VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Fought demons, friends till she disappeared
By Dene Moore
She was tough, despite her diminutive size. On the rough streets of the Downtown Eastside, she had to be.
She was a loner, despite a strong desire for someone to love who would love her back. That, Cara Louise Ellis found for a little while.
"We shared clothes. We shared everything except shoes because Cara had small feet," says Maggy Gisle, who for 16 years struggled with the same drug demons that tormented Ellis, known on the street as Nicky Trimble.
The women lived together, sometimes turned tricks together and took care of one another as best they could.
But it wasn't always like that.
Ellis and Gisle didn't like each other much the first time they crossed paths on Hastings Street and when they ended up, in 1992, roommates in a women's recovery centre, it didn't go well.
For three months they traded insults and the occasional swat until one of their counsellors decided to tie their wrists together, to force them to get to know one another.
"We just took a look at each other on the morning of our fifth day and we just started whaling on each other," Gisle remembers.
"And we didn't fight like girls. We weren't scratching and pulling hair. Our fists were closed and we were wailing each other."
Ellis was tiny, at 4'11" and hovering around 90 pounds, but she was tough, Gisle says, the kind of tough honed from years on the streets.
They tangled for a few minutes, rolling around on the floor with their wrists still tied together.
"I looked at her and I started laughing and she looked at me and she started laughing," Gisle said.
"From that point on we became best friends."
Both women spent months in the recovery centre _ not their first, nor their last attempt to exorcise the drug demon _ until the place closed abruptly and they found themselves looking for somewhere else to go. There were long wait lists for other recovery houses.
Gisle had a friend who took her in, away from the drug-soaked streets of downtown.
Ellis did not.
"Cara ended up back downtown," Gisle says.
It was six months before she saw her again and what she saw wasn't good.
Ellis was sick. She didn't have money for a fix, and by then she was too sick from withdrawal to work to get the money for a fix.
She was in heroin-addict hell.
"I couldn't leave her," Gisle says.
Gisle cashed a paycheque she had in her pocket and bought Ellis some heroin "to straighten out," meaning enough to stop the screaming withdrawal pain throbbing in every joint and muscle, to halt the nausea that emptied her stomach and the diarrhea that emptied her bowels.
Gisle, still sober, says she tried to convince Ellis to go to detox but Ellis wasn't going anywhere. So Gisle stayed with her.
"I lasted five days," she says.
The women ended up sharing a room in a rundown hotel. They sold sex to support $500- to $1,000-a-day drug habits.
But it wasn't all a drug haze, says Gisle, who is now clean and works as a homecare nurse.
"One time, we had a snowball fight against the cops in the parking lot," she recalls with a chuckle. "Almost the entire building pored out and we're whaling snowballs at the cops and they were whaling them back at us."
Another time, they decided to sleep through Christmas.
A break from the bustle of the streets was the best gift they could think of, so they cuddled up, exchanged gifts of earrings and a ring, and slept through the holiday. On the bedside table was enough heroin to get Ellis through a day and night, and some cocaine for Gisle.
"We'd daydream about what we really wanted and where we'd rather be," Gisle says.
Ellis liked to go to the movies, and preferred action flicks starring tough women.
"She would have loved that movie `Million Dollar Baby'," Gisle says. "She was feisty, she was strong and she held her ground. She didn't get a lot of trouble on the streets."
Tough and tattooed _ a heart on her left hand, a Playboy bunny on her chest and a rose on her left shoulder _ Ellis liked the biker chick image she exuded.
But to her friend _ one of a rare few _ she was a gentle and caring person.
"She was very pretty, she was very, very smart and she was strong _ stronger than somebody her size."
The dishevelled picture of Ellis on the missing women poster must have been taken toward the end of her life, Gisle says, because "that was at her absolute worst."
Despite her heavy heroin habit, Ellis took care of herself.
"Her clothes were always clean and she had a bath or shower regularly," Gisle says. "Cara slept every night, she ate every day. She took good care of herself.
"She would make sure she had her heroin for morning so she wasn't sick."
She taught Gisle, a cocaine addict who would binge for weeks with nothing but a shared bag of chips and pop every few days, to do the same.
Ellis urged Gisle, who would drop to 80 pounds during these binges, to shower and eat.
"Cara hung on to me and loved me at my worst," Gisle says, choking back tears.
"When I was sick, she would go and work and she would get my cocaine and bring it back to me. I would do the same for her."
Ellis was bisexual and, Gisle says, fell in love with her.
"I loved Cara, but not the way she loved me. Like a sister," she says.
Ellis didn't maintain contact with her family back in Alberta and didn't talk a lot about her life before she arrived on the downtown Vancouver scene.
"We didn't share why we got high, we just got high," Gisle says.
Ellis did tell her friend that she was raped as a young teenager. Shortly after that, she hit the streets of Calgary, where a friend of hers was beaten to death by a john.
After that, she headed to Vancouver.
But if Cara tried to forget about her family, they did not forget about her. Her sister-in-law, Lori-Ann Ellis, has said she made the trip from her Calgary home to Vancouver to look for Ellis, to no avail.
She described her as beautiful inside and out.
"She was a great auntie. She absolutely loves my little daughter _ she's not so little anymore," Lori-Ann Ellis once told CBC Radio. "She was a kid at heart when I met her, just a really wonderful girl."
She said the family always hoped Ellis would clean up and make a proper life for herself, adding that Ellis made some bad choices that led her to the Downtown Eastside.
She said Ellis got into a situation where the drugs controlled her life, not just her mind.
``Unfortunately she was in a position where the drugs were speaking for her. She would basically prostitute herself in order to be able to get the next fix and get the next fix in order to be able to prostitute herself. So, it was a really vicious circle."
There came a point where Gisle realized, too, that she and Ellis were caught in a vicious circle.
"Cara wanted a husband, she wanted children, she wanted a better life. She wanted to be happy," Gisle says.
"I just didn't see how me living with her in that building, in that life, was going to help her get that."
When Gisle moved out, Ellis took it hard but the pair made a promise: "If she got out, she was going to come back and look for me. If I got out, I was going back to look for her."
Gisle checked into recovery _ one of 22 trips to recovery in her 16 years of addiction.
The last time she saw Ellis, she was huddled in an alcove, where today a controversial safe injection site is located.
"I ran up to her and put my arms around her and accidentally knocked her rock out of her hands," Gisle recalls. "She was really pissed off."
Ellis had taken a turn for the worse. She had open sores and had lost a lot of weight. She smelled bad and her clothes were dirty.
She wouldn't leave and Gisle would never see her again.
"Cara vanished. She just disappeared."
Ellis was 25.
© 2006 The Canadian Press
Updated: January 01, 2007