Breaking the stigma of addiction

Rick Tessier, layperson in charge of prison ministry and aftercare at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in St. John’s, Nfld., has been working with those suffering from addictions since 2001. Photo: André Forget
Rick Tessier, layperson in charge of prison ministry and aftercare at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in St. John’s, Nfld., has been working with those suffering from addictions since 2001. Photo: André Forget
Published April 21, 2015

Newfoundland may be characterized in the minds of many by its remote outports, bucolic fishing villages and slower way of life, but these picturesque communities, like the province’s larger cities, are dealing with a distinctly modern problem: abuse of prescription and illegal drugs.

“Everybody has known that alcohol was a problem in Newfoundland because there are more alcoholics per capita [here] than most of the other provinces,” said the Rev. Curt Clark, a hospital chaplain with Eastern Health who has been working with people with mental health problems and addictions even before he moved to Canada from Pennsylvania 20 years ago. “But now it is drugs that are the problem.”

In rural Newfoundland’s Conception Bay North (also called Economic Zone 17), “we heard all of this anecdotal stuff about how drugs are a really big problem,” said Clark. “The research scientists looked at the average alcohol sales in Newfoundland, and found it was actually lower in Economic Zone 17. But they said, here’s the OxyContin sales…it was way off the charts.”

Overall, Newfoundland has an alcohol and drug abuse rate of 12.69 per cent, above the national average of 11 per cent, according to the CBC, quoting a study conducted by the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in 2007.

The abuse of prescription drugs is a problem that reveals some surprising dynamics, said Clark. In recent years, there has been extensive media coverage of significant drug busts involving the trafficking of cocaine and other illicit drugs by organized crime in Newfoundland. But, said Clark, prescription drugs are also being sold by some seniors who are “being overprescribed by their doctors and selling that to supplement their income.” The demand for prescription drugs is, in part, driven by the large number of Newfoundlanders working out of province, mostly in Alberta’s oil sands, he added. Because the companies they work for often require drug tests, prescription opioids such as OxyContin have become popular due to their availability and the fact that, because they exit the body within a few days, it is easier to test clean after using them.

OxyContin has also fallen into the hands of young people. An education department survey, conducted in the 2012-2013 school year, found that about 10 per cent of high school students in the province have abused prescription drugs, according to the CBC.

In response to the growing drug problem, supports such as the U-Turn Drop-in Centre in Carbonear-which is run by people in recovery and which sees around 450 people a month-are being established. However, addiction is a complex problem, and there is still much work to be done.

Clark noted that the problem goes beyond the individual with the addiction. He recalled a situation where a friend of his who had been in recovery for cocaine addiction for about a year was given an 8-ball of cocaine (one-eighth of an ounce, or 3.5 grams) and a flask of whiskey for Christmas from his wife.

“She was so used to him being the bad one, the one with the problems,” Clark said. “As he started working on his problems, well, she had significant childhood issues herself, but she’d never dealt with them because he was the problem, she was the good one.”

For Clark, this is further evidence that communities need to be open and honest about the reality of addiction, and how wide-reaching the effects of drug abuse and addiction can be. “The people in relationship with the alcoholic or the addict-they’re hurting, too,” he said. “The church needs to realize that if there is a couple or a family, everyone is going to need help…just to break the stigma.”

The Rev. Curt Clark Photo: André Forget

Fighting the stigma that comes with addictions is work that Rick Tessier has been doing for many years. A quiet, thoughtful Newfoundlander who spent much of his adult life in Nova Scotia, Tessier is the layperson in charge of prison ministry and aftercare at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in St. John’s. He has been sober since 2000, and since 2001 he has been involved in helping others along the road to recovery.

“People are becoming more aware of [stigma] in a slow process,” he said, “but sometimes we do a good job of talking the talk but not walking the walk.” He noted that while some people in church are very supportive, “there are others that quite frankly look at [people struggling with addiction] rather questionably.”

Increased drug abuse, however, has driven some of the problems more into the open.

“The inmates are getting younger. Street drugs and prescription drugs are becoming more prevalent,” said Tessier. He cited the example of a 24-year-old, now serving time in Stephenville’s West Coast Correctional Centre. “His grandmother says to me, ‘I don’t know what happened to him. He was brought up in such a good environment. We didn’t have this sort of thing.’ But that’s what we’re facing today. This touches everyone. There are no borders.”

Tessier also criticized the failure of the justice system to deal with addiction in a constructive way. “These people…come out of the prison, and first of all, they have nowhere to go…And unless they have direct supports within the system, they are probably going back to the same place,” he said. “That is the cycle that has to be broken.”

For Tessier, that means getting people into a healthy and supportive community as well as providing for their material needs. “I’ve been bringing guys from the halfway houses to church, picking them up on Sunday morning for five, six, seven years,” he said. He also takes them to the church’s coffee hour and lets them integrate “into a ‘normal’ society, if you will, that they may not be seeing otherwise.”

For similar reasons, Tessier is a great proponent of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous, which seek to build strong relations of accountability among those in recovery.

“Being an alcoholic and a member of AA, consequently I made it part of my ministry to take people…to the meetings in evenings and so on, and to try to help them try to resolve their addictions in a spiritual way,” he said. Recovery, he stressed, is about more than just abstaining from substances.

This was an important point for Clark as well, who emphasized that addiction has to be replaced with something positive. “You can’t just have abstinence,” he said. “That doesn’t have a long-lasting effect, usually.” The reason for this, he explained, is that abstinence allows all of the negative emotions that drug use kept submerged to rise to the surface, and with them, the unprocessed shame connected with the negative things done while under the influence.

Clark believes that the ugly things that surface with sobriety can only be combatted through a positive spiritual reckoning. “One of the things Jesus died for us was to take away our shame, so that can help people…go for a fresh start,” he said, a point that Tessier, who made this journey himself, recognized as well. “They’re human beings, they’re children of God and they’ve got to perceive themselves that way-and they all deserve a second chance.”


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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