Young addict finds redemption

Credits long-term addictions facility with helping him kick drug habit

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on June 10, 2013
James Abbott of Shea Heights said a long-term substance abuse facility for adolescents in New Brunswick turned his life around. — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram

The way James Abbott was going, he could have been among the toll of this province's deadliest year for drugs.

There were 13 drug overdose deaths in 2012 in this province, the highest number ever in a single year.

And Abbott wasn't far behind those souls - on one occasion he overdosed on sleeping pills and needle-injected Dilaudid, and woke up yellow skinned and with a swollen leg. He couldn't make it from his rooming house on Springdale Street to nearby St. Clare's hospital, so he had to call his father for help. He said he suffered some liver damage and an infection.

One evening last week, Abbott, a slight 19-year-old told the story of his road to near ruin and then redemption.

Sporting a slightly sideways fitted baseball cap and a hoodie, he glanced away at passersby, perhaps an old habit of watching his back on the streets.

Sentences were interjected with "You know what I mean?" when describing the more sordid details of his struggles and former drug life, an indication of just how commonplace that life is to those mired in it.

A tattoo on his arm bears the logo and date - May 30, 2012 - that he entered the Portage Atlantic adolescent substance abuse treatment centre in New Brunswick. He spent six months there.

But the overdose wasn't what got him there. Rather he'd been court-ordered to move home with his mother. And Abbott said she made all the calls that led to his admittance to Portage.

Now he's got a full-time job, a girlfriend that went through the program at a different time and hopes for his future.

"The biggest thing I learned was that I actually (expletive) mattered in life," he said.

"When I went to Portage, I thought I was a piece of shit. I didn't think I'd be anything in life. ... I thought I was going to die I did so much drugs."

Some others may have harboured a grudge against Abbott too, since he was convicted of numerous charges.

The crime, which all ended more than a year ago, relates to stealing he did to support his habit. The habit began with weed at 13 and progressed to Ritalin, Percocets, coke, ecstacy, OxyContin, morphine and his favourite - needle injections of Dilaudid, accompanied by heavy doses of sleeping pills.

"It just made me more whacked out of it," he explained.

Abbott, whose parents split up when he was 12, said he got curious about weed at 13.

He can't remember how he first funded his weed habit.

"I think it was lunch money and shit," said Abbott.

Eventually though, he was smoking it every day, and other drugs followed when he hit high school at Holy Heart.

Potheads, said Abbott, will accept anybody.

Groups, he found, were closed to those who weren't jocks - basketball or hockey people - or other cliques.

"People outside school smoking weed, anybody can go there and hang out," he said.

His lived for BMX biking. But he had back surgery in Montreal at age 15 for scoliosis, a condition in which the spine was compressed.

After that, he couldn't do his sports anymore and there were troubles at home and confrontations with his family over his behaviour.

"They had to put deadbolts and everything on their rooms," he said.

At 16, Abbott said he went to a youth shelter, was on youth services funding and worked a summer job.

That's when he started using needles.

Abbott's lifestyle led him to get kicked out by his roommates and he moved to the Springdale rooming house. He didn't go back to school that fall, having already failed Grade 12.

And Abbott's life spiralled further downward.

Abbott said he was ordered by the court to move home. But he stole money from his mother to pay for his drugs until she gave him an ultimatum - get out or go to Portage, he said.

"She saved my life," Abbott said.

"Although I was forced to go, I wanted to go. It's the best decision I ever made in my life."

At the Portage Centre, Abbott said he finished high school, got his teeth fixed and found true friends among the other young recovering addicts there. They all stayed in touch through Facebook after he finished the program in November.

Arriving at Portage after a week in detox in St. John's, Abbott admitted to having an attitude.

But one of the facility's case workers, Doris Belliveau, remembers him a bit differently than that. While he portrayed himself as a tough guy, he was actually traumatized by his drug life, she said.

Abbott was a chronic addict who'd come to the end of the line, but was not in denial and recognized he needed help, Belliveau said.

"We all fell in love with James. He is quite a character," she said. "We all hope he continues on his road to recovery."

For Abbott and other residents, the days at Portage started at 6 a.m. and ended at 9:45 p.m. lights out. A typical day included cleaning his room, helping other residents clean the facility, cook meals and clean up afterwards, and attending meetings and school.

The facility, he said, taught him patience, structure, empathy, how to be reliable and have a conscience.

The 64-bed non-profit facility for adolescents - ages 14-21 - has been open since 1996 on Cassidy Lake, near Sussex, N.B. Other centres are located in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia and the organization also has adult addictions programs.

The cost is $200 a day, said director Geordie Gould. But patients are often funded by provincial governments.

This province sends six to 10 addicts a year to Portage - young people referred through addictions counsellors.

Back home in St. John's, Abbott got into the Train for Trades program at Choices for Youth and moved on to a construction job. He now hopes to obtain a trade someday.

He's healthy and goes to the gym everyday.

"Everything is perfect. I have been sober for a year. You don't understand - my life was so shitty beforehand, the person I am now I never thought I would be in million years," he said.

"I had no confidence, no self worth - just a junkie."

He said he thinks the long-stay facilties are the best option for treatment - it was three months before he felt things turn around.

The province's two youth treatment centres - in Paradise and Grand Falls-Windsor - are expected to open in spring 2014.

But it's way too late to control the drug problem, Abbott said.

"It's a just a booming city, and nobody stopped it before it got too bad. Different people came in. It just got out of hand," he said.

bsweet@thetelegram.com