Elliot Hudson found the box on his first afternoon home from prison.
He’d gone up to his old bedroom in his parents’ Ottawa house to unpack some of the clothes his father tidied away while Elliot had been incarcerated. He pulled out the old crock-pot box with “recovery stuff” Sharpied on the side. Inside there were maybe six or seven leather-bound journals, dating back to 2012.
Elliot, a contemplative 37-year-old man with an occasionally destructive tendency to get trapped in his own mind, couldn’t resist flipping through. It was disheartening.
The dates scrawled in the corners changed but the story didn’t. He read one page: I’m back in recovery… I’m super committed… I’ve been to five AA meetings in the last five days… I’m really grateful to be sober. This is it.
Then he’d flip ahead two weeks or two months: I’ve relapsed again and I feel terrible about it… I’m so ashamed. I’m so broken… What’s wrong with me?
“I saw the progression of how this illness has just decimated my life,” Elliot says. Family, friends, work, financial stability, emotional stability —
“There’s not a single area of my life that (addiction) hasn’t touched.”
To be sober and fresh out of jail on that day, Oct. 24, 2019, doesn’t feel all that different from being sober and “super committed” to staying that way in 2012, 2013 or 2014. A little more humbling, sure, with a list of court-ordered restrictions meant to encourage sobriety vis-à-vis the threat of more jail. But if his brain, already well aware that alcohol was ruining his life, couldn’t keep him sober then, what’s to say it will succeed now, rubber-stamped rules or no?
At Alcoholics Anonymous meetings they tell you that alcohol is “cunning, baffling and powerful,” but that if you acknowledge that, and admit your wrongs and are willing to make amends and put your life in the hands of a higher power, you will recover.
It’s an enticing thought, almost like if you know enough about the disease you can protect yourself from it — appealing to a thinker like Elliot. And yet, as two doctors wrote in a March 1993 review of addiction in the Psychiatric Clinics of North America medical journal, “the potential for relapse… persists indefinitely.”
Elliot thumbs through his old journals.
I’m back in recovery… I’m super committed… I’ve relapsed again… What’s wrong with me?
“My first priority is staying sober,” he says. “If I don’t do that, I can’t do anything else.”
For many people, addiction rolls off the tongue a little too easily. It’s, oh, I’m addicted to these little scones at the bakery down the street, or this new show on Netflix that I can’t. Stop. Watching. But the reality is that you probably can stop. Or at least, you can stop watching long enough to go to work or to your dinner reservations or to walk your dog.
Many experts, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), rely on the four Cs to differentiate addiction as a catchall term for finding it hard to say no and an actual substance use disorder. The four Cs are: craving, loss of control of amount or frequency of use, compulsion to use and using despite the consequences. Elliot knows that last one well.
Often, addiction stories double as sobriety narratives. We like that story, says Dr. Raj Bhatla, the chief of staff and psychiatrist-in-chief at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre , where Elliot has received help in the past, because it’s simple.
We don’t like to look at the way social factors and individual people’s thoughts and behaviours interconnect. We don’t like to think about how housing, finances and abuse can each help push someone down the path of addiction.
“Addiction is a complex condition, a complex interaction between human beings and their environments,” wrote Dr. Gabor Maté in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a book about addiction. It’s a book that makes Elliot feel seen.
“Addiction has biological, chemical, neurological, psychological, medical, emotional, social, political, economic, and spiritual underpinnings — and perhaps others I haven’t thought about,” Maté wrote.
“To get anywhere near a complete picture we must keep shaking the kaleidoscope to see what other patterns emerge.”
That’s a big ask. Bhatla explains we’ve simplified things as a society because it’s easier to form conclusions.
“We should be more sophisticated as a society and we should be less judgmental.”
The first time Elliot had a drink he was 13 years old and a friend had stolen a mickey of whisky from her dad’s basement.
He’d grown up with a mother who struggled with addiction. So while he knew the effects of someone’s addiction — how they could be selfish, inadvertently cruel with cravings or wreck your plans to go camping or to a movie with their hangover — he hadn’t really placed a mickey of whisky on the spectrum to a lifetime of struggle.
In the backyard, the two friends mixed whisky with Pepsi and drank until Elliot was giddy and a little bit dizzy.
Elliot lay back on the grass.
Wow, he thought, no wonder my mom likes this stuff. This is incredible. I want to feel like this all the time. For a moment, he was content. He looked at his friend and asked, “When can we do this again?”
He didn’t think twice about asking; he felt wonderful and he wanted to feel wonderful all the time. She gave him a funny look, like, why are you already thinking about next time? Why aren’t you just enjoying this moment?
“The problem with substance abuse is that it works,” Elliot says.
“Up to that point I had been so full of fear and uncomfortable emotions and in that moment, they just disappeared.”
Elliot started showing up tipsy, then drunk to high school events. He wrote an exam hammered. He ignored the lectures: alcohol is bad! Drugs are bad! Don’t you dare use!
It was an easy out from dealing with physical abuse in a home that revolved around addiction, and an incident where he was sexually abused as a teenager. Drunken Elliot appeared so frequently that the school reached out to his parents to intervene. They set up a meeting with an addiction counsellor.
The counsellor was the first person Elliot met who scratched at the surface of why he drank.
Elliot told him the truth: I drink because it makes me feel good and normal, I become a teenager who can actually connect with his friends instead of feeling anxious and isolated in my own brain.
It was as Maté wrote: “Drugs have the power to make the painful tolerable and the humdrum worth living for.
“Like patterns in a tapestry, recurring themes emerge in my interviews with addicts,” Maté wrote.
“The drug as emotional anaesthetic; as an antidote to a frightful feeling of emptiness; as a tonic against fatigue, boredom, alienation, and a sense of personal inadequacy; as stress reliever and social lubricant.”
Elliot went back to the counsellor half a dozen times. He didn’t stop drinking, but he did find himself devoting a little more headspace to why he was drinking.
Addiction is a brain-warping disease, but is it a crime?
The desire to see drug use treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one is behind the push for decriminalizing illicit drugs for personal use, an idea that’s come up repeatedly in recent years as a result of the opioid crisis, which claimed nearly 14,000 lives across Canada between January 2016 and June 2019.
In July 2018, Toronto’s board of health asked the federal government to decriminalize drugs and in April 2019, B.C.’s chief health officer asked the provincial government to do the same. So far, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has resisted, preferring to focus on other harm reduction efforts.
Canada has a huge mental health and addiction crisis in prison. Federally, 70 per cent of inmates used alcohol or drugs in problematic ways in the year leading up to their incarceration, per a fact sheet compiled by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. More than half of inmates serving time have a problem with alcohol, while nearly half have had problems with drugs.
Substance use and abuse is a prominent factor underlying criminal behaviour, and not just in obvious ways like impaired driving. Substance use plays a direct or indirect role for people serving time federally for assault (69 per cent), theft (66 per cent), murder (58 per cent) and break and enter and robbery (56 per cent), per the centre’s research.
And the people for whom addiction and mental health disproportionately leads to jail time are some of Canada’s most marginalized residents — Black people, Indigenous people, people who are grappling with the ongoing impacts of intergenerational trauma.
Last month, Canada’s prison ombudsman warned of the “Indigenization of Canada’s prison population” now that the proportion of people in federal prison who are Indigenous has reached more than 30 per cent, despite Indigenous people making up only five per cent of the country’s total population. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of Black people behind bars has grown by 69 per cent, so while they make up roughly three per cent of the Canadian population, they now represent more than eight per cent of the population behind bars.
Elliot, who is white, knows he has privilege. Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge while shame spiralling after another relapse, but he fights to remind himself. An estimated six million Canadians will meet the criteria (those four Cs) for substance use disorder in their lifetime. Elliot wants to use his experience to help them.
People don’t get the help they need when our society focuses on individual choice and responsibility, says Justin Piché, an associate criminology professor at the University of Ottawa and co-founder of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project.
We wind up “setting aside our collective responsibilities to each other and to the people,” he says.
Economic, social, racial and gender inequality is well documented in Canada. And so, Piché says, “we live in a society where people experience a great deal of trauma quite frequently.
“We need to be making a gradual shift towards a more compassionate and caring society, while at the same time trying to address the harms that exist now,” he says.
“That’s not easy work, to work towards a just transition, but we need one.”
On Jan. 18, 2018, Elliot made a weapon out of a prison regulation deodorant canister and a sock and attacked a guard at the Central East Jail in Lindsay, Ont. He grabbed her by the shirt collar and threatened her.
He would later acknowledge he must have looked terrifying — big and burly, sporting a beard — and want to apologize. But in the moment he felt desperate. He’d been in prison a few months, still waiting to be sentenced and still using. He wasn’t getting the treatment he needed and he had just come out of isolation.
His mother had recently died.
“I was a mess,” Elliot says.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services says it is its “firm belief that when someone is given the chance to address the personal and socioeconomic issues that drive their criminal activity, everyone benefits.”
She acknowledged that “crime, violence, mental health and addictions are complex issues that cannot be solved overnight or by the provincial government alone.”
Elliot worked in audio engineering throughout his 20s, where booze and drugs were normal and nobody batted an eye when he was drunk or high — or both.
Elliot felt functional until he wasn’t. At some point, he realized that once he started drinking, he couldn’t stop.
Then he missed his best friend’s wedding. It was time to get sober.
With a clear head — and liver — Elliot’s world opened up.
He wanted to help open up other people’s worlds, too. He got a diploma in addiction counselling and spent a few years as a peer support worker. In 2015, he was accepted into the social work program at Carleton University. He wanted his thesis to be about the criminalization of addiction.
The war on drugs, which was initiated more than four decades ago, “has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world,” wrote a panel of experts in the 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy report.
It led to the mass incarceration of people with addictions and didn’t even curb drug use. In fact, United Nations estimates show that drug consumption has actually gone up. Opiate use jumped by more than 34 per cent from 1998 to 2008, when it was estimated that 17.35 million people were using. Similarly, cocaine use jumped by 27 per cent to 17 million and cannabis use jumped by 8.5 per cent to 160 million.
“End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others,” recommended the Global Commission.
It’s a huge topic; one so big that Elliot’s thesis advisor dissuaded him from pursuing it. And so Elliot winnowed it to access to addiction treatment in Ontario.
Having a purpose didn’t make Elliot’s stressors disappear. After all, logic doesn’t stop emotion. When the anxiety and cravings are overwhelming, it’s easy to seek relief in one sip that becomes two drinks, then 10.
Elliot finished his first year of school in spring 2016. He relapsed in the fall and took a mental health leave. By October he was facing charges for drunkenly assaulting his parents. He was released on conditions to not drink or do drugs. He was arrested again six months later for drunkenly damaging two windows at an ex-girlfriend’s home and failing to comply with the court condition that he stay sober.
Elliot tried to go back to school in the fall, but he was still drinking and using. He was bouncing between shelters. All his money went to alcohol and drugs. He started to shoplift from the liquor store when he couldn’t scrounge up the cash.
“It’s hard to remember what it felt like to be that desperate,” Elliot says. “It’s almost like your brain’s been hijacked.”
By the fall of 2017, Elliot had dropped out of school and was driven only by how to get the next bottle, his next fix.
On Oct. 10, he robbed a store. On Oct. 14, he robbed a gas station. Both times he threatened the cashier, although he had no weapons. The Ottawa police spread his image far and wide after the gas station robbery. Elliot turned himself in.
“Obviously, alcohol has led you down this path at this point and it’s time to deal with it,” Justice C.S. Dorval said during his sentencing on Feb. 5, 2018. He added six months for attacking the prison guard.
“The mental health issues, you can always get assistance. The addiction, you need to want it, you know, want to deal with it and it’s difficult until you get to the point where you want to be sober every single day,” the judge said.
Dorval encouraged corrections to help Elliot.
Substance abuse cost Canada $38.4 billion, or roughly $1,000 per person regardless of age, in 2014, according to a report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. About $14.6 billion was attributed to alcohol abuse alone.
But is jail the right place for treatment?
Most addiction experts say no.
As Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk noted in her December 2019 report on Ontario prisons, they are not equipped to deal with the rising number of inmates who have mental health issues.
The report found frontline staff don’t have the training required to de-escalate situations that arise because of mental health. In a review of internal investigations done in response to prison incidents in Toronto and Thunder Bay, the auditor general found that 57 per cent of inmates who tried to harm themselves or others had a mental health alert on their file.
Per the auditor general’s report, enhanced training provided by CAMH is due to be rolled out across the province this year. A spokesperson for the ministry said the program officially launched in January and includes “more job-specific case studies and scenario-based learning, as well as an emphasis on communication and de-escalation skills.”
And yet, there’s a culture clash between health care and justice.
It’s inevitable, Dr. Raj Bhatla says. While both health-care providers and corrections staff value community safety, he says the health-care side is more focused on treatment — “it’s a different paradigm.”
That means it can be harder to rehabilitate people in prison, says Dr. Lori Regenstreif, an assistant professor at McMaster University who also works with the rapid access to addiction medicine clinic at St. Joe’s Hospital and the Shelter Health Network.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services makes decisions about prison health care instead of the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Corrections’ focus winds up being “what’s legal versus illegal on the inside,” Regenstreif says.
In other words, the ministry will be concerned about the safety risk of inmates sharing the drugs Regenstrief prescribes with one another. However, Regenstrief, who prescribes buprenorphine, an opioid medication like methadone that’s used to treat addiction, would rather them share. The drug isn’t very dangerous and won’t get a person high, she says, but it could help them a lot. A spokesperson for the ministry says policies and procedures are in place for delivering health care behind bars and that “decisions are between inmates and medical professionals.”
More than 250,000 people are sent to prisons in Canada every year, which means one in 250 people. It has serious impacts on their health. Researchers in Ontario followed provincial inmates, such as Elliot, for 12 years beginning in 2000 and published their results in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2016.
Those inmates were four times more likely to die than the general population. Their deaths were largely due to preventable and treatable causes, including overdose, heart disease and suicide. Inmates also died younger — men’s life expectancy was 4.2 years shorter compared with the general population while women’s declined by 10.6 years.
For Elliot, already feeling desperate in jail, just hearing the judge say he would get help to treat his mental health and addiction was a positive step forward.
Except, nothing happened. Elliot stayed in maximum security at the Lindsay jail. When he asked about treatment, he says he was brushed off and told to put in a form to request a meeting with a social worker. The social worker told him it might take months. A spokesperson for the ministry says it works with staff as well as health and social service agencies to make sure inmates get the supports they need.
There was a lot of drug use on his range that the guards ignored so long as there weren’t any fights, Elliot says. A spokesperson for the ministry says it takes the health and safety of staff and inmates “very seriously” and that staff are “trained to be vigilant” with respect to contraband.
Frustrated and overwhelmed, Elliot kept using. What was the point?
“There was already despondency on my part,” he says. “Can I do this? Can I have a good life? Is there any point?”
Using felt like the path of least resistance.
“I’m one of the fortunate ones from where I’m sitting,” Elliot said in the family visitation room at St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Centre in December 2018.
He was transferred to the centre that summer and was finally receiving the treatment he’d envisioned during his sentencing. It was the first time in a long time he felt hope.
The St. Lawrence facility is solely for men, a special prison operated in conjunction with the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group for inmates with serious mental illness. It provides specialized treatment for a number of issues, including sex offending, trauma disorders and dysfunctional anger. Roughly 100 inmates receive treatment at a time and according to a ministry spokesperson, there are currently four inmates on a waitlist to get in.
Elliot was eloquent and cheerful. He also acknowledged his privilege, even behind bars. So many of the men he’d met in jail had been in and out of prison since they were teenagers. They had no easily employable skills, no stable housing and no further education. Many would have to return to neighbourhoods where there were strong ties to crime, trauma and what landed them behind bars in the first place.
Elliot often found himself reflecting on just how different his life would be if he’d been caught up in the justice system at a young age instead of planted in front of an addictions counsellor who probed into the why of his disorder.
“It helps me have empathy for the suffering that these guys are enduring because a lot of them haven’t had a chance,” he says.
It’s a tough trajectory to put numbers on, says Bhatla, because it’s multi-faceted and you can’t blame just one thing. Correctional treatment programs like St. Lawrence Valley are important, he says, but not the sole solution.
“We need to do a much better job in catching people earlier, prior to them ending up in the correctional system.”
Many people with addiction and mental health issues have adverse childhood experiences, he says.
“We put them in a position where, from a psychosocial point of view, that’s the pathway.”
Growing up, some people experience emotional, physical or sexual abuse, emotional or physical neglect, domestic abuse, parental separation or divorce, mental illness at home, substance abuse at home, or an incarcerated household member.
Each one increases the likelihood that a person will start using illicit drugs at a young age and use for life between two- and four-fold, according to a 2003 study published in the Pediatrics medical journal looking at more than 8,600 illicit drugs users. Of those surveyed, more than 30 per cent grew up in homes where someone abused substances, like Elliot did, and 25 per cent grew up in homes with mental illness.
“Children and adolescents, who are exposed to the types of childhood experiences that we examined, may have feelings of helplessness, chaos, and importance and may have problems self-regulating affective states,” according to the study.
“Thus, illicit drug use may serve as an avenue to escape or disassociate from the immediate emotional pain, anxiety, and anger that likely accompany such experiences.”
At the St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Centre, Elliot was optimistic about the possibility of a parole hearing. He had plans to get out, stay with his father until he could lease his own apartment, and work in construction to make money to return to school.
“I feel incredibly fortunate.”
On March 7, 2019, Elliot’s dad drove to pick him up from the prison in Brockville. Right away, Elliot says it felt wrong, “like a fantasy movie that didn’t match up to what was happening in real life.”
He’d spent months planning his first meal free — a diner breakfast with real eggs and real sausages instead of the airplane-style pre-packaged meals he’d been fed in prison — but the restaurant he wanted to go to was closed. The backup restaurant was only so-so.
He was excited to sleep in a real bed with lights he could turn all the way off, but he couldn’t sleep. Every time he dozed off, he’d wake up disoriented by the dark and unsure of where he was.
“I got out thinking, ‘Oh, this is no big deal, this will be easy,’” Elliot says. “It turns out it was very, very difficult.”
Elliot’s anxiety was like a living, breathing entity he couldn’t dislodge from his back.
He’d gone from a regimented prison schedule to the freedom to wake up when he wanted and eat when he wanted and do whatever he wanted so long as he stayed stone-cold sober. And while Ontario prisons are required to assist in discharge planning, connecting people like Elliot to reintegration resources, Elliot says he didn’t get that when it came to parole. A ministry spokesperson did not respond to Elliot’s specific case, but said there are support options for inmates being released on parole.
“I felt like I had to make 1,000 decisions a day,” he wrote in a letter.
There was alcohol at the LCBO at the street corner, in the beer commercials during a hockey game, and in the vodka ad on the side of the bus station.
Alcohol was everywhere.
He made a to-do list, put his head down, and tried to will his anxiety to pass. As he crossed things off — bank, dentist — there were more to add on.
“I never felt like I was getting ahead so I started becoming very kind of manic about it,” Elliot says.
His dad told him to slow down but he didn’t listen.
Five days after being released on parole, Elliot went to get his hair cut. He sat there, silently battling his anxiety, while the barber trimmed his hair.
He talks about his anxiety as if it is another person inhabiting his brain, deceptively reminding him that there is one nearly instantaneous relief.
“Hey Elliot,” it tells him, “I know how to get rid of this anxiety. Why don’t we have a few drinks?”
Elliot took an Uber from the hairdresser to a bar at 11 a.m. and started to drink. The first sip tasted like relief.
“Many people have watched themselves helplessly as they began to do something they knew would be unhelpful or self-defeating,” Dr. Gabor Maté explains in his book.
“That’s the experience of brain lock: the clutch is stuck, so nothing can be done to stop the motor of ‘doing’ from engaging.”
Elliot drank until they cut him off around 3 p.m. Then, he went somewhere else — too drunk now for specifics — and drank through the night. It was a direct violation of his parole.
He woke up hungover and scared. He worried he wouldn’t be able to stop drinking again, so he called his parole officer to come clean. He thought she might be able to steer him towards a detox centre or some sort of community-based treatment.
She issued a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest.
“Her hands were tied as soon as she found out I was drinking,” Elliot says. “I fault the system.”
Addiction is a disease, says Bhatla: “It’s a relapsing illness.”
“Many parts of our society see (addiction) as a social weakness or an individual weakness and that’s not OK.”
The Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, which Piché co-founded, runs a jail accountability and information hotline. It’s for people incarcerated at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre and their loved ones to report human rights issues and try to get help staying out of jail.
Elliot’s story — a slip, a plea for help, and an uncompromising system — sounds an awful lot like those calls, Piché says.
Two extreme examples made waves this month after a justice of the peace in Nunavut blasted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for separately arresting two victims of domestic violence. The women had called the police for help with abuse, but wound up arrested because they had both been drinking contrary to sober bail conditions in place prior to the domestic violence for which they asked for help.
“It is troubling,” wrote justice of the peace Joseph Murdoch-Flowers of the RCMP’s decision.
“The police and the Crown must guard against what I would characterize as ‘institutional indifference.’ They must be sensitive to the big picture, and they must not allow legal papers to get in the way of decency and common sense.”
A ministry spokesperson says it’s modernizing health-care delivery for inmates and working to better identify those who have mental health needs.
“The ministry works to ensure those in its custody are treated fairly, respectfully and with the access to health care services that aligns with those in the community,” she says.
But the system is the problem, Piché says.
“We need a (criminal justice system) that actually makes common sense, that provides people care, not cages.”
Back in the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre, Elliot felt demoralized. He pictured his life being married with kids and a career.
“I’m approaching 40 and I don’t really have much to show for myself.”
One of the guys on Elliot’s range offered to help with the depression. Elliot got him some money and spent his first week back in jail high on opiates.
At the end of March, Elliot wrote a letter to Global News from the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre.
“I’m trying to figure out where I went wrong,” he wrote. “All I can say is that getting out was WAY more overwhelming than I could have anticipated. My anxiety was through the roof.”
Elliot intended to push for release again when he went before the parole board on April 2.
“I basically explained to them that my problem is not criminal behaviour, my problem is substances and I just need to figure out a way to stay away from substances,” Elliot said that afternoon. “I politely begged them for a second chance.”
They revoked his parole.
“6 months, 180 days till Freedom version 2.0,” he wrote on April 25. He’d decided to recommit himself to recovery and had been sober again for a few weeks.
Elliot was back at St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Centre.
As good as it felt to be sober and in daily treatment again, it also didn’t feel real. Elliot looked ahead to release, wondering how he could avoid the revolving door of prison and wishing he could focus instead on his health and sobriety.
“What the hospital thinks is best and what corrections thinks is best aren’t necessarily the same thing.”
Oct. 24, 2019 marked two-thirds of his sentence and so his release; another car ride back to Ottawa with his dad. Elliot does not want to go back to jail and he no longer believes he can outsmart his disease. It means he is living with opposing realities: that he must fight to stay sober while bracing for relapse.
The hardest part is the shame, he says.
“When you relapse there’s so much shame and guilt that just perpetuates more using and it creates a cycle that’s very, very difficult to get out of.”
On his last morning in prison, Elliot’s psychiatrist took a moment to remind him that relapse happens. Don’t drink and don’t use, he told him, but if you do, don’t make it a bigger deal than it has to be. You don’t have to throw your life away just because you have a slip.
To Elliot, that means don’t let the shame of having a beer or two turn into an all-night cocaine bender.
One big metal gate opens and shuts, then the second opens.
Is this real? He spent a moment in the car with his father, just thinking. Yeah, it’s real. Two years. I’m done. I’m free.
Less than a week after Elliot got out of jail, he sat at his father’s kitchen table in Kanata, an Ottawa suburb, wearing a button-down with more colours than you’d ever see on an inmate.
He was anxious but not forlorn. He sounded like a person who knew a lot about addiction, trauma and relapse and really, really wanted to stay sober.
“Today’s the fifth day,” Elliot said. “I feel much more calm.”
On the sixth, the Tuesday, Elliot went to a meeting with the John Howard Society to talk about finding him his own lease in Ottawa. It’s too easy to hide away in Kanata, he said, “I don’t want to isolate myself.”
He’d woken up anxious, lonely and full of fear.
Just after 4 p.m., Elliot sent a text about his day. The meeting went well, he wrote. He got bus tickets and $20 in Giant Tiger gift cards.
A pause. Another text: “I woke up today feeling terrified. I’m having a few drinks right now alone but I don’t want to talk about it on camera.”
Relapsing on probation rather than parole is superior in one way: there’s no condition not to drink. Sure, Elliot wants to be sober, but this time an alcohol slip doesn’t automatically mean a return to jail.
Still, November was hard and December was harder. Elliot drank and used drugs. He went to detox twice, although it made him panicky because it reminded him too much of being locked up.
“I need to learn how to live in the world sober and hiding away in a rehab for 28 days is not necessarily going to do that,” he says. “It sort of breaks the pattern of drinking or using, but it’s not teaching me how to integrate back into society.”
The tricky part was sticking to a routine, not hiding away.
He was looking forward to visiting a friend who’d stuck by him when he was incarcerated. She had two kids, a loyal Lab and an exuberant new puppy.
The kids wake up at 7:45 a.m. Breakfast, meds and teeth brushing takes until 8:30 a.m. and then they’re off to school. After school, they get two hours of video games and YouTube followed by one hour of homework and then another hour of games. Then, it’s meds, teeth brushing and lights out.
The routine is for Elliot’s friend’s two kids, who he moved in with just before Christmas. And yet, Elliot says, it’s really helped him cement his own routine. “Addicts are selfish,” Elliot says, but kids demand time and attention in a way that distracts from addiction and makes Elliot feel useful.
Add in the dogs — a Lab named Honey and a pug puppy named Lola — that demand pets and walks and love to wrestle, and his days are full with less time to overthink.
Elliot is also sober. He marks one month on Jan. 17, 2020. It is a relief. He spent November and early December drinking and using. He went to detox twice. He buried his cousin from an overdose, a cruel reminder of addiction’s end game.
“I woke up clean and sober this morning. I have no intentions of using today, and hopefully I go to bed the same way,” he says. “Rinse and repeat.”
He’s seeing a psychiatrist now who’s made a huge difference. She told him to always come, but to let her know when he’s been drinking so she can adjust her therapy plan. That takes off some of the pressure and shame.
Elliot’s also on new medications: clonidine for stress and naltrexone for his cravings. The last time he drank was the first time he took naltrexone. It’s supposed to trick the pleasure centre of your brain, he says, and — ever-curious — Elliot tested it out by having a few beers. He felt no relief, just bloat.
“It sounds kind of dramatic but it was a bit of a goodbye ceremony for me,” he says.
“Alcohol’s been hurting me for years. It’s destroyed every important relationship in my life and it’s time to say goodbye.”
Elliot slips later that month. He is admitted to the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre for inpatient treatment for substance use on Feb. 12.
The hospital program is good, “really good,” Elliot says after a few days, but he’s emotional. Right now, he’s listening to Blackbird by Shake Shake Go a lot: Imagine if it all goes wrong / One day I know it must come / But nothing’s gonna change my love for you, for you.
— with files from Abigail Bimman