Overcoming the stigma around addiction and treatment facilities

By The Canadian Press
May 25, 2017 - 12:33pm

POWELL RIVER, B.C. — Dan puts his fork down and smiles as he explains to his three lunch companions what it’s like when people learn he has an addiction.

“It’s like that scene from ‘The Elephant Man,’ where he says, ‘I am not an elephant! I am a man!’ ” says the neatly dressed retired businessman, mimicking the character’s voice from the classic 1980s film about a man shunned because of his physical deformities.

“I’m not just an addict,” says Dan, 56. “I’m a father. I’m a son. I’m a brother.”

Dan, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, was receiving treatment for substance abuse at the Sunshine Coast Health Centre. About 30 people at any given time receive care at the private, men-only residential centre near Powell River on British Columbia’s coastline.

Addictions treatment has become a hot topic as Canada’s drug overdose crisis escalates with no hint of slowing, killing hundreds of people across the country.

The Sunshine Coast Health Centre sits perched on a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean, two ferry rides north of Vancouver, and has operated since 2004 offering help on everything from substance abuse to sex addiction.

Most of its clients are dealing with alcoholism, but between 2013 and 2015 the proportion of people with opioid addictions more than doubled, from 10 per cent to 22 per cent, said CEO Melanie Jordan.

EXTENDED READ: Profiles of some people who have used rehabilitation facilities

Myths persist around addiction treatment facilities and the stigma for those dealing with addictions is costing lives by discouraging people from seeking help, she said.

One especially strong myth is that people with addictions are “liars, cheats and thieves,” she added.

“That’s a huge stereotype that goes on around it, that this is a place where people need to be locked up as though they were in jail. It’s not so,” Jordan said.

Doors to clients’ rooms are left unlocked, said Jordan, before recalling when a woman delivered an all-terrain vehicle to the facility and how a group of men helped unload the machine.

“We got back in her truck and we were driving back to town and she said to me, ‘You have a lot of staff around there,’ ” Jordan recounted.

“And I said, ‘Yes, I do, but you did not meet one of them.’ Everyone who had come out to see this all-terrain vehicle had all been clients at the facility.”

When they are not in group sessions or meeting with a counsellor, physiotherapist or other health professional, the men watch TV or weave, a popular hobby during their down time. In the evening, laughter and splashing can be heard from the pool, where water polo has become part of the nightly routine for some.

Troy, a client who has attended Sunshine Coast four times since 2009, said having fun is OK because those with addictions spend so much time as their own worst enemy.

“We’re not bad people. We’re broken people,” he said. “We don’t need to be punished. … We’ve punished ourselves enough.”

Troy lost his marriage and a multimillion-dollar business after developing an opioid dependency from post-surgery prescriptions. Two years ago, his addiction spiralled into using heroin.

“I just look forward to when there is a time when people can go to treatment and when they’re done they can be proud they went to treatment and they can stand on a mountain and tell the world,” he added.

Warren, an assistant director in Vancouver’s film industry, said everyone’s rock bottom is different and not everyone loses it all before getting help. He realized his cocaine addiction was getting out of control so he booked time off work to seek treatment.

“I really do think people have the idea that treatment (means) you’re on lockdown, that there are literally people walking around with massive mental-health issues, they’re bouncing off the walls, swinging off the chandeliers, throwing feces at each other like monkeys,” he said. “But it’s not really that. It feels more like a place to go to evolve and grow.”

Facilities across Canada take different approaches to treating addiction, from the traditional 12-step program to the meaning-based therapy practised at Sunshine Coast, which is premised on the idea that addiction arises from a lack of purpose and meaning in life.

“If your life is clicking on all cylinders, if you’re living this life which you felt is significant, where you’re not bored and you’re excited to get up in the morning, then drugs serve no purpose,” explained Geoff Thompson, the program director at Sunshine Coast who was treated for alcoholism at the age of 39.

Joel McNair, a Saskatoon firefighter, said he realized things were bad when he was staying home drinking all the time while on leave from work and buying booze on a credit card his wife didn’t have access to. He said his alcoholism stems from post-traumatic stress after a series of disturbing emergency calls involving dead children.

What struck McNair most at Sunshine Coast was putting a face to the kinds of overdose victims he would resuscitate on the street during a shift.

“You’re sitting in this class and someone is just pouring their heart out in this incredible moment of vulnerability, and these people you’ve made this (negative) impression of come out with some of the most caring, loving comments that is the start of changing this other person’s life,” he said.

“These addicts who treat this vulnerability with such respect and hold it there for you and just allow you to be there in that moment and then help build you back up,” McNair explained, his eyes tearing up.

“It’s emotional for me right now. It really is. It’s incredible.”

Sunshine Coast was in the spotlight last year after the death of 20-year-old Brandon Jansen, who overdosed at the centre while battling an opioid addiction. Jordan told an inquest that Jansen’s death was the only critical event incident since the centre was licensed 12 years earlier.

Many credit the facility with saving their lives.

“I would have killed myself. There’s no grey area there. It’s what I wanted to do. It was my focus,” said Chad Lavoie, who worked on oil rigs in Alberta at the time he went through the centre.

He described his last suicide attempt before heading for treatment: “I drove to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. I sat down, did a bunch of blow, did a bunch of pills, drank my face off, and I put that gun into my mouth and pulled the trigger. I can’t even tell you how many times. It didn’t go off. That was my wedding anniversary.”

Lavoie is now an avid rock climber and volunteers with the SPCA. He smiles and his eyes light up when he talks about his job working one-on-one with a boy who has mental challenges.

“It’s an amazing transformation,” he said. “I’m grateful every day.”

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter

Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

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