Making it through the fire with Owen Unruh

I learned very young that I didn’t fit into the mold that had been laid out for me.


a graphic of someone being bullied for being gay

The mold demanded heteronormativity and that was a space I couldn’t shrink myself to fit into; my queerness spilled over and that drew attention. They say “no press is bad press,” but being gay was definitely bad press. This was the kind of press that made kids shove you in the school hallway and shout slurs at you from across the cafeteria. The kind of press that made Dad hand you a pamphlet after church one Sunday that read: “homosexuality is a sin.” This press sucked. I realized if I was going to fit in, I couldn’t do so by being myself; I needed an aid.

On my 17th birthday, one of the boys who would bully me at school got me high for the first time. We weren’t friends, we weren’t even friendly, yet here he was sitting beside me offering me a little baggie and a key. I could say no, and give him more license to mock me for being an outsider, or I could say yes; and for the first time I could belong with the cool kids. I said yes, and in that moment, I found the aid I had been looking for.

Drugs and alcohol became my ticket in. They helped me feel like I belonged in spaces where I wasn’t comfortable; in friend groups, at parties, in my own skin. They helped me connect with people when I didn’t know how to.

Owen Unruh

For a long time, drugs alleviated the pain of existing as different in a world that rejected differences. It was medicine for me and for a while it worked, but the only difference between medicine and poison is dosage; and so, what had started as a solution would quickly become the problem. I poisoned myself for 10 years before I’d had enough.

When I look back to all the lowest places my addiction brought me, I feel like a walking miracle; and I am. I told myself if I ever made it through the fire alive, I would walk back and show people that there was a way through because that’s what I needed when I was struggling. Addiction has a way of isolating its victims, it made me feel like I was the only one in the world yet at the same time I knew I wasn’t because I saw it affecting people all around me; especially members of the queer community.

“When the queer experience is one of chronic collective trauma, it’s no wonder addiction hits our community so hard; my story is not unique. It is a path many of us share.”

When the world does not accept us, we seek acceptance and comfort wherever we can find it. I found it in drugs and alcohol and I know I’m not alone in that. My hope is that by being vocal about my experience I can help dismantle the stigma that exists around addiction; because stigma breeds shame, and shame is what kills. Shame keeps us from reaching out for help when we are drowning, shame tells us we are bad people doing a bad thing and that we deserve this; but that is a non-truth. We are hurting people seeking medicine, we are deeply feeling people trying to feel less. We are many things but we are not bad people. To dissolve that stigma is to educate and invite compassion by offering a deeper understanding of what addiction is.

This is why I started sharing my story.

I’m writing this now with 14 months of continuous sobriety; the longest I’ve been sober since the day I said yes to that little key bump of cocaine. I would not have been able to maintain it if not for the realization that drugs had just been a poor consolation prize to deeper unmet needs, and if I identified what those needs were and found a way to meet them in a healthy way, I wouldn’t “need” to get high anymore.

It was through that that I realized I had a deep need for connection which I fulfilled by creating healthy community around myself. For me that looked like sharing my story on social media to connect with people with similar experiences, attending AA meetings and reaching out to close friends; these are spaces where I felt safe, seen and supported and having that healthy community became the real medicine I needed for my healing. 

I also came to understand that I had a deep unmet need to feel loved and accepted because my anti-queer upbringing taught me that I could not love and accept myself. I saw that all those years I had been searching for it outside of myself when it could only truly be found within me. Coming to terms with my identity and learning to celebrate myself for all that I am has been my healing work and the biggest catalyst for my growth.  Accepting who I am has allowed me to step into who I’m meant to be.

Owen Unruh

I am a new person now, I am the person I used to dream of becoming when I was at my lowest in addiction. Even when I was living on the street, when I couldn’t afford a $1.99 loaf of bread, when I couldn’t go a single day without getting high to escape my life; there was still a little whisper in the back of my mind telling me that things could be different. That whisper grew louder and louder. Eventually it convinced me to be audacious enough to believe that I am worth the work it takes to become the best version of myself; and I’m here today because I believed that. So, when you hear that whisper in the back of your mind telling you things can be better, believe it; and if you can’t hear that whisper then I’m here to be that for you.

Believe me when I say this: It Gets. Better.

About the Author

Owen Unruh

Owen Unruh (he/they) is a Two-Spirit Cree, model, dancer and Tiktoker living on Unceded Coast Salish Territory also known as Vancouver B.C. In recovering from an addiction that spanned 10 years, he’s found purpose in transmuting that hardship into inspiring messages for people going through their own struggles. By stepping into his personal power, loving himself unapologetically, and thriving in spite of his circumstances, he hopes to empower others to do the same. He’s passionate about becoming the healthy Queer/Indigenous representation in media that he needed when he was younger. When he’s not busy being a very humble, rich and famous celebrity; you can usually find him eating berries by the ocean, daydreaming about Indigenous life pre-colonization or literally sobbing over animal videos.

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Making it through the fire

Making it through the fire with Owen Unruh I learned very young that I didn’t fit into the mold that had been laid out for

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