Stephaine Ibbitson is the founder, owner, and designer behind Sonya Lee. We visited her in Vancouver in October 2018.
When Stephanie Sonya Ibbitson started talking about sheep, her husband, Lee, assumed she was hallucinating. Stephanie had repeatedly lost consciousness on the drive across Alberta, coming to just long enough to vomit into a plastic bag and pass out again. This had gone on since 4am that morning, when the E. coli poisoning took hold at a Comfort Inn in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Even before they checked in, something about the hotel had unsettled Stephanie. The anxiety stayed with her as she dozed off in bed. When sleeping ill at ease transformed into waking up violently ill, Stephanie told Lee she would rather be "anywhere but this fucking place." And yes, "anywhere" included the cab of the 22-foot U-Haul rented back in Toronto and loaded with their belongings. The seats did not recline, ensuring maximum discomfort for Stephanie. A restrictor plate on the engine kept the truck from exceeding 80 miles per hour, ensuring maximum discomfort for Lee. As he pushed through the morning darkness towards Vancouver, Lee was haunted by the pale body in his peripheral vision. Even when doing 80, it felt like he was standing still.
This went on for 490 miles.
Eventually the U-Haul reached Golden, British Columbia, a scenic town situated amid three mountain ranges, five national parks, and the confluence of two rivers. Lee began looking for a hotel where he and Stephanie would spend the last night of their trip. If you ask her now, Stephanie says that Golden is "probably one of the most beautiful places in the world." But as her aching body stirred in the U-Haul and she saw the town for the first time, she didn't immediately notice the wall of mountains that fill the distant horizon with snow-capped peaks, or the lush forests of evergreens between here and there. Instead, she saw a bighorn ram rubbing its hindquarters against a road sign. With effort, Stephanie raised her hand and pointed, saying, "Look, Lee, look." The ram tossed its massive horns and shifted its weight from one back hoof to the other, directly under a command to "MERGE." Bleary-eyed from a lack of sleep and no shortage of driving, Lee barely summoned the will to ask, rhetorically, "What are you talking about?" Even if Lee hadn't eventually seen the ram (which he did), even if bighorn sheep were not common around Golden (which they are), and even if the entire species were extinct, we would still trust Stephanie's vision―at least, those of us who lean toward faith would. We know it was a ram that Yahweh lured into a thicket, to give Abraham a sign that the worst of it was over.
Lee carried Stephanie from the U-Haul into their motel room, where he placed her on one of the two queen beds. There was only one window in the entire room, a picture window just inside the door. Motel staff had left the curtains open. Stephanie was on the first floor of a two-story motel that reminded her of a strip mall. It was one of those places where you walk to your door from the outside. She was suffering from an illness that would ultimately require hospitalization, and now she sat staring through a picture window at a parking lot. The view was just so incredibly banal, nothing but asphalt and cars and vague distant greenery and hoofs and muzzles and white butt patches and brown coats of wool and horns, glorious horns weighing up to 30 pounds that curled majestically around the faces of rams as they strolled with ewes and lambs across the parking lot. This time Stephanie didn't need to point out the sheep to Lee. For a few weird moments, the two Torontonians watched dumbfounded as a herd of sheep crossed asphalt, National Geographic–style, en route to greener pastures.
Within an hour, the sign of the ram had appeared twice. Unfortunately, even the most faithful among us would be dead wrong. The worst of it was far from over.
During puberty Stephanie found that taking baths eased menstrual cramps. Now she hoped a soak would also soothe the twisting rawness of dehydration. Lee poured a bath and Stephanie eased herself into the cool tub, which encircled warm water. The warm water encircled Stephanie's feverish skin, and her feverish skin encircled a network of systems that were either battered or breaking. Her tongue felt like a hardened dish sponge. Stephanie pulled her hands from the sides of the tub and let them sink. Then she stuck her fingers in her mouth. Her tongue instantaneously absorbed the few droplets of bathwater. It was luxury. When Stephanie leaned back or raised a knee, water splashed and pooled and settled back around her skin, effortlessly, like when you're dreaming about a place and that place transforms into another place, but you somehow know that the new place is still the old place. As the network of systems began a coordinated reboot, Stephanie's vision dimmed. Under a flourescent light in a windowless room, she floated unconscious.
The next day Stephanie felt well enough to help Lee with a little bit of the 7.5-hour drive to Vancouver. But she hadn't kept down food or water in two days. After arriving at the home of Lee's parents in North Vancouver, Stephanie telephoned her stepmother, a doctor, and described her symptoms. As Stephanie recalls, the prescription went something like, "You need to go to a fucking hospital." She checked herself into Vancouver General. When the intake nurse sat her new patient in a chair and inserted a needle to draw blood, Stephanie fainted and woke up in a bed with an IV drip in her arm. She stayed for about six hours and polished off several saline packs, some of which the doctors loaded with dimenhydrinate.
Although she would only be able to handle rice crackers and bananas for a week, the next day Stephanie was strong enough to help Lee begin moving into their new apartment, which―as the couple quickly discovered―was located in one of the most deadly neighborhoods in North America.
According to the Georgia Straight, from 2016 to 2017, 7 percent of all 911 calls made in the entire province of British Columbia came from within a two-block section of East Hastings Street, from Pigeon to Main. This area is commonly recognized as the epicenter of Canada's opioid epidemic. Stephanie and Lee's new apartment was at Main and Cordova―exactly one block away.
Not long after she and Lee moved in, I emailed Stephanie asking where I should stay during my visit. She did not recommend Hastings Street. "It's pretty heavy," she wrote. "For example, a man was smoking crack in my doorway this morning." On another occasion, Stephanie saw a sex worker who was very much pregnant. The woman's arms were bare and covered in track marks. Stephanie couldn't sleep that night. She stared at the ceiling above her bed, thinking, "What is going to happen to that kid?" Having just uprooted her life by moving from Toronto to Vancouver, and still recovering from a righteous bout of food poisoning, Stephanie now had to contend with Hastings Street. Each passing day brought a new man smoking crack in the doorway, a new pregnant sex worker, a new addict wandering into traffic, a new white tent staffed by caregivers hoping to intervene in overdoses, a new tangle of screaming voices from the street when you're trying to sleep so you can stop wondering what on Earth you've done with your life. Stephanie asked friends for advice. "A lot of people in the neighborhood say that they became totally detached from it," Stephanie told me. "They don't feel for these people anymore because you can't be sympathetic to everyone." This is known as compassion fatigue, as discussed by a paramedic interviewed in the Georgia Straight story. As Stephanie told me, "(People) talk about how that neighborhood has made them a harder person. My friend told me, 'You don't realize how hard it is on your psyche until you move.' I didn't want to get to that point."
Before she got to that point, Stephaine and Lee moved to Chinatown. But back in the early summer, when they lived near Main and Hastings and the trauma of the trip across Canada still reverberated, Stephanie got some much-needed relief. Her friend Nico visited from Toronto. When she arrived, Nico asked Stephanie, "Oh, have you been to the Anthropology Museum yet?"
Stephanie said that she hadn't.
"Well, we've got to go," Nico said.
The worst of it was finally, mercifully, over.
You see Stephanie's complete collection of work at the Sonya Lee website: www.sonyalee.co.