The Catholic Register
September 10, 2023

Recovery is a lifetime exercise

Whether it’s first or 12th time, The Good Shepherd is there

Recovery is a lifetime exercise

Dealing with addiction is key to keeping people from homelessness. Between 40 and 55 per cent of homeless have addiction issues.

(Photo from iStock)

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    Michael Swan
    The Catholic Register

The body of Christ hangs upon its Cross every single day. It hangs there in pain and anguish. It is eventually the carcass of all abandoned hope. And then that carcass walks through walls, barbecues fish on the beach and offers up gaping wounds as proof of life. Addicts and alcoholics know this body. They die with it and they rise in it.

The Church holds onto this story in a cup of wine and broken pieces of bread. The Church demands our witness and participation in the passion of each addict’s struggle to face the next tick of the clock without a drink, without placing a bet, without another dose of oblivion waiting in a needle, a pill or a pipe.

Raphael Roy remembers pucks coming in high and hard off the ice when he was on ecstasy. As a teenaged drunk, he played Junior A hockey in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Over six feet tall, lean and muscular, Roy was a tantalizing prospect for a lot of teams. But he was kicked off three teams for drinking. When he turned 18, his parents had had enough and kicked him out of the family home. He began adult life living in his car.

“Alcohol became, for me, a second home — a way to escape,” he said.

At 21, out of hockey, he decided to show his family they were wrong about him. He sobered up and got a job. For a year and a half he stayed sober. He went to work in the morning, came home in the evening and played video games until he fell asleep.

“I was isolating the whole time. I was setting myself up for a disaster, which happened,” he said.

Roy cut himself off from the world.

“I didn’t want to hang out with people. All my friends were drinking.”

The monotony of Roy’s new, sober life took a toll.

Raphael Roy
Raphael Roy

“That’s hard, man. I was miserable. I didn’t have any fun… Eventually, I was like, ‘Well, maybe I’m different now.’ It turns out I’m not.”

The road to homelessness was short.

“The 31st of January, 2022, I burned down my apartment, trying to cook,” he recalls. “Woke up in the hospital, half of my face burned, my legs were burned, my two hands were burned. I was drunk. Even then I denied it. After that, well, it was the perfect excuse to drink.”

He moved to his aunt’s, started stealing from her, cheating.

“Eventually, she kicked me out and I didn’t have nowhere to go. So, I ran away here (from Quebec to Toronto).”

He found shelter at The Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd has been on Queen Street East for 60 years. They’ve heard it all before. They can be patient. They will be there whenever an addict is ready to begin a journey to recovery, even if it’s the second or fifth or 12th time.

“It’s about discovering yourself, about discovering who you are as a human being, as a creature in this world,” said Good Shepherd executive director Aklilu Wendaferew. “Eventually, it’s about, ‘How do I understand myself? What are the pains that I have gone through?’... To find out about yourself, to find the connection with others — recovery is a lifetime exercise.”

A year ago, it was all too much for Roy.

“Those people were talking about God and A.A. and all that stuff. I always felt like I was a victim,” said Roy. “I didn’t believe in God at that point. I didn’t want to believe in Him.”

At first 12 steps to recovery, fellowship, accountability, surrendering to a higher power just sounded like losers desperate for a formula, or a ridiculous magic spell drunks were trying to cast on themselves.

Another six months on the street and life was getting no better. Roy ran out of drugs and began having seizures. At that point, recovery didn’t sound so ridiculous any more.

“’Cause if you’d be smart enough to out-think your disease, everyone could do it,” he said. “I was drowning. Thank God there’s a place like that (The Good Shepherd).”

Roy has a sponsor. He’s working the steps. He’s at step eight — making a list of people he has harmed, to whom he would like to make amends.

But he’s just one addict — a drop in an ocean at high tide.

Alcohol remains a rising threat to Canadian health. In February, Statistics Canada reported that 15.6 per cent of Canadians 12 and older reported drinking heavily at least once a month. The World Health Organization pegs Canada’s alcoholism rate at 5.43 per cent for men and 1.92 per cent for women.

Post-COVID, alcohol is killing more and more of us. Pre-pandemic, in 2019, there were 3,200 deaths related to alcohol. The next year, the number increased to 3,790. It increased again in 2021, rising to 3,875 dead.

The opioid epidemic is no joke, either. There were 32,632 apparent overdose deaths between January 2016 and June 2022, Statistics Canada reports. April 2020 to March 2021, the first year of the pandemic, 7,362 died of opioid overdoses — a 96-per-cent increase over the same period a year before.

“The problem is overwhelming,” said Wendaferew.

Aklilu Wendaferew
Aklilu Wendaferew

Since COVID, the number of withdrawal management or detox beds in Toronto has decreased by 50 per cent. Where two patients were sharing a room, detoxes had to keep patients separate during the pandemic. Treatment beds have similarly decreased, also by 50 per cent. Through the same period, the number of homeless people on Toronto streets has increased by 50 per cent. Nobody’s addiction gets better on the streets.

“We know, based on our own statistics, between 40 and 55 per cent (of the homeless population) have addiction issues,” said Wendaferew. “So we know dealing with addiction is a key part of helping a person to get off the street, off homelessness.”

Since 1997, The Good Shepherd has run its ever expanding DARE (Drug and Alcohol Recovery Enrichment) program to try to fill the gaps. The abstinence-based program, relying heavily on 12-step methods and peer support, gives addicts and alcoholics a safe place to wait for a bed in withdrawal management. Once the two-week detox is over, they’re back at The Good Shepherd in DARE, waiting for a place in residential rehab. After two to three months in rehab, they’re back at The Good Shepherd waiting for housing.

“For someone who is addicted but begins to say, ‘I need help now. I need to get out of this and recover,’ the transition from that stage to a treatment program is a very long process,” explained Wendaferew.

On the street and in shelters the freshly detoxed or rehabbed addict meets old dealers, friends who are still using drugs, an economy and a lifestyle that revolves around drugs, alcohol and despair. Relapse is common. They call it the spin dry.

Roy is determined to avoid it.

“It’s weird when I say it, because the last six months — it’s probably the most happy I’ve ever been inside, in my life,” he said. “I was always trying to reach out somewhere to fill up the inside.”

After making his list in step eight, Roy will move on to actually making amends in step nine. But with each step, he goes back to step one, admitting he is powerless over alcohol. He will work through the 12 steps over and over in his life of sobriety.

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