Getting free from addiction starts with connection
by Keri Vermeulen
In Surrey’s downtown core, in the Whalley area is a community of people who exist along one block of road, a piece of 135a Street. Most days, the number of residents on the block are just over 100 people, and while their population is small, the attention given them in the matter of policing, health workers, first responders, ministry and outreach, and food providers is substantial. Almost all the people living along this block, notoriously called The Strip, are substance addicted, many are mentally ill and suffering the effects of trauma and loss.
Since last year, when what has been coined the “Opioid Crisis” took the lives of almost 1,000 people through drug overdose, the Strip has come to epitomize the hopelessly dark and growing problem of drug addiction in the Lower Mainland. And in spite of the resources being used to oversee and contain the neighbourhood, the addiction issue is getting worse. According to numbers released by the BC Coroner’s Service, BC could see an estimated 1,400 deaths from illicit drug overdoses this year. Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Authority have had the highest number of overdose deaths (258 and 249 deaths so far this year), making up 64 percent of all illicit drug overdose deaths during this period. But most of these deaths, 89.4 percent occurred inside homes or other structures. A small minority of overdose deaths happen out on the street, and none occurred inside so-called safe injection sites.
Most of these deaths, 89.4 percent occurred inside homes or other structures.
A small minority of overdose deaths happen out on the street, and none occurred inside so-called safe injection sites
Yet the tent city on the Strip in Surrey continues to act as a microcosm of what severe, debilitating, end stage addiction looks like. And while the statistics are jaw-dropping, the images grim, and the future bleak, the issues of addiction and the opioid crisis are more than a freelance journalism piece for me. It’s personal. It was only seven years ago that I found freedom from addiction and escaped a life that was beginning to look a lot like those people barely existing on the street.
My rescue from addiction was not the result of my own will. Despite of my decent, loving suburban upbringing, an education and a promising career, years of drug addiction had robbed me of the desire to live life clean and clear headed. I was living in shame and stepping out of that without drugs was way too scary – until I had run out of other options and invited Jesus to come and be the boss of my life. A few things started to change right away for me, like my appearance, my language, and my insatiable desire to get high on cocaine, and methadone (a doctor prescribed synthetic replacement for heroin and other opioids).
But perhaps the biggest change in my life, was my desire to start connecting with other humans again. Not just connect for the sake of getting my own immediate needs met, but to share, to confess, to be vulnerable and to be a friend. It seemed the ingredient that had been missing from my life, even before I became addicted to drugs, was connection. And truly, it has only been through an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ that I am still learning and understanding how utterly vital connection to God and other people is in living a life and that is free and full.
As often as I’ve had people come to me and ask me ‘How did it happen? What did you do to receive God’s freedom?’ I’ve come up kind of blank. I don’t know if giving a “to do” list of how to rid yourself of addiction is helpful. This isn’t like baking a cake – there is no perfect recipe to follow here. After years of serving with, and for, people coming out of addiction at Recovery Church in Langley; sharing my testimony and connecting with people stuck in addiction as far away as Ukraine, Russia and Cuba; reading news articles; and working with NightShift Street Ministries, I have concluded one thing about addiction – it withers and dies under the impact of connection, and true friendship. And I am even more convinced that the only way to truly be connected, is through a relationship with Jesus Christ – the ultimate connector. God so desired to connect with you and with me, and with the homeless, dirty, hungry, criminal addict that He came right down to the street and lived among us.
But don’t just take my word for it. While we read headlines that the death toll due to the opioid crisis is increasing (and it is), and addiction and homelessness is getting worse (yes), there are countless others like me, dozens of people who I personally know of, who live in freedom from addiction because they have earnestly connected with others.
One of the pastors at Recovery Church, a friend so dear he is like a brother to me, Kevin Bralovich got free from addiction about 15 years ago when he picked up a Gideon’s Bible in a jail cell and begged for God’s help. Facing some jail time for addiction-related crimes, along with permanent estrangement from his wife and daughter, Kevin promised to serve Jesus the rest of his life if the Lord would save him. Today, in addition to co-pastoring at Recovery Church, Kevin has walked alongside many men coming out of addiction, (complimenting his wife Dawn’s work as the Director of Wagner Hills Women’s Campus) and is a devoted father.
Kevin agrees that connecting to others is key to recovery. “First of all, it’s a biblical model. That’s how it works. People in your life who you can confess to and say ‘hey I’m struggling with this’,” Kevin shares, leaning back in his chair and smiling. “The people who stay connected have less likelihood of going back to the old life. Admitting it can be difficult to bring rough people into community, Kevin says it’s not about forcing a church community to do certain things, it’s about teaching people to follow Jesus’ footsteps.“ (Recovery Church) has tried to make a community out on the street with street outreach (in Langley). The most simple way of doing ministry can be just handing out hotdogs. Street people let us into their community and we invited them into ours.”
Another person who deeply understands the importance of connection in getting free from addiction and living a full life is the founder and President of NightShift Street Ministries in Surrey. About 13 years ago, MaryAnne Connor began to reach out to people on the street with food, emergency shelter and consistent, caring contact. She is still doing the same today, and her organization operates solely on donations and the work of up to 2,500 volunteers.
MaryAnne is desperate to see change for people who are addicted and/or mentally ill, living on the street. And she knows the way to bring about that changes is for service providers, people of faith, government and outreach to work collectively together to offer hope and friendship. “If you’re not connecting with people on a heart level, then recovery just becomes a program,” shares MaryAnne. “Connecting relates back to our mission, of loving unconditionally without any expectation of change. That really only comes through connecting heart to heart … Taking the mask off and being real. That was the secret sauce when I started NightShift, to be vulnerable and share one another’s pain.”
MaryAnne says the key in connection is in people and organizations banding together to provide a continuum of consistent care and friendship. “You can’t meet someone on the street and then expect realistically one agency to do it all. It’s got to be a collaborative approach. And none of it works without Jesus.”
“You can’t meet someone on the street and then expect realistically one agency to do it all.
It’s got to be a collaborative approach. And none of it works without Jesus.”
MaryAnne Connor and Kevin Bralovich agree that contact must be ongoing to create genuine friendship. Kevin stresses that while many people relapse in their fight out of addiction, it is part of the journey. It is how you walk out of it. I walked out of addiction by grasping tightly onto the hand of Jesus, my first friend in life, and then by walking with, and being vulnerable with my new friends. The answer to the present crisis in addiction, I’m convinced, is connection. I’m not the first one to say that, and hopefully, I won’t be the last.