This is part two of Convivium's series on homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. Click here to read part one: "Opening the Door on Homelessness."
Christina isn’t homeless. She lives in a cozy bungalow on a sweet street in suburban southwest Calgary. She has a family. Kids. Grandchildren. She loves reading Robertson Davies novels. She gets a touch giddy talking about Mordecai Richler.
Last year, though, Christina slept for several days on the floor of a Calgary detox centre. Then, she says, she got to go “upstairs” for a five-day treatment program. Those who met her as she was being released are blunt that Christina would not have survived if she’d followed the well- worn path from detox to homelessness.
“She’d have been eaten alive if she’d been on the streets,” one care worker told me. “She had no survival skills at. They’d have picked her clean in a week.”
Instead, Christina (who did not object to her last name being used but whom I choose not to identify) found haven through Calgary’s Oxford House system. She shares the cozy bungalow with several other women who are also in recovery. In the Oxford House model, residents are entitled and expected to make the major decisions about how they live – up to and including who will allowed to join the community.
Making major decisions is nothing new for Christina. She had senior level positions in the grocery industry. She worked in administrative services for mining and oil patch companies. The one decision she could not make – or at least make stick – for far too many years was the decision to stop drinking.
“I’m what you call a functioning addict,” she says. “I lived a successful life. I hit rock bottom last year. You know, you can only hide your addiction so far.”
When she began bouncing cheques, started getting caught in her own lies, and had what she describes as an “embarrassing” public meltdown, she knew the one person she definitely couldn’t hide her addiction from was herself. Yet her very realization contains the skull-splitting paradox of the addiction-mental illness-homelessness triangle.
The paradox is this: The vast majority of Canadians trapped in that triangle aren’t stupid or lazy or viciously wilful or blind to their impact on the world around them. They don’t like being cold or hungry or on the street corner begging or unable to maintain person hygiene or hungover or at risk of another overdose or on their way back to jail.
Everyone I spoke to in the course of researching this series was emphatic about hating all those things. Most of all, they hated the cycle of shame – deep seated shame – that any and all of them feel like a leg-hold trap tearing into them at one point or another. So why, and this is the question that all of us spared that trap inevitably ask with varying degrees of good intentions, don’t they just stop?
Why don’t they just put the bottle away? Why don’t they just stop taking the drugs? Or, alternatively, why don’t they just keep taking the medication that will quiet the voices, beat back the delusions, calm the fears and obsessions? Why don’t they get some kind of job that will let them pay the rent at least on a modest apartment? Why – this is what we’re really asking –don’t they take responsibility for themselves?
In the next installment of the series, I will introduce some individuals who’ve done that and more, including legendary homeless advocate Patrick Nixon and Earl Thiessen, program manager for Oxford House services in Calgary. But Christina’s is an important voice to heed too, precisely because escaped homelessness only by the skin of her teeth.
She came terrifyingly close to being one of the suffering souls we walk past daily in almost every downtown Canadian street, trying our best to avoid their eyes deadened by humiliation, fumbling with our fleeting moral quandaries about whether or not to drop a few coins in the battered Tim Hortons begging cup. She is acutely aware of how delicate the balance is between her determination to stay sober and the seductive song of the nebulous forces that would end her sobriety again. She understands her addiction to alcohol as very much akin to mental illness. Christina didn’t just love to drink. Nor was she oblivious to the deep wounds her drunkenness gouged into all the members of her family. But at some point, she says, her brain began to identify being drunk – being a drunk – as her identity.
“At first, I believed that because I was intellectual, a reader, I wasn’t a drunk. When I discovered that the authors I loved most were drunks, it made feel I understood them better – that it was something I shared with them. It made me feel coolio. But when I started to be drunk at work, when I had to hide being drunk at work, I was so ashamed that I shut down for about four months. I tried – I really tried – to stop.”
And couldn’t. This program. That program. She didn’t “really believe” in any of them. What she believed was that, though it no longer felt “coolio,” she had to drink to be who she was. Who she was meant to be. Struggling with a personal history of horrendous childhood sexual abuse, working out her queer sexual identity, being drunk didn’t just medicate the pain, though it did that. Much more, it presented itself as an intensively seductive form of logic.
“I believe that my brain sees things differently from yours. If something bad happens to you as a (sober) person, you are going to get over it sooner or later. For an addict like me, no, I’m not able to process it the same way. I am a victim of child abuse, and my brain tells me that I will never get through that. It tells me I cannot walk away from what happened to me. When you are in active addiction, you don’t know how to forgive, so you don’t know how to live.”
The binary that emerges, Christina says, is to become homeless or learn how to exist as functioning addict like she was. Either choice must be backed up the logic that all the lies, all the fakery, all the petty and not so petty crimes are justified by the unforgettable wrongs done to the addicted individual.
“You become the victim. You become the one person that is abused. You blame everybody. You hate your father, you hate your family, you hate your friends because that’s the one thing addiction gives you: the opportunity to be in full pain. It gives you the freedom to blame everybody because, understandably, people feel sorry for you. You’re a victim, and you get to ride that as long as you can.”
Christina pauses for a moment, leans forward, and the leans back in the comfortable chair in the living room of the cozy bungalow. She takes the time she needs to find her words.
“When you’re sober, you understand that this – whatever it is – is something that happened to you. You understand that you will take this and you will move along. That’s the difference between using and sobriety. But unless you’re an addict, you cannot imagine how hard it is to understand something that seems to simple to everyone else.”
Everyone else being those of us who keep asking, with varying degrees of good intentions, why they can’t just stop.
Christina makes the point that what is “saving my life” since she was brought into the Oxford House program is not just being spared sleeping on the floor of a detox centre. It’s not just the coziness of the bungalow or the security of the street. It is, paradoxically, that’s she’s living in community with roommates whose brains function as her does. She’s living, that is, with sober addicts.
“When I come home and I want to drink, there are sober people in the house who say ‘You can do this, Christina. You can get through.’ They’re going to ask me ‘Christina, how much is your sobriety worth to you?’ And I will ask them the same thing when they need me to. They’ll know I understand exactly what they’re going through.” Regular people don’t understand that. They can’t. My own family doesn’t understand it.”
The first glimmer of understanding regarding what she was doing to her own family set Christina on a too-long and difficult path to sobriety. It brought her to the knife edge of homelessness from which, given her absence of street skills, she might never have recovered. It has helped her find her capacity for accountability, for honesty, for accepting pain and moving along, for sobriety. But asked if there’s one word she’d use now to describe her emerging identity, she says without hesitation: “Grateful.”
Grateful that she’s not drinking? Grateful that she doesn’t wake up trapped in shame each day? Grateful for the nice house? For the roommates and the Oxford House staff who support her?
“Grateful,” she says. “I’ll stop there.”
Click here to read part three: "Hooded Loneliness, Solitary Fear."