'There's hope for everybody': Brandon business owner shares story of addiction, recovery to inspire others

Michelle Budiwski has been a successful businesswoman for nearly two decades, first managing bars and hotels in Manitoba to now owning her own popular business in Brandon. She also used to have a $300-a-day cocaine addiction.

Michelle Budiwski, owner of a popular Brandon escape room, kicked $300-a-day cocaine addiction 17 years ago

Michelle Budiwski started using drugs and alcohol at age 10. Now 43, she hasn't touched drugs in 17 years. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Michelle Budiwski has been a successful businesswoman for nearly two decades, first managing major bars and hotels in Manitoba and then owning her own popular business in Brandon.

But she also used to have a $300-a-day drug addiction. 

"I chose to use cocaine and I chose to use it often," says Budiwski, a mom of four who owns the successful Escape: The Final Countdown escape room business in Brandon, Man.

She recently celebrated her 17th year of not using drugs, but still considers herself in recovery. 

For years, she kept her story of drug use and mental illness largely to herself, telling just a select few. But she's now speaking out, hoping to educate and inspire others by proving that change is possible.

At one point, she feared that "if people knew [about the drug use], they might not trust me," she said during an interview in her downtown Brandon office. "But I think I'm over that."

"There is, I'm sure, going to be a lot of people looking at me a little differently and that's OK," she added. "I haven't changed." 

Started using at 10 

Budiwski said she first started using drugs and alcohol when she was 10. Her first stint in rehab was at age 16, after making a deal with her high school principal in Thompson, Man., that she would seek help.

She said drug use was her way of coping with her emotions. 

"I never really knew anything else," said Budiwski, who spent her childhood living in the northern Manitoba communities of Thompson and The Pas. 

"I wasn't an addict that most people see as being an addict," she said. "People think of a drug addict, you think of people on the street … but I actually had a job. I pulled straight A's. I was on the honour roll. I started working full time in a restaurant at 13 years old." 

Budiwski did manage to stay drug-free for two years, but replaced drugs in her life with gambling and self-harm before returning to cocaine. She went on to graduate from high school and move into management positions at hotels and bars, all while suffering her worsening addiction.

"I was barely holding on to my apartment.… I lost my job," she said. 

It came to a head when she was 26. 

"I woke up in the psychiatric ward," she said. "I went bats--t crazy. I didn't know where I was and I was coming off of a really bad high."

Budiwski considers herself lucky. She detoxed in the psychiatric ward and after a long, three-year recovery that included proper help for mental illness, she hasn't touched cocaine since.

Hopes to educate others 

Now, as her city faces what police have described as a worsening drug problem, she hopes someone might be able to draw from her story and experiences.

Brandon police recently warned of four drug overdoses in one weekend alone, with the use of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine on the rise.

Budiwski has joined the chorus of others in calling for more long-term resources for recovering addicts in Manitoba. 

Thanks to a shortage of beds in rural Manitoba facilities, not everyone has the opportunity to detox with medical professionals nearby, as she did. Some are forced to go through the painful process at home with family or friends.

But Budiwski says it's important for addicts to seek help any way they can.

"If you're going to sit around and wait and say, 'I can't do anything about my addiction now because we don't have enough resources' … by the time we do, you could be dead," said Budiwski.

She acknowledges going into recovery wasn't easy for her.

"It was scary as hell. It was lonely. I lost friends, I lost family, [but] it was so worth it." 

Looking back, Budiwski said she's thankful to have left her old lifestyle behind.

"Sometimes I sit and just go, 'Holy s--t,'" she said. "Wow. If there's hope for me, there's hope for everybody." 

Michelle Budiwski has been a successful businesswoman for nearly two decades, first managing major bars and hotels in Manitoba and then owning her own popular business in Brandon. 1:32

About the Author

Riley Laychuk

CBC Manitoba reporter

Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback: riley.laychuk@cbc.ca.