Misfit. Ugly duckling. Awkward.
That’s how Trevor Botkin, a trained carpenter and executive director of construction charity HeroWork Victoria, felt right from the start. He just couldn’t seem to fit in.
“There were periods of my life where I was really treated poorly and bullied and other periods where I was just ignored and not even noticed,” said Botkin, a Vancouver Island resident.
“Kids were not fair or kind to me. And from my first day of kindergarten I just felt very other-than and not enough.”
His father urged him to consider university, but his grades were poor and he had little desire to work in an office.
A new birth
Everything changed when Botkin found construction.
Growing up on a farm had given him comfort around tools and he’d even built and renovated homes with his father. His first construction job hooked him.
“I was probably three hours into it and I thought ‘these are my people and this is where I belong.’ It’s an industry that collects people that don’t belong elsewhere,” he said.
His relentless work ethic and attendance meant he quickly shot up the ladder and by his mid to late 20s he was already taking on leadership roles.
But work was one of many things Botkin used to cope. The list included cars, women, tools, food and more.
“Anything that would make me feel good became an obsession,” he said.
In high school he found alcohol which was an instant cure for bad feelings.
“Alcohol, once it hits the lips it changes you. It’s that warm feeling and all your anxiety goes away and you get past all that social anxiety you’ve had for years,” said Botkin. “It was a runaway problem right from the beginning. I couldn’t just drink a little bit. It led to me becoming a human party favour.”
At 25, after his father died, Botkin’s drinking took a disturbing turn. He blew past personal rules he’d set for himself to keep it under control. After embarrassing himself in front of his three-year-old daughter he quit.
“It got dark and I walked away from it no problem,” said Botkin, who hasn’t had a drink since.
But his drug use continued. He could afford it and it didn’t seem to impact his ability to be a good worker. In fact, he was succeeding and taking on more and more responsibility. But soon his drug use outpaced his coworkers,’ pushing him to use in secret. He said “no” to after work parties and hangouts.
“My drug life and work life became two separate things,” he said. “I found a group of people that used like I did so I felt like I fit in and like I wasn’t sick.”
He torpedoed his relationship with his fiancee and began running through jobs citing a variety of excuses. In 2017 he decided things had gone far enough and decided to stop.
“You think you have a problem with drugs, but it gets dark when you try to quit and can’t,” said Botkin. “You find out that you’re screwed. I didn’t want to be an addict. I didn’t want people to know about my problems.”
In January 2018 he hit his lowest point. His efforts to quit in the summer had failed so he went to his mother’s home over the holidays so the presence of his family would motivate him. He ended up in a vacant house for a three-day cocaine, ketamine and benzodiazepine bender.
“I just hated myself and wanted to kill myself,” he said.
He told his mother about his drug use, told his job he was having mental health issues and quit, and saw a doctor about getting help for depression and anxiety.
“I was so destroyed mentally,” he said. “I was having a breakdown.”
After a month being clean, and taking medication for mental health issues, he convinced himself he could control his use and went back to drugs. Once again, his usage went off the rails.
He began a job at HeroWork managing trades on charity renovation projects — including a treatment centre for men struggling with substance use issues.
“I felt like a fraud,” said Botkin. “I felt like a liar. I had this lie and shame I was carrying.”
By March he had put a plan together to commit suicide while his mom was at work by running his Jeep in the garage. But Botkin said his proud work ethic stopped him. He couldn’t bear to think that people would not only learn about his secret drug use, but they would think he didn’t put in the work to try and beat it.
“Honestly I didn’t know if I could get clean and handle life without drugs,” said Botkin. “But I thought that if I try and fail, try and fail, try and fail and then commit suicide people will at least see that there was a struggle there and think kindly of me.”
He immediately went to treatment and has been in recovery to this day.
Life after recovery
Botkin’s secret life is no more.
“I made a conscious decision to recover out loud,” said Botkin.
He decided to let everyone know about struggles with substance use and his recovery.
“I had been living so selfishly for so many years that I knew that this is something that I had to do to give back,” said Botkin. “I knew there were a lot of people struggling in my industry. I used to be the leader of a pack of people who were just as sick as I am.”
He’s had other workers and loved ones reach out to him to learn from his journey. It helps him ease some of the shame he feels about his past drug use and turns his dark days into something positive.
Fear of being ostracized for his struggles, losing his career and not living up to the tough guy standard is a concern many others experience in the construction sector, says Botkin.
“In the trades we celebrate the suffering. We are proud that we are physically working hard. We are proud of working in the rain, up to your waist in it pouring concrete,” he said. “I think it is not only justifiable, but we should be proud of it. But what’s the end? How far do you take it?”
He’s seen it from the other side too. He once had to let a worker go after urging him to address his substance use issues. A few weeks later he was dead.
“That’s it, they go home and lots of guys are dying like that alone,” said Botkin.
He believes much more can be done to follow up and care for workers so they have more support when they are open about their substance use.
“There is life after it, you can be open, you can be the guy that’s failing. There is life after it and it comes quicker than you think,” said Botkin. “If you can get control it’s amazing how fast your life comes back together and people will believe in you again. I thought my life would be over. People care more than you think. Everyone wants to see you succeed. It’s hard to get clean and it’s a journey I’ll be on for my whole life, but I look at my life today and it’s unrecognizable.”
Follow the author on Twitter @RussellReports.