What Success Looks Like

Edmonton mother Pam Spurvey comes from generational poverty, addiction and crime but she is living proof that change is possible

Pam Spurvey
Photograph by Amy Senecal

When the police raided Pamela Spurvey’s home in Camrose for the second time in just a few weeks, she lost everything. They arrested her, charged her with dealing drugs to teenagers in the small community and Spurvey lost custody of her children, including her two-week old son. Addicted to alcohol, crack cocaine and crystal meth, she had turned to dealing in order to support her habits, and everything was falling apart. That was seven years ago.

Now, Spurvey is an addictions counsellor at the Edmonton Drug Treatment and Community Restoration Court (EDTCRC), the same program that helped her get clean after her arrest. She regained custody of her children and is doing everything in her power to make up for the damage she caused while she was an addict.

Spurvey is an aboriginal woman with long, dark hair. She smiles frequently, pausing to joke with coworkers or clients at the EDTCRC, or answer questions about an upcoming party for alumni of the drug court program. Her office is in a state of disarray, as she’s in the process of moving to make space for a new parole office. There are boxes of supplies and decorations, and a corkboard of family photos and children’s drawings. She looks relaxed and happy. It’s hard to picture her seven years earlier, a meth dealer, or further back, a child on the streets of Edmonton.

“I didn’t know how to stay out of chaos,” Pam Spurvey says. “That’s what I knew, and that’s where I felt I fit in.”

purvey’s mother was a prostitute and an alcoholic, and she spent much of her childhood in chaos. What few fond memories she has of her childhood are of the months she spent with family in Valemount, B.C. “When my mom would get too sick, to the point where she couldn’t really take care of me anymore, she would send me on the Greyhound back to my family in Valemount. I would arrive on the bus, and nobody would know I was coming, but they would get me healthy and well again. Then my mom would come pick me up and bring me back here, and I would be mixed up in that world again.” Even when she quit drinking, Spurvey says her mother was a “dry drunk,” an alcoholic who has quit drinking but never emotionally recovered from the addiction. “It was really difficult for me even when she was sober.” Spurvey moved out when she was 15, dropped out of school, got a job, and began drinking and experimenting with drugs like mushrooms and acid.

At 17, pregnant with her first child, Spurvey was determined to straighten herself out. “I didn’t know how to be a mom, so I went back to B.C. to try to raise my son, but I just wasn’t ready for that. I did okay for a year, but I started drinking and doing drugs by the time he was two years old.” It was a cycle that Spurvey would repeat several times over, moving someplace else for a new start only to slip into old habits and fall deeper into the cycle of addiction and crime.

“I didn’t know how to stay out of chaos,” she says. “That’s what I knew, and that’s where I felt I fit in.”

After returning to Edmonton to complete her education, Spurvey fell into an abusive relationship. Her mother died when Spurvey was 26, and a friend introduced her to crack cocaine as a way to cope with her grief, marking a new low.

Pam Spurvey
Photograph by Amy Senecal

Escaping from her abusive relationship and trying to outrun her addictions, Spurvey eventually relocated to Camrose, where she joined a church and tried to get involved in the community. But again, she found herself drawn towards the underbelly of the small city – every place has one – and quickly got back into drugs. This time, though, it was worse. Spurvey got hooked on crystal meth, a drug notorious for being highly addictive and dangerous. “I just became a different person,” she says. Spurvey began dealing meth in order to support her own habit, using local teenagers to carry her product and selling drugs to them. Even after a raid on her house, Spurvey continued selling her drugs until the second raid just a few weeks later. Spurvey, by then a mother of five, lost her children. “I thought that would be bottom, but it wasn’t. I was too entrenched in that world, and I signed my kids over from a jail cell. It was one of the most difficult things I had to do. I still remember being on my knees and signing my kids over to child welfare. There was nothing left. I stayed in that downward spiral for the next year.”

Spurvey was facing three years in prison when her lawyer heard about the EDTCRC. Based on similar initiatives in the U.S., the EDTCRC is a restorative justice program that offers addicts who haven’t committed violent crimes a chance to avoid jail time if they can clean up and stay sober. Participants are required to receive treatment for their addiction, are subject to random drug screenings and meet weekly with a judge to talk about their progress. “I remember the first time I went in front of the judge, and she asked, ‘How are you?’ It was weird for me, because what kind of judge cares about how you’re doing?” she says. “And these people here cared about how I was and wanted to see me do okay.” It was a shock to Spurvey, who wasn’t used to that kind of care or attention.

After 42 days of in-patient treatment and three months at McDougall House, a residential treatment facility for women, Spurvey got her kids back. “When I first got them back, I was paranoid they were going to be taken away. I woke up four times in the middle of the night that weekend thinking they weren’t going to be there. I didn’t think I’d ever have them again, because I’d lost so much.”

In 2008, Spurvey became one of the first graduates of the Drug Court program and it marked a time of transition. Without the program, she would have spent three years in prison and lost custody of her children permanently. She suspects she would still be an addict. Instead, in 2010, the EDTCRC approached Spurvey and asked her if she would come back to Drug Court, this time as a peer support worker. “I was scared, but I was a really proud that they wanted me to be a part of this team.” Spurvey was the second Canadian graduate from a drug court program to be hired. EDTCRC’s office is located in the John Howard Society building, familiar to Edmontonians because of its blue-and-aqua checkered exterior and the “Giant Transition” mural on its front, which aptly depicts two friendly giants sharing a tender moment.

Brad Clark, EDTCRC’s executive director, joined the organization a year and a half ago and recently selected Spurvey as the new case manager for Matrix, an intensive outpatient program for recovering addicts. Spurvey is humbled by her new role, but Clark says she was an obvious choice and that her personal experience with addiction makes her an invaluable addition to the treatment team. “She’s able to establish trust with participants a lot sooner than some of the other professionals on the team. Because we are probation officers and social workers and nurses, it sometimes takes us a bit longer.” Despite her lack of previous qualifications and her criminal record, Clark says that Spurvey is naturally suited to her role and that he’s been amazed by her professional progress. “The sky is the limit in terms of her career,” he says.

At work, Spurvey spends her days in group and one-on-one sessions with participants like Tammy Clark, a current Drug Court participant. Clark, a recovering addict who celebrated 10 months of sobriety in November, initially met Spurvey when she was still a peer support worker and says they bonded because of their similar backgrounds – they’re both parents who started taking hard drugs later in life. Clark was one of the first participants to go through the Matrix program with Spurvey as the case manager, and says that Spurvey was popular with the entire group. “She calls it like she sees it. She’s not afraid to call us on our stuff and it’s pretty tough to put one over on someone who’s been in your shoes. We just loved her.”

It’s a bond that goes both ways. “My clients ask why I don’t go to many meetings anymore. And I say, ‘Because you are my meetings.’” Spurvey says it’s her work with the Drug Court and her clients that keeps her accountable and helps her stay sober despite challenges and hardships. In September, Spurvey’s granddaughter, Natasha, died just a few weeks short of her fifth birthday. “My clients were here through that with me. That’s a teachable moment for them, that you can stay clean through that.”

Outside of Drug Court, Spurvey balances a staggering number of commitments. She teaches Empower U, a financial literacy course, at the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation and is a Wellness Recovery Action Plan facilitator with Alberta Health Services, helping those with mental health challenges learn to cope with and recover from emotional trauma or mental illness. She is also a volunteer speaker for United Way, sharing her experiences with others and spreading the message that change and recovery are possible. “I took a lot from the community, and I think it’s empowering to give back to the community,” she says. Clark says that whenever
he’s asked to talk about EDTCRC’s program, he always brings Spurvey with him. “No matter how much I speak about the program, it’ll never have the impact of Pamela telling her story, which is one of perseverance and resilience.”

Spurvey says that the best thing about being sober – March marks seven years of sobriety for her – is being a mother again. While her relationship with her children has at times been difficult, her family has flourished. Her three oldest children have all graduated from high school and are in stable, healthy relationships. When she isn’t working or volunteering, Spurvey is at home with her two youngest children, her 15-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, or spending time with her grandchildren. “My relationship with my family is really the most important thing to me.”

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