Tyler and Brooke’s personal stories about their experience with drug addiction shared a few common themes. Both were raised by single mothers, experienced extreme poverty, both grew up in downtown Sault Ste. Marie and both had easy access to drugs.
It may be worrisome to note that Tyler and Brooke still live downtown, experiencing their recovery in the very environment they first acquired their addiction.
Of her childhood Brooke recalls, “It’s like survival mode when you’re growing up downtown. Like, you have street workers all around you, you have a lot of drugs accessible to you. You see your neighbour making all this money off of drugs so you see that it’s easy and then you want to do it to.”
In his early twenties, Tyler would get a bit of a promotion moving large amounts of cash and product, but for the most part Tyler and Brooke were just on the lower end of the local drug culture’s hierarchy –because their socio-economic status kept them down, they were poor. It’s a hierarchy within the drug trade that people often speak about behind closed doors.
It will be no great surprise to locals that several businesses are fronts for washing money acquired from the drug trade. That little business that never seems to have any customers but has been around forever. Maybe it’s that little bar that sells about 20 beers in a day but rings off 70 bottles by cash-out time. Or that car wash- you know, the A1A Car Wash (“Have an A1 day!”), that sells an awful lot of the ‘Ultimate Wash’ specials -complete with the high gloss wax finish and underbody rust inhibitor.
Tyler preferred to smile and shrug when asked about ‘those places’ saying, “I’m not saying I do know but then again I’m not saying I don’t know.”
Brooke mentions the name of a seedy establishment that leverages patronage by capitalizing on addiction in the Sault. “They know they can get more people in there by hiring dope dealers to D.J. , to be security, to bartend and they do that, because that’s bringing in more people. That’s been happening for years.”
Tyler admits that there are far more drugs moving through the community than the general public is aware, particularly because the Sault is a border town as well as a convenient pit stop on the Trans-Canada Highway to and fro the Western provinces.
Tyler, who has been publicly tried for his addiction and drug related crime, shakes his head at the living room carpet as he categorizes the various professions that he has encountered around the local drug ring. Without naming anyone, he says a lot –and it’s a lot of what has been floated throughout the community for years.
Brooke encapsulates all that he says when she says, “At the end of the day, stating in this piece, it’s important to say that a lot of people who come from authority and privilege are the ones that are the ring leaders in all of this and are the ones that are at the top, supplying the ones at the bottom, with drugs.”
Tyler and Brooke acknowledge that the treatment of certain demographics of addicts is subjective, but they also highlight the common bond of addiction.
“Your co-worker at your job is addicted to something,” remarks Brooke. “Your boss goes home and slams back a bottle of wine and takes Percocets with it to numb their pain. The nurse helping you in the hospital has her own addiction problem. Your friend that you sit beside at school has an addiction problem.”
Both Tyler and Brooke are conscious that their socio-economic background –being poor, puts them at greater risk to judgement and are aware that their status precludes access to the best resources or networks that would provide the best opportunity for recovery with greater privacy.
However, the irony of discretion is noted and Tyler and Brooke emphasize that the stigma around addiction exists because society, our community, doesn’t openly speak about it.
Of elected representatives in the Sault, Tyler says, “They like to hide the fact about drug addicts in this City. They don’t want to deal with us. They don’t want to know us. There’s a lot of people od’ing here and it’s not in the news.”
Brooke adds, “I think this whole city needs to clean up its act. They sit and point fingers and at the end of the day it can happen to anyone. The first step within any problem is to admit that we have a problem. So I would like our Mayor and City Council to publicly state that we have a problem in this City with addictions, that we have a huge crisis.”
Tyler and Brooke articulate that the City needs to take on a more active role in the prevention of addiction and the support for addicts while using and while in recovery.
Readers familiar with Tyler’s story and Brooke’s story, will recall with the exception of the daily dose of methadone that Tyler receives, and Brooke’s consultation with her family doctor, both are recovering with minimal professional support. Brooke detoxed cold-turkey –puking and sweating it out in a basement. This time around, Tyler detoxed under medical supervision.
On two occasions, fearing for his life and ready to seek help, Tyler presented himself to the Sault Area Hospital Detox Centre. On the first occasion Tyler was turned away.
“They told me there’s no point in me staying because I don’t have a health card therefore I cannot apply for treatment. I was denied entry to detox and I really needed help. I couldn’t believe they did that. And at that, I knew my health card number, and told them. I thought afterwards what if I would of od’ed? Wow.”
On a second occasion, with his health card in hand, Tyler returned to detox. He was discharged after one week. He didn’t feel ready to leave.
“I went to detox and after a week they told me I had to leave, the treatment place would get a hold of me when they got a hold of me –so, ‘go out and use until then. You might be dead but you know…’ Fuck.”
Brooke underpins what has been expressed by many who are seeking professional mental health care for myriad reasons. “I tried to get on a list for psychiatry. They told me it was going to take up to six months if not longer. They have to bring a psychiatrist in from Toronto.”
Tyler and Brooke are open to the idea of attending a rehab centre but lament the thought of leaving the Sault to do so, both saying that they rely on regular contact with their families to stay clean. Teen Challenge North, located in the Sault, provides rehabilitation for youth and offers a men’s program. However, the faith based model doesn’t appeal to everyone. Unlike Sault Ste. Marie, mainstream rehabilitation centres can be found in Elliot Lake, Sudbury and Timmins.
“It would be nice if we had a recovery centre here. My biggest fear is leaving my family. My family is my biggest support,” says Brooke. We have been having this conversation in her mother’s home. Brooke has been staying with her mother, not wanting to return to her apartment where access to drugs is too easy. “If I need to leave, even to Elliot Lake, I’ll have nobody. I couldn’t imagine leaving my biggest supports.”
Tyler is nodding his head. “…you have nobody. Nobody at all. You need family. Family helps a lot. My brother, Caleb, has helped me a lot. He bought me a gym pass and takes me there every day.”
Tyler envisions a comprehensive centre that provides tiers of support for addicts in whatever stage of use or recovery they find themselves in. “It could be place for treatment, one to one counselling- maybe have a psychiatrist on site. And offer things to addicts to keep them busy- a gym, whatever.”
Brooke agreed with the concept, acknowledging her own isolation in recovery, saying, “Early in the recovery there’s a lot of anxiety and paranoia. I hate going anywhere –to the mall. I think people are staring at me, that they know me. That they know about me and my addiction. That they hate me…”
Addiction is just one consequence of using drugs. There’s a lot of collateral damage that goes along with it. Physical safety, family turmoil, loss of employment and as in Tyler’s case the contraction of viruses and Hepatitis C through the use of dirty needles. “I shot up a virus, it went to my heart. And I caught Hep C. I’m going through treatment for that.”
For Brooke, turning to the sex trade, especially as a desperate addict, her risk to acquire STI’s and STD’s increased. “Personally, for me, when you’re doing sex work just to get your fix, you don’t care if you’re using a condom or not ‘cause you just want their drugs or their money.”
The need to increase harm reduction strategies for addicts in the Sault has not been unrecognized though providing these options has been challenging.
“People just want to save us rather than keep us safe in our predicaments,” says Brooke.
Harm reduction generally refers to the practices, policies and programs set out to lessen the adverse health, social and economic consequences of drug use. Safe injection sites, needle exchange programs and provision of other clean drug paraphernalia –like crack pipes, and provision of condoms to sex workers with (or without) addiction, are a few examples of harm reduction. Drop-in health services supportive of addicts that provide testing for diseases acquired through drug use or on site counselling are other examples of harm reduction.
On a national level, developing policy that increases support for all addicts –such as universal access to the life-saving, opioid-analgesic –Naloxone, and passing into legislation bills like the Good Samaritan Law that exempt legal charges for possession when a person seeks emergency assistance for themselves or another person following overdose, is pressing.
Regarding the prevention of drug use, Tyler, who described himself as a bored, impoverished youngster, offers practical advice. “The City needs to focus more on the youth. There’s not enough for youth to do. Especially if you live downtown. Especially if you’re poor.”
Youth Odena –formerly Bored Youth Sault, was spurred to organize after a local youth took to graffiti the word ‘bored’ in dozens of locations throughout the Sault. Getting behind the message that there needed to be more opportunities for young people to engage in the community and to have their voices count, the group pursued the involvement of the City’s elected officials.
In Brooke’s opinion an eventual meeting with the Mayor could have gone better. Armed with local research Brooke initiated a conversation about the need for a youth centre in the Sault and creating accessible arts and culture opportunities for young people.
“Basically the Mayor said he thought it was a great idea but he did not seem to want to be a part of it. It sounded like it would be a ten year down the road dream rather than a reality. This is something that needs to be worked on now. So when you have movements like Youth Odena, the City needs to work with those youth that are wanting to engage in positive outlets.”
Tyler summarizes his feelings on youth engagement and outreach for addicts. “It just seems like the City is more focused on the higher class citizens and not us.”
Tyler and Brooke are pacing themselves through their recovery but are hopeful about the future.
Brooke is sharply focused on completing her education and beginning a career. Brooke acknowledged in the first part of her story that making a move to a new city where she has no connection to the drug trade would increase her chances of remaining clean. She also recognizes that her past may be a dead weight as she tries to move on in Sault Ste. Marie.
“I definitely need to get out of this City. My name has a lot of negative connotation. And I’ve worked so hard to try to maintain a positive piece to myself. I could never work in this City. I just have too many ties here.”
Tyler is a bit more cautious about the future, wanting to focus on his recovery day by day.
“I want to try to get clean for my mother. Because all my brothers were, like you know, struggled with addictions. And when my brother died, that crushed my mom. She’s going through a lot. My family struggles with addictions. She’s so proud of me for being clean and trying to stay out of trouble. I just want to get clean to prove to my mom, and everybody else, that I’m not just a fall-down, piece of shit junkie.”
After he puts a few more months of recovery under his belt, Tyler wants to pick up the last couple of credits for his high school diploma and maybe pursue that childhood dream of his to become an electrician.
It is worth noting that for Tyler in particular, a fresh start, even after months or years of recovery isn’t always possible thanks in large part to the role of media. We live in world where no bad deed or human fallibility is unforgotten. The archaic practice of naming and shaming marginalized people, though ‘yes’ crimes may have been committed or not, is alive and thriving in Sault Ste. Marie.
Even choosing to identify himself in this piece increases the chances for his past to pop up in the google search results. But Tyler speculates that perhaps the only way he can combat the judgement and persecution he receives is by facing it and going on the record about his experience with addiction.
Tyler also hopes that speaking openly about his addiction is a part of his recovery process, a way to contribute to prevention and more compassion, and an opportunity for a rich legacy. “I’d like to talk to young kids about drugs and tell them what I’ve went through and what it can do to them. You never think you’re going to get as bad as I did –I didn’t.”
(feature image: Gore Street, Sault Ste. Marie 2011)