Inner City Diary
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A birthday to remember
May 26, 2002
The lights were dimmed and for a moment the room was silent. Then, one by one, people started talking.
There were no fancy introductions. People greeted the group with their first name and then the words, “I'm an addict.” The group responded, greeting the person by their first name. The individual would then follow with a news-brief or editorial from their front-line battle with addiction.

It was a 12 Step program meeting at the Magnus Eliason Recreation Centre on Langside Street. I was there as a guest. A member of our church was celebrating his seventh “birthday,” and I wanted to celebrate with him and his friends. 12 Step Birthdays are the annual celebrations of a person's freedom from a lifestyle of addiction.

Addictions are scary. In the last two weeks, several people phoned me from the Health Sciences Psych Health Unit. They were driven to the brink of insanity by their addiction but were unable to secure a spot in a drug treatment centre without several interview appointments and an extended wait for a bed.

Moving through the process, they were waiting for acceptance to programs at the Addictions Foundation. But now the psych ward was going to release them. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have clean friends or a safe place to stay. It didn’t seem to matter that they were terrified to go home alone into the residence of their addiction.

12 Step programs are not exactly treatment centres. But they are a gathering of people who have experienced the fear of addiction and have decided to struggle against it in a context of relationships of mutual encouragement and accountability.

Biological birthdays roll around without much conscious effort. You simply wait for 12 months and you're a year older. But  12 Step program birthdays don't come easy. These folk don't just wait for 52 weeks to pass. They work hard for 365 clean days, resisting old rationalizations and developing new habits – one day at a time.

This wasn't a sappy or religious bunch. Some of the language and demeanor was rough but real. One mom wanted to stay clean to eventually get her kids back. Another was concerned that her kids have a better life than she had experienced.

One guy had come to the brink of trading his employment for his addiction. Another was starting a new job. One woman said she would need to be phoning others in the group. One of her best drug-free friends was moving out of town.

Each individual who spoke looked over at my friend and wished him a happy birthday. Many said, “I'm looking forward to celebrating one year. Seven is amazing!”

My friend had a sponsor, one of the leaders of the group. The sponsor offered a few words of praise and also challenged my friend to do better in certain areas. Then my friend's wife lit seven candles on the “birthday” cake. There were the usual jokes about having enough hot air to blow out all the candles in one breath.

Then it was my friend's turn to talk. There was a little reminiscing. There was more gratitude for friends in the group. Looking at me, he commented about how we knew each other before he decided to quit using. “I knew how you felt about the stuff I was doing. But when you saw me on the street you just talked to me without telling me what I already knew. I just had to make a decision to get help.”

He offered encouragement for others just starting out. “Stick with it. You can make it to seven years and way past that!”

As I listened, I was real proud of this guy. I remember seeing him walking around the neighbourhood, flying high while stuck in the low life. But he was more than the sum total of his addictions. Even while he was still getting high, he was getting more afraid of where he was headed. He needed help, knew where to find it, and got it.

I stayed for awhile after the meeting and had cake with a group of “addicts” in the West End. It was another good lesson in not judging books – or people - by their titles.

As I left the meeting it was starting to get dark. I walked home, past some of the same drug dens and dealers I had seen many times before. But this night was different. Tonight I celebrated with a small cadre of folks fighting the insanity.

I had been in a good place. I had seen and heard some hope here in the West End.
Copyright 2002
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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Contact info:
New Life Ministries
514 Maryland Street
Winnipeg, Mb R3G 1M5
(204) 775-4929