This is the first instalment in a four-part series on recovery in Greater Victoria. Find more in the next edition of Victoria News or online at vicnews.com/tag/house-of-hope.
In a mid-size home with freshly painted steps, on a quiet Victoria street near Rock Bay Landing, lives a group of men, each with a different story, from different walks of life. This is the Umbrella Society’s Foundation House, where the 11 men residing there, despite all their difference, have one thing in common — all are in active recovery.
Evan James answers the door holding back a barking dog named Lyca, who is also in recovery. James wears a button-down shirt, blue jeans and spotless white Adidas shoes. He has a friendly face framed by dark hair with some grey coming through, making him look older than he really is.
Black Press Media was invited to “ride-along” with the housing manager to learn more about the next phase of the opioid crisis. This House of Hope series highlights the valleys and peaks that go hand-in-hand when overcoming something as crippling as drug addiction, alcoholism or not having access to mental health resources.
Sitting at a dining table, the men introduce themselves, ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s. Foundation House is one of three recovery homes that Umbrella runs. The second stage housing is for men who have completed a minimum of 30 days in stabilization. Residents work together, cooking meals and doing daily chores while focusing on their own journey to recovery and supporting each other.
James asks if anyone has heard from a former resident who had relapsed a few days prior. Umbrella takes a different approach when one of their residents relapses. Instead of casting them aside or kicking them out, they actually ramp up the amount of support that person gets.
Sharlene Law, executive director for Umbrella, says thanks to the fact that almost all of the outreach workers on the team having lived experience — either with substance abuse or mental health issues — they know this is the time when someone in recovery actually needs more support.
James is one of those outreach workers with lived experience, having had the “best of both worlds,” he battled drug addiction and alcoholism since his teen years. The 38-year-old started smoking pot in junior high as a way to deal with his social anxiety.
“I didn’t like the way it made me feel,” he says, recalling the added anxiety he experienced every time he lit up. “But I liked everything else about it.”
James describes his first drink as almost a spiritual awakening, presenting itself to him as the answer to everything he had been looking for up until that point. It quickly became an obsession.
Drinking throughout the week, at school, in the mornings, in the middle of the night — James says one thing he learned through his journey is addiction is a progressive illness. When he finished high school James tried cocaine, which eventually led to him smoking crack-cocaine.
With his depression and anxiety worsening whenever he wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol, James began to seek a change in his life. Thinking if he could cut out the drugs, life would be fine.
“Alcohol was such an ingrained part of me that I wasn’t even going to consider giving that up,” he says. “It was my identity, I considered it as essential as a meal in the day.”
The odd day James went without a drink was hell. He was constantly sick, unknowingly in detox and going through withdrawal with no end in sight. James eventually overdosed intentionally — something that’s not uncommon for those struggling with addiction who believe they have no way out. This happened a few times. James recalls feeling a strong sense of relief upon waking up in the hospital and being able to give up the fight, even if only for a short amount of time.
This was the beginning of the end of his substance use. The next couple of years were a reoccurring pattern of using, ending up in hospital, trying to get clean and then relapsing. It was during this turbulent time that he connected with Umbrella for the first time. Coming from a place of not knowing anyone in recovery, meeting the outreach workers gave him a “sliver of hope,” showing him that addiction can be overcome.
James credits Umbrella’s approach as one of the main reasons he was able to recover.
“Every time I would end up in the hospital or back in detox I was beating the crap out of myself every day and telling myself how worthless I was,” he says. “What I needed at that moment was the love, kindness and compassion that was provided for me.”
With no treatment centre on the Island, James packed everything up and went to Surrey after some “gentle encouragement” from Umbrella staff. Digging deep into himself, James learned new tools and strategies that helped him deal with his addiction and alcoholism. He says while treatment was hard, the bigger challenge was leaving and coming back to the Island.
“It was almost like starting from scratch,” he says. “All these supports I had built up, all the people in recovery I had met were back on the mainland.” He ended up relapsing once again.
After learning he would be a father, James devoted everything he had to his recovery, going to multiple meetings a day, attending support groups and counselling sessions — it was this or death he says.
It’s been 10 years since James’ last stint with drugs and alcohol, he now uses his experiences to support and mentor the other men Umbrella works with. After speaking with many of the residents at Foundation House, most say they look to James as a role model and an example of where they’d like their own lives to be someday.
Currently, Umbrella Society is raising funds to purchase Foundation Home, which they have rented for the past four years. A charity hockey game between various Boston Bruins alumni and Greater Victoria Firefighters will help pay for a down payment on the house. To purchase tickets to the charity hockey game or to get in touch with Umbrella Society visit umbrellasociety.ca.
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