Van Stories V: Smokes, Tokes and Other Junk

Addictions 2
It was pretty hard to find anyone on Hastings that didn't smoke nicotine. It's legal, it's addictive, it's available. Other people we encountered smelled of alcohol or pot. And yet others showed signs of needle use. One guy approached us, limbs skewed all over the place like spider's legs, and said: "First let me say that I know you're a church group! I don't want no money! Just some food if you got it." 

He obviously was coming off something potent. A quick glance at his inner arm told me I was probably right. But other than that, he was the most polite and friendly guy you could hope to meet. Giving him our food was one thing, but he wanted to chat a bit, and by george, so did we. 

Everyday he made his rounds to the swankier hotels around West Hastings. He had been doing this for years and had built up a rapport with them. And everyday he stood in line at the bottle depot, cashed in the hotel's bottles and cans, and bought food for himself and his girlfriend, paid rent, and fed his addiction. 

Was his story entirely true? Maybe. Addicts are notorious for doing absolutely anything to secure their next fix. But he already had our food and our attention and he wasn't asking for money. What reason did he have to lie? For all he knew, we weren't a church group at all (or scarier yet, we were), had no food, and would tell him to piss off or go find a job. For all he knew, we would totally smash his spirit to bits and pieces. Both he and our group had to let our guards down and take a risk.

Between all of us, we were just chums hanging out on a hot summer's day near Crab Beach, Vancouver. It was nice getting to know him, even for the short time we spent with him.

I'm a drug addict. That's a hard thing to say when you're in ministry but it's true. Pharmaceutical sleeping medications (notice the plural)… can't live without them. At least, that's what my body and mind scream at me every single night.

I remember the night it happened: October, 1997. 2nd semester at college. A switch flipped off in my brain. Sleep stopped. That night I did not sleep until 3am and I needed to be up at 6am. Life was hard enough already by then, but this caused a nosedive. 

Some babies lose their need for naps by 2 or so. I couldn't live without at least a quiet time until I was 4. When I hit puberty, I slept all the time. Without it, my world blew apart. Nothing made sense. Even the air around me bugged my skin. My roommate in my first year of college used to remark that it was amazing how much I could sleep.

But it stopped. Just like that.

I crossed the road to the walk-in clinic and asked for help. The doctor there seemed to think that college students needed all the help they could get, so he prescribed pills for me with whole months worth of refills.

Hooked. Just like that.

While I lived in Calgary, I tried to kick the habit. Doctors down there refused to prescribe more than 10 days dosage at a time. I couldn't live with that! But eventually, travelling from walk-in clinic to walk-in clinic wore thin. The first night I went without sleeping pills, I was up until 5am shivering, trembling, climbing the walls… I awoke at 6:45am.

Nights were fitful times of 4-5 hours of sleep. Work suffered. I couldn't cope or keep up. Of all the things my body decided to switch off, it was the one thing I needed most. I always said I needed sleep more than food. 

Eventually, I had a nervous breakdown and the cocktails I was put on would knock out a herd of horses. Trying to treat me for schizophrenia (a misdiagnosis, as it turns out), depression, anxiety, and aspergers'… all drug groupings had their side effects. Most left me feeling like mannequin being forced to live real life. 

I kicked most of those drugs cold turkey in November 2008. The doctor said I couldn't live without them but was giving me mixed messages about whether I needed hospital supervision or not to wash out. But what tipped the scales for me was this: "You can't even go back to Romania again. You'll get trafficked. You're too vulnerable."

To say I was livid would be an understatement. Can never go back (despite the fact I had already done so a year earlier)? I marched out of his office and that night I stopped EVERYTHING. Talk about hell on earth. My logical nurse for a mother told me I needed medical supervision, but she understood why I was doing what I was doing. So she suggested coming down off the meds one at a time. That way if anything bad happened, medical staff would know what caused what. Thanks to my mom, washing out got a bit easier (and safer!).

Still though… I would sweat all day and night. I had tremors. I had the constant sensation of needing to pass diarrhea but nothing would come. I would curl up on the floor of my basement suite because it was so nice and cool. Driving was dangerous. I saw things others couldn't (which really messed me up, because I've been able to see things others can't even without drugs, so trying to tell the difference was nasty!).

The depression came under control. The anxiety slowly came under control. Health was renewed. Yet my brain still couldn't put myself into sleep.

Today I take 200mg of seroquel (quetiapine) and some clonzapame together just to settle me at night. That alone should knock out a whale, but I still have trouble some nights falling asleep. Without the sleep, life the next day seems hellish.

I asked my pharmacist once: "I'm really wanting to kick the habit. What can I do?"

He said: "Some addictions are necessary for you to survive. Your body obviously can't put you to sleep by itself. You need help. It's the lesser of two evils."

Some advice.

I don't live in a doorway down on East Hastings with a needle in my arm, and I don't light up every time I have a nic fit (haven't smoked a day in my life), but I know the fear… I know the power substances have over me. Right now, without that medicine, I would decline back into a place that could kill me. At least… that's what happened last time.

I have all the supports in the world at my disposal. I should be able to quit at any time. Imagine being an addict (for any reason) without those supports, or on stronger stuff than I am, or without hope? Jading the guy we met would have squashed his soul, totally shredded it. Yeah, he's on something but that's only a single part of him. It's only a single part of me. It's a powerful part and one that takes up time and attention to a dangerous level, but… if Jesus didn't come for people with such gruesome holds in their lives, why did He come?

Is it worth it to quit?

Some day…

One day…

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