He was 53 the first time he tried crack. After a lifetime of sobriety, he still wonders today what made him do, what in retrospective, turned out to be a really bad idea. But, on that night, ten years ago, when a buddy came over to watch a movie and offered him a snort on his crack pipe, it seemed like not too bad an idea.
“I figured I had a strong foundation that proved I was not the ‘addict’ type,” he told me when he dropped by my office for a visit. “I’d never even tried marijuana. I didn’t drink and I’d always preached to my kids about the dangers of drugs. I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to try it, just once.”
That ‘just once’ led to a ten-year odyssey through drug abuse. “When my buddy was leaving that night, I gave him some money and asked him to get me some more. There wasn’t any question that I wasn’t going to smoke it again. I was hooked,” he said, shaking his head in dismay.
It didn’t take long for John to sell his welding truck and pawn everything he owned. In need of money for his addiction, when his supplier offered him the opportunity to run a crack house in the northern city was he was living, he quickly jumped at the offer.
“I didn’t look like your average crack dealer,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling. “I was 53. Slimmer in those days.” He pauses to pat his belly. “I was forty pounds lighter when I was using,” he adds before continuing to tell me about his crackhouse days.
“I ran a tight ship,” he says. “We were in an upscale area of the city. The Mercedes and BMW’s of my clients didn’t raise any eyebrows when they parked in front of the apartment building for fifteen minutes and then left. We only operated from 7pm to 7am, not the 24 hour stuff of flophouses. People came in. They bought. They left. Whatever was left over when the sun came up, me and my partner would smoke. We’d do that for 3 or 4 days and then one of us would crash. And the cycle would continue. My suppliers thought I was great. I always paid them first and on time. Never caused them any trouble.”
And then, about four years after beginning his journey into hell, the apartment was raided. “I was lucky. I didn’t happen to be there at the time,” he says. “So, when my supplier came to me and asked me what I was going to do, I told him I was getting out. Because of my age, the poor state of my health due to my heavy use and my history with the gang that supplied the drugs, they let me go.”
John came to Calgary and began the slow process of recovery. “It wasn’t a straight path,” he adds. “I went into a treatment centre and in 2002, when I got out, I hooked up with a younger woman who was also getting out of treatment. That’s a recipe for disaster. Two addicts, fresh out of treatment with no place to go.”
It’s one of the aspects of recovery that John finds difficult to understand. “We put people who have nothing but the clothes on their backs through treatment and then we make no provision for what they’re going to do, or where they’re going to go once they’re out.”
John and his lady-friend ended up in a low income apartment building in the inner city. “We both had jobs but the building was rife with lots of opportunity to buy drugs. We were too fresh into recovery and couldn’t resist the lure of using together. But just on weekends,” he adds with a chuckle. “During the week, we’d both work to pay for the drugs we’d do on weekends. Eventually, weekends became longer and workdays became fewer and suddenly, we were both back out on the street.”
They ended up at the Drop-In, homeless and addicted once again. “The staff and counselors did so much for me,” he says. “Eventually, I made it up to the fifth floor into transitional housing and Amanda and Darce (Drop-In counselors) really got me thinking about my life and what I wanted to do and how I was going to get there.”
He knew he was getting too old for street life. “I was committed to change and knew that for it to really happen, I had to break the cycle of my drug usage. The first step for me was to get out of the downtown core completely so that I could get away from my old haunts and the people I used with.”
John found a new job and took shared accommodation in a suburb as he began the process of cleaning himself up again. A year later, with sobriety firmly in place in his mind and heart, John has his own apartment in the inner city and has worked continuously for the same employer.
“I don’t have a lot,” he says, “but I appreciate what I’ve got so much today because I know what I’ve got to lose if I fall off the wagon again.”
To keep himself on track, he volunteers his time with the Nursing and Social Work Programs at the U of Calgary and the SafeWorks nurses at the Drop-In.
“I love working with the students,” he says, a big smile on his face. “I take them around, show them the places I used to be and where addicts still hangout. It helps me stay sober because it reminds me of where I never want to be again.”
He admits he never gives an addict money. But, he will share his story about how he beat his own addiction. “I want them to know there is hope for a better life than being an addict.”