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Turning the tables

Dealing and addicted to cocaine and crystal meth, Bruce Lee’s life was in a downward spiral until he got treatment and met a Langley restaurateur who was willing to take a chance on him
Bruce Lee works at White Spot, the Langley restaurant which helped him get back on his feet after struggling with cocaine and crystal meth addiction.

As Bruce Lee walked up to the front doors of White Spot, he knew he had to walk in a new person. He hadn’t worked in 15 years, and was desperate for a job.

“I remember going into the interview, saying to myself ‘don’t talk about the drugs, don’t talk about your weird family situation, leave those things alone,’” he said.

Other employers wouldn’t take a second look at him. If it wasn’t the fang-like nubs in his mouth — the remainder of what teeth he once had, it was the criminal record that did him in.

“Even though I had cleaned up my life and turned my life around, it was still impossible to get a job,” Lee said.

But as he and Langley White Spot manager Shelley Lemmen were speaking, they began to bond.

“We hit it off so well, we started really talking with each other,” he said.

The secrets spilled out. Lee told her about his past. Of the drugs, the crime, the mistakes, the recovery, and the new life he was beginning.

Despite his extensive criminal record and recent release from the Maple Ridge Treatment Centre, Lemmen saw something in Lee, and decided to give him a second chance. She hired him on the spot.

That was five years ago.

Today, Lee, 45, is a recovered drug addict and a new family man, holding two steady jobs and helping to raise seven children.

It’s a far cry from his lifestyle 15 years ago.

Born and raised in Ontario, Lee has always been open with his sexuality and came out as a gay man in high school. He moved to Victoria in his 20s, where he lived for five years, and finally settled in the West End of Vancouver.

And so the lavish lifestyle started.

The parties, the alcohol, the sex and the drugs began to take over Lee’s life.

“Back when I was young, there were no gay baseball leagues, no gay bowling leagues, no gay parades, no gay churches, there were only gay clubs. That was your choice,” he said.

“It was a party lifestyle that slowly but surely took over my life. And in the gay scene at that time coke was very prevalent, and that’s just the way it was. “

He began by “doing lines” on weekends, which quickly escalated to three or four times a week, to every day of the week. Eventually cocaine wasn’t enough, and crystal meth filled the void.

By this time, both Lee, and his life partner Al, had stopped working and had become full-time drug dealers to support their habit. Together they did crystal meth for 12 years, after many previous years of using cocaine and other narcotics.

“I never lost any jobs because of drugs. But when I chose to quit working eventually, because the drugs took over and I started making money off of them, that was the big mistake. That was the biggest mistake of the mistakes,” he said.

Lee was in and out of jail, and more or less homeless.

Life was happening in an instant and  drugs were constant. But no matter what happened, there was always just enough money for the next fix.

Going clubbing and then to after parties seven nights a week was the norm.

Lee and Al became “celebrities” of sorts in the West End.

With friends and contacts all over they were never banished to the streets.

It was a different bed every week and a different apartment storage locker to stash their drugs every month.

“Because we were a gay couple we knew all the gay guys and we knew all the street kids too, they were friends of ours. And so we knew all the different scenes to use in the West End,” Lee said.

“We never made a ton of money because we were too generous and too easy going and we got taken advantage of by just about everybody. The only way to make money off of selling drugs is to not do them. That’s the only way.

“As soon as you start using, you end up messing up your mind and you don’t make the right decisions.”

Some nights, when there was nowhere else to stay, Lee and Al would camp out in one of their many drug storage lockers.

Arriving there late at night and leaving early in the morning, it was a safe place to hide. However one night they were taken by surprise when the police showed up, arrested them and threw them in jail. Lee says this was the one time he really got in trouble with the law. This time, he had to stay in jail and serve real time. He was there for 10 weeks.

“I don’t know what to say about what it was like in there. It sucked. It’s weird.

“Everybody is the same. They dress you all the same, they all have the same haircut. Nobody is their individual self in jail, they’re all just one of them. And they do that to break your spirit. And it makes sense,” he said.

But little did Lee know, this was the saving grace he needed.

Because he had been in and out of jail many times, he was offered a chance to go to the Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver, a program used to try criminals that act out of addiction rather than as a result of organized crime.

Accordingly, Lee’s sentence was reduced to time served in lieu of supervised drug treatment.

Lee was able to choose his own progress in how he wanted to quit doing drugs. He started by cutting his regular usage in half after one month, then cutting that amount in half after two more weeks, then cutting that in half again after another two weeks until the drugs were cut out altogether. It took Lee three months to remove the drugs from his life.

He then went into detox and enrolled in the Maple Ridge Treatment Centre.

While completing an eight-week program there, he worked with counsellors and therapists to ensure that the drugs were out for good. The program starts with a graduation ceremony for the group that is leaving that day, to give the participants inspiration and sight of the goal they are there to achieve.

The participants then take part in group sessions every day, where they can discuss their personal stories with other drug users. Daily sessions with counsellors also help to provide the confidence and guidance recovering addicts need to stay clean.

After a four-week period, visitation is allowed. House members can leave for a day to see loved ones. Lee went to visit his partner Al, who got clean six months earlier, and stayed with Al’s ex-wife and her family in Langley.

It was here that Lee was offered the chance to truly start a new life. The family urged Lee to move in with them once he completed the treatment program to keep him away from downtown Vancouver and away from the drugs. They did not want him falling back into that cycle.

“It was the best move I have ever made,” said Lee. “They kept me from going back downtown to the heart of where I probably would have ended up back into my addiction.”

Lee has now been clean for five years and is living with his partner, Al’s ex-wife and her seven children.

Life now revolves around picking up the kids from school and serving customers at his restaurant jobs, not dealing drugs or going to after parties.

He has new teeth from the dental plan offered to him at White Spot, and can once again smile without lowering his top lip to cover his gums, and laugh without covering his mouth with his hand.

“Praise the Lord, thank you to White Spot for getting me teeth because it completely changed my sense of feeling of security and everything,” he said.

He is also forever grateful to Shelley Lemmen for giving him that chance to be honest with his past and move forward with a steady job.

“Shelley is an amazing woman and kudos to her for giving me the opportunity to prove myself. Because a lot of places wouldn’t even let me through that front door,” he said.

Lee has even had a resurgence of faith, joining the Lighthouse of Hope Christian Fellowship (formerly Rainbow Community Church) in Vancouver.

“One thing that they tell you in recovery is that you’re not supposed to go back into communication with your old community, you are supposed to cut it off and walk away from it,” said Lee.

“And this gave me the opportunity to be in communication with my old community but in a safe environment where I am clean, and I can be an inspiration and supportive to these people that I was hanging out with a year or two earlier.”

But what Lee sees as one of the largest inspirations in his life is raising Al’s ex-wife’s youngest son.

“My youngest was born three months after I moved in. And I never, even before the drugs, imagined I would be living in the suburbs with a family and a house full of kids.

“That was just never part of the picture. But being there since birth and being able to raise him has been the biggest blessing. I can’t even go on about how amazing it is,” he said.

Lee makes sure to count his blessings everyday and now believes there is a God looking over him.

“I feel very fortunate because Al and I used crystal meth for 12 years. And I saw so many people over this time come in and get so messed up in months, never mind years, and totally f*** up their lives. And it’s because crystal meth really preys on the brain. But I always seemed to have, even if it was just my pinky finger, something based in a sense of grounding. I wouldn’t let myself go to total abandon. Somehow I always managed to keep it together.”

Despite the rough road he has travelled, in hindsight Lee says he would not have done it any other way.

“As much as it was crazy, I don’t regret any of it because without it I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

“The jail part I could have done without, but other than that it’s part of the lessons I’ve learned. And if it hadn’t been for jail, I would have never been offered the drug court program. So in the long run, some of those experiences turned out to be good for me because here I am today.

“And it’s amazing. I am very fortunate.”

He and Al made it out on the other side together, which Lee says is both “a miracle and a blessing.”