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Courage To Come Back: Mental Health recipient helps others find their way out of darkness

Last Updated Apr 25, 2016 at 12:58 pm PDT


For Barbara Harris, childhood was one trauma piled on top of another

Vancouverite overcomes addiction, leaves life as a stripper, becomes a trauma counsellor

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – She used to be the one standing in the tunnel in need of a flashlight. Today, she’s the one helping others out of the darkness.

NEWS 1130’s series of Courage To Come Back profiles¬†continues with more from the recipient in the Mental Health category.

For Barbara Harris, childhood was basically one trauma piled on top of another.

“My mom and dad broke up when I was a baby. Then my four-year-old sister died when I was two. And then I’m getting bullied because I didn’t talk as kid. Then my stepfather started molesting me,” she recalls.

“I just completely checked out for four years because that’s the only way I could survive it.”

She ran away at age 13 and ended up in Vancouver, late ’60s Kitsilano, to be exact — what she remembers as a softer version of what the Downtown Eastside is now.

“That’s where the whole drug scene [was]… and [I] started getting into drugs and that helped me to kill whatever pain I was in.”

Kitsilano was still feeling the hangover from the Summer of Love, but Barbara’s problems were only beginning.

Two years later, she was lured to the US and was narrowly escaped the sex trade, instead becoming a stripper. And from the age of 15 until she was 28, that’s how she made a living.

Back problems took her off the stage and for three years, her addiction spiralled even further downward.

“If I don’t do something, I am going to die. And, even though I was suicidal, I don’t know where that thought came from. The thought came… ‘If you don’t do something, you’re going to die or something really, really bad is going to happen.'”

At age 31, she cleaned up.

“You know, I didn’t expect to live past 30. I remember thinking, when I turned 30, I couldn’t believe I was even alive,” she explains.

“I went to meetings for five days and on the sixth day, I did not use. And I have never used since.”

That was early 1986. But that still wasn’t enough. Barbara realized she still had to make something of her life. So at the tender of 40, she went back to school.

“I was good at psychology, I was good at English, I was good at sociology. So, I said ‘I guess that’s the road I’m going down.'”

She continued her education, earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s in social work, and then her PhD, which led to her teaching at UBC for eight years.

Now 61, she’s a trauma counsellor in private practice.

“[My life] will never be a template for anybody else’s journey but maybe I can see some of the guideposts of the direction and I can kind of like nudge ’em. You know, it is about inspiring people and helping people to know that whatever mountains we’ve got to climb, we can climb them,” she says.

“I used to be standing in a tunnel and I couldn’t see the light at the end of it. And somebody came along with a flashlight and a toolkit and helped me on my way. Now, I’m the person with the flashlight and the toolkit, helping people find their way.”

“As long as you’re still breathing, there’s hope.”

NEWS 1130 is a proud sponsor of the Coast Mental Health Courage to Come Back Awards, which will be handed out Thursday May 5th at the Vancouver Convention Centre.