Speaking up for the rights of one group invariably means stepping on those of another, as I was reminded following my recent column on the no-smoking policy at the new detox.
An old acquaintance of mine -- I'll call her Shelly -- phoned after the column appeared to tell me I was wrong to be critical of Vancouver Island Health Authority staff for prohibiting smoking at the detox.
She'd arrived for a stay at the new unit last month prepared to hate the prohibition, too, but instead quit smoking -- for the first time in more than 40 years.
She was proudly 28 days nicotine-free when I met up with her last week at the Pembroke Street stabilization unit, which is where people fresh from detox ideally get to stay for a month while they work out the details of a life without drugs. Shelly had gone to detox primarily to get off heroin, valium, alcohol and cocaine, but was delighted to have gotten out from under her cigarette habit at the same time.
"I brought a carton with me when I came, because the word on the street was that you could smoke in the bathroom," says Shelly, the fourth patient through the new detox after it opened in early February. "Then they told me no. I thought, God, I'm never going to be able to do this. I was asking for the [nicotine] patch within a couple hours. But then I did fine."
My concerns with the no-smoking policy continue -- and indeed, Shelly saw a fellow patient get kicked out of detox after being caught smoking. How crazy is it to deny people urgently needed health care just to make a point about the eventual dangers of cigarette smoking?
There's also a gap a mile wide in the system for adults addicted to cocaine or crystal meth, who for the most part are not accepted at the detox.
That said, far be it from me to deny Shelly the very positive experience she had at the detox, partly as a result of not being allowed to smoke. Being in a stable, smoke-free environment -- lots of support, lots of nicotine patches -- was really beneficial for Shelly, who looks happier and healthier than I've seen her look in years.
A solution, then: A medical detox, smoke-free, for people like Shelly - -- people whose primary drugs are opiates or alcohol and who need the more intense medical care the new detox provides. And a different kind of detox somewhere else, one where people can get help regardless of the drug they're addicted to and not have to give up smoking at the same time. Nothing expensive or fancy -- just a practical, safe place.
Shelly's latest journey into recovery has been an exemplary one and is worth detailing for what it says about all the things that have to come together to help those overwhelmed by addiction.
It starts with Shelly, of course, because she was the one who went looking for change.
But then she had the good fortune of connecting with outreach workers from the Umbrella Society, a savvy little peer-led non-profit that helps people with addictions and mental-health issues. Shelly had the will, but it was the Umbrella Society that showed her the way.
"Gordon Harper is a large person in my life right now," says Shelly of the society's executive director. "I told him that he was going to have to decide where my next move was, because I didn't have any brains anymore.
"So he set me up with this -- detox, stabilization, a recovery home for at least three months, then to Aurora [treatment centre], then back to a recovery home. I'm expecting it will take me a year to do it, but that's OK, seeing as I've wasted eight years using drugs."
Other things went right as well. Shelly got a rare 18-day stretch in the new detox, almost three times as long as most get. Then she got a bed immediately in the stabilization unit, also not typical.
With Harper on her side, she just might make it through the forms, wait lists, phone calls, intake processes, hard work, meltdowns and meetings that await those trying to get help with their addictions.
Shelly says the help is there for those who reach out for it. But I know too many others lost in the fractured system to see her story as the norm. I can't imagine why we make it so hard.