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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Looking back

Denise grew up too quickly, in a pretty shingled house in Edmonton’s Westmount area, where she lived with her mom, Darlene, and two older siblings. But life behind the walls was much darker than the home’s charming facade suggests. When Denise was seven, she was sexually abused by an adult. The abuse continued for several years, but Denise didn’t tell anyone. “I didn’t want to speak about it aloud and ruin my mom’s happiness,” she says.

But by the time Denise was 14, all that unspoken hurt was leaching into her behaviour. She was smoking pot and drinking all the time. She was struggling in school. She didn’t fit in. And her mother couldn’t figure out what was going on with her baby.

Three years later, at age 17, Denise hooked up with a much older man. “It was textbook psychology,” the psych major now says. “I was searching for a father figure.” But the only father figure that Denise had ever known had abused her both verbally and physically; this man did, too. In 1985, she was transferred to Ontario for her job. Once she moved to Toronto, a lonely Denise hurled herself into the hard-core party scene. It wasn’t long before she tried cocaine for the first time and liked the escapism. “You go from zero to euphoria in 30 seconds,” she explains of the drug’s appeal. “And you feel 100 times better than you’ve ever felt on your very best day.”

Denise wanted to capture that feeling all the time. At first, she was buying cocaine once a week; within a few months, she was leaving her desk job at lunchtime, looking to score so she could be high all day, every day. She was spending thousands and stealing from the company she worked for. Finally, she grabbed a handful of cheques and didn’t come back. The binge that followed prompted her to admit herself to North York General Hospital, where she ended up in the psychiatric ward for several weeks. Her mother came from Calgary, where she was living at the time, and brought Denise, then 26, home for Christmas.

Denise found a job as a transit driver making good money. But it wasn’t long before she was back to her old routine: going downtown, looking for coke and lying to everyone she knew. She would say she was going out for smokes and not come home for four or five days. She couldn’t—or didn’t want to—see the pain and anguish she was causing her mother. “It’s an incredibly selfish world,” says Denise. “Not only do those around you lose hope; you lose hope yourself.”