Last spring I answered my alcohol dependent brother’s desperate plea to save him from the consequences of his addiction. His employment insurance had run out, he was about to be evicted from his downtown Vancouver condo, and thrown on the street.

In the midst of us packing, he collapsed on the kitchen floor, over top of blue Rubbermaid totes, and proceeded to have a seizure from alcohol withdrawal.

It couldn’t have lasted for more than two minutes – his body rigid and shaking, teeth clenched, eyes rolled back, and skin turning blue – but it is a slow motion memory seared into my brain.

It is a flashing montage of our childhood, the belief that I was too late to save him and the paralyzing fear that he was going to die in front of me.

When he revived from the seizure, he was like a wild animal with wide eyes, scrambling and disoriented on all fours. When the paramedics arrived about 10 minutes later, he had no memory of collapsing or the seizure. He did not know the day or why there were totes all over his condo.

Columnist Shelley Wiart and her brother in July 2013. She has asked he not be named to provide some measure of privacy as he struggles with addiction.

It wasn’t until I spoke with the emergency room doctor at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital that I realized the dangers of alcohol withdrawal. He told me that seizures occur six-to-48 hours after the last drink, with the risk peaking at 24 hours. The doctor explained that the real danger of a seizure is a heart attack, which is why people withdrawing from alcohol need inpatient medical care to monitor breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.

The doctor managed to get him placed in a nearby detox center, where I dropped him off two days later. I had no choice but to leave Vancouver since my three young daughters needed me back in Lloyminster, Alta.

I departed with a heavy heart knowing that my brother was alone.

Notwithstanding my rescue, my brother did not secure intake into a rehabilitation centre. Several months after the incident, he relapsed and his health deteriorated. Last month, I visited him in Calgary’s Peter Lougheed Hospital in the intensive care unit. He is 36 years old with permanent liver damage; another bender could potentially kill him. He is entering rehabilitation this week.

I keep a picture on my desk of us holding hands around the ages of eight and six. I’m leading him off to an adventure, the older stronger sister that he trusts. It’s a gentle reminder of our childhood innocence and love for each other. I still have hope that he will heal.

Addictions in the NWT

First, I want to clarify that addictions are not a moral failing. The Center on Addiction website defines addiction as, “a complex disease of the brain and body that involves compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences. Addiction disrupts regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgment and memory. It damages various body systems as well as families, relationships, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.”

Just like people suffering from diabetes or cancer, residents of the Northwest Territories suffering from the disease of addiction deserve to access treatment and services within the territory. As it stands, anyone seeking treatment for substance use dependency in the Northwest Territories must be sent to one of three locations in Alberta: Poundmaker’s Lodge, Fresh Start Recovery or Aventa Centre of Excellence for Women with Addictions. For opioid addictions, it’s Edgewood in Nanaimo, B. C.

Furthermore, sending residents thousands of miles away from their social support network is detrimental to their recovery. The Centre on Addiction website recognizes people with the disease of addiction, “need the help and support of family, friends and peers to stay in treatment and increase their chances of survival and recovery.”

While there is much emphasis in Yellowknife on solving the homeless problem and doing something about their disruptive behavior in the streets, there also needs to be an awareness of where these addicts are coming from – it is an indication of unhealthy communities and trauma.

Dr. Gabor Mate, renowned speaker and best-selling author on addictions states, “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain. And the source of pain is always and invariably to be found in a person’s lived experience, beginning with childhood. Childhood trauma is the template for addiction—any addiction. All addictions are attempts to escape the deep pain of the hurt child, attempts temporarily soothing but ultimately futile.”

The majority of homeless people in Yellowknife are Indigenous. Their addictions closely associated to the trauma of residential school and the effects of ongoing colonization. Sending them away from their traditional lands, and their support system, including their culture for treatment is another form of colonial violence.

Last week I was walking back from my 12-step family support program and there was an Indigenous homeless person passed out on the steps of the mall by the A & W entrance on Franklin Avenue. First, I checked to make sure he was only passed out, and did not have a seizure. Then I offered him a silent prayer, “May God bless you and keep you safe.”

The disease of addiction does not discriminate; there is no immunity based on race, class, or gender.

The difference being the most vulnerable people suffering with the disease are visible in our communities. The wealthy have access to privacy and resources; they can afford to go to rehab as many times as necessary, but even that doesn’t guarantee sobriety.

Harm reduction isn’t enough

I’m winding up a month in Yellowknife, visiting family and doing some exploring with my daughters. I stayed in the Northern Heights building, with a balcony overlooking the Safe Harbour Day Shelter. I asked myself: Why does Yellowknife not have a detox and rehabilitation facility?

The proposed sobering centre, scheduled to open in two months is not the comprehensive response needed to address chronic and heavy substance abuse. It is a harm-reduction strategy, an entrance point for addicts, and a Band-Aid solution to the disease of addiction.

I hope that in the near future, the GNWT will develop a real long-term strategy to address the disease of addiction within the Northwest Territories.

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