When you look at Brittney McGee, you see a confident, well-groomed 23-year-old woman who is optimistic about the future. What you don't see is the ravages that a 10-year relationship with crystal meth and other drugs has left.
McGee is on her way to graduating from a 13-month rehabilitation program at New Life Home for Girls in Consecon, not far from Belleville. She spoke with The Post recently after her poem, "Crystal Death" reappeared in the opinion column Shades of Grey.
Right back to her childhood, McGee remembers being unhappy. "I always felt like there was something wrong with me," she says, admitting that now she knows there was not.
With parents who divorced before she was born, she had a rocky relationship with her step-father. "My step-father and I didn't get along when I was a teenager. I know now that he was trying to keep me from the path I was headed on," she admits.
When she applied herself, she says, she was a good student. And aside from her step-father, there were others who tried to
redirect her. A counsellor in elementary school tried to help her with behavioral issues, but a crowd of wrong friends was more enticing.
It started with smoking and drinking when she was 12.
"I started to hang out with men who were much older than me and I became promiscuous," she recalls.
Her first line of meth came when she was 13. The drugs came from a known drug house in Durham. "I didn't have to pay for it," she says. "When you're a young girl it's easy to get drugs for free." It didn't come free, though -she paid for it with "favours" to the dealers who gave her the drugs.
Her early teen years were "out of control," McGee admits. The drugs led to petty crimes and theft, and eventually she was charged with armed robbery when she was 14. The charges were dropped eventually because, while she admits to being there during the crime, she wasn't involved.
However, faced with the option of Pine Hill, she chose to straighten up her life and move to Georgetown with her aunt and uncle, "to get away" from the crowd and temptation at home.
"I did okay, I got cleaned up, and then I started coming home (to Durham) to visit," she says. "The thing is, I wanted so badly for my friends to accept me. I thought there was something wrong with me . . . I didn't realize that they weren't really my friends."
Crystal meth was what haunted her, she says. "I've done a lot of drugs, but meth was always on my mind," says McGee. "I knew I couldn't do it all the time, but I'd go home to visit, do some drugs, and then go back to Georgetown and go to school."
She was living two lives, one for her family and one for her friends.
That only worked for a short time. She became pregnant at 14, and had an abortion. At 15, pregnant again, she decided to clean up and moved in to live with her brother. She became a mother to a little girl named Keeley. She returned to school and graduated from high school. Things improved.
"But when the baby was about a year old, that craving would get to me," she says. "I'd leave Keeley with my brother for two days, go to Durham for a bender, then go back to her."
Aside from those benders, life seemed good for a while. She enrolled at the University of Waterloo with the ambition of becoming a lawyer. But she was still haunted. "I had low self-worth, suicidal thoughts, and I developed an eating disorder," she says.
Eventually, she was checked into the Grand River Hospital's psychiatric ward in Kitchener-Waterloo because of cocaine use. The Children's Aid Society took Keeley away from her and put her with McGee's father.
Losing her daughter was what kept her focused. "She was my reason for living."
Once McGee got out of the hospital, she met a man who was 11 years her senior, and soon moved in with him. Things started looking up for McGee. She was clean, they had a house, they were engaged, they had a horse, and she got her daughter back. They decided to have a child together.
"But even when all of these good things were happening to me, I felt trapped," she says. "I would think of crystal meth every day, but I couldn't do it." What kept her away from it was Keeley -she had to undergo urine tests on a regular basis through CAS in order to keep her daughter.
Life was good. She was expecting a baby girl. When she was two weeks overdue, she went to the hospital for an ultrasound, with the knowledge that "something was wrong."
There was. The baby had died; the umbilical cord had wrapped itself around her neck.
"I was devastated."
McGee went through feelings of feeling that she'd deserved to lose this baby because of the abortion she'd had at 14. She became self-destructive
again. "Within eight months I'd broken off my relationship, my eating disorder had returned, I had no interest in my daughter," she says.
She and Keeley moved back to Georgetown to live with her aunt and uncle. "I would go to Durham, stock up on drugs, then go home and get high for days," she says.
Then one day, she left.
"Drugs were more important to me," she shrugs. "There was nothing that could have prepared me for crystal meth."
The next couple of years are a blur. There was always somewhere to go to get high. Before long, she was always high. She returned to stealing and other crimes, and then her friends started stealing from her.
"I was important to my friends as long as I had money and a car," she says grimly. "There are weeks of my life that I can't remember."
Her mother tried to help her. She begged McGee to get help.
"I would agree to get help, then I would take her money."
Her car was eventually stolen and destroyed. "Meth addicts are paranoid," she says. "They took the car apart because they thought it was bugged."
Once again, at about 21, McGee wanted to put an end to this kind of life. She headed to Alberta with a boyfriend to get away from it all, and they both got clean for a couple of months. But then she and the boyfriend started drinking, and doing oxycontin.
They soon broke up, when McGee cheated on her boyfriend. "I got left there (in Alberta)," she says. She dealt with that by going on a bender with oxycontin and crack, and talked somebody into paying for her flight to return home to Ontario.
"I tried to stay away from Durham, but I soon went back to Walkerton and the drugs," she says. She moved around between drug houses, hitch-hiking from town to town. "All I would think about was my next high. When you're smoking meth, there is a warm, tingling feeling all over your body, like you're strong and confident, euphoric. But it destroys the happiness in your brain so eventually the only way to get that happy feeling again is to get high. And you build up a tolerance to it, so that you have to do it every few hours. I used to think the drugs were weak, but it was my tolerance to them."
From time to time, she would try to get clean and detox. "But meth is mentally harder to come off than physically," she says. She occasionally was charged by police, but her mother helped her out, and she didn't receive jail time.
Until last March.
"I knew I was looking at jail time," McGee says. "I decided that it was time to get help."
Her parents were told that she was either headed for jail or rehabilitation. That's when they learned about the New Life Home for Girls.
McGee was bailed out and was taken to New Life on March 11, 2008.
"It changed my life," she says.
The Christian-based program has strict rules and teaches values and morals, along with life skills. "I learned to say 'I am beautiful,' and that I deserve a good life and to be a good mom," McGee says. "I had to tell them all my secrets, and admit them to myself. I think I was avoiding myself all these years."
At New Life, McGee has learned new talents, such as playing guitar and piano, and writing songs. She speaks at churches, talking about her life and how she has turned it around. Discipline and rules are strict. There is no watching television, except for the news. They are able to watch two movies each weekend. There is no computer use, and they attend classes about such things as co-dependency, anger management. As an addict, McGee is going through the 12 steps of recovery.
The 10 women who are at the home at any given time participate in housekeeping chores. The ages of the women range from 18 to 30. The cost is $300 per month, and the program is operated on donations from the community.
"The best thing is restoring relationships with family," she says, then smiles. "And I am a mom again."
These days, McGee has her eye on her graduation date, May 23. The last several months of the minimum 13-month program are spent on reentry into society. McGee currently spends two weeks at New Life, and then two weeks in Georgetown with her relatives, and her daughter, who is now six.
Being in the program has shown McGee that she is not alone, that others are hurting and going through such experiences just as she is. When she completes the program, McGee is aiming to attend Tindale University in Toronto, with a goal of becoming a counsellor for young girls who are in the situation that she was in.
"I want young girls to know they can change, and that drugs aren't cool," she says.
Does she still crave drugs? Yes, sometimes. But she craves a new life even more, and that's what carries her through.
Keeley is aware that her mom has had problems, and that she went to New Life to get help. "As she gets to be a teenager, I will tell her the truth," McGee says. "I will take steps to make her aware of the dangers of the life I led, and I will make sure she is involved in sports and church and the community, to keep her from getting bored and turning to drugs."
That's why she is speaking out, telling her own story -to save other kids from facing the life that she chose for so long. "I hope that if I can share my story and be honest, others might do the same and be brave enough to tell their story."
KNOW THE SIGNS
* Erratic behaviour, paranoia, decision-making process is affected
* Rapid weight loss
* Itching, scabs on hands, arms and face
* Can't focus or look you in the eye
* Rotten teeth, bad breath
* Change in personality or demeanour
* Sunken eyes, sunken skin between the fingers, loss of hunger