The great escape

First, she was abused. Then came cocaine and crime. It took a stint in jail to show Denise McLaren that life was worth fighting for. Find out what it takes to climb to the top when you’ve sunk to the bottom.

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Helping others

Sitting in the EIFW chapel, Lisa knows all about losing hope. The last time she was out of prison, her drug addiction took hold and she ended up so sick that she nearly died. Denise phoned her in the hospital almost daily. That was just a few months ago. “All these other people had been trying to teach me about living life without addiction,” says Lisa. “But when Denise came in to talk to all of us, she was pretty hard core in terms of her crime and her addiction, but she changed. So, when she tells me something, I know it’s not because she just looked it up in a handbook.”

Debbie, who has been silent for much of the session, feels the same way that Lisa does. She and Denise have known each other for years because Denise was a fellow inmate—and they weren’t exactly what most people would call “friends.” But that’s different now, too. “I’ve been working on some native spirituality since I’ve been here,” says Debbie. “But most of my healing came from working with Denise.” She turns to make eye contact. “I want to thank you for listening to me,” she says.

Denise lets the sincerity of the moment settle in, but she can’t resist lightening the mood a little. “I’ll put that money in your account,” she says to Debbie, making them all laugh again.

Living in Calgary in 1990, Denise did her best to keep up appearances. She went to work during the day. Some nights, she would go to various 12-step meetings, but the message just wasn’t sticking. “It took me eight years to get my 90-day sobriety pin,” she jokes. Most nights, she was out doing coke and hanging out with a dangerous crowd who were committing crimes, including armed robbery, to feed their shared addiction. As Denise got pulled into this lifestyle even further, she lost her job and racked up a mountain of debt by maxing out the cash advances on her numerous credit cards. Paying them back was a non-issue; finding the next $100 was more important to her. She bounced around with no fixed address and would stay up for four or five days at a time—a walking zombie.

Then, Denise took part in an armed robbery that went horribly wrong. She is hesitant to share the details of what happened that night, but she will say that she gave no thought to the consequences: that another person’s life became less important than her need for cocaine. “Whatever I might choose to share about that day in my life isn’t just my story,” she explains. “I feel that the only people with the right to tell that story are the people I’ve hurt.” And even though she wasn’t thinking about the consequences, they became clear when the cops started hunting for her. Denise turned herself in and spent two years in a Calgary remand centre, awaiting trial. Eventually, she was sentenced to 14 years in prison on three separate charges and was transferred to the new EIFW.