He is a hard guy to miss when you are in a room with him. Yet he is so subtle, so soft, it is almost like he isn’t even there, sometimes.
Anyone who has had much to do with Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo knows John Pynnaken. Visually, he is impressive. At 6-foot-8, with a long and flowing grey beard, he is a bonafide, large presence. But those that have had the pleasure of working with or being guided by John know how he is a giant in so many other ways.
Pynnaken, 61, has been an addictions counselor at the centre since 2006.
These days you can find him in the Ferguson building, working with extended care patients who have finished the first part of their journey and are working on repetition of good habits; building and adhering to daily and weekly planners, finding a home group and a sponsor, maybe tapping into a job, or a volunteer gig in the community. Every step of the way, they can count on the quiet support from the big man often referred to as Tall John.
He arrived in Canada from the Netherlands at eight years old. His family migrated to the country seeing it as a land of opportunity. His father was a commercial painter, his mother holding a series of jobs in the postal service and in nursing. The Pynnakens were from the Leiden area of South Holland, abundant with tulips, and hometown of the great painter Rembrandt, and a university dating back to 1575.
They arrived into a working-class area of Winnipeg, Man. area in the spring of 1970, his parents, John and his two younger brothers.
Unable to speak English, but with a great curiosity and aptitude, John set about reading books to learn the new language and soon was near the top of his classes as a student.
“I always loved reading and got lost in books,” he recalls. “I had a full collection of the Hardy Boys, even had the detective handbook. Others too, like Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock novels, and a lot of old westerns.”
There were several moves around central southern Manitoba (St. Boniface, Lac du Bonnet, Treherne) but John found friends wherever he went.
“It was not at all traumatic. Were my parents strict? Yes, of course.
But I guess we were latch key kids. I would come home my parents would be out working still, so I would start on dinner, and by the time they got home it would be ready. Stuff like that.”
His fond memories include arriving in Treherne at 15, and how some of the local kids soon drew him into the fold.
“Right away I was accepted by these guys my age, cool guys in a small school. The previous place I was hanging out with the younger kids,” he says.
“So, they accepted me, and wanted me to be part of them. That was when the TV show Welcome Back Kotter was big. We had this gym teacher who had the hair, so we called him Mr. Kotter. We considered ourselves the sweat hogs. I thought I was going to be put into the remedial classes with them, but the teacher pulled me out and said ‘No, he doesn’t belong with you guys.’ But we still hung out.”
It was there he got his introduction into substances.
“One day we were skipping school and hopped into one guy’s car, five of us. We went to his place, they brought a bottle of whiskey. I remember that first drink of whiskey and it was like, wow! This tastes so good. It was like ahhhhh … this is pretty cool. Plus, I was part of the guys. I couldn’t wait to do it again.”
It was not a rocket ship into trouble for him. In rural Manitoba, there just wasn’t a lot of trouble going on at the time, he recalls. No drugs were around, and most of the kids worked on their parents’ farms. John worked on a couple of farms in the area, one a dairy farm and the other a pig farm.
Drinking on the odd weekend was as bad as it got the first few years, he says.
“We were just farm kids,” he says with a shrug. “You know, whiskey, beers, just being part of the group. It wasn’t about getting super drunk.”
The family would move again a year later, this time up north to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. John’s father had gone up and found steady work, and the family followed.
The last two years of his teens John finished up his high school. He loved the north, the natural beauty of it. He stayed focused on his schooling and finished high school. He would try pot up north but found it did little for him. When he finished high school, he went for his journeyman interprovincial ticket in Painting and Decorating, which required him to attend the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton for a couple of months per year for three years. This was a logical move as he had been working with (helping) his dad on painting jobs since 10 years of age.
It was in Edmonton his drinking lifted off into another level.
He had a vehicle by then and was in the bars in no time. Biker bars. Dance clubs. On weekends, during the week. The progression and volume was turning up. He would try LSD, but not like the effects. “I lost control and did not like that.”
“Girls were not a priority. Drinking was.”
His progression into addiction, his spiral to the jumping off place was not filled with police and crime, but it included its ample share of dark times including a six-month intravenous cocaine stretch before coming back to the bottle solely. He met a girl, and a whirlwind relationship produced a child, a boy named Ryan. His drinking got to a point where he was being confronted about it regularly from the mother of his son, they would fight, split up, fight, split up again. She would eventually gain almost full custody, but Ryan would come visit for weeks at a time every so often.
“He is the reason I got sober,” John says. “His mother said she did not want her son to have an alcoholic father. She never used that word on me before and it hit home.”
Their relationship today is loving.
“I still don’t see him as often as I would like but the love is there”.
Meanwhile, John’s drinking was finally catching up to him.
“By the end all I could drink pretty much was vodka. Screw drivers. I thought people couldn’t smell it. Now I know better because it smells like booze, right?”
He would end up tired of being sick and tired. One day he told a fellow painter on his crew he was done watching himself and others go down to addiction and he was through. He stopped that day. He went to a friend who he knew was sober. This friend had started in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement but had shifted to his church for support. Still, the friend took him to his first meeting.
John began attending AA at age 29 and has 32 years abstinence now.
‘So, I became an AA member,” John says. “I knew I needed to be there. I was very desperate. I started going to meetings every day for almost three months. ‘Do 90 meetings in 90 days’ someone said. I was keeping track and I did 76 in a row, but then got some job out of town.”
He not only attended meetings, but signed up for a treatment program, at Henwood Treatment Centre near Edmonton. He did 21 days in the facility, where he says he learned some valuable lessons.
“It was very cool. I was pretty much a converted AA guy. What I learned in Henwood was all these things that they are trying to teach us, I had been learning very subtly and slowly just by going to meetings.”
Not that his new life in recovery was without its dark moments. As he became successful in work, with all kinds of painters working for him, the stress drove him to a place of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. He checked himself into a hospital for psyche evaluation at three months of sobriety. It was there he was introduced to the concept of things happening for a reason, of the right people being in the right place, of doors opening when the time was right.
“Well, there were two male nurses there and that blew my mind. You can have male nurses? The guy said yes, but you have to make sure you get a degree, so you are not the bum wiping nurse. I said thank you, I appreciate that. But that got my brain going. Like, being a psych nurse or something like that.”
He had aches and pains from his years of painting, and a severe car accident along the way, so he knew the trades were a limited career choice. Workers Compensation Board staff were involved as John began to ponder a change.
First it was social work as a goal, but he ended up in sociology instead, where he earned his degree from the University of the Okanagan, where he settled to live in Kelowna.
He volunteered and worked for the Boys and Girls Club, helping at risk youth.
While in Kelowna he also met and fell in love with his current wife Charlene, and together they would go on to have two girls.
John eventually caught on with Crossroads Treatment Centre as a drug and alcohol counselor. He would spend nine years at the centre before taking a year off to recharge his batteries.
One day at the end of 2005 an advertisement in the local paper caught Charlene’s eye. “Hey look, Edgewood is looking for people,” she said. John phoned down to the Island and got an interview date. He and the family drove down, and he was offered the job as a counselor.
The family packed up and moved to the Island within five weeks.
“Poor Bonnie, (Bartlett, Edgewood’s marketing director at the time) was scrambling all over town trying to find us a place – but she found one just down the street from the centre! It was from some guy who had never rented his place out before.”
Doors were opening and he was walking through them.
All these years later, John is one of the longest serving counselors at Edgewood. He is often the one who gets the patients with an edge, and because of his gentle nature, of his ability to connect and bring calmness to the space, they seem to react and settle into it. He says he learns as much from them as they do from him.
“Well, they teach me to be right sized. They keep me honest, that is the big one. I like to think I can teach them the same thing. I like to think I teach them patience and mindfulness. I can’t preach what I don’t believe. That doesn’t work for me,” he says.
These days, John Pynnaken is walking with the same slow, purposeful yet calm stride as ever. He loves what he does for a living, and he is proud of the people he works with and for.
“I have always been proud of working at Edgewood because we have a really good reputation. As I see the EHN growing, I still keep hearing that Edgewood is like the flagship. I still see people coming in from other centres, visiting us, learning a little bit about what we do, and taking that back with them.”
As a man in long-term recovery, he knows where he found his answers, and he recommends anyone thinking of treatment to take the plunge. It is life altering, he assures.
“If you get the opportunity, just do it! You are going to learn things at a treatment centre. I became aware that I was learning really slowly just by going to AA meetings. So, I know people that are going to treatment are getting like a compressed indoctrination. That is why patients are so tired a lot of times at the end of the day. You know, worn out – it is a lot of input. But if you get the opportunity, do it. If you are going to be open to it, and if you are desperate enough, it is going to change your life.”