Wasted lives: Overcoming alcohol addiction, surviving the holiday season

Alcohol is the biggest addiction crisis on the rise in British Columbia and it can wreak havoc on the lives of those it touches.

An estimated one in every 20 Canadians who drinks is dependent on alcohol, according to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Mark Haggerty, 53, knows first-hand what this statistic means.   He started drinking in his teens, he said, and had three impaired driving charges within a matter of years.  “I didn’t think I had alcohol problem, I just thought I had a bad luck problem,” Haggerty said. “Alcohol affected my work, my family, and then drugs came into the mix.”

Now sober, Haggerty uses his personal experience to help others with their addiction battles. He works as a peer navigator for the Rapid Access Addiction Clinic at St. Paul’s hospital in Vancouver.  The addiction clinic has worked with more than 1,100 patients since it opened just over a year ago.  Nearly a quarter of those who come to the treatment centre are alcohol-dependent, something Haggerty said he found surprising.

“I was thinking that we were going to be more about the opioid use disorder,” he said. “You don’t hear about people using alcohol.”

Haggerty said he thinks alcohol addiction doesn’t get as much attention as other drugs, partly because it is legal and partly because it is such a widely accepted part of celebrations.

Holiday anxiety

The prevalence of alcohol can be especially challenging to those struggling with addiction during the holiday season, said registered clinical counsellor Kuldip Gill.  “People are really excited during this time of year but then there is also that apprehension, that anxiety of  ‘How will this evening be going?'” Gill said.

Try to make other elements of the celebration — such as food or entertainment — the focus instead of alcohol, Gill said, and reach out to others for help.  “Don’t get in the rut of trying to do this all by yourself, really reach out.”

Reaching out, sharing stories

Phyllis Sauve, 48, also works at the addiction clinic as a peer supporter. She said building a support group and sharing stories is key.  Both her birth parents were alcoholics and she grew up in an adopted Christian family, separated from her Indigenous roots, Sauve said.  “I got lost in not knowing who I was or where I belonged,” she said. “I took my first drink when I was 16 and, at that time, it made me feel good.”

For decades, she struggled with addiction.  The turning point was when her daughter, who she hadn’t seen in 13 years, messaged her and asked if she would attend her graduation.  Sauve had vowed to be sober for a year before being in her children’s lives again and, one year to the day before the graduation, she stopped drinking.

She wants to highlight the struggles people face and offer support.  “Even if they are in recovery, sometimes people slip,” Sauve said. “To be able to be that support to them through the holidays is amazing.”

This story is part of CBC Radio One’s series Wasted Lives: B.C.’s Biggest Addiction Crisis, produced by Jodie Martinson.

Tune into On The Coast, weekdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. PT, to hear the series. It runs Dec. 4 – 8, 2017.  

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