Homeless Drug Addict Turns Life Around To Become Professor
When Jesse Thistle was at his lowest – homeless, suffering a bad infection and addicted to meth and cocaine – he saw prison as a safe haven. Now, working as an assistant professor, having reconnected with his mum and with visions of children in his future, he finally knows what it means to have a home.
Jesse was little more than a toddler when he was first exposed to crime, with his father teaching him and his brothers how to shoplift for food when he was just four years old.
The PhD candidate, who is now 44, was born in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, after his father fled law enforcement in Western, Toronto and met his mother, who is a member of the Métis Cree indigenous group.
Jesse’s father had drug addiction issues, and he told UNILAD that the relationship between his parents was ‘ill-fated from the start’. The pair split up and Jesse, along with his two brothers, moved with their mother to Moose Jaw.
The family stayed there until Jesse’s father came back into their lives, having seemingly overcome his addiction issues. He said he wanted to take care of the children, so Jesse’s mum let them go to give herself some time to rest.
Jesse’s father then proceeded to leave him and his brothers alone in his apartment for long periods of time, with little to no food, while he went searching for drugs. After a neighbour reported the neglect, the boys were put into state custody and lived in various foster homes before being taken to their grandparents’ home in Brampton, Ontario.
Having been torn away from his indigenous roots, Jesse grew up ‘not knowing who [he] was.’ He was beaten up as a teen, and told people he was Italian because it made his life in the ‘majority-white’ city ‘easier’. Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, Jesse gravitated towards underground warehouse parties and raves, where he could ‘lose [himself] in drugs’ and party with people he felt ‘really understood’ him.
Jesse explained: ‘I lost myself there, for a long time… They say that the gateway drug to hardcore addiction is not marijuana, it’s trauma, and so that was true for me.’
School was never a strong point for Jesse, and in high school he decided to drop out. He joined a gang and continued to use drugs; behaviours which led to the deterioration of his relationship with his grandparents. They believed they could see qualities of Jesse’s father in the teen, and when they found out he was involved in drugs and with the ‘wrong people’ they kicked him out of the house, ‘totally destroy[ing]’ Jesse’s sense of home in the progress.
Jesse travelled to Vancouver to stay with his brother Josh, who was a member of the police force at the time, but despite Josh’s warnings for him not to use drugs in his home, Jesse’s addiction got the better of him. After finding him smoking a joint, Josh kicked Jesse out, beginning his ‘homeless career’.
The professor explained:
After that I just moved from place to place, from shelter to shelter, I’d stay on people’s couches, sometimes a relative would let me stay with them for a few months, but I was a rolling stone, I was always on to the next place. Always dealing with my addictions, never getting the help I needed.
The low point in Jesse’s life came when he was staying with his other brother, Jerry, and found himself locked out of the apartment. In a state of ‘addiction psychosis’, Jesse believed his then-girlfriend was inside with his brother, so he scaled the three-and-a-half storey building and attempted to get in through the window.
Before he made it inside, Jesse slipped and fell, breaking both of his wrists and shattering his leg. He was rushed to hospital and underwent reconstructive surgery, but his poor lifestyle, with its ‘smoking and drinking and drugging’, caused a bad infection to set in.
Jesse wasn’t getting the help he needed on the streets, so, in a state of ‘drug-induced craziness’, he decided to rob a convenience store and use the jail system as a ‘safe place to convalesce.’ He suffered ‘excruciating’ physical and psychological drug withdrawal while in prison, which ‘ripped [him] right apart and shattered [him] into a million little pieces.’
Though he hoped the withdrawal would be the end of his addiction issues, Jesse turned back to drugs after being released from prison, sparking a period of ‘cycling in and out of the justice system’.
During this period, Jesse noticed one inmate who ‘never had any problems with anybody’. The man involved himself with studying, and Jesse decided that if he did the same he might be able to ‘change [his] crappy little life.’
When he started out Jesse was functionally illiterate, but he persevered and took on General Educational Development (GED) courses with the Salvation Army Chaplain in the prison. His cellmates and others around him helped him understand his assignments, and eventually Jesse began to gain hope that he could continue his education.
After months of being in and out of jail, Jesse got in touch with a rehabilitation centre called Harvest House which bailed him out and finally put him on the path to recovery. There, Jesse was able to continue his GED program and in December 2008 he graduated at the top of his class.
Harvest House helped him enroll in Carlton University, and Jesse spent night after night pouring over his books in rehab in an effort to make sense of the assignments and information in front of him. After a while, ‘everything just clicked’ and Jesse was more motivated than ever to carry on.
In the meantime, Jesse’s grandmother, who was suffering with leukaemia, reached out to request that he come to visit her. She told Jesse she was ‘kind of upset’ with him, not because of ‘the drugs, crime and homelessness’, but because he was ‘not using the gifts’ that he’d been given.
She made him promise to finish his studies, to take his education as far as he could and ‘help people instead of hurting them for once’. This promise added to Jesse’s purpose in life, and his drive to educate himself became one of the ‘major keys’ to his recovery.
He ‘replaced’ his addiction to cocaine and alcohol for an obsession with achievement and education, though noted that some of the experiences he had while addicted to drugs have played a part in his learning.
Jesse told UNILAD:
One thing about being a crackhead is that I learned work ethic. No one works harder than a crackhead looking for a fix – eight days a week, 24 hours a day.
I’d be up for nights and nights on end, so I have this extra gear to push myself where other people don’t, and whenever the going gets tough I just rely on that old Jesse, who was obsessed with my addiction, and I just transfer that energy into my education. That’s how I out-competed everyone in my undergrad.
The determined man began studying at York University, where he was also hired as a research assistant. As part of his studies he looked at Canadian colonisation, how indigenous people were dispossessed and how ‘that led to intergenerational trauma and addictions.’
Dr. Carolyn Podruchny, who Jesse was working for, decided to fly him to Saskatchewan to reconnect with his mother and help him further understand his heritage. Jesse was ‘terrified’ on the plane, but when he met his mother and his family they ‘didn’t even act like [he] had been missing’.
They just welcomed me back into the circle and treated me like one of theirs. I did all kinds of interviews with the elders and travelled to all these battle sites where my family fought in 1885, and I really came to understand my history and my place in it, as well as my family circle.
It completed me, it made me whole, it made me a community member. I had reciprocal responsibilities to my people again.
For the first time in my life I really, really felt home.
While he was in rehab, Jesse met his future wife, Lucie. Despite people telling her Jesse was ‘not good news’, Lucie ‘loved and trusted’ Jesse and invited him to stay at her home after he left rehab.
The faith Lucie had in Jesse ‘did more to change [his] heart than years of incarceration or addiction could ever do’, and together with his research and the relationship he rekindled with his mother, Lucie helped Jesse ‘really understand the meaning of home’.
Jesse looked at his research through ‘the lense of [his] own family life’, allowing him to work differently from other students. His studies helped him to find out about himself, honour the promise to his grandmother and reconnect with his mother.
Out of 50,000 students at York University, Jesse graduated at the top, becoming the first indigenous student to do so. His research won him a number of awards and in turn led to multiple job offers, but with York being his ‘academic home’ he decided to stay there and take on a role as an assistant professor.
Jesse also wrote a book about his experiences, titled From The Ashes, which went on to become the best selling book in Canada for 2020 and prompted worldwide attention.
He admitted the exposure ‘boggles his mind’, adding:
I’m just a street guy… I’m just trying to be a cat dad and finish my doctoral studies and be a normal guy. I don’t see what the big deal is really, I was just trying to do better than I was yesterday and I’ve been doing that for 12 years, and now it’s ended here on this other level that I never even thought was possible.
I’m very very grateful.
With the world at his fingertips, Jesse plans to finish his dissertation this summer so he can become a fully-fledged doctor. He plans to continue work at the university while he and Lucie try to have children.
He has hopes that he can be ‘the dad that [he] never had’; that he can take his child canoeing and to hockey practice and do all the things he wasn’t able to do as a kid.
Though Jesse’s transformation over the years is an incredible example of how much someone can change their life, he stressed that he’s not done it alone.
He credited Dr. Podruchny for reconnecting him with his relatives, York University for aiding his education, Harvest House for bailing him out of jail and helping him overcome his addictions, and Lucie for helping him get his life back on track, as well as his mother and ‘many, many, many others’ who gave him the opportunity to ‘choose better’.
Jesse explained that his story is sometimes mistaken for a ‘bootstrap narrative’, but he assured: ‘It didn’t happen that way. Real change happens when people help and wrap around someone.’
Jesse’s book, From The Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way, is available to buy now online.
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