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article imageOp-Ed: My friend Walter, alcohol and drug addiction and good people lost

By Marcus Hondro     Jul 8, 2015 in Health
I worked at a drug and alcohol treatment center on a small island near Vancouver not long ago. It was not the best but nor was it the worst. There were compassionate counselors but the administration caused more confusion than was helpful.
Regardless, everyone worked hard at trying to help clients get well. There are a wealth of stories that take place in addiction treatment centers daily and I am from time to time compelled to write about the people I encountered. This is a story mostly about Walter R., a fine and amusing man who did his very best to get clean.
On going to treatment
It is a Saturday night late in 2008 and I stand in the residence living-room of the treatment center, about to have a talk with Walter. In my 3-and-a-half years as a support worker — I often tell new clients "all I do here is eat a lot of food and say no to you" – I have met over 900 addicts and Walter is becoming a favorite.
Indeed, I told him as much a few days ago. “You’re fast working your way on to my all-time top ten client list,” I said after he sang along in the van, or bellowed along, to songs he’d never even heard before. I was driving 12 or so clients to a sobriety meeting and Walter had all of us laughing. “I bet you say that to all the addicts!” he shouted from the back of the van.
Addicts like Walter come to this private and pricey 25-bed facility for the 10, 28 or 42-day-program. Most will make it through but some do not last a week or even one day. One showed up and promptly left, never to be seen by us again.
Another took three months to arrive, keeping us updated on his progress. He was driving from Edmonton and we’d get calls like “I’m in Kamloops, see you tomorrow” or “Visiting family in Surrey, be there tonight.” One day he called to say “I’m on the Island” and still did not show. He finally arrived and was a great fellow who worked somewhat hard at his program, finished and left - only to return to smoking crack cocaine within hours.
Usually clients who leave early do so of their own free will, if any humans in the grips of an active addiction can be said to have a free will. Others are kicked out, often because they have too great a sense of entitlement and too little gratitude. Clients don't get a refund here, or at most treatment centers, and at about $20,000 for a 42-day stay the no-refund policy keeps most behaving reasonably well. There are always exceptions, however, and there is never a shortage of drama.
When one client leaves a new client is ushered in the door and those who work at such facilities are used to a never-ending flux of humans. The turnover is akin to that of a pro sports team, only much more accelerated.
The Song of Walter R.
The group dynamic changes as clients come and go over time but Walter would fit in well with any group. He has a larger-than-life personality and is a constant jokester, an aging, overweight, joyful, kind-hearted, sloppy, friendly 45-year-old kid with a wide smile and a frequent, booming laugh. In short, Walter is loads of fun.
Despite many successes — he's a family man and owns a business — he is in the possession of a debilitating addiction to heroin; it began with booze and marijuana and moved on to hard drugs and heroin. Before coming to treatment he was using almost daily and his weekends were "getting really crazy.” His addiction, he said, was making life as crazy for his wife and kids as it was for him.
The plan is for those crazy times to be put behind him by giving Walter the requisite tools to stay clean and sober. Of course he will have to apply the tools or, like all addicts who keep using, he will end up in jail, on a psyche ward or dead. That oft-repeated warning is from the big books of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous and Walter, like many before him, gives little indication he believes it.
If Walter dies of his addiction he will be the 13th since I began working here to do so. All treatment centers get bad news and all strive to drive the point home to clients that death from their illness is a real possibility.
Here we have a ceremony twice yearly to honour clients that have died but a facility on Vancouver Island erected what they call ‘The Wall of Shame’ to mark those who went on to die after treatment there. It is supposed to be, I gather, a warning, but I find it to be cruel and unhelpful.
On this weekend night Walter is very much alive — and lively — and playing the house acoustic guitar, and while that is not specifically what I have come into the living-room to talk to him about, I did tell him about a week into his stay that he is quite possibly the worst guitar player we’ve ever had.
“I believe it,” he told me, laughing. “I just can’t seem to play a clean chord!”
“That,” I replied, “Is painfully evident.”
It’s not Walter’s guitar playing per se that is the problem now but rather the song he is playing. And given he’s but days away from completing his stay our man Walter knows exactly what I’m about to say.
“What would your first clue be that I cannot let you play that song in a drug and alcohol treatment facility?”
“Aw come on, Marcus, its Eric Clapton.”
“It certainly is. And I understand he has his own treatment center. In fact we’ve had relapsed clients here who’ve been there. But I bet even he does not play that song at his treatment center; after all, it’s a song exclusively about cocaine.”
“Oh really,” Walter says.
“Well the title of the song is in fact - cocaine.”
In particular for those clients newly arrived, or really for any client, 'Cocaine' the song is likely to be a trigger, so I stand my ground. Walter complies – we’re big on clients complying around here – and switches to a choppy version of an Eagles song.
Addiction Blues: People lost
I no longer work with addicts but still think of those days and that very conversation with Walter. Three days after having it he finished the program and I drove him to the airport for his flight home, back to his wife and two young daughters.
As we drove we listened to a CD of a blues band I'd played in and, a big blues fan, Walter was generous in his praise. At the airport I helped with his bags and reminded him to go to meetings and he joked that he forgave me for not letting him get away with anything. I again reminded him that I was not really saying no to him - I was helping facilitate his recovery.
We hugged goodbye.
Walter flew home that Monday afternoon and on the Thursday was dead. He became that 13th person since I had started working there to die of his disease. I got the news from a co-worker as I was readying to go to work. The suddenness was shocking, he had just been there.
My first reaction was to phone my wife for support and as soon as I began to tell her I started to cry. That evening at work I kept expecting to hear Walter play his choppy chords and make jokes about me being bossy.
His roommate at the center said treatment had killed Walter as it was likely he’d loaded up with his usual amount of heroin and after having been over 42 days clean, his body couldn’t handle it. That is a not infrequent occurrence with heroin addicts. While Walter made that decision to call his dealer - after a minor disagreement with his wife - it was still his disease that killed him, just as active addiction killed millions worldwide before him.
Caring and intelligent and gone
I have no problem characterizing Walter and others I worked with who died as caring and intelligent people capable of hard-work. Two were wealthy and many others were successful in their careers. One taught my son how to fish and had great energy, energy often devoted to the benefit of others.
All of the dead were in families and though at times their addictions wreaked havoc upon those families, they were nonetheless loving people. It happens some will come to treatment to satisfy someone else but by my recollection all save one of the dead took their treatment seriously and tried to get well. They could not manage it and if you call them weak of character I shall counter by invoking the cliché about walking in someone else’s shoes.
The youngest to die was Eddy D., dying days before his 21st birthday. He too was a heroin addict and one of those who believed because he was drug addicted he could safely drink alcohol (alcoholics insist they’re able to do drugs). A month after taking his leave Eddy took up drinking and then came the inevitable heroin relapse. He got depressed and killed himself.
The oldest to die was Marianne M., a kindly school teacher whose liver gave out at the age of 60; she lived seven months after finishing treatment and I understand that at least they were sober months.
A crack addict, Sasha P., 25, lived on the streets and had an uncle pay for his treatment but it was not money well spent, for it was Sasha who did not try to get well. He walked out of treatment one evening telling me he still had “ten good years left on the pipe.” His death came six months later.
Not sure how Gregg R., a Calgary stock market guy with a great sense of humour, died; his brother said Gregg relapsed and days later his car went over a cliff; I looked up the obituary and learned nothing more.
Steven A., a middle-aged American lawyer, we found out he died alone in a hotel room he'd been living and drinking in for two months after his wife had kicked him out. His death was extra sad because it came three years after his brief 10-day stay and not one of us, not even his counselor, could remember anything about him; not what he looked like, nothing.
Connie N. was a worn looking 43-year-old who had inherited money and was bravely moving, on her own, to a new province, determined to start all over without crack cocaine. She'd been through the ringer and looked it but was hopeful and in the evenings came to talk at the office door at the residence about her plans for a clean future. She relapsed a few months later and died during a binge.
Morris W. was a candidate for death, and sooner rather than later; his health was poor and he kept going back out. He came four times, though the second time he arrived, promptly went to sleep for 14 hours and then bolted. He had, as a co-worker said, “pots and pots of money,” most of it inherited, and all of which got in the way of his efforts to stay clean and sober. The man simply could not stop drinking and using; he was a polyglot user, one who would use anything, booze, drugs, pills, whatever.
I spoke with Morris often and know he wanted to get well, to get his family back together and to make up for decades of the craziness he and his addiction had caused them, but on a cold winter night a few months after his last stay with us he wandered into the woods near a bar he’d been drinking at in a small Ontario town; his body, frozen, was found two days later.
The insanity of addiction
I met people there from all over North America and many parts of the world and from all walks of life: athletes, lawyers, strippers, teachers, street kids, doctors, pilots, mercantile bankers, construction workers, home makers and actors; we even had a rock star. Every single one of them has the potential to go on to die of their illness and most, like Walter, don't get around to believing that is true.
You can never be sure of who will stay in recovery and who will go back out. Intelligence doesn’t help and arguably money hinders. More than anything honesty helps and the literature of A.A. and N.A. hammers that point home; yet still active addicts lie to others and themselves and in the long run, Walter and all of the dead are examples of where it gets them.
People experienced in addiction, as a worker or addict, and many in the field are in recovery, become so used to people they know, of all ages, dying, that the sadness can become in some way muted. But still I feel deeply sad for Eddy, Connie, Sasha, Gregg, Steven, Morris, for my friend Walter, and for the many others whom I'd worked with who died.
It cannot be a choice, addiction and all of this dying. No one would choose it because to do so would not be rational. It must be - and the big books of A.A. and N.A. declare this very thing - it must be insane and therefore a disease. Why else would all of these good people, with children, with spouses, with parents, with jobs, with lives, with hearts and with hopes, with a desire to live, why else would they go out and kill themselves?
Here’s this: all these years later I still think of Walter playing his bad guitar and smiling. Without giving away his anonymity I tell people about him bellowing in the van and playing Cocaine in the living-room, as I’ve now told you. I feel, I hope, keeping him alive in this small way might somehow contribute to the world understanding that addiction, at bottom, is about losing good people.
Perhaps somewhere in that knowledge there lies a solution.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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