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Feb3WedYears of abuse led Jay Kivell down the path of drug addiction. But a new life was waiting for him. February 3, 2016 by Kristin Ostensen
When Jay Kivell offers guidance to addicts at The Salvation Army's Harbour Light shelter in Vancouver, he speaks with the voice of experience. After suffering years of abuse in his childhood, Jay turned to drugs and spent years trapped in the cycle of addiction. He had been to rehab six times when an attempted suicide by overdose brought him to Harbour Light.
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Homeless and depressed, Jay had nothing left to lose. More than 12 years later, as a husband, father and shelter co-ordinator at Harbour Light, he has more than he ever dreamed was possible.
“Coming to Harbour Light changed my life,” he says. “They gave me all of the tools and options that I needed to make my life what it is today.”
Growing up in a single-parent household, with an abusive, alcoholic mother and no stable father-figure, Jay felt unloved and abandoned.
The trauma Jay suffered at home was further compounded by frequent sexual abuse at the hands of his babysitter. “She was 18 and I was six,” he says. “The abuse went on for six years, but I never told anyone—I never let anyone in. Even years later, I still couldn't tell my mother.”
Jay began stealing his mother's cigarettes when he was 10 and was smoking marijuana at the age of 12. He quickly progressed to harder drugs, using crystal meth, ecstasy, crack and cocaine by the time he was 15. Most days, Jay would show up to school high, before he was expelled and dropped out completely.
“For the longest time, I thought my addiction was under control, that it hadn't taken over my life,” he says. “But it got to the point where I had to do drugs every day, and I started stealing money from people who cared about me just to keep my behaviours and my addiction going.”
A New Low
The first time Jay sought treatment for his addiction was in 1999, when he was 23. He managed to stay sober for a year, before relapsing and moving to Calgary.
“I slept in a tent on the side of the Bow River and did day labour to main-
tain my addictions,” he recalls. “Food and shelter weren't a priority, as long as I could keep getting high and drunk.”
In and out of treatment for the next few years, he eventually wound up in Jasper, Alta., where he worked at a hotel.
“That was where the wheels came off for the last time,” says Jay. “While intoxicated, I got in a physical altercation with one of my managers at the hotel. That same night, I was evicted from my apartment and, while in a black-out, was put into the drunk tank by the police.”
For Jay, it was a new low. “I was depressed,” he says. “I was using drugs to mask my feelings and it wasn't working anymore.”
Jay had attempted suicide several times before, but this time he woke up in a hospital bed. Given another chance at recovery, Jay took a leap of faith and moved to Vancouver, where he stayed at Harbour Light for the next year.
Given his past experiences in treatment, Jay wasn't sure if this time would be any different. “But it was great,” he says. “They put me with a young counsellor who had tattoos—he didn't look like a typical counsellor—and his attitude was that recovery can be fun. It doesn't have to be all business.”
Along with his counsellor, Jay developed a meaningful relationship with Bill Barker, then Harbour Light chaplain.
“As part of the program, they encourage you to be 100 percent honest, so I gave all my deep, dark secrets to the chaplain,” Jays says. “I had built a relationship with him where I didn't feel judged, despite all my trials and tribulations growing up. And the minute I told him my secrets, I felt this weight come off me. I shook my head and said to the chaplain, 'Did you feel that?' because it was finally fully removed. It was incredible.”
A month after he arrived, Jay began volunteering at the shelter and got a job as a shelter worker once he completed his treatment. Now, as shelter co-ordinator, he helps oversee Harbour Light's staff and operations alongside the shelter operations manager.
“What helps keep me on the right road now is that I'm here on a daily basis, talking recovery, trying to help people move forward and get into treatment,” Jay says. “It keeps me centred because I see all these people who are struggling and know I could be one of them—one bad choice and I could be right there.”
Along with helping Jay break free of his addictions, coming to Harbour Light had another, unexpected benefit.
“I met my wife while she was working at a coffee shop near Harbour Light,” Jay smiles. “When I was in treatment, I would go to that coffee shop all the time, but at first was too shy to talk to the pretty barista. Eventually, we did start talking, the next thing you know we're dating and here we are today, 11 years married with two kids.”
Jay celebrated 12 years of sobriety last May and, the same month, was honoured with Harbour Light's Life Changer Award at a gala fundraising dinner. The award recognizes an alumnus of the program who gives back to the Harbour Light community.
“I wasn't expecting it at all, but I was flattered,” he says. “I was anxious because I thought, Oh no, I've got to stand up and talk in front of people. But being able to share the message of what we do here and say, 'I was one of those people that you were helping and now, here I am, helping those people'—it was great. I hope my story will be an encouragement to everyone who hears it.”
(Photos: Kim Stallknecht)