A Penticton man who has dedicated his life in sobriety to helping others stay clean says not enough is being done for those struggling with addiction.
Thursday, April 14 marks a tragic anniversary in British Columbia — six years since declaring a public health emergency due to the overdose crisis.
Toxic street drug supply, lack of recovery resources and stigma around those suffering from addiction continue to add to the thousands of deaths of people’s loved ones.
Jerome Abraham, executive director of Discovery House recovery program in Penticton, knows what it's like firsthand, both from personal experience and from his work as a now-sober community member helping others leave addiction behind. He's now over 12 years sober.
His first interaction with substance abuse started late in high school, when weekends drinking with friends turned into a harmful spiral.
“I never was a person who would just go out and have a few drinks. I would always just be drinking to the maximum, blacking out,” Abraham shared.
At 17, he tried LSD for the first time. When the drug didn’t hit, he took more.
“That's how I’ve always been with substances.”
Abraham left the Okanagan and headed to Vancouver for college, where he struggled with finances. That led him to start selling drugs, and after returning to Kelowna, he continued to sell.
“I kept meeting more and more drug dealers that were dangerous and connected [to gangs]. I think in the world of using drugs, at least for me, I sort of had these boundaries that I thought were gonna keep me safe,” he said.
“I tend to joke with a guy that I used to be at Discovery House with, we'd say things about how your lines would kind of get blurred, like I'm not going to do hard drugs, except on the weekends. Or I’m not going to sell hard drugs to pregnant women or kids, unless they have cash up front.”
He started using cocaine, smoking crack and heroin occasionally. And then the heroin turned to an everyday habit for eight months.
One day, Abraham and his group of friends were involved in a drunk driving accident, where the car crashed into a power pole going 160 kilometres per hour.
“My two friends in the front seat were killed and I broke my femur. I was in the backseat without a seatbelt on and the middle of the dashboard came across my two friends.”
“After that, I kind of really got into restriction medication, morphine and heroin to numb the pain of the loss of my friends.”
That began Abraham’s cycle of trying to get clean, building up his life, then falling back into the cycle, relapsing and using drugs again.
“I went in and out of recovery periods of time for the next 17 years," Abraham said.
At one point, Abraham moved to Victoria to try to get help as his situation in Kelowna was getting dangerous. He was placed in a psychiatric ward for a few months and given medication.
He picked his life back up and tried to start again. But an injury led him back to unemployment and opioids, and he began selling drugs again.
The turning point for Abraham happened when gang members showed up at his door.
“I decided to move out of my house. I was like, I'm done. I'm gonna end up getting killed here. Before that time, probably for a good year and a half of my using, I was actually trying to die. I was trying to use so much," Abraham said.
“But I met a girl that I started going out with and she had some smaller kids. I don't know, those kids just made me feel like I still had some worth left in my life.”
It would be a few months before Abraham would enter into an addictions recovery facility. Since he had multiple years on methadone treatment programming, there weren't many places that would take him in.
On March 28, 2010, Abraham stopped using for good. On April 20, 2010, he was admitted to Discovery House in Penticton with the help of his sponsor.
His life changed to multiple meetings a day, starting to make schedules, and living simply. He was shown how to live a healthy life, share his feelings, share a meal, let people in and heal from past trauma.
“I think that was really good for my ego. Because even though I was just so broken when I moved into Discovery House, I still had a huge ego. I walked in there and I was like, I'm not staying in a room with two other dudes? This place is old. I can't f****** believe that my sponsor would tell me to come to this place.”
“But I've got nowhere to go. And two guys luckily, they grabbed my bags and they said 'Don't leave.' That's the best advice I've ever gotten.”
Two days later, he called his sponsor to tell him he had moved in.
“I called him and said ‘I'm finally taking your advice’ and he's like, ‘Didn't I suggest this eight years back?’ And I said ‘Yeah, but I'm finally ready to listen.’
“And he's said ‘Buddy, I'm so happy. I got tears in my eyes.'”
Over the next few years Abraham would become the night monitor at Discovery House, volunteering and teaching meditation classes, then the house manager and eventually becoming executive director, a position he holds to this day.
“You kind of get everything. You see people that come like I did from just being so broken and not knowing which way is up to repairing their lives, becoming productive members of society and building families,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.
“Then you also get to see somebody that saved your life sleeping in a recycling bin because there's not enough recovery support and dying because he got crushed by a compactor.”
Abraham was referring to a man who was trapped and crushed in a recycling truck last week after seeking overnight shelter in a bin.
The man was one of the first people in Discovery House when Abraham moved in who told him to stay.
Even as Discovery House has grown over the years, adding more recovery beds and independent living homes, Abraham explained that they, along with the other houses and shelters, are simply not enough, and the addiction crisis is treated differently than other health issues.
“I have seven doctor appointments a week. I have all this access to a dietitian, access to physiotherapy, access to whatever, it's all covered," Abraham, who is battling cancer, said.
“If we had this for addiction, if we just treated it like any other illness, could you imagine the benefits to society, let alone individual lives?”
Abraham explained that the mentality of how society views people dealing with addictions hasn’t changed in decades.
“There's an attitude of 'Eventually all these junkies are gonna die and kill themselves off and then we won't have a problem,'' he said.
“And they have that attitude until it's their daughter or son or nephew that has a drug problem. It doesn't go away.”
Abraham pointed to programs in Europe that have implemented changes, like Portugal, where decriminalization policies and harm reduction programs have lowered drug use and deaths.
“We get so much support from the community. But as far as levels of government, it's like sipping through a straw. Because no government wants to invest in a long term commitment to get out of this mess.”
The one glimmer of hope for Abraham comes from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.
“It seems totally different than what's ever been done before. We have sessions with the 14 other proponents from around the province where we get to talk about our ideas and our needs and our thoughts. And they're just taking notes.”
“I think that the big message is that if you want people to be in recovery, they need belonging and connection, not derision, isolation and punishment.”