Mandy Richard is celebrating two years and counting of sobriety. Nathan DeLong Photo.

CLEAR MIND, BIG HEART

BY NATHAN DeLONG

Mandy Richard is dressed neatly and wears thick glasses over her brown eyes below her dark hair with blondish highlights.

The 25-year-old’s smile lights up the room.

Today, she’s quietly celebrating two years – and counting – of sobriety.

The third-year communications and public policy student at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., took her last drink on Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014.

She shared a pitcher of beer with friends while playing pool at Dooly’s Billiard Room that night.

The previous weekend, she had been blackout drunk. The day after the beer at Dooley’s she paid a visit to her counsellor at STU and admitted she had an alcohol problem and needed help.

She knew that visit was long overdue.

“I walked in, and I was a mess where I was reflecting on everything,” said Richard.

For Richard, it was a desire to clear her mind that led her to seek help.

Much like in her previous struggles with addiction and substance abuse, it was a desire for education that led Richard to sober up and head down the gradual path of putting her life back together.

“I stopped giving a f–k about school,” she said. “That was my trigger point, as it was back in high school when I was a teen using drugs.

“So this isn’t my first rodeo.”

Richard marked the two-year anniversary of her sobriety on Nov. 17, almost five months after her 25th birthday.

By the time she turned 16, Richard had started snorted everything from cocaine and ecstasy to painkillers such as oxycontin, morphine, Dilaudid and Percocet.

At the time, she was struggling to deal with a breakup with her first love and an alleged sexual assault. The two events happened to coincide, although the sexual assault never made it to court.

To make matters worse, Richard had been raised in the Ontario foster child system since she was nine after experiencing what she said was an abusive first few years.

On a more positive note, Richard said, she was one of the few foster kids who got to live with her sister – although she has five siblings – before aging out of the system in 2012, at age 21.

“My childhood was taken away from me, and I had to learn to be an adult really fast,” she said.

It was a combination the trauma Richard faced as a child and everything else she endured by being bounced around between homes while growing up in Wikwemikong First Nation in northern Ontario that led her to experiment with drugs and liquor.

“I decided to try drugs just to see what the hype was all about, and I have a very addictive personality.”

She first began drinking alcohol at the age of 14. Two years later, she started attending parties regularly.

Richard then quit drugs cold turkey – or without receiving any proper rehabilitation – in 2009, shortly before she turned 18. She went through some pain caused by withdrawal symptoms and even tried whatever drugs were available as her drinking problem escalated.

At her Ontario high school, Richard was a straight-A student who was involved in several extra-curricular activities, but for the most part, she gave up the drugs after finding out she wasn’t likely to graduate on time if she kept travelling the path she was on at the time.

“That was my fall six feet under point,” she said. “So I got ahold of my social worker, and I asked to be moved off that reserve for a fresh start where I couldn’t keep doing this anymore.

“I stopped going to classes, and I didn’t have that guilty, knot in your stomach feeling that you have a paper due tomorrow and you haven’t started it. That was the alarm going off in my head where I’ve always cared about my education.”

Although Richard earned her diploma and studied print and broadcast journalism at Canadore College in North Bay, Ont., from 2010 to 2013, she continued drinking – largely because it’s seen as socially acceptable.

“At first, I didn’t think of what I was doing as something that was wrong,” she said.

“It took me a while to realize I had a problem with it, and I got depressed and kept turning to the bottle, which is why I got so I didn’t care about my education and I reached out for help.”

Richard isn’t alone in a journey that has at least involved alcohol and substance abuse in the past. The federal Chief Public Health Officer weighed in on alcohol consumption in Canada in a 2015 report that said risky drinking is currently on the rise in women, especially those who are aged 35 or older.

Three years ago, 56 per cent of women aged 15 years or older reported binge drinking – or four drinks or more in one sitting – at least once in the previous year, up from 44 per cent in 2014.

The report said the rate at which females are being charged with impaired driving has also increased since 2005. As well, there’s a correlation between heavy drinking per occasion and major depression, particularly in women.

“Women are more likely to drink to cope with social anxiety than are men,” the report said.

While males tend to start drinking and taking alcohol-related risks at a younger age than females, the report said, women often progress from abuse to dependence and treatment for issues at a faster rate than do men.

The report said alcohol is also a concern for some of Canada’s Aboriginal communities because of factors like high unemployment, poverty, limited access to education and health services, the decline in First Nations language and culture and due to those populations being economically and socially marginalized.

After she got off drugs, Richard said, her alcoholism continued for the next five years before she fell into a deeper depression than she had experienced before and lost a friend to alcohol poisoning.

“I wasn’t that person that needed it in my system all the time, but when problems would come up or I’d be upset, that’s when I would drink where I used it to cope with what I went through without actually coping with it.”

In a span of a couple months in 2014, during her second year at STU, Richard stopped worrying about her studies. She had previously gone to class while still drunk or hungover and completed assignments nonetheless, but her way of dealing with those hangovers only got worse.

“I would be in bed with a hangover until nine o’clock the next night, then I’d feel OK, get ready and go repeat,” said Richard.

“A big reason why I didn’t see it as a problem until two years ago was that it never affected my everyday social interactions or anything.”

When Richard admitted to having an alcohol problem, she said her counsellor had known there was an issue, but that she needed to accept that.

“I asked her, ‘Why the hell didn’t you tell me that?’ She said, ‘Well Mandy, you are super stubborn, and I could have told you, but other people have tried to tell you,’” said Richard. “My dad was one of them, but I didn’t believe him.

“I’m one of those people you could tell not to put their hand on the stove, and I’d put my hand on the stove.”

Through her sobriety, Richard hasn’t only had to find other ways to cope with many of the issues from her past that still face her, but she has realized that the only thing she can control is her education after growing up without having much say in anything else.

When Richard first sobered up, she considered attending a holistic treatment centre, but she was wait-listed where she didn’t get her application submitted on time.

She then took the rest of her second year at STU off before resuming her studies in the fall of 2015.

Initially, she avoided bars and parties until she felt safe to be around them. She has also learned to resist the temptation to take a drink even when there’s booze in her immediate presence.

After taking journalism in Ontario a few years ago, Richard decided she wanted to tell people’s stories in a way that influences public policy.

Today, she is helping oversee a project on First Nations youth and children as a project co-ordinator at the New Brunswick child and youth advocate’s office, and she volunteers with the local Partners for Youth chapter.

Richard also has connections to the Ontario child and youth advocate’s office, and she does consulting for the New Brunswick Department of Social Development about training for social workers and foster parents regarding First Nations.

As well, she’s a part-time research assistant with the STU social work faculty on a project about women leaving the foster system.

“Sobriety is a rewarding experience,” said Richard. “You have to acknowledge or understand that, when you decide to become sober, you’re opening yourself up to your most vulnerable position by pulling away from things you were clutching on.”​