My wife, Sheryl, and I were downtown recently for a dinner. A light-hearted evening out became an opportunity to reflect on the toll addiction takes on our city. Up and down the block, I saw men and women old beyond their years because they were in the grips of that terrible disease.
It was equal parts heartbreaking and frustrating – heartbreaking because each person is someone’s son or daughter, a person with dreams and aspirations, and frustrating because our social and health-care systems are so clearly failing these people.
My views on addiction have evolved over the years. I used to think addicts could turn their lives around through willpower alone. That if they just tried harder, they could break free from the destructive cycle. I have learned the desire to recover must be backed by the necessary supports to empower people to reclaim their lives.
Nearly three years ago, I became involved with the Terminator Foundation, an organization that works with youth who are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Started by Vanisha Breault, the foundation takes a novel approach to battling addiction: transforming lives through the sport of triathlon. Youth learn to trade a destructive addiction for a healthy one.
The Terminator Foundation is personal for Vanisha. A single mother of four and in long-term recovery herself, she tried for years to get help for her own daughter, Eden. Eden’s life was slowly being eaten away by an addiction to heroin and fentanyl. Homeless and destitute, her future looked bleak. As Eden says, “My plan was just to use until I overdosed.” Thankfully, she didn’t. She went into recovery, has been substance-free for more than two years and is now a mother herself.
During my time on the board, I’ve seen similar powerful transformations – young people who had previously given up on life, and who have gone on to achieve things they never thought possible. I count Vanisha as a good friend. I’ve learned so much about this heartbreaking issue from her, including the gaps in our social and health-care systems and the unrelenting stigma surrounding addiction and mental health. This problem affects all of us in some way and every business in the city. We need to pull together to do better as a community.
In the debate over safe injection sites, it feels like ideology is creeping into the addictions issue. I support safe injection sites because they reduce potential harm to vulnerable people. But I wonder whether we have shifted resources too far towards harm reduction, at the expense of treatment for metal health and addiction in hospitals and recovery programs. Let’s agree that better balance is needed.
There are amazing organizations doing admirable work in Calgary. They do miracles with the resources they have; coordinating with similar organizations is challenging when the current system necessitates competition for funds instead of collaboration. I’m not suggesting there is a simple solution. But we need a more collaborative approach, one that brings together government, addiction experts and private sector agencies. Coming together with open minds and compassion is what Calgary needs now.