You meet Selena Friesen and she doesn’t seem scary.
Quick with a smile and eloquent about her life, Friesen bubbles with enthusiasm about her scooter, her faith, Abbotsford, and the people who brought her here.
You meet Selena Friesen and it’s hard to imagine her dealing drugs, fighting in prison and staring down those trying to help.
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A life has momentum – the cumulative weight of actions and experience that influence what is to come. We know this instinctively and through academic studies. It’s why we think being a good parent is important toraise good children, and it’s why our language talks about “one thing leading to another,” and “problems that snowball” and “spiral out of control.”
Friesen’s childhood was one bad experience after another. Her mother, who has fetal alcohol syndrome and has struggled throughout her life with addiction, locked Friesen and her siblings in a Portland hotel closet for days. The children were placed in care until their mother returned, only for 10-year-old Selena to again be abandoned, this time in a park. Split from her siblings, Friesen moved to a tiny Métis settlement in B.C.’s Peace Country where, as a teenager, she was in a bad car accident. She broke her leg and collarbone while watching a fellow passenger – another teenage girl – die from blood loss.
She moved into a group home, and nagged by questions about life and death, became dependent on alcohol. Her mother re-entered her life, then was jailed again, after which money from a settlement related to the accident allowed Friesen to live on her own. But she found herself in an unhealthy relationship, and her drinking only increased.
At 18, she received the rest of her settlement money; after just one month of partying, the cash was gone. Broke and with nowhere to go, Friesen turned to prostitution, was raped, and self-medicated with more booze.
She gave birth to a daughter, but left her with social services in what Friesen describes as “more like an abandonment.”
Friesen, who started to use drugs around the age of 20, then turned to selling it. She was caught dealing crystal meth and cocaine and jailed not long after.
“I was really violent and angry and a really hurt woman,” she says.
Hope came and went.
Sitting in Cell 28 at the Lethbridge Correctional Centre, wracked with chest pains, Friesen had what she says was an encounter with the holy spirit. She became a Christian, and came to believe Jesus loved her.
But this is not the part of the story when her life turned for the better. Friesen is now 36 and has been clean for a year and a half.
She was in her early 20s when she found God.
“I’d like to say it got a lot better, but it got a lot worse,” she says.
A life has momentum, and Selena’s was taking her deeper.
She ran to Calgary and met up with people she knew from prison.
“Calgary completely broke me. I did things I said I’d never do.”
There were more drugs and more alcohol, prostitution and a five-year jail sentence for fleeing from police, among other crimes.
At her lowest point, Friesen gave birth to a son in prison, a guard watching over.
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It took years of effort and failure before Friesen found a program that worked for her.
It also took tragedy.
In late 2015, Friesen was in that same familiar Lethbridge prison when a call came in from another prison. Her mother was on the line. Friesen’s younger sister Shaylene had died from a fentanyl overdose.
Friesen says she remembers her mother bringing Shaylene home as a baby.
“I didn’t have many toys, but I had this little human being.”
Split up after being abandoned by their mother, the siblings drifted apart, although they remained in touch. Of the pair, Shaylene managed to build a more stable life, getting a degree and raising two young boys.
But recently she had begun experimenting with drugs. And so, while Friesen was in prison, Shaylene died.
Today, you meet Selena Friesen and her happiness and smile is infectious. But it’s hard to also not consider the hundreds of people whose lives have been ended through overdoses before they found a path out of their darkness.
Time, after all, was key to Friesen’s recovery. It’s also increasingly scarce for those using hard drugs in B.C.
“It’s not only affecting addicts,” Friesen says of the overdose epidemic. “It’s affecting a dental assistant, a mother, a cousin.”
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Mental health assessments are conducted after a jailed person is informed of a loved one’s death. And Friesen was encouraged to take another shot at getting clean.
She had tried other treatment centres, but hadn’t yet followed through on a previous offer of help by Teen Challenge, a Christian organization that offers a rigorously structured and supervised program for those struggling with addiction. A guard helped her apply.
In January, she was driven to Abbotsford, where she sat down across from centre director Angie Appenheimer.
“When she first came into my office, you didn’t want to mess with her,” Appenheimer says. “She was looking me in the face, and I felt I should be backing away in my chair.”
But Appenheimer isn’t so easily deterred.
“What a loving relationship looks like,” she says, “is being able to say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you’re telling me, it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling. I’m going to love you no matter what.’
“They need 150 per cent commitment, no matter how ugly it gets.”
The structured rhythm of a day in the Teen Challenge program – during which every moment of a participant’s life is planned with activities, chores, study and prayer – turned out to be just what Friesen needed. The faith-based program was also a match for her beliefs.
Now, less than two years removed from prison, Friesen has become a star of the Teen Challenge program. In July, she returned to Lethbridge to speak to inmates there about her experience. She has graduated from Teen Challenge, but won’t be moving, having been offered a job with the program. A scooter now has given her a new freedom, and she has integrated herself into Abbotsford and the community.
Appenheimer has big ambitions for Friesen.
“I see Selena becoming the initiator/founder of a women’s centre somewhere,” she says. “She is going to go on to do great things.”
Friesen herself is more focused on the short-term: finishing her Dogwood diploma, learning more skills, and living a stable life.
She’ll be bolstered by a new family, both at Teen Challenge and across Abbotsford, where she has built a strong support network. It’s that aspect – the community’s involvement in the mending of a life – that Appenheimer and Friesen are convinced has been key.
“It’s relationships that are going to change a person – with another human being, or with God, or with community,” Friesen says. “That’s what really is important about the City of Abbotsford for me …. I want to be a part of that change in the community.”
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Teen Challenge is chiefly funded through donations from benefactors and the public. The organization hosts its Victory Walk-A-Run-A-Thon on Saturday at Mill Lake by the water park. Registration begins at 9:15 a.m., with the walk/run starting at 10 a.m. To contact Appenheimer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.