheek. After each peaches binge, I’d spend three days huddled in withdrawal—but I’d still go back for more. My weight dropped from 125 pounds to a gamine 110, and everyone told me I looked great. I never went to class, just crammed for exams, and somehow I secured a B+ average. (I’ve always had a strange talent for bullshitting my way through school.) To everyone else, my life looked manageable.

A year and a half later, Adam and I broke up. I wanted to go clubbing all the time. I wanted to wear skimpy clothes and do lines off toilets in black-lit washrooms. I wanted powerful men to want me. I wanted to feel alive. Adam wanted something I couldn’t give him: purpose and direction. He wanted to settle down. It didn’t work—six months later, he killed himself. I had spoken to him a few days before, and we were planning to get together for my birthday on October 5 in Toronto. I arrived at my mum’s to see all the lights on, despite the fact that it was 10 p.m. I thought, selfishly, They’re throwing me a surprise party. It turns out my friends had gathered at my house to tell me about Adam.

After his death, I stayed in Toronto and transferred to U of T. My dad rented me a ground-floor apartment in a house in the Annex. I would sit by candlelight reading and rereading the torn, tear-stained letters Adam had written me over the years. I started using coke more frequently. I didn’t have a regular dealer yet—my friends always had a connection, so I’d throw them some cash and take whatever I needed. I was kicked out of every bar on College Street for harassing patrons. Once, at the Midtown, I tried to request a song and the bartender told me to step back or else. Provoked, I pivoted my foot into his space, tapping it in and out again, taunting him. “Out!” he screamed. Two bouncers had to toss me on my backside. I shook it off and bounced on to another bar down the street.
My last functional period came in my early 20s, when I got a job as an assistant editor at a fashion magazine. By this time I had access to a trust fund my dad had set up. I’d used some of it to buy myself a Yorkville condo, and my dad invested the rest for me. I wasn’t supposed to touch it, but of course I did: I liquidated shares like other people take out 20s from an ATM. I was bingeing on cocaine every few nights, yet somehow I was able to get to work on time and focus. I’d cap the night at 1 a.m. and sink myself to sleep with a couple of shots of Jack and a tab or two of Ativan. In the morning, I’d drink a few Red Bulls and I was good to go.

As my drug use skyrocketed, I began to get paranoid. Every night at the bar, I’d wonder if people were talking about me. Did my colleagues at the magazine know what was going on? Did the police know about the drugs I had on me? As the sweat crept up my neck, I’d drown it with more shots.
I began to think about leaving the magazine and going back to school. In retrospect, I was probably worried, if only subconsciously, that my bingeing would catch up to me at a 9-to-5 job. I became convinced I belonged in academia, and, in September 2005, I began a master’s degree in political theory at U of T. In the academic world I was on terra firma—I was writing papers, reading Rousseau and even attending half my classes, which was a big improvement from my undergrad days. The rest of the timforeigner lead singere, I was partying.

It was during this period that I first met Javier. (I’ve changed his name and a few others, to protect their identities.) He was my age and portly, with a sibilant Spanish accent. We would see each other at parties and I’d buy a gram of coke from him, sometimes two. Most users make two grams last a couple of days. I went through it in a few hours. I started buying two eight balls at a time, or seven grams of powder, for around $400, which I would snort in a 24-hour period. I used compulsively and immoderately, and I wore it on my face like a clown mask. My skin was pale grey, my pupils perpetually dilated. I was jittery, my mannerisms were spastic, my dialogue was jumpy and curse-laden. I was calling Javier all the time. And finally, after a month, he told me I was too high maintenance and never to bother him again. I had been fired by my drug dealer.

But he’d introduced me to a number of other dealers—and, because addicts always find a way, I soon had a regular roster, so that there was a steady supply and no one dealer would ever know how much I was using. I don’t know exactly what that amount was. I just know I never bought less than an eight ball, and often I would re-up several times over the course of a binge. I was snorting so much coke that I burned holes in my nose.

A typical day went like this: I’d wake up from a binge, sometimes in the morning and sometimes at night, and call one of my dealers—D’Angelo, for example. In the hour it took him to get to my place, I’d go to the LCBO and buy a couple of 26ers of vodka, a few bottles of prosecco, maybe some Jack Daniel’s. D’Angelo would arrive, we’d slam back some drinks, do some coke, play some music, joke around and have a few other people over. He nicknamed me Hollywood because of my appetite for massive lines. Eventually, D’Angelo would leave to go sell to other customers, and, if I ran out (which I always did), I’d call the next guy on my list. And so, for a while, everything was great—a shallow and reckless parade of party people. I thought I was Holly Golightly and that my life was Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Some days I wanted to stop, but I didn’t think I could.

I finished my degree, just barely. And that’s when the partying ceased. My paranoia got so bad that I was convinced the police were coming for me. I shut everyone out of my life and refused to speak to my parents for months at a time. The only people I talked to were my dealers, and even they were desperate to get away from me right after selling me the blow. I was alone most of the time, except for the pigeons that used to fly into my apartment when I left the balcony door open. And so I just used—all day and all night. It was all I could think about.

My body started to deteriorate. My skin bruised easily from lack of sleep and I had deep circles under my eyes. My hands and feet swelled to the size of balloons. Once, I mistakenly applied pink nail polish under my eyes thinking it was concealer. I chopped my hair off into a white-blonde pixie faux-hawk, and wore tank tops with men’s ties, booty shorts and Vans. I’d stay awake for days at a time, sometimes for a full week. I never ate when I was using, and I drank only alcohol—water, juice and pop made me sick. I guzzled olive oil for calories, and sometimes, to clear my clogged sinuses, I would drink Frank’s RedHot straight out of the bottle. It burned my mouth and eyes, but the shock would do the trick: I could stop blowing my nose and blow lines instead. By this time I weighed 102 pounds. I kept thinking that I would spontaneously return to my previous self—when I was using less, when I felt validated and happy, when my life seemed exciting and glamorous.

My paranoia descended into full-fledged psychosis. I suspected that everyone was on drugs—my neighbours, the concierge in my building, the barista at Starbucks. I saw men pointing machine guns at me from the shadows in the corner of my living room. When I watched TV, I thought the shows were trying to tell me something: characters on a kids’ cartoon would say “Jump!” and I would jump; they would say “Touch your nose,” and I’d touch my nose. One day, a dealer I was seeing told me to go out on the balcony of my condo, that a plane was coming to save me from this hell I was living. I gingerly made my way to the balcony and slid open the door, wanting to make him happy. I stepped into the cool night air and tried to climb over the railing. As I started my descent, he screamed, and rushed outside and grabbed me: he’d told me no such thing. I had hallucinated the conversation.

Seasons floated by. Over the winter of 2006, I only emerged from my condo a few times. When I left one day in the spring, I was shocked to discover the steel skeleton of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. My parents were hysterical—they were constantly calling me and dropping by, but I ignored them. I still had some of the money my father had given me, and as long as I did, who needed them?

When I was 26, I met a guy I’ll call Jesse at the Comfort Zone, a thumping after-hours club at College and Spadina. After one night, we were inseparable. Whatever I thought I knew about drug use, it was nothing compared to him. He introduced me to GHB and taught me how to do coke in ways I would never have imagined, like dissolving the powder in shots of Jack Daniel’s and drinking until we went into convulsions. Or snorting an entire gram in a single line. Or swallowing so much GHB that we were crawling around the club, salivating like animals.

Jesse moved into my condo just a few weeks after we met. When we’d fight, he’d smash mirrors and throw vases at my head, then scream at me to clean up the mess. We travelled to Costa Rica, Mexico, Israel, Italy, Hungary, desperately trying to escape ourselves. At the end of 2006, we spent a sombre Christmas night at the Comfort Zone. It was my first real moment of clarity. The whole time I was sullen and depressed, thinking about my family. I loved them, but it was buried so far beneath piles of lies and years of equivocation that sometimes I hardly remembered they existed.

Two weeks later, Jesse and I went over to his parents’ house for his birthday dinner. As soon as the door opened, I knew something was up. His dad was standing in front of us, and beyond him I saw his family waiting; my family was there too. It was a double intervention. Jesse was willing to stay, but I was furious. I gave my family members 15 minutes to read letters, then freaked out: I wasn’t going to be judged by them or anyone. I demanded that they stay out of my life and bolted out the front door. When I got outside, I took out my phone and called one of my dealers.

I knew then that I was really alone. My dealers wouldn’t go near my place, which looked more like a crack den than a luxury Yorkville condo. They made me come to them, and I had to mentally prepare for hours before I could get up the courage to go outside. It was like training for the Olympics. I once got lost walking around the old Four Seasons, trying to find the room my dealer had said he was in. A guest called security, and two thick guards had to toss me out of the hotel. Apparently guests were disturbed that this emaciated waif-like creature was walking around unsupervised, either completely high or completely mad.
My family still called every week; they tried to find out what was going on with me by asking the concierge or people in my building. Once, after holing up for days in my apartment, I found my way to my dad’s and banged on his door, wailing that I needed help. But when he tried to get me to talk, I brushed him off. I said it wasn’t serious.

I finally agreed to go to rehab in the summer of 2007. I flew to L.A. and checked into Promises, a high-end treatment centre that cost my dad $90,000 for a month-long stay. He was thrilled that I was seeking help. I hoped I might find a career as an actress—who knows who I would meet at a treatment centre in California? My capacity for self-deception would have been funny if it weren’t so tragic. There I was in Malibu, wearing a bloodstained Ralph Lauren sweater, my bleached blonde hair in an overgrown faux-hawk, hoping to be “discovered.” I had no idea how delusional I was.

The treatment centre was a sprawling set of lodges overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It housed roughly two dozen patients at a time. The first thing I did was collapse on my bed and sleep for three days straight. When I finally woke up, I saw two sets of eyes peering at me. “I’m Lydia,” one girl said. “And I’m Jen,” said the other. “And you’re in Lindsay Lohan’s old bed. She just left.” At Promises, I went to every meeting, talked earnestly to my counsellor, exercised, learned to meditate, and took part in group therapy and psychodrama, a technique where addicts use role-play to work through their issues. Still, I wasn’t getting better. All I could think about was getting home and getting high. Which I promptly did, the moment I landed.

The next few years were a dizzying sea of hallucinations, loneliness and desperate attempts at detox. I sold my condo to pay for drugs and went through the proceeds in nine months. My dad, ever supportive, rented me an apartment. Anytime I asked for help, my parents would intervene and send me to another treatment centre, hoping something would stick. I was at Women’s Own in Toronto, on Dundas, where I slept on a cot. Then came Bellwood, in Scarborough, where I lasted three days before they kicked me out for fooling around with another patient. I went to treatment in Minnesota, where I dismissed the notion of addiction to such a point that I was asked to leave after 10 days because I was undermining the recovery of other people. They told me they had never seen someone so deep in denial. One time, I was so high that I sat cross-legged in the middle of the intersection at Bay and Bloor, stopping traffic. The police took me to Mount Sinai, and later I was sent to CAMH. I checked myself out after a few days.

By the time I was 30, in 2010, I was on my fourth stint in rehab, this time on an island off the coast of Vancouver. It was beautiful and forlorn, with winding streets that climbed up long hills dotted with little cabins. The treatment didn’t take. With each passing day, I was getting noticeably worse—edgier, angrier, agitated and frustrated. After 30 days, I willingly and optimistically moved into “extended” care, which was the midway point between primary care and sober living in society. My family came and we went to group therapy together, but I could tell that whatever was supposed to be happening wasn’t.

I had always assumed that drugs and alcohol were my problem, and that everything would be okay as soon as I got sober. By then, I’d realized that the crux of my addiction was bigger than bad behaviour. It was my thinking: the way I made the world completely about me and my sadness and my hate and my anger, to the point that anything good was completely obscured by my narcissism. Instead of realizing I was hurting my family, I could only complain that if it weren’t for their interventions, we would have a good relationship—that they should let me do what I wanted. It didn’t matter that half the time I begged them to intervene. I couldn’t see it.

I was even more miserable sober than I was when I used. I couldn’t sit still. I was feverish all the time. Without drugs, I became addicted to controlling my weight, and developed a form of exercise bulimia, where I’d eat entire boxes of cookies and run for hours to burn off the calories. I told the counsellors I was getting worse. They encouraged me to stop focusing on the negative—that I was giving new patients the impression that their program didn’t work.

A few days before my treatment was over, I relapsed. I went to a bar in Vancouver, downed a few shots of JD and found a coke dealer within minutes. I snorted a ton that night. I missed curfew, and bought clean urine from the dealer’s mom so I could pass the drug test at rehab. The counsellors busted me the next morning, and, three days later, my dad put me on a plane home to Toronto. I thought there was no saving me.
The turning point came in January 2011. On New Year’s Eve, I got so high on booze and coke that I ran into oncoming traffic on Eglinton. A taxi slammed the brakes but still hit me, and when the driver rushed out to check on me, I punched him and blacked out. Apparently, he called the police. I woke up hours later in a hospital room, handcuffed to a gurney, my legs in iron cuffs, surrounded by my father and a few police officers. I had no idea what had happened, but they filled me in. I passed out again after a few minutes and woke up in my apartment. The police had released me from custody, and my dad had driven me home. The next day he came to my place and gave me two options: I could either live sober in the apartment he paid for, or I could sleep on the streets.

A couple of weeks later, I was lying on the floor of my apartment, staring at the popcorn ceiling. My experience in that last treatment centre in Vancouver had made me realize that I was as sick sober as I was when using. I didn’t move for hours. I knew there might be enough change in my couch to buy a mickey, but I’d just down it in one go. At that moment, something strange happened to me. I’d never been a religious person, but I was flooded with a sense of serenity. I had no idea who I was or who I’d been, but suddenly I was convinced that God was there with me. I knew that no substance on earth could change me permanently. At some point I would always come back to being myself. It felt like the choice was simple. I called someone I knew was sober, who had tried to help me before. Her name was Margot. “I’m ready to quit,” I told her. My sober life began on that day.

Margot and I met three to four times a week to work on the 12 steps. I followed every direction she gave me. I prayed, I meditated, and if she had told me to stand naked on the 401, I would have done it. I joined her recovery group, arriving before each meeting to set up chairs and make coffee. I greeted people at the door and gave out my number to those women who were coming into recovery with even less clean time than me. I would call them and listen—if selfishness was my problem, compassion would be my solution.

I felt like I was 13 again, the person I was before I started using. I had to relearn everything—how to eat, how to sit at a table, how to have conversations without interrupting, how to speak without swearing. I slowly started to come back to life. I walked the city, often going out for two-, sometimes three-hour jaunts. My feet felt lighter. I was excited to go to sleep at night because it brought me eight hours closer to waking up again. Gone were the crippling paranoia, the self-loathing, the destructive impulses that had plagued me all my life. The LCBO seemed like a foggy memory, a distant place I used to go to for stuff I no longer wanted. I worked with other addicts and alcoholics, taking them through the steps. It wasn’t easy. They’d yell at me and sometimes steal money from me; they’d beg me to help them get sober so that they wouldn’t kill themselves. I took them to detoxes, and talked to their desperate mothers and friends in an effort to shed light on this debilitating illness.

Along the way I made amends to my family. It was a brutal experience—I can’t imagine the sleepless nights I caused my parents and siblings during my teens and 20s. To them, it was as though an alien had abducted me when I was 14 and never brought me back. Most of my relatives accepted my apologies, and were relieved and excited to see how much I’d changed. Now I have a great relationship with my parents. But to some of my family members, I’ll always be a drug addict.

A year and a half after getting sober, I applied to the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. For my entrance essay, I wrote about my addiction—and I was accepted in September 2012. One of the professors even came to my yearly celebration of sobriety. During law school, I was open about my addiction, and people were curious but kind and encouraging. I was able to demonstrate to myself and others that someone can live in recovery and still have a gratifying professional and personal life.

While in Halifax, I met a hilarious, thoughtful man at a recovery meeting named Colin Hubley. We quickly fell in love. We married on August 20, 2014, and, nine months ago, I gave birth to our daughter, Nolah. She is the happiest baby I’ve ever seen. Colin and I spend our free time walking our dog, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, having dinner with our families and seeing our close friends, all of whom are in recovery.

I’ve lost a lot of friends in the past few years, people who weren’t able to overcome their addiction. Jamie, a good friend I’d met at CAMH, overdosed and died in the summer of 2014. My friends Danny and Jenn also passed away last year from drug and alcohol overdoses; both of them left small children and grieving families. And this fall I was buying a coffee at Queen and Jarvis when I ran into an ex-boyfriend who was panhandling at the corner for his next high. Most people think addiction is a series of progressively bad choices. That’s a myth: it’s an illness. In our society, we value people who can march forward and self-correct. Addiction is a stain on our ability to improve.

Last year, I finished law school and secured an articling position at a firm that specializes in social justice and advocacy work. My employer is not just accepting of my past but supportive of my decision to write about it. I want to go into criminal law. It won’t be easy or particularly lucrative, but everybody deserves a second chance. And a third, and a fourth. I believe that with a lot of work, anyone can turn their life around. Even me.

Reprinted with permission from Toronto Life and Carrie Fiorillo. The original article can be found here.
Carrie Fiorillo continued to be in recovery, is being called to the bar in June and wants to practice criminal law. She is married with a daughter and loves baseball.

About the Authors

Contributors to Renascent’s Blog share their stories of addiction and recovery and/or their professional expertise.