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Julia Read is on the vanguard of a growing peer-support movement in addictions recovery. She supervised peer-support workers at a treatment centre when the organization first hired them some five years ago. Now a PhD student at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Faculty of Social Work, she received a prestigious Hilary M. Weston Scholarship to continue her research into the role of peer-support workers in mental health and addictions services.

However, there is another way in which Read, who is in the third year of her doctoral studies, is breaking ground. She has lived experience with addiction and spent nearly 15 years submerged in the drug culture.

Just as peer-support workers’ lived experiences inform the work they do to help others, Read’s experiences inform her research. Her unique perspective is challenging orthodoxies both in addictions treatment and in academia.

“Peer counsellors or workers are increasingly being integrated into addiction and mental health programs and Julia’s work is timely,” says Professor Shoshana Pollack, Read’s supervisor. “This is a very under-researched area and we will have much to learn from her study. She has a wealth of personal and practice experience in the field from which she draws and her analysis is sophisticated, cutting edge and innovative.”

Winning the Weston scholarship, one of only two awarded in the province, was surprising and “surreal,” says Read. “I’m grateful that the selection committee believed that my work was important enough to fund, especially because there’s still a lot of stigma. To be funded to do something new and different in addiction is really exciting for me.”

The Value of Lived Experience

Read has made the difficult decision to tell her personal story – now, in informal forums, and in an academic paper published in the journal Qualitative Social Work – because of her realization that it is precisely voices like hers that are missing from academic and policy-making discourse.

“I would like to see knowledge that comes from lived experience valued and privileged in all levels of knowledge creation about addiction,” she says.

“I can’t separate my own story from my work because lived experience is the linchpin that holds all my work together. I often feel frustrated because not many other researchers are willing to put themselves out there to be dissected and critiqued but I must because it’s the essence of everything I do.”

It’s still not easy for her to talk about her experiences – not because she is ashamed; she is ashamed of nothing she has done – but because she feels she has at times been stigmatized or exploited after sharing her story. Even when others have been supportive, she has felt uncomfortable; set apart. She is just starting to accept that her story might be inspirational to others.

She also still struggles against the standard academic assumption that a researcher must set herself apart from her research.

“I was given the advice, ‘Don’t say anything; your personal life doesn’t belong in research,’ but I’m trying to resist that notion,” she says. “The part of addictions research that makes me most frustrated is that because the authors are absent, the first-hand perspective is missing. That’s something I don’t want to recreate.”

Life as a Street Kid

Read was born in England to a middle-class family and moved to Canada as a young child. Her journey to addictions research began at the age of 15 when she ran away from a chaotic and violent home. She soon learned that drugs offered an escape from the harsh reality of living on the streets of Toronto. Drug taking became part of her survival strategy.

It was a “horrific” life, she says. “The whole goal of the day was just to get by and survive. And I lived that way for a very long time.”

Read was jailed multiple times, as drug addicts are often criminalized – an approach to dealing with addicts that she found offered no support. She overdosed multiple times and was offered little support from any of the emergency rooms she frequented. She entered into short-term treatment more than once but quickly relapsed.

It wasn’t one thing that encouraged her to get out of the drug culture but a series of events, she says. The years of cycling through the revolving doors of the addiction treatment system had not been working and it was time to try something different. An addiction doctor offered to help her detox off methadone on the condition that she enter into a long-term treatment centre. She took this opportunity as a way out.

Getting Sober and Learning to Help

Read entered a long-term residential treatment facility, where she celebrated her 29th birthday. She spent five and a half months there, not only getting sober but learning how to communicate, let people in and generally live in healthy relationships with others.

“When I ran away from home, there were no support services to help me find somewhere to live. I ended up living such a long time on the edges of society that all my values and beliefs were laden with street values, which are really not helpful when you’re trying to live in the folds of society,” she says. “I had learned to be mistrustful of everyone.”

One important lesson to Read was that she could support others through difficult times.

“I think as a drug user living on the streets, you internalize a message of worthlessness, that you’re completely incompetent at everything, so being given the opportunity to help other people was really huge for me. When I realized I was good enough to help someone else, it gave me a sense of purpose.”

Read also benefited from peers supporting her informally.

“It can be such a powerful process, when you are in that dark place and you’re feeling alone, feeling like it’s a hopeless cause, to have someone there who’s saying, ‘I’ve been there. We can get through this together.’”

However, there wasn’t enough peer support, not enough stories of hope. That was what motivated Read to go back to school after three years in recovery.

From Student to Supervisor

Having dropped out of high school at the age of 15, Read was initially “terrified” of going to university. After a catching-up period, however, she found academics came quite naturally to her. Furthermore, she found her lived experience had real value in the classroom.

“A lot of what I was reading about in our textbooks, I knew because I’d been through it; I’d received those services. I understood the system because I’d been in it. I understood policy and how it affects people.”

Read graduated from both the University of Waterloo’s Social Development Studies and Bachelor of Social Work programs and went on to a Master of Social Work in the Aboriginal (Indigenous) Field of Study at Laurier. Even as a white immigrant woman, she found the teachings in the program helped her think about healing holistically.

After she graduated in 2012, she was hired as an addictions therapist at Stonehenge Therapeutic Community in Guelph, where she had done her practicum. She worked there for a couple of years while the organization was rolling out community services that included hiring Stonehenge’s first formal peer-support workers.

As their supervisor, Read saw some of the challenges the peer-support workers were facing, which included re-stigmatization of the workers and the pressure to use medicalized language such as “patient” and “addict,” which she felt stigmatized the people who received peer services.

Questioning the Medicalization of Addiction

Aside from questioning the divide between the personal and the academic, Read’s developing work for her Social Work PhD program questions the common idea that addiction should be treated as a disease. While an improvement over the traditional “moral failing” perspective of addiction, Read finds the medicalized view limited and stigmatizing.

“I’m not saying it’s not a disease. I’m just saying we don’t know. But until we’re definitively there, for me it’s helpful to understand addiction as a relationship – an abusive relationship rather than a reciprocal, giving relationship.”

Looking at addiction solely as a disease removes a person’s social, political and economic context, says Read.

“Even if you think of it as a brain disorder, our brains don’t exist in isolation. We’re constantly in relationships with others; we cannot be isolated from our different milieus. When we discuss addiction as a disease, we decontextualize people and reframe them as addicts.”

Read has now been sober for 11 years. After having gone from service user to practitioner to researcher and teacher, she is working toward a career as a professor.

“I am following a dream and I want the very best for myself,” she says. “And I know that using drugs and alcohol isn’t part of that picture.”


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