Skip to main content

Visions Journal

Lonely Soul Searching

Shelter work, parenting and sobriety

Hilary L. Marks

Reprinted from the Families, Friends and Substance Abuse issue of Visions Journal, 2024, 19 (2), pp. 24-25

Hilary L. Marks, author of Lonely Soul Searching

Working in the shelter system is an extremely trying career. Some days clients have breakdowns and overdoses. Other days my own personal triggers come up. 

For me, triggers have been perpetuated by the staff at the shelters I’ve worked at. Once people find out I have severe PTSD, things like gaslighting and bullying have happened. This sets off triggers I’m not in control of; it’s hard never knowing when they will implode and interfere with my job or my connections with the homeless. The homeless don’t trigger me. They don’t use information to harm me. Only staff and management at the shelters have done that.

I’ve also found that working with an incredible number of people, all with different personalities, different addictions and different aspirations, who all want the same basic thing—a home, a job, a life—can be frustrating when the system isn’t prepared for the influx of homeless people. They use substances in order to cope with the everlasting pain of being on the streets. But I’ve always loved connecting with the homeless. Their stories are about their struggles, goals, dreams and the people they love.  

Keeping integrity 

In my younger years, I became highly addicted to cocaine. The euphoria of the drug (it was the 80s and it was pure) was an escape from the way I was living. I had a pimp who was violent, yet I was madly in love with him. Those years of street learning are something I cannot forget. The people I met along the way helped create my book of knowledge, which I share in my work with homeless people. 

I now believe that through all my experience, both personal and work related, I’ve created a strong woman with high self-respect. I don’t allow anyone to beat me down. Even when they think they have, the survival mode of integrity shows through. The survival mode of integrity, for me, means that even while I lived in survival mode on the streets, I had integrity. I was always honest. Even living as a criminal, I had strong moral principles from my upbringing as a Jewish woman. I was living a facade on the streets that was the total opposite of what I truly and authentically was.

Those years of abuse made me build an empowered person who speaks her truth and has become an authentic being. If I’d had this empowerment and self-esteem when I was younger, I do not believe I would have lived the way I did.

Focused on parenting 

The birth of my daughter, Sarah, was a catalyst to stop using. Unfortunately, I met someone after she was born, and later in the relationship he “surprised” me with a gift: a line of coke. That started my use all over again, until about 2009.

Losing myself and my authenticity was a more important loss, to me, than the strong addiction. My devotion to being a parent meant the world to me. Everything I did was in the name of my responsibility as a parent. The fear of being caught leading this double life was another catalyst for me to change my behaviour. I never wanted my daughter to find out I was using drugs. I really did not want her stuck in a horrible foster system, and me stuck under their thumb. 

My pot use was not an issue for me for many reasons, but the illicit drugs were “criminal.” I eventually said enough is enough. I went to the Mental Health and Addictions outpatient client office (now BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services). I got marvellous counsellors who really put the truth to me about my use. I was rationalizing and being inauthentic. But I could not pull the wool over the counsellors’ eyes on anything. That’s when I started my process of “Do it 2009” to stop using and clean up my act. 

Living the life I’ve lived, I can use my book of knowledge to teach my very smart daughter the dangers of the world. She has chosen to live in an opposite way to me. The main reason she did not turn out like I did is pure and simple: I showered her with love all through her life. I did not get showered with love growing up. This is the reason I left home. I didn’t feel loved, respected or part of the family. I was the black sheep. That was the preamble to my life on the streets. Looking for love, looking for acknowledgement, searching my soul for something I knew was better.

Sarah wants me to have a happy, peaceful life. She absolutely respects the work that I do at shelters and in the community. I think Sarah would say I’ve achieved many things while being a single parent, which is not an easy thing to do. We had a child-friendly house that all her friends would come to and hang out in. There was safety and security, food and movies; fun with no stress. 

Life wasn’t easy all the time. Once, when I found out Sarah was buying booze from a bootlegger, I immediately stopped that. I would rather she ask me. For safety reasons, that’s good parenting. We’ve learned to get through it together. We’ve shared tears and laughter, hugs and kisses. We’ve made it through everything that’s been thrown our way.

I am a person of goals and decision-making to create a better life for myself, first and foremost. Then I can care for my Sarah better. Like the airplane mask analogy. I’m a person who perseveres to get my needs met. I do not give in, and I do not quit.

Rethinking substance use

Substance use is an escape from harm, trauma, abuse, being unloved or anything else going on in a person's life. When you get to the point of being sick and tired of being sick and tired, then change will happen. Drugs are not the answer to any problem. They create more problems. 

In my work, I support people where they’re at. I hope people will analyze their lives and see that drugs are not the way. They cause chaos. Drugs take money and lives. They only make you feel good for a short time. Dealing with trauma is the first big step to freedom from addiction.  

I would never think of using again because I’m in recovery every day, and I need to stay strong to live a better life for me and Sarah. Abstinence has given me a good life to share with my daughter, now and forever.

About the author

Hilary lives in Victoria, BC, and has worked in the shelter system for seven years as an outreach/support worker. In her spare time, she likes to relax, rejuvenate and connect with nature

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.

  • eVisions: BC's Mental Health and Substance Use Journal, a theme-based magazine
  • Healthy Minds/Healthy Campuses events and resources
  • Within Reach: Resources from HeretoHelp
  • Jessie's Legacy eating disorders prevention resources, events and information

Sign up now