By Jeff Vircoe
There is a saying in Addiction treatment that, sometimes, the voice of addiction is louder in the building than the voice of recovery.
In the cities of Nanaimo, B.C. and St. John, N.B., the voice of recovery is loud and clear twice a week. And it has a distinctly Edgewood sound to it.
Kevin M. is a presenter and content creator for People First Radio, a weekly community FM radio and online-podcasted program heard on Vancouver Island and off the Bay of Fundy. In a decade on the airwaves, among his interviews he has spoken with a former Canadian Prime Minister, an impaired crack addict, a man who would go on to murder his own son, and a dad whose daughter was dying of anorexia. He is a big part of a profoundly impactful radio program and an organization whose mission is to promote recovery, social inclusion, safe housing and public education around issues dealing with mental health and addiction.
It may be cliché, but at 58, Kevin has come full circle. He arrived at Edgewood in October of 2007, a white collar, non-profit management and policy geek with educational credentials and a resume to die for. Yet, all that education — bachelor’s degrees in this, master’s in that — and all those plum postings in civil service and charitable health societies, meant nothing inside his shaking body, sketchy eyes and hurting soul. By the time he got to Edgewood, he was just another broken down addict with no sense of who he was as a human, asking for help.
Through five months in inpatient treatment and extended care, for another year in after care, and in all the time since, he has done his work on himself. Through service work in the 12 Step community, through a yoga lifestyle that focuses on deep reflection and mindful living, and through his activism on the airwaves, he continues to work on himself while helping others, blossoming into an advocate for mental health issues at a level on which few get to participate.
And to think that, a decade ago, he arrived at the mental health and addiction treatment centres in Nanaimo a giant mess. “I was done. Writhing in the back seat,” he says. “I thought I was in Kelowna, that’s how mixed up I was.”
Addiction Treatment was a gift from his parents, a couple who had never made alcohol consumption part of their lives. Deeply religious, from a small town in Alberta, booze just wasn’t part of their upbringings. Along with his two younger sisters, they were as baffled about Kevin’s choices as anyone.
Still, Kevin’s descent into the dark world of alcohol and drugs was slow but steady. Like most prairie boys, he grew up in a hockey-mad town.
“It was where the Sutters played hockey,” he says, clearly having been asked and stock answered the next questions in the past. “Yes I played hockey at the same time the Sutters did. I was no good. The Sutter in my group was really good. There were Sutters in every group, all the way.”
Life in that part of the country was hockey-crazy.
The brawn and bravado of frozen pucks and outdoor rinks may not have been for Kevin, but he had something they did not. A sharp mind and willingness to pursue academics. By 16, he had left home for Augustana College, a small school with dorms in Camrose, Alberta. He would spend four years at Augustana. It was there he first encountered bush parties, but not often and nothing over the top. It changed when he turned 18, when someone “made a point of taking me out on my birthday and getting me absolutely plastered. I, of course, allowed it.”
“I learned quickly that I was the kind of person that drank more than anyone else,” he recalls.
Funny how some things in an alcoholic’s life stand out when so many other things are fuzzy.
“It was a lounge. The Crystal Spring Lounge. I drank all these lounge drinks hepped up with multiple layers of [liquors]. Just horrible. They’re all made just to make you sick to your stomach an hour later. I got sick. Then I passed out at the Boston Pizza in the men’s washroom.”
That would be a good time for a young man with a sharp mind and religious upbringing to not drink again. Of course, that’s not how it goes.
At school, he developed a pattern of Thursday bar nights. The progression took off.
“Over a period of time, the Thursday Bar Night turned into also a Friday night. Then there were also sometimes parties on the weekend, and then sometimes Tuesdays seemed good. Then maybe Wednesday after the exam was over …”
There were drugs around, but Kevin hadn’t felt any draw to them. Yet.
The non-drinker for religious purposes became a thing of the past. A new man was coming out. That concept took a huge twist when he was 19 and he got honest with his peers and family about his sexual orientation.
“I came out to my parents, the guys in the dorm, my closest friends,” he said. “That was a tremendous challenge because, remember, I did that at a church-based college. In rural Alberta. In 1979.”
Bam. Bam. Bam.
Yes, it was 1979, the height of the emerging gay rights movement. Two years before, activist Harvey Milk had been assassinated in San Francisco. Though Canada and other nations had, a decade earlier, decriminalized homosexuality on the legal books, in practice it was a whole different story. Gays and lesbians were still regularly fired from the work place, beaten in or released from the military, shunned by religions of all types. In short, a stigma as harsh as, or worse than, what addicts were dealing with.
Nonetheless, his parents took it in stride, he says.
“My father seemed not so bothered, but my mother was very troubled because of religion,” he says. “Over time, it kind of dissipated. They kind of accepted, but not really. But they certainly interacted with me.”
Those who were more accepting included the club scene goers of Edmonton, where Kevin found himself in his early 20s. Working for the provincial government by day, a self-proclaimed weekend “club boy” by night. Things weren’t yet out of control, but trouble was on the horizon.
“Drinking was the thing. It was just about always beer – unless I wanted to impress someone, wine in a restaurant or something. Or I’d come to a party with scotch but hate it and think, ‘Why did I do this?’ It looked good.”
A dark turning point happened in Edmonton. He was taken advantage of one night, horribly, mercilessly. His food was drugged, and Kevin was brutally, sexually assaulted. The naïve country boy would suffer permanent scars mentally, spiritually, and physically.
“In the morning, I woke up in the basement. Naked on the concrete. With bruising. Very sore. Not knowing anything. In those days, it was not something … I’d never even heard of such a thing. I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I must have been really plastered last night.’”
With the times, with the stigma, Kevin felt he could not report it to police.
“What would I do? Go into the University Hospital and say, ‘Excuse me, I think I’ve been raped by a bunch of men.’ ‘Oh really? What were you doing? Where were you?’ ‘Oh, I was in a gay club.’ ‘Oh, really? And you’re complaining about being raped?’”
His consumption of alcohol and drugs took off. For the next 25 years, he tried to bury his memories in bottles, vials and bars.
“The [details of the assault] got buried down and all the drug use started. That’s when I started using marijuana, hashish, mushrooms, acid, on a regular basis. Every weekend. And drinking. It kind of exploded like that.”
He developed a full-on anxiety disorder. Well-meaning doctors filled prescriptions, of anti- this, calming that. As his career took off in higher profile positions, media-savvy Kevin may have had them – an himself – fooled about what was going on behind the scenes.
“I had a doctor, he was an excellent doctor but he prescribed me valium and anti-anxiety things, just pretty much anything I wanted. I guess because I was traveling for work, I was on the news every once in a while … I seemed to have it all together. Plus, I was working on a second master’s degree.”
In a 10-year relationship with a highly successful professional with two children, who were over two weekends a month, the couple had plenty of time and money to travel and party all over Canada. Kevin continued to live the high life.
“Just the whole denial thing. I told myself that I could stop if I wanted to. I drink because I want to. I drink because I like it. I drink because it helps me relax.”
And everything is held together with scotch tape. Just waiting for the wind to blow hard enough.
In his 40s, in a booming, oil-rich Calgary, another lover came into the picture: a powder.
“I’m introduced to it through younger people I’m working alongside, whose drug of choice isn’t pot. It’s cocaine. We could drink more and longer if we snorted cocaine.”
Drinking and drugging, anxiety levels through the roof, his relationship ends. His career is in tatters. He suffers from agoraphobia so bad he can’t leave the house.
“I wasn’t working. I was living alone in my house. I was doing nothing but drinking and using cocaine. Financially, I was more or less okay and had access to money. And then I ran out. I had to sell the house.”
With degrees in History and English, a master’s in social work, and once well-known in many circles in non-governmental organization circles, having served long and short stints in the upper ranks of AIDS and cancer non-profit societies – the crash finally came.
A friend managed the sale of the house for Kevin, who was basically incapable of handling it. The bulk of the money gained from the house was turned over to Kevin’s parents. The friend was trying to save his friend.
“I went along with it because I was completely out of it. I trusted him and nobody else. He had helped me sell the house. Find buyers. Keep everything quiet in the neighborhood.”
This friend had a motive.
“He had seen a number of men, particularly in the gay community, who had achieved something in their lives. It doesn’t matter how or on what level — men who had then lost everything because of drugs and alcohol. They use until the last dollar is gone.”
Kevin was right on the verge.
“I spent the money they gave me on hotels. I was homeless in hotels. Then couch surfing. One day, I was wandering down Eighth Avenue with a street person who was stealing jackets out of stores so we could get money for dope.”
It turns out the friend who helped sell the house had a friend whose family member had gone through Edgewood.
Kevin’s parents were contacted. They made a plea to their son. They offered the financial means to make it happen. And Kevin agreed to come to Nanaimo for treatment.
Asked about the importance of Edgewood in fall and winter of 2007-2008, Kevin gets quiet. He remembers well the process of breaking through to his feelings.
“When I came into treatment, I was at a junior-high emotional mentality. That’s how I experienced my first few weeks at Edgewood. I was scared of the older kids. I felt intimidated. Scared. I thought, ‘What I am is … I don’t know what I am.”
And it all came pouring out.
“I sat in the morning group with Sergio one day. I did a reveal and finally let out what had happened, and almost acted out the emotions. It was very emotional.”
His current doctor describes it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Edgewood’s addiction treatment program dramatically altered his life. Saved his life.
“In a way, it was like being scoured out. You go inside. You do an inventory, but you kind of get a little bit of a cleaning. Cleaned up on the inside. You get things looked at. Decluttering what is inside. Not necessarily what you can see – because what you can see is just someone whose life is in shambles. Okay. But why is it? Let’s go inside and find out.”
And inside he went, with counselors, with peers. He spent the holidays of 2007 in treatment.
“That Christmas, I wept sitting in my chair. The guys around me asked, ‘Are you okay?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m fine.’ Because of the memories of my Christmases as a child, my emotions were opened again. As I talked to my friend on the phone, he said, ‘You sound like a human being again.’”
Kevin was offered and accepted extended care, another three months where he could gain traction in his new recovery. Go to plenty of 12 Step meetings, continue group therapy, do some volunteer work. He accepted. While seeking volunteer work, he found a gig helping a non-profit which needed board members. He was soon doing small contract fundraising and event proposals for the organization.
With nothing drawing him back to Calgary, Kevin decided to move to Nanaimo when he completed extended care in the spring of 2008. He got a sponsor, a man who told his story one night at Edgewood, and a man with whom he still meets regularly, 10 years later. He attended meetings, several meetings a week. He joined a home group, got heavily involved in service work. He did a year of weekly aftercare group sessions at Edgewood. He got deeper into his yoga connection and philosophy. And he pursued his volunteer gig which morphed into his present career.
That volunteer commitment lead to the formation of a radio program called People First Radio, funded by the Vancouver Island Mental Health Society. Kevin’s background fit perfectly. Non-profits. Health matters. Policy and procedures. Social work background and education. Heck, he even had a decent radio voice.
He was both shocked at the turn of events and a big believer in how things come to pass when people do the next right thing. In their personal life. In their community.
“Everything has opened up a bit like a flower in a way. In the sense that the stem was A.A. and my recovery work within A.A.. Then it became my involvement in community again.”
While he has reduced his attendance at meetings, he continues to touch base with his sponsor. He comes occasionally to Cake Night at his alma mater. He speaks when asked. He is deeply committed to personal growth and his spirituality through yoga, making regular visits to an ashram in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia. And, every week, his voice sounds across the radio waves, educating, comforting and encouraging listeners to a wide variety of paths of hope for those facing mental health issues.
He scans the media, pulls out stories and commentaries on matters in the mental health field, selects topics and guests with his team, and interviews them. He has developed several streams on social media and radio podcasts.
“Education and awareness is the goal. The core for us is mental illness, mental health, addiction and recovery, homelessness and social housing. That’s the kernel. And around the kernel comes a whole bunch of things: Harm Reduction, 12 Steps, poverty, education, lack of education, and anything that affects those core pieces.”
Ever since Edgewood addiction treatment centres, he has found himself in the right place at the right time for the first time in his life. It fits with a promise of the 12 Steps, that addicts will know a new freedom and a new happiness, and no matter how far down the scale they have gone they will see how their experience can benefit others.
“I feel that’s a big part of it. Having walked a road and rubbing up against people that you know can’t just be reduced to platitudes or stereotypes. There’s a lot more going on there.”