When Arlene Smith was 12 years old, she had two divergent experiences that set up how her life would unfold.
After she started hanging out with members of an outlaw motorcycle club, she ended up in a relationship with a 19-year-old man. At the time, she didn’t realize how inappropriate the relationship was.
What followed was a period of abuse and sexual assault that put her on a path of alcohol and drug abuse. Her horrific experiences led her to a suicide attempt, robbed her of opportunities, brought about serious mental-health issues and have repeatedly left her homeless to this day.
It was also the year she got her first guitar.
The first song she wrote was about breaking up with her motorcycle club boyfriend.
“I relied on drugs and alcohol to survive the trauma of it all, not knowing how else to cope. It was the only escape I had,” said Smith.
Smith, 56, has had periods of sobriety lasting from months to years, but like many of those struggling with addiction, relapses often followed after failed rehabilitation attempts or further mistreatment by those she trusted.
She also suffers from bipolar disorder and intermittently seeks help from Interior Health, but she said past experiences there have led her to mistrust the system and some of those within it.
Despite her hardships, Smith has managed to keep a positive attitude and is relying on her faith — even now, as she continues her search for a place to live.
She was recently named winner of the Barnhartvale Coffee House open-mic competition and said the experience was a joyous one during desperate times.
Smith lives in her car in Salmon Arm, saving any money she can to make needed repairs and for housing.
She is also struggling to find work. Without a fixed address, it has been difficult for her to put her past administrative experience to use. Instead, she performs as a busker in the Shuswap town.
In the interim, Smith has turned to her faith, which has played an important role in her recent recovery.
“When I turned my life over to Jesus, I had all obsession and desire removed from me. Before, when I was sober, I used to feel like I was missing something and wished I could go back to it, but this time I feel like a completely different person,” she said.
At the church Smith was attending in 2017, she said she saw a plenty of prayer, but not a lot of action and wanted to change that, so she gave away her belongings, including her jewelry and the contents of a storage locker with all of her possessions.
Her relationship with the church has been a turbulent one, so Smith has largely kept her faith on her own over the years.
She recalled an experience in Sunday school, where she hadn’t done some assigned work and was given a dunce cap to wear and told to sit in the corner. She said kids bullied her and she felt humiliated.
“I don’t think my heavenly father would do this to me,” she said. “It’s just not loving. That’s not who I think God is.”
Other changes Smith has made are even more drastic. Over seven months, she lost 75 pounds and stopped taking all of her medication.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to live like this anymore.’ I meditated and prayed and asked Jesus to heal me, and since then I’ve had no desire to use drugs or alcohol or tobacco,” she said.
Although her faith now plays a crucial role in her life, it’s music that has always been there for her.
With her first guitar, Smith was also given a songbook of The Eagles’ greatest hits. She learned to play Lyin’ Eyes for her father, who was also a musician, playing standup bass during his time in the Canadian Armed Forces.
But the song didn’t impress him. Smith said he told her not to bother because she would never make any money as a musician.
“That kind of crushed me. I didn’t play much after that for a few years,” she said.
But Smith later picked up the guitar once again and has played throughout her life, sometimes as part of small bands, but rarely on stage, she said, because of self-esteem and confidence issues.
Smith allayed those fears at the third annual Barnhartvale Coffee House open mic contest on Jan. 19, where the audience voted her the winner.
“What I get through music, especially with other musicians in a spontaneous jam, is so miraculously healing and uplifting,” she said. “That’s my reason to live, is music. It’s the most exciting and happy part of life for me.”
Although recording her original songs is something Smith has always wanted to do, she is worried she’ll never have the money to make it happen.
For now, she plans on returning to the coffee house series at the Barnhartvale Community Hall.
“I will make it out there, even if I have to hitchhike,” she said.