Humans of Campbell River: Lisa Petrunia

Humans of Campbell River is a collaboration between Destination Campbell River and Bluetree Photography. Showcasing the stories of those who call our coastal community home. Each week we deep dive into a new story and the connections between people and place. This week we’re sharing the story of Lisa Petrunia. 

My name is Lisa Petrunia and this is my story. My maternal grandfather came from Germany after the war. My mother was the second youngest of four siblings. My father’s side immigrated from Slovakia. I grew up in Amiskwaciy-wâskahikan (Edmonton) on Treaty 6 Territory. Nine years ago, I began to make connections in ƛəmataxʷ (Campbell River) the traditional territory of the Ligwilda’xw people, the We Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum, and Kwiakah First Nations. I am now the Director of Events and Engagement for the North Island Pride Society. This is our 5th year hosting the annual Pride Festival. It will take place on June 18th at Spirit Square. Other events include the first ever Paws for Pride dog walk and the evening party (PRIDE at the TIDE) at the Tidemark Theatre. Details can be found at @northispride . I have also worked in social services/ harm reduction for many years.

My work is tied to my story, so I’ll start at the beginning. I grew up in a dysfunctional home. Early on I was hospitalized with failure to thrive. I was highly sensitive and often overwhelmed by sensory overload. I struggled to get my needs met. The best part of childhood were my siblings and cousins. My older brother always looked out for me, and my younger sister is the light of my life. My cousin and I were the creative ones. Always coming up with songs or skits. There were other good parts, like the bowl of peeled grapes my mom would have us reach into on Halloween, pretending they were eyeballs. Unfortunately, the good parts were overshadowed by addiction, abuse, and violence. To cope, I would retreat into my imagination where I had created an elaborate alternate world.
I started running away at age 12 and drinking and using drugs. I couch surfed and got by on petty crime and ended up detained at the Edmonton Young Offender Center. I spent 2 years in and out of custody. I developed my first addiction to hard drugs.

Looking back, I know I was dealing with a lot of trauma. Although I wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until my 20’s. I decided to hit the highway and hitchhiked with friends to K’emk’emeláy (downtown Vancouver) where I started living on the streets for the first time. I was 15.

Humans of Campbell River

It was a bit of a culture shock at first, but the streets felt safer than home. Plus, there were plenty of other kids in the same boat. We found community and lasting friendships. I loved the traveling aspect of the lifestyle. The first time I saw the ocean it literally took my breath away. It felt like a fresh start. I quit using meth. Eventually, I figured out that train hopping was a better way to get around than hitchhiking. You could travel with groups of friends and be on your own terms. It didn’t matter how filthy you were and there was no having to deal with strangers. Also, most of us had dogs and hitchhiking with more than 1 or 2 at a time made it tough to get a ride. The beauty I saw riding freight trains and traveling coast to coast was incredible. It’s no wonder I stuck doing it for so many years. Every day was a new adventure.

Although I was still carrying a lot of trauma, I had found a sense of freedom and belonging. When you arrived in a town or city, it was likely you’d find some other traveler friends bumming around to party with for a few days. There was no social media, so it was a surprise who you’d bump into. We made money by panhandling. Sometimes I would play music and busk. In the cities I would mostly sleep under bridges, but also in parks, abandon buildings, or on rooftops. On the road I camped under overpasses or on the trains. It was nice to fall asleep and wake up some place new. I spent lots of time in the woods too, camping near rivers and lakes. There was no real destination. Travelling was the destination. Tkaronto (Toronto) ended up becoming a homebase. There were supports and resources there. I really liked the city and would often winter there. Being homeless you get used to being judged and excluded from society. Spending your formative years that way really impacts you. To this day I feel strange when I am allowed to use a bathroom in a coffee shop or gas station. Little things like that that stick with you. Bigger things do too, like how it ended up being hard for me to trust or relate to people who weren’t a part of that subculture. We stuck together.

A woman and her dog

After living that way for 8 years it started to feel redundant. Drinking and drugs were a regular part of life. Nothing was new anymore and I was bored. Feeling a bit aimless, my partner and I started using heroin. It was my first time using needles. I was 23. We were living downtown in a subsidized bachelor suite basement apartment. Very quickly life became centered around addiction. By the following spring we knew we needed to make a change. I had already overdosed once. We got on Suboxone. It was a new treatment at the time. It was given as an alternative to methadone to help treat opioid dependency. We supported each other through the worst of it. With the monkey off our back a bit, we decided in order to stay clean it was best to break up and skip town. We left our belongings and let friends take over the apartment temporarily. Our hope was to get healthy on the road and see about the rest down the line. One of us went west and the other went east. We kept in touch through email and talked about an eventual reunion. A couple months later, while traveling on the west coast I got the horrific news that my ex had overdosed and passed away. Time stopped. It felt like someone punched me in the gut, knocking the wind out of me. I fell to my knees having an out of body experience. I decided I wasn’t going to let the life of my loved one be lost in vain. I still had a chance, and I was going to make something of my life. I wanted to do it for both of us. I can’t say I never did heroin again after that, but it was a turning point. After spending some time with my ex’s family to grieve, I eventually returned to the apartment. It was difficult but slowly life went on. A year passed and the overdose crisis was declared. It hit my community hard. Grief and loss were constant. There was barely time to grieve one friend before another was gone. It was devastating. Soon enough, my feet were get itchy again. I hopped trains across a few provinces. I planned to keep going but when I stopped to visit family, I felt uninspired to go on. I wanted something different. My brother lent me money for an apartment, and I got job. Life was good like that for a long time.

A woman and her dog on the beach

Although I was off the streets, the travel bug stuck with me. My partner and I started travelling overseas. We went to Europe where we had friends in the punk scene. We traveled and partied and stayed in squats. We would come home, work, and take off on the next adventure. Next, we went to West Africa and traveled around in a van with friends for a couple months. Back at home I found myself working a camp job up north. It helped me pay off old panhandling fines so that I was eligible to get my driver’s licence. I put myself through driving school and bought my first vehicle. Camp work turned out not to be an environment or line of work that felt right for me. It was time for a change. Things at home had fallen apart and the dog I had with me all those years on the road had just died. I had an intuition to relocate to the K’omoks Valley. On Craigslist I found cabin for rent on Forbidden Plateau. I sent a message asking to send a deposit and take it sight unseen. The landlord informed me it was on the very top of a mountain and asked if I was sure I didn’t want to see it. I told her didn’t care, I would take it. My best friend flew from out east. We packed a U-Haul and headed through the snowy Rocky’s en route to find my new home. Some 15 or so hours later we were driving up Forbidden Plateau and she’s like “holy s**t you live on top of a mountain” and I was like “holy sh**t I do.” I had some acquaintances in the area but didn’t know anyone well yet. It was my first time living alone. I decided to get completely sober. Being in a secluded cabin on the top of a mountain everything finally had the chance to surface. The next few years were hard and ugly, but it was best thing I have done for myself. In the beginning it was a struggle. I took myself to the hospital multiples times. I got connected to services and began therapy. I spent a total of 5 years doing intensive trauma focused therapy like EMDR, exposure therapy and parts therapy.

A woman holding a pride flag on the beach with her dog

After doing some serious work on myself I wanted to give back. I moved off the mountain and got a job in town as a Youth Worker for AVI Health and Community Services. I created and facilitated a 2SLGBTQIA+ youth group. This was also around the time that I decided to come out to my family and in a more public way. I think by then most of my friends knew I was queer. I grew up without representation and didn’t have a frame of reference for what it could look like to be gay. All I knew were stereotypes. Although I had queer relationships as far back as my early teens, it didn’t occur to me I was gay myself. I had a lot to unpack in terms of heteronormativity and the homophobic religious beliefs that I was inundated with as a young person. It took years to fully come to know and accept that part of myself. The queer youth group was empowering for everyone involved. We were part of the first ever Campbell River Pride Festival in 2015. A small group of us continued to volunteer to put on the festival each year. In 2017 one of the volunteers (who was a past youth group participant) founded the North Island Pride Society. It has been an amazing experience of community building and celebrating diversity. My work with AVI continued for 7 years. They are such an incredible and compassionate organization. I held positions as a Harm Reduction Worker, Team Lead for the overdose prevention site, and as a Positive Wellness Support Worker. I provided harm reduction services, overdose response, naloxone training, advocacy for housing, healthcare, social assistance, and offered crisis support counselling to so many amazing folks. It was so meaningful to be able to use my life experiences to help others and to channel my grief into positive action. Harm reduction really does saves lives.

Lisa Petrunia and her dog

I have continued my passion for travel. So far, I have been to 21 countries. My favorite was a solo backpacking trip around India. I loved it so much that I returned for a second time and completed a Hatha Yoga teacher training. I also attended a residential Buddhist philosophy course taught in the Mahayana tradition. Part of the course was 10 days of silent mediation. A few years later in Nepal, I did another 10-day silent meditation course where you meditate for 10 hours each day. This time in the Vipassana tradition. I also completed studies in Fine Arts at North Island College and was certified in Trauma Informed Mindfulness Meditation through the University of Toronto.

I now have 8 years clean and sober.

I am currently a full-time student earning my degree from Vancouver Island University as a 3rd year Bachelor of Social Work Student. I am also earning a Professional Writing Certificate specializing in grant writing through the University of Calgary.

I tend to spend my free time in nature. I like to adventure and enjoy the beauty of the island with my pups. My oldest dog ( Alpha) has been with me for the past 13 years. I think it’s safe to say we are both very content to live a quiet and peaceful life these days.

A woman leaning on a chainlink fence smiling

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