Three speakers, each with experience living with addiction, offered some hard truths and hope at SOYA’s Family Matters conference, held Tuesday at the Holiday Inn Express.
The conference room was filled with about 90 people, including people who work with the vulnerable population of Sault Ste. Marie, as well as friends and family currently supporting a loved one through addiction.
SOYA’s Family Matters conference had not been held in person since the pandemic began in March of 2020.
This year’s event brought together SOYA-supported families and volunteers with many of the partner agencies its clients interact with regularly, including Canadian Mental Health Association Algoma (CMHA), John Howard Society and HARP HIV-Aids Resource Program, among others.
In her remarks, SOYA founder Connie Raynor-Elliott said in the last year the non-profit offered 9,831 hot meals, distributed 8,246 food bags and assisted 136 people to get to treatment.
Raynor-Elliott said she has a very specific goal for the organization.
“My dream for SOYA is to shut her down. I don’t want SOYA to be needed, I literally want SOYA to shut down,” she said.
Three speakers were lined up for Tuesday’s conference, each with personal experience living with addiction, seeking treatment and giving back to the community,
Gail MacDonald is grandmother who is raising two of her grandchildren while one of her adult children is living on the street.
“I haven’t heard from her for some time now, so I am not sure where she is right now,” said MacDonald. “I wouldn’t wish this life on anybody, I really wouldn’t. On the addicts or on the parents.”
MacDonald said she has surprised herself with the lengths she has gone to in search of her child.
“I have gone into trap houses, kicking the door open looking for her where I could have been shot — it never occurred to me,” she said. “Finally I surrendered to the fact I can’t save her — I can love her, which I always will. I can pray for her. I have a lot of people who keep an eye out for her, but I can’t save her.”
Letting go has gone against everything she believes as a mother, but MacDonald said she has still not given up hope for her daughter.
“What was important for me is to learn that I have to take care of me. She will find her way. I pray she doesn’t die before she does, because so many of her friends and our friends’ children have died, and that’s a reality,” said MacDonald.
Letting go has also not lessened her protective nature over her as a ‘mama bear.’
“I can be upset with my daughter, but don’t you call her a junkie. That breaks my heart and I will want to karate chop you right there,” she said.
MacDonald says she knows her daughter didn’t intentionally set out to disrupt the family in the way she has through her addiction.
“How do I know this? I am 35 years clean and sober. I have some hope because I understand addiction,” said MacDonald. “That doesn’t mean my road is any less painful than anybody else’s. If I get a call after 10 o’clock the first thing I think is she overdosed. If a police officer ever drove up my driveway I would probably drop on the floor.”
“That is what having adult addicted children is like. You’re never fully calm, you are always waiting for something to happen,” she added.
Through SOYA meetings, MacDonald says she found others who know what she is going through.
“I go to my meetings and I do what I have to do to keep me well, because I have others in my family I have to continue on for. I have to stay strong for them — and for myself,” said MacDonald. “I deserve a little happiness, we don’t just cry at SOYA, I tell you. We have so much fun and we understand each other.”
In return for what she has gained from SOYA, MacDonald now volunteers for events and offers support to other mothers going through a similar situation as she is.
MacDonald recommended to other parents in the crowd to get some support for themselves and don’t give up hope.
“Keep loving them. Don’t enable them, because you will end up killing them,” she said. “I used to think $20 for her to go buy a sandwich — she never bought the sandwich, she put a needle in her arm. Buy them a sandwich and give it to them yourself or do their laundry or something like that, but don’t give them money because you help kill them. I don’t want my $20 to be the end of her, because it could be.”
David Cartner, lead with the CMHA Downtown Ambassador program, shared his personal ‘rags to riches’ story with the audience.
“The rags being the bottom of the bottle that I drowned myself in for over 30 years and the riches being the good things and amazing things that come with a life of sobriety and a life of service,” said Cartner. “ I was on the street, I know what it’s like.”
Cartner said he was working as a social worker at a Toronto HIV/AIDS hospice in the 1980s when that pandemic was at its worst.
“It was terrible, there was no medication and people were dying day in and day out,” said Cartner. “With every dead body that came every single day — some days it was three of four young men a day — I started taking a shot of alcohol for every one of them.”
He said he went from being a social drinker to a regular blackout drinker as a coping mechanism.
“I was busy taking care of them, but I wasn’t taking care of myself,” said Cartner. “I would go down into my basement and drink myself into oblivion.”
About seven years ago, Cartner moved back to the Sault to help take care of his aging parents, who have both since died.
“During that process I got sober, so I was able to spend that sober time with my parents and reconnect with my family because I was a horrible person — that’s the honest-to-God’s truth — I was a liar, I was a thief. If you can name it, I was probably that person,” he said.
At the age of 60 he went back to school to become an addictions and mental health worker and now dedicates his life to improving the lives of young people in the community who are living with addiction.
“If this guy can do it, anyone can do it,” said Cartner. “We have an amazing family among the people doing this work in Sault Ste. Marie, and I have been blessed to be among all of you and to do what I do and I will continue to do it as long as I possibly can.”
Grandmother Judy Legare was the last of the three guest speakers to take the podium on Tuesday.
For years Legare considered herself to be a functioning addict before developing an acute case of tinnitus, or ringing in her ears, that she said made her give up on the idea of ever living a normal life.
“Mine is screaming loud ring, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Legare. “I wanted to kill myself, but it actually gave me permission to use more because I though I can’t live like this.”
Legare said through her ordeal and hard drug use, her husband left and she was cut off from her grandchildren.
“I decided I am going to give this up. I was sitting hallucinating so much staying up for days, it’s a terrible thing. I said I have to straighten up,” she said. “When I came to Sault Ste. Marie I decided I was going to be honest — I was going to be honest about what was happening, who I was, my drugs and see where that got me.”
Legare lived in a local homeless shelter for a time and had multiple run-ins with the law.
“One episode I was brought to Sault Area Hospital handcuffed to a bed and left there for five hours with screaming tinnitus,” she said. “I knew deep down in my heart I had to be completely clean, I had to find a way.”
Legare credits three Algoma Public Health workers who didn’t give up on her. Instead of shame and stigma, they offered respect and hope. She was treated for her tinnitus and fitted with hearing aids that play white noise in her ears to counteract the ringing.
“As these processes started to happen, it just built up my self esteem and gave me confidence to think maybe I can do this sobriety and instead of a curse to this city, I could be a productive member of this city,” she said.
To applause, Legare told the audience she is now five years sober of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. She was baptized three years ago and, along with owning her own business, volunteers as SOYA’s family support meeting coordinator.
She said it was the support, compassion and love of the people of Sault Ste. Marie who have helped turn her life around.
“The lord has guided me and I have decided to serve our city and serve our most vulnerable,” she said.
Tracy Dewar, emcee for the event, thanked the trio for their willingness to share their stories.
“As an individual who has not personally struggled through substance use disorder, hearing you gives me, and I know many other people, the motivation to keep doing what we are doing — and I heard hope in every single one of your stories.That’s what we need to hold on to,” said Dewar.
After working 22 years working with people living with addiction and mental health challenges, Dewar said she is still taken aback when she hears people dehumanize someone who is suffering by dismissing them as 'a junkie.'
“It is so hard, but I encourage you to say something. We have to change that stigma and these are prime examples. There is hope, because they have made it," said Dewar. “Everybody has value, everybody has worth and everybody is somebody’s child. We have to remember that.”