Tag Archives: addiction

deeper grief

they always come out of left field.


i lost another one of my friends today to addiciton.  he wasnt much older than myself.  losing africa hurts a lot.  much more than i ever thought it would, but then again, i never pictured losing africa.  for whatever reason i thought he would make it out alive.

i hate being wrong.

i met africa my first day on the job at first united.  i was standing in the lobby talking with a new coworker when in walked a very tall, skinny african man wearing a giant hat with large sunglasses.  he didnt walk so much as he stumbled into the building.  as soon as he saw me, he stumbled over to shake my hand.

‘hi, im africa.’

his african accent and intoxication level made it difficult to understand him but i got the gist.  this problem stayed the same for as long as i knew africa.  the more he drank the thicker his accent got and the harder it was to understand him.  sometimes he would lecture me for minutes on end, all the while i couldnt understand a single word he said.

africa’s name wasnt actually africa, but a nickname given to him by his friends in the downtown eastside.  not very imaginative but pragmatism wins out in a world when remembering where you woke up isnt easy.  the tall black man would forever be known as africa and he didnt seem to mind it one bit.

a nickname usually means acceptance and when you are thousands of miles from home, acceptance is just what you need.

africa’s friends got him drinking rubbing alcohol one day and he became hooked.  addiction to rubby (as they called it) was not a pretty addiction.  for me, its quite possibly the worse one to watch someone struggle with.

africa had an apartment somewhere in the dtes but he spent most days and nights hanging out or around first united.  thats where his friends lived and hung out.  this was the case for a few of the guys i knew in the dtes.  they would get a worker in housing to help them get an apartment in hopes of getting away from their addiction and the people they consumed their poison with.  some lasted longer than others but, one by one, they all made their way back.

since i left vancouver ive lost 4 guys from just one group.  since i joined the dtes community ive lost over 15 people.  those are just the ones i can remember..

i hate losing my friends to addiction.

this doesnt seem get any easier..

when i decided to start giving my life to the poor years ago, i didnt think that id see this many people die.  people who i had relationship with, a connection, a friendship.

i didnt sign up for this.

i invited africa to a small church in east van with me one summer sunday.  the church was having a community party in the local park with live music, games for the kids and bbq.  as soon as i told africa there would be food there he was coming come hell or high water.  he marched there like a man on a mission.  for as rail-thin skinny he was, the man could pack down the food.  we could never explain where the food went.

a couple other guys came along as well.  edson, one of my favorite guys to talk with at the shelter, came along with us as did aj (edson is now married and living in northern bc and doing great!).  as soon as the music starts up africa is dancing.  by himself.  in a dance only he knew the steps to.

it was something else to see.

we laughed until our sides split. aj fell off his chair he was laughing so hard.

i like that memory.

just as quickly as i remember that memory, the reality that hes gone comes crashing back.  my heart is grieved deeply..

in fyodor dostoevsky’s ‘crime and punishment ‘, he says something that gives me great comfort in times like this:

“the darker the night, the brighter the stars,
the deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

thankfully, this truth is more real to me than anything else i know.

ill miss you, africa.


harry and africa


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slow down

things have been  pretty slow at hope lately.  we havent been seeing as many guests come in for meals as we normally do.  part of it is to be expected considering social assistance cheques came out last wednesday.  from my years of experience working on the front lines, a large portion of the street community disappears for a few days or a week after welfare cheques are issued.

it speaks to a few things:

one, drug addiction has many people in slavery.  we may not see the shackles and chains but they are there all the same.  its not all the typical street drugs you are probably thinking about, ie. crack, heroine, speed, meth, marijuana.  the number one addiction among the people i work with is that to prescription drugs/pharmaceuticals.

wasnt what you were expecting was it?

heres what gets my goat..

people get hurt and go to the doctor.  the hurt is causing the person to be in a significant amount of pain.  the doctor prescribes them a narcotic painkiller to help with the symptom – pain.  the person gets addicted to the ‘medicine’ and when they attempt to come off of it, the terrible pain convinces them to go back on it.

they are trapped.

i experienced a bit of that after my second knee surgery.  the ‘medicine’ i was taking caused my body to become dependant on it and, when i attempted to come off of it, gave me a pain worse than that of my swollen knee.  fortunately for me i had safeguards around me.  i had a mother who knew enough to ask consistently about my usage.  i had a doctor who wasnt in the pocket of drug companies, ie. he didnt push drugs as a remedy but as temporary help.  i also had a coach that would check up on me.

i was fortunate because theres no telling what kind of addiction i could have developed and still be mired in.

theres a lot of people who arent as fortunate.

when the doctors stop administering the drugs, people will find others way to get them.  theres really two choices – theft or street purchases.  digging ones self out of the rabbit hole is a pretty difficult at this point.  paychecks start getting gobbled up by your addiction.  the addiction starts affecting your job and eventually you lose it.  now on social assistance, you have little money to spend on your addiction so you turn to whatever means to make the pain go away.  crime often follows along with police officers, lawyers, judges, jail cells and probation officers.

welcome to the streets.

this is what life looks like for too many people.

addiction doesnt care if youre lazy or motivated, good or bad, educated or uneducated, rich or poor.  it will take you whether your skin color is black, white, purple or green.  addiction doesnt care about your variables.  it cares about being fed.

so for the first couples days after the cheques come out, peoples bellies go empty while their addiction gets to feast.  and feast it does..

now, if we had doctors who werent paid by drug companies to push their drugs more liberally than they would normally be inclined to, would we have as large a problem?  certainly not.  are greedy doctors and drug companies our only problem?  indeed a large one but not the whole picture.

see, i think the larger problem lies with the way the war on drugs is handled.   i believe that retributive justice is counterproductive and harmful to our society, while restorative justice repairs whats been broken. im frustrated with punitive steps to bring about justice.  its mechanical, lifeless and dehumanizing.  does it have a place in society?  yes, it does because some crimes require people spending significant amount of time away from society, ie. murder and sexual assault.  but for the most part, punitive justice does more to harm individuals and communities than help.

what if instead of punishing people harshly through the criminal justice system, we allowed crime control to rest primarily with the community?    what if instead of a person taking punishment for a crime they committed, they took responsibility and action to repair the harm inflicted?    what if instead of punishing community members and thus communities (by extension), we allowed communities to be the facilitators of a restorative justice?

a justice that sought the restoration of all parties involved.  thats the kind of justice that make us whole again.

all of us.

/end of idealistic rant


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mona’s gone..

i chose not to believe it when i heard it. my mind decided to override reason in order to spare me emotionally. at least for the moment..

that moment has left and gone.

when i first started working at the shelter, there was this little round native lady who kept demanding hugs and grabbing my butt inbetween stealthly stealing my name tag several times a day. no, my name tag isnt a pin-on, its a clip on. how much more amazing would her stealth ability have been had my tag been fastened on by a pin? anyways..

i knew this little troublemaker by the name of mona.

mona lived in surrey with her boyfriend but, when things got bad, she would escape her life out there to come and stay with her friends down at first united church.

at the shelter mona was usually found in one of two states – really or kinda drunk. her and i would sit and talk for bits and pieces here and there. shed tell me about her familiy and where she was from. as i got to know mona more i began asking her about her drinking problem. she confided in me that her boyfriend physically abused her. she told me she drank to escape the pain of her reality. my heart sank within me.

we collaborated about getting her into a treatment program and she agreed that that would be the best idea. she wanted so badly to be free of the abuse and free of her addiction. but soon after that, she just left.

lots of people just get up and leave, not to be seen around the shelter again. sometimes its because they found housing, other times treatment programs. i believed that this was the case with mona. i figured she had arranged everything without telling me. but tragically for me and her friends and family, neither was the case.

mona was found dead last week in her apartment.

she had been murdered..

ive never had a friends life stolen from them before. im unsure how to process the pain. my mind doesnt want to accept the truth, choosing to live in a state of disbelief.

its a numb feeling.

im not sure if its numb because this is new to me or because i believe she was so close to getting the help she needed. she was so close to getting alternative housing. she was so close to a better life.

but now nothing.

ill miss that troublemaker more than any other troublemaker before her.

may you finally rest in peace, mona.

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poetry from the poor

aj is a friend of mine who frequents first united mission. we usually fake kung fu fight in the lobby (to the entertainment of those in attendance) or he boasts about dunking on my head in a game of one on one. itd be quite the accomplishment for a 40-something addict who stands at no more than 5’7. hes got a great sense of humor, a solid left jab/giddy up kick (he invented it) and hes become one of the clients i look most forward to seeing when i head into work. 

aj is a survivor of the residential school system. for those not familiar, the residential schools were a systematic attempt by the canadian government and numerous churches to destroy native culture in canada. the intention was “to kill the indian in the child” and to transform aboriginal children from “savages” into civilized members of the canadian society. assimilation to western norms. children were taken from their families at young ages and forced into these schools, severing ties of culture that ran between generations. there were communities where all children were taken.. 

it was the intention of the government that native culture and language become purposely supressed. even punishable by “tough love” tactics, to put it mildly. emotional, psychological, verbal and sexual abuse were experienced by children at the hands of their ‘educators’. upon becoming adults and elders in their communities, the abuse was passed on, creating a vicious cycle of abuse that still runs deep to this day. 

its an ugly part of our nations history that most dont hear about, both in the news and school textbooks. winston churchill was once quoted as saying, “history is written by the victors”. apt and rather fitting for this chapter in our nations history. 

aj gave me some of his poetry the other day. he entered a writing contest recently so he gave me a copy of what he submitted. 

i believe it quietly describes the turmoil within him. but i can only guess.. 

by the way, i asked him if i could post his poetry here.  he said yes. 


ajs poem

open doors, slammed doors 

closed doors 

here we go again, you cant numb the pain 

we always end up on hastings and main 

why is our lives so much in vain? 

our lives are so much in pain 

empty sidewalks 

empty roads 

why are our lives at our crossroads? 

you go pick up 

then its my turn to go 

this is an obsession 

there is no where to go?

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another day at the office

not wanting to waste a perfectly good sunny day inside i decided to venture downtown a bit before i started work. sunny days spent walking concrete sidewalks attached to concrete buildings usually isnt my idea of a day well spent but i guess the city is changing me. for better or for worse im sure time will tell eventually. it was hard to miss the line of buses that stretched back several blocks on hastings. the closer to main street and hastings i got (the dtes epicenter) the louder the lady on the bullhorn got. as i squinted in the sunlight, i could begin to make out the large group of protesters sitting in the usually very busy intersection. not a typical place to form a circle and sing songs but they carried a good melody nontheless. the sudden closure of the popular health contact center had not sat well with many people in the dtes community. the contact center acted as a first point of contact between health/social services and individuals in the dtes, providing direct access to basic health care through nurses and health care workers. abruptly and shocking to many in the area, the city pulled its funding to the center late last week. the peaceful though inconvenient protest proved how seriously the community felt this decision impacted them. the police watched for a few hours before disbanding the would-be revolutionaries.

theres something about a good protest that makes me hungry, so i decided to head back up to the church and visit with some of my homeless friends and have me some dinner. shelly was cooking in the kitchen and that woman knows how to cook 200+ meals and make it taste good. real good! no easy feat, in my opinion.

george was working and covering as refuge manager. its not a stretch for me to say that george just might be my favorite person at the church to work with. forget that he introduced me to chimichangas (google it!) making my life arguably 3, maybe 4x better, hes a pretty jolly fella with a rad moustache and a big heart for the people we work with. ill be sure to take a picture of the rad moustache and post it soon.

so fastforward an hour and a bit..

a lady that stays at the church had recently been released from emergency. she had been given a prescription of sleeping pills so that she could rest. staying up for days on end feeding your addiction will do that to you. instead of taking the right amount of pills she chose to take (perhaps by accident…) them all. 20 pills in all. a few other residents of the church informed us of the situation. finding her sleeping, we tried to wake her but she wouldnt respond. we decided it best if the paramedics came and take a look at her. no sooner than we called she began having troubles breathing and seemed to be going into shock. two mins later the paramedics and several firemen showed up to give her proper medical attention and gurnied here out the front doors to the waiting ambulance.

i pray shes ok. i hope that she comes out of the hospital healthy and in a better frame of mind, though i know both are long shots..

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God is weak

ive heard that statement from some people. ive heard all the questions that go along with it. 


isnt God supposed to be all-powerful?  isnt he’s supposed to be all-good? he loves us, right? so why is there so much crap in this world?

why is there lying, stealing and cheating? why does it turn from stealing things to stealing lives? why are perfectly good lives wasted fighting wars? 

why are there serial killers, pedophiles, terrorists, tyrants and dictators that commit genocides? 

if God existed and he cared about us, wouldnt He put a stop to all these terrible things in our world? 

or is He just weak…? 

ive been wrestled with this idea quite a lot lately, especially while im at first united or doing outreach on the streets. 

wheres your power, God?! why dont you help these people on the streets?

as much as i love the work i do, it has its rough side. in the last twelve months first united has seen 50+ people leave their ranks through resignation or pink slip. im warned constantly by people: dont get too close. it just makes it harder. harder? how the heck does that make it harder? i think itd be harder to “keep a safe distance” than the alternative. how is it humanly possible to work with and help people while remaining detached and distant? how are we supposed to build community with that mentality? im a relational person and i cant imagine being any other way. not only does it make me tick but i strongly believe that thats whats missing in our society – true community. sure, if theres no relationship then theres less hurt when bad things inevitably happen. so what? if we took that approach strictly, we’d all live on our own isolated island, in our minds at the very least. bad things happen. friends leave, relationships end and people die. 

but why do bad things happen? why do they HAVE to happen? 

a native friend of mine is in the hospital right now. hes going to die and it breaks my heart. his addiction finally stole his life. 

i had the fortunate chance to talk with tom the day before he had a fall that lead to an aneurysm rupturing in his brain. i listened as we talked in-depth about him. where he was from, his family, his friends, his old life. he missed it. he told me how badly he wanted to stop drinking but he didnt have the willpower. all his friends drank and the temptation was always in his face. we talked about getting him into a treatment program further away from the downtown eastside. he liked that idea. he told me he was fed up with living like he was. i believed him. i could see it in his eyes. then he went to sleep and i havent see him again… and i probably wont. 

in his letters and papers from the prison, dietrich bonhoeffer (german theologian) spoke of the need to think of God in terms of his powerlessness rather than almightness. God has power, but this is paradoxically the power of the powerlessness (weakness) of his love. “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God becomes weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” bonhoeffer explains here that God essentially conquers death in the world precisely by his weakness. in his attempt to reconcile the world back to him, God sends his son to be the go-between. “there is one mediator between God and men – the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” (1 tim 2:5-6) He turns something as barbaric and humiliating as torture on a cross into the rescue of everyone. he does the opposite from what we want or think is best. he uses his weakness to bring peace. 

and what about our accountability? whats to say about our role in the bad things that happen? dare we question God and not turn attention as keenly to ourselves? 

we make decisions. sometimes theyre good and sometimes theyre not so good. sometimes theyre really, really bad. sometimes they lead us down a path that we never intended to go down. we hurt other people. we wonder why God allows bad things to happen (a product of our freedom to choose!) and remain willfully ignorant that hes given us the ability to do something about it! we dont offer our helping hand unless it benefits us. we dont love on our neighbour the way we should. we certainly dont treat God the way he should be treated. is it any real wonder why our world looks the way it does?  we need only look as far as the mirror. 

had someone reached out to him sooner… 

while his real name is tom most of us down at first united called him doc. 

hes another human being to fall through the cracks of our society and into the obituaries. hes another drunk on the side of the road. another native man to see his demise at the end of a bottle of booze. hes going to be just another statistic. 

far, far beyond any of those descriptors, he was my friend. 

 im going to miss him a lot… 

rip tom. 

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great news.

a celebrate recovery program is going to be allowed in the downtown eastside after 10 years of trying.

a bit of background first…

i started going to a small baptist church just outside of the downtown eastside last month. small congregation but big hearts. it stated vision as a church is to reach out to those lost on the streets. its not about comfy pews (which they dont have) and programmed church, but spending time helping other people. loving thy neighbour. good place.

just over a month ago, some friends and i met at the church for a night of street outreach. we filled up several coolers of very chocolatey hot chocolate (everyone said ours was the best-win!), and brought frosted cupcakes and bibles. we walked through an area where prostitutes usually frequent, handing out our sweet gifts ( yes pun) and speaking with some talkative ladies. that night i met this cool dude named daniel. he had been a missionary in south america for 10 years, planting churches and helping them grow. now back in canada he worked as a youth/street pastor for the small baptist church. so he gets talking about celebrate recovery to me..

long story short, daniel and another dude have finally been able to open up a celebrate recovery program in the woodwards building. epic win!

for those that dont know, celebrate recovery is a christian-based 12 step recovery program. music, testimonies, teaching and small groups. i had the privilege of being part of one when i lived in ontario, playing worship music with my buddy rick. i also had the privilege to see how well celebrate recovery works for addicts and junkies. it works great. the reason why it works great is because it acknowledges and stresses the importance of the spiritual component of our lives. God is that vital component. since it might be bordering on heresy to call God a component, ill instead say that Hes everything. Hes hope, peace, kindness, holiness, righteousness and love all wrapped up into one. Hes for us and wills the very best for us. He promises peace with Him and offers it freely. when broken people come to Him, trusting His words and obeying His way, lives are changed dramatically. ive seen junkies turn away from a lifetime of drugs to follow after Something else. ive seen alcoholics break their dependancy on booze and live healthier and more purposefull lives. ive seen it with my own eyes. God can radically change lives. its pretty awesome! (semi-sermon concluded)

so thats why im stoked that this program is going to open soon to the dtes population. also jacked cause daniel asked me to help out with the ministry!

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whats it gonna take?

we humans can be incredibly compassionate beings, capable of incredible love. we’ve all heard stories. we’ve all heard something that made us a bit fuzzy on the inside (is that just me?). music and movies need only to use one theme to create huge industries – love. cant really seem to escape its influence on us. tina turners big question was “whats love gotta do with it? its safe to say ‘everything’. love is the engine that drives most of our engines. its the leading motivator, the greatest emotion and an even greater gift.

yet being capable of such an amazing feat doesnt necessarily mean it will always be used. or used appropriatley. sometimes we can chose to be the complete opposite. we can choose to be selfish people who think mostly about themselves. we can ignore the problems of others in order to live our comfortable lives. but how comfortable can someone get who knows how bad their neighbour is suffering.. and do nothing about it? do we bury our guilt or just feel none?

theres a big problem in the eastside of vancouvers downtown district. its a giant social problem with no easy fixes. drugs and crime litter the hastings corners and alleys. drunks and addicts stumble the streets. people in need of medical help, both mental and physical, walk alone. historically the area has been in trouble since the beginning. not two months incorporated, the great vancouver fire happened in the summer of 1886. it wiped out everything except a few buildings. lots of lives lost. lots of homes lost. poverty was the gift awarded to vancouver in its first year. if you drive down east hastings on your way to stanley park, youre bound to see that its “a gift that keeps on giving”. poverty is still very much there. girls not old enough to graduate highschool turning ‘tricks’ to feed their drug addictions. young men robbing the elderly to to feed their crack habits.

unless we start addressing the root causes, we’re grasping at straws. unless we begin to act, its just going to get worse.. and worse.

unless we rediscover that old adage “love your neighbour”, many more people are going to be lost.  lost to addiction lost to prostitution. lost to mental illness. lost in their society by their society.

daughters. sons. fathers. sisters. grandmothers. our neighbours.  do we ignore their plight and continue on our way? or do we help?

it was mae west that said, “love conquers all things except toothaches and poverty”.

itd be great to prove her wrong.

so whats it gonna take?

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suicide is a thief


how do you convince someone that ending their own life is the wrong decision? that their life is worth living?

at my job i get to know a lot of people who have been broken by something in their life. they have deep wounds and hurts, often masked by excessive drug use and risky behavior. its tough stuff to deal with. i dont mean to come across so casual by using the word ‘stuff’ in reference to such a heavy issue. i know how serious suicide is. ive had to deal with suicide in my life. it has killed family and friends. its stolen people i love. suicide is the thief. maybe using ‘stuff’ is my styled euphemism to keep the bad imagery from invading my mind and having to deal with its reality.

next to overdoses, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the downtown eastside where i work. i could argue that drug addiction leading to overdoses are a slow suicide (and im sure many would agree) but for the sake of simplicity ill leave them in their separate places. each year roughly 500 people in BC take their own life. 500 families are affected. hundreds of communities affected. poverty, drug abuse, sexual exploitation, depression, mental illness and scarred hearts from past traumas are some of the major problems that lead people to such an extreme decision. in the downtown eastside, its usually not a matter of either or but how many of the above.

the people on hastings have been abandoned. forgotten to the streets of old vancouver.

left to hide in alleys to get their fix, stand in cold lines for food and die without remembrance. is it any wonder why…

i dont think i need to finish that sentence. we all get it.

so my friend ashley pushed me the other day at work. surprised me. first violent action directed towards me since ive been at the church. ive been inadvertently hit while breaking up fights but nothing worth fussing about. the push came from the most unlikely place. ashley is a native brother of mine (ya, thats right… my ancestors shot bows and arrows) that struggles with a heavy drinking problem. i unfortunately dont see him sober too often. he spends most of his waking hours drinking and being drunk. numbing himself his wounds from the past. the other night was no different. what was different was his behavior towards me. when i stepped into separate two other gentlemen from fighting, ashley stepped in as well. he felt that i had been ignoring him, which i hadnt, and he was very angry with me. so angry that he wanted to fight me. so he pushed me. twice. it took me a few minutes to convince him that he didnt really want to fight me. i asked him if he’s like to sit down and talk about it. he did. as we sat and talked he apologized for his actions and broke down to me. he expressed to me that he hated what his life had become. he knew that he needed to get into a treatment center or else he would kill himself drinking, but in the same breath told me he didnt seem to care if he killed himself. he thought about killing himself instead of living like he currently was. i told him that he wasnt allowed. i told him that he has to go to treatment and get better so we could go fishing. he seemed to like that idea. i got on the phone and called the treatment center access line. closed. had to call back the next day during office hours. i told ashley and he promised to call the next day. now i know theres a slim chance he will. the conversation will probably be a lost memory of his due to the booze and the damage that years of hard drinking has done to his brain. if he doesnt then ill just have to drag him down to the treatment center myself.

im not willing to let suicide steal another one, especially another friend of mine.

but how do i stop it?

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