Looking beyond addiction in society’s moments of clarity


May 5th, 2013 – a modest crowd has gathered for the fifth annual Look Beyond Addiction Awareness Walk outside the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney, B.C. A collective sense of hope and sombre remembrance travels through the audience on this bright Sunday afternoon, as they listen to words of those affected by addiction. Speakers include recovering addicts and alcoholics, as well as friends and family members of those who have lost their battles with the illness. Look Beyond Addiction founder Christine Barnhart warmly expresses her gratitude to all who have turned up for the event. Although her bubbly smile falters when she shares the journey of her late husband Vince Law and his consuming struggle with addiction, her message is honest and hopeful.

“We have a lot of people who understand it is time for change in our community,” she says. “But there are still those people, who when they hear the word ‘addiction,’ a look of panic, fear and judgement crosses their face. That is when I know in my heart that there still needs to be change in our society.”

Barnhart founded the annual Look Beyond Addiction Awareness Walk in 2009, two years after her husband Vince passed away suddenly from a massive heart attack that was triggered by an overdose of cocaine. This was not a result of binging, Barnhart stresses. In fact, Vince had been clean for weeks leading up to his death — it was the last of many attempts at recovery. Christine describes how his sober periods, though optimistically ticked off on the calendar with smiley face stickers, were always bookended by relapse after Vince was unwilling — and more often unable — to seek help.

Gordon Harper, executive director at the Umbrella Society, a Victoria resource that bridges service gaps for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues, says addiction is characterized by “fear, sometimes anger . . . and shame. Always shame.” A recovering alcoholic himself, Harper believes he was sick for much longer than he should have been due to a fear of admitting failure and a lack of understanding from friends and family — one of whom told him, with genuine concern and the best intentions, that if he had a problem with drinking, why didn’t he simply stop?

“There’s an awful lot of mythology around addiction,” Harper says. “There’s a need that people have to boil complicated subjects down to real simple stuff. But it’s not all the things we used to believe it is. It’s not a moral failing, it’s not laziness, lack of will power . . . it’s not that. It’s a combination of really complex factors that are highly individualized.”

He does note, however, that things have gotten better. More and more people are starting to see it as an illness and understand that it’s a widespread issue. According to Statistics Canada, one in 10 Canadians over the age of 15 has or will have an addiction. It is classified as an Axis I disorder in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) by the American Psychiatric Association, though Harper believes there is debate within the medical community over whether or not it should be called a disease. And there is still a nucleus of people, he says, who hold on to the belief that addiction is a choice, rather than an illness.

“I often say that the current mental health care system is fragmented — only tenuously attached to the larger healthcare system — and addictions are even more so.”

Umbrella Society is a non-profit organization funded largely by the United Way. It aims to provide support to addicts and their loved ones who are unable to find help elsewhere. The staff of just five, all recovering addicts themselves, assist people of all demographics and at any stage of recovery, with an emphasis on individualized and one-on-one care. They often meet with their clients in coffee shops, at a park or on the beach.

“Whatever it takes to help the scared, angry and ashamed person feel more comfortable,” says Harper. “We work with them through the housing system, the criminal justice system, the welfare system — and we don’t just tell them what to do. We sit down with them to fill out the forms, we accompany them to appointments. Just the personal presence . . . it makes a big difference.”

While many clinical services provided by the health authority have a waitlist — one to two months for individual counselling — Umbrella Society makes a point to see their clients within 24 hours of referral. This is no small feat for a staff of five, but time is crucial when it comes to treating an addict. Barnhart speaks of her husband’s moments of clarity in the months leading up to his death, the hopeful periods of sobriety when they were unable to find adequate and affordable treatment. On April 28th, 2007, the week before his death, Vince willingly handed her his hidden bag of cocaine and asked her to throw it away. “It’s poison,” he said.

“He knew what it was doing to him, in those moments,” she recalls. “This is why I say you have a short window to get people into treatment, because they will sometimes respond and sometimes just shut you out. But if you can get them treatment immediately, if walking into a treatment center was as simple as walking into a grocery store . . . this is why these walks are so important. Why funding for these groups is so important, because of that short time frame.”

Just weeks before his death, during a period of sobriety, Barnhart made a promise to Vince that neither of them knew she would soon have to try to fulfill.

“I told him, ‘if anything ever happens to you, Vince, I’ll help save lives for you.’ ” Her voice catches when she describes the tears in Vince’s eyes as he replied, “I would love that.”

It was this memory that inspired Look Beyond Addiction’s logo — a blue eye filled with tears. But rather than tears of grief or sadness, Barnhart says, these are tears of hope. A year after Vince’s death, Barnhart began to look for opportunities to raise awareness about the issue of addiction in our society. Her goal, on top of fundraising for resources such as Umbrella Society, was to educate the public about the reality of drug and alcohol addiction and the dangers of recreational use.

“It takes that one choice for someone to get lost on this path,” she says. “From that point on, that journey is something that affects us all. For some it isn’t even a journey. Sometimes it just takes that one time for someone to lose their life.”

This year, the proceeds from the Look Beyond Addiction Awareness Walk will go towards Foundation House — a place where young men in recovery can live for up to two years (provided they have been sober for at least 30 days and have gone through some sort of treatment program) while they adjust to sober living, with support in finding employment, education and community involvement.

“Addiction affects everyone,” says Geoff Hughes, director of Foundation House. “Even if you don’t have a friend or family member who struggles with it, even just economically speaking . . . it’s everywhere.”

Harper agrees. “We’ve made the social argument — that this is someone’s mom, sister, uncle, and so on — for years. It goes so far and then falls on deaf ears. I think it would be cool if somebody put together a good economic argument. What’s this costing? How many ambulance rides have to do with addiction? What percentage of people in the emergency ward are actually there for addiction? And if we can provide immediate help to even 10 per cent of the addicted population, what would that do in terms of police calls, ambulance rides, child protection and all those costly services out there?”

Just prior to the 2.5 km walk, the day’s speakers gather on the stage to release butterflies. There’s silence as one speaker opens the cage and, one by one, the butterflies flutter out. Some float and dart amongst the crowd, others fly upwards and disappear into the sun’s rays. Hughes explains that the symbolism of the butterflies comes from a Native American legend: “According to legend, if anyone desires a wish to come true they must first capture a butterfly and whisper their wish to it. Since the butterfly can make no sound, it cannot reveal the wish to anyone but the Great Spirit who hears and sees all. In gratitude for giving the beautiful butterfly its freedom, the wish will be taken to the heavens and granted.”

Barnhart’s wish is evident. At the end of the day, the message she hopes to get across through the Look Beyond Addiction Walk reiterates the importance of time.

“It is time now for change. It is time to get real about the problems in our community, to make treatment accessible. It’s time for people to realize it’s all around us, and that it could happen to them.”