If you are new to recovery and you think it’s all going to be good now, Geri Bemister has a message for you.
But it may be a little bumpy along the way.
The 51-year-old woman is talking to another journalist, sharing her story one more time. Yes, she really did time in one of British Columbia’s most notorious penitentiaries, Oakalla. Yes, she really did beat cancer. Yes, she is a sexual abuse survivor. Yes, she had a Harley Davidson. Yes, she really was affiliated with gangsters. Geri’s story is as edgy as they come.
Things started out rough and got progressively rougher.
In the final days of her substance use, “I was using all the time. Every day. As much as I could to stop the feelings. My 14-year-old daughter had left. I came home and she was gone one day. From then on, that was it – six weeks of just a huge spiral. The ways I was getting drugs. The people I was hanging out with. Not taking care of my health. Every waking moment I had to be intoxicated in one form or another. Whatever I could get my hands on in the moment.”
The wall was about to be smashed.
An ultimatum arrived. A sister ordered her to write down the guest list for a funeral – the one she was about to inflict on everyone through her lifestyle. The intervention, in the spring of 2004, was enough to pause her spiral and allow her the time she needed to go to treatment. She completed 90 days in a residential centre and made a decision on a new way of life.
That new way of life, now 17 years down the road, is a solid recovery of abstinence from the substances that nearly killed her.
She still attends two to three meetings a week, live or on Zoom. Still talks regularly with her sponsor. Still works on triggers with the same therapist she has had from the early days of her recovery.
Bemister is as happy as a clam these days. She has put in the work, done her time, and continues to live a design for living familiar to most people who have been there, done that.
Like so many who have stood and shaken the residue of the lifestyle, the physical and mental battering that addiction brings, there is something in Bemister’s eyes and presence that relays wisdom.
That upbringing and lifestyle “has provided me with a level of discernment I don’t think I would have had otherwise,” she says.
Her story has appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the country. Though many publications choose to focus more on the what-it-was-like war stories of her past, since diving into recovery, Bemister is much more about the present and the future. In the moment and moving forward.
Bemister took the gift that was offered and ran with it.
Sure, she will answer the questions about her first 34 years. But, it is the last 17 years that is the cherry on top. The reason d’etre. The gold of what recovery is all about.
She spent the first seven years of recovery in universities and working. She had her mind set on being a lawyer at first, but her heart was in another place. With an eye on the legal side, she was also taking counseling and addiction courses, “keeping both veins going.”
“Justice and addictions? They’re married,” she says, the voice of someone who didn’t just figure that out from a book in a school library.
It was working with the John Howard Society, working in penitentiaries, working in a treatment centre while going to school that changed her mind.
Her past and her present merged one day at school. It made sense. She altered her course from lawyer to criminology.
“When I did my graduate degree, when I did my master’s degree, I was in the room with 12 correctional and criminal justice professionals, cops. And this information [of her past] wasn’t out in the public realm then. I’d never disclosed that [I’d been to jail]. Because there was still shame attached to it.”
She persevered and got her degrees. She had things to do. People to help.
She became an interventionist. A recovery coach. A counselor. She worked for child advocacy agencies. She opened her own addictions consultant business. She has stayed true to herself, stayed in the middle of the recovery circle with sponsorship, close friends, and therapists, sorting through layers of trauma.
Seven years ago, the same woman who did time in Oakalla prison was offered a job to teach students about criminology at North Island College on Vancouver Island. She has worked there since, in person and online, a professor teaching first- and second-year Criminology and heading up the department.
In 2019, Geri Bemister was the recipient of the Courage to Come Back Award, a BC-based award sponsored by Coast Mental Health that recognizes people who have overcome and come back from illness, adversity or addiction and are giving back to their communities.
It is a highly promoted event, requiring countless interviews from radio, television and print media. Not an easy ask of a woman who has spent many years in meetings where humility is stressed as a premium.
But, she knew that the stigma towards addiction, the culture of a society which still shuns, shames or disregards mental health wouldn’t change unless people who have overcome them become willing to put it all out there. The good, the bad, the ugly truths.
“Elders have taught me that, by sharing my story publicly, I help myself. I think if I tried to hide certain things, it doesn’t help heal the shame. And it doesn’t help other people,” she says. “For me, if I’m not completely transparent and I only give snippets, like within that story, then how am I helping others? I’m not being totally honest, right?”
From there to here: Aurora Recovery Centre
Because of the media involved in the Courage to Come Back Award, Geri shares her story in many places, many centres, including Aurora Recovery Centre, a facility close to her heart. She has known several of the management of the facility and its highly-touted family program since her early days of recovery.
“The leadership there, the staff there, [are] dynamic, capable, compassionate, understanding groups of individuals that can support people on the recovery journey,” she says.
“To have a facility with such a high-level quality of care and yet a realistic perspective on what’s needed to assist somebody through the first steps of recovery, taking an approach more humanistic than a business perspective, is one of the things I absolutely appreciate about Aurora,” she says.
These days, Bemister is located on a First Nation in Strathmore, Alberta. She is helping Family Services build infrastructure around addictions services. She is still teaching online, helping students from all over the world learn how colonization and prejudices build barriers of all sorts against justice for all.
In other words, she is exactly the right person for the job.
By Jeff Vircoe