Hi, my name is John Sheppard, I recently graduated with an addictions counseling and community service degree. I’m currently trying to build my platform to merge with my education so I can shed light on mental health and human services around the city. However, this is just recent and you need to understand what brought me here and why. 

I am a 26-year-old man, in order to understand my story, you have to look backward, it begins when I was 13. Like many others, I struggled to maintain reasonable boundaries around drugs. It started as just a thing with friends and evolved into a life-altering saga of stupidity, self-doubt, and use despite negative consequences. 

I was not your typical small-town kid. I had a dysfunctional home; my father was prescribed Oxycontin after his tragic car accident when I was 5. Our father-son relationship quickly frayed; he wasn’t physically able to do anything with me. My mother did her best to support the family which includes my 3 sisters. Money was tight, we never celebrated birthdays or Christmas and rarely went out to eat. It was difficult to go to school and see all my peers with their brand-new clothes and fancy shoes. I was judged and ostracized for not fitting in and having name brand clothes. Kids use to call me “dumbo” and “satellites” because my ears are bigger than average. Of course, being so young and juvenile I had no understanding of mental health, or the effects this would have on me later in life. 

At the age of 13, I started junior high. I didn’t have many friends, and no one really knew who I was. This quickly changed when a kid started bullying me Infront of the whole school, I’m serious there was probably 200 kids watching. I had enough and I hit him. He dropped to his knees after 1 shot, I continued to knee this kid in the face over and over until a teacher pulled me off. I was subsequently suspended and placed in an anger management course. No one cared I was the victim; I beat the breaks off the kid, so I was the assailant. But now, everyone knew who I was. I couldn’t walk down the hall without hearing the whispers, “that’s the guy that beat up X”. I was a badass overnight, by the next day I had people coming up to me saying nice things to me. It was a shock to have this popularity I secretly craved my whole life.  

Progressing through junior high I quickly rose to “fame”. Everyone knew me, had my number and wanted to be my friend. It was the drug I always craved. Until I was introduced to real drugs that is. My friends and I would constantly get high before school, at break, at lunch, and after school. I loved smoking weed and having that feeling of invincibility. People genuinely feared me, it was fantastic! I didn’t even have to fight anymore I just had to talk louder and more aggressive than everyone else. I assumed the nickname “big boss” was a term of endearment, that meant “we look up to you”. That was just my ego expanding. I began selling drugs as a way to support my habit and make money. Again, living in the moment being so young I thought I had it all figured out. Heading into high school is where all the major changes started to happen. I was a somebody, I was your go-to hook up man. I had it all; money, drugs, friends, I was even dating the cheerleading captain. Life was good. At this point, my relationships at home really started to suffer. My father was off the oxy’s now and my sisters were moved out. My parents saw my rapid ascension into the drug world and were not pleased. I was kicked out. I wasn’t ready to face my mistakes or take responsibility. I secretly blamed them for all my shortcomings, I would say that they were never there for me when I needed them. So, I packed up all my stuff into a black garbage bag and took my ego with me. This was in grade 11, I decided to drop out of school and focus on making money. I got a job at Sears as a salesman, it seemed like a natural fit, I could sell sand to a beach I was that good. I didn’t see my friends much other than to party and do drugs. I was jealous that they were able to maintain a normal life and still party. I compared myself to them incessantly and would hold feelings of disdain towards them, I wanted to have everything and not sacrifice anything. My mental health quickly deteriorated but I still didn’t realize it was an issue.  

Ultimately, despite my drug-induced haze I went back to school for my grade 12 year and had to do two years in one if I wanted to graduate with my friends. At this point I was living with a friend, trying to get my life in order. I knew I needed a diploma if I ever wanted a chance to do something with my life. So, I sat down with my principal who knew me quite well, she suspended me 15 times in my previous stint. She gave me the option of returning but I was not allowed to attend any regular classes or school events. They made a special area just for me to go do my work and have assistance from a TA if I needed it. It was great, I had no distractions or anyone to fool around with. For the first 3 months it was just me, then all of a sudden, my friends started doing bad and getting kicked out of class. So, they all joined me in this “hub” they called it. Now I was back to square 1, all these influences to go back to the way things always were. But I managed to stay focused and bang out 16 courses: a full 2 years in 1. I did all this and yet still did drugs every day, before every class. My attitude quickly grew, I was the guy that was destined to fail. Yet somehow pulled enough together to get it done. 

My relationships after high school all seemed to fizzle out. Everyone seemed to have a plan, whether it was going to work every day or going to college. I just stayed doing the same thing I always did, sold drugs, and partied. I judged my friends for not being like me and started to isolate myself because I was ashamed. I no longer went out socializing I stayed inside hiding in the fear of failure and drowning my pain with cocaine. I overdosed in my bathroom one day, losing consciousness and passing out on the floor. I woke up in a pool of my own blood. Cocaine and alcohol thin your blood and once you start bleeding it takes a long time for your body to form a clot. That’s just 1 story, there’s hundreds of the exact same event. I never learned; it was going to take a casket before I understood the consequences of my actions.  

Now at 20 years old, I finally found something to live for. I somewhat cleaned up my act and laid off the cocaine and booze. I met a girl who I grew up with, we were never friends or spent time together, but we knew who each other were. She changed my life. I cannot overstate the importance of what she has done for me. She and I quickly fell in love, we moved in together after only 7 weeks of seeing each other. She realized fast that I had issues, not the kind of issues that are easy to detect. I was so good at hiding my emotions that no one knew if I was happy or sad. I was just John. It wasn’t until about a year of being together that I discovered I have panic disorder and severe anxiety. I was at a friend’s house just hanging out when this wave of feelings I never felt before came over me. My eyes started to go black, my mouth became dry, I was sweating profusely. I collapsed on my friend’s kitchen floor; I needed an ambulance. 

For months, I was so embarrassed to even talk to them anymore, I just couldn’t find the strength to be a normal human being. I completely withdrew from all social outings and stopped texting or calling my friends. This made everything worse. Other than my girlfriend, who always tried her best, I had no one I could openly talk to about the things going on inside my head. I tried my best to hide everything from my girlfriend I didn’t want her to judge me or think less of me because I’m supposed to be the big tough guy that protects her. 

It wasn’t until she seen my work life really be affected that she urged me to seek help. I battled these feelings for years and one day they all boiled over. We knew I had anxiety and panic disorder, we didn’t know that it was going to take 3 years to figure out. Everything inside of me was shattered, I couldn’t bury the feelings anymore. I stayed home for 6 weeks from work battling my mental health. I would just cry all day and didn’t understand why. I had no friends as I had cut everybody off and rarely spoke to my family. I had a complete mental breakdown; I begged my fiancé to take me to a mental hospital and put me in a straight jacket. I wanted to kill all the feelings inside of me. 

She finally convinced me to go see a psychologist. Even though I had just endured the hardest moments in my life I still was not convinced anything could help me. But I went, and ultimately, I am happy I did. I could finally open up to someone about my entire life, not just the last 3 years where this all happened. He helped me work through my childhood trauma, gave me healthy coping mechanisms I can use when I’m overwhelmed, and instilled confidence in me. I’m not going to lie; it took more effort and work then I have ever given before to build myself back up. It took months of learning to be okay with my thoughts and start to understand my feelings before I was ready to return to work. Only to blow out both of my shoulders shortly after.  

Now before, this would have put me back into the same hole, but this time I was ready. I did my 16 weeks of rehab and physical therapy and was deemed “not fit for duty”. My shoulders were deteriorating rapidly from all the physical labor and I could not continue to have that happen. I was laid off on January 1st, 2019. For the first few months, I just wanted to get another job and jump back into the workforce.  Having no skills other than doing labor jobs really hurt me. I couldn’t find employment to save my life. I had to decide, either I go back to what I always did, and get what I’ve always got, or do something new and hope for the best. And that’s what I did, I went back to school and got my degree. I graduated with honors in January 2020.  

So, there I was with my degree in hand, wondering how I approach my life this time. Except this time, I have a degree of clarity. I have real goals, I have a strong foundation, I have a partner who will do anything to make sure I’m healthy and happy. This time I get to write the chapter of my success. This time I take control and responsibility for my life. This time, I make my dreams come true.  

I am John Sheppard and my failure doesn’t define me.