The executive director of the Orchard Recovery Center, Lorinda Strang, understands addiction in a very personal way. She cofounded the internationally accredited addiction-treatment facility on Bowen Island in 2002, more than a decade after she went into recovery.
Fifteen years later, it continues helping clients through residential programs usually lasting six weeks in a former four-star resort, which includes a swimming pool, a gym, a fitness centre, first-class meals, and a nearby forest.
“In my own personal life, I’ve seen recovery work, including with my grandmother,” Strang told the Georgia Straight over the phone, “and I’ve lost my brother to addiction. I’ve seen it on both sides.”
So what advice does Strang have for family members wanting to encourage a loved one to go into treatment?
First of all, she said, they must realize that addicts are almost always fearful about entering an addiction program. And while family members often focus on whether there are qualified medical staff and clinical teams, she said, those in the throes of addiction are often more interested in the facility. This includes the quality of the meals, the comfort level, and whether or not there’s a gym.
“When you look at our website, it’s designed to answer the questions for both,” Strang said.
According to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in five Canadians experiences “a mental health or addiction problem” in any given year. At the Orchard and other B.C. treatment facilities, a prime objective is to remove the stigma surrounding addiction, which, like other chronic diseases, can be managed.
The website for Maryland’s National Institute on Drug Abuse points out that treatment “enables people to counteract addiction’s powerful disruptive effects” on the brain and a person’s behaviour, enabling them “to regain control over their lives”.
However, just as with other chronic diseases, it’s possible for symptoms to recur. And relapse can be perilous for those emerging from a recovery centre. That’s because if their bodies have been free of opiates, their usual dose can have a more powerful and potentially deadly impact. This message is reinforced at the Orchard by counsellors and the medical team.
Strang also emphasized that any good addiction-treatment program will have an alumni component so those in recovery can interact with grads who’ve stayed clean over a longer term. “Every Thursday, our clients are welcome to come back, and they have a dinner,” she says. “Then they go to the alumni meeting and they’ll often be asked to be a guest speaker.”
A recently retired Orchard counsellor, David Berner, cofounded Canada’s first therapeutic residential treatment centre, X-Kalay, on Vancouver’s West Side in the 1960s. It later expanded to 125 beds. Later, an X-Kalay facility opened and continues operating in Winnipeg.
In an interview in a South Granville–area coffee shop, Berner told the Straight that anyone considering going to a recovery house must realize that there are both private for-profit clinics and government-financed beds operated by nonprofit societies.
He cited the Orchard, the Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, and Cedars at Cobble Hill as three private operations that know what they’re doing, have “tons of programming” in upscale facilities, and provide reliable aftercare.
“They are all similar but very different,” Berner said. “Edgewood has a reputation for being tougher, more hard-nosed, a little bit more by the book.”
Berner, also an actor and broadcaster, emphasized that anyone going to a recovery house should choose the right facility for their temperament and personality.
"Understand that you're going to leave your business, your family, your kids, your dog, and your cat," he said. "You're away for an island for a month. So you have to overcome the initial shock of being in this place."
He noted that nonprofit organizations—such as Turning Point Recovery Society, Last Door Recovery Society, and Pacifica Treatment Centre Society—also have “serious, dedicated staff” committed to helping addicts recover. Although their residential facilities are not akin to first-class hotels, the accommodation is “comfortable”, according to Berner.
“They’re clean,” he said. “The food is good.”
He also warned that there are disreputable “recovery houses”, sometimes run by sketchy characters, in Surrey and other parts of the Fraser Valley. “They exist solely to do under-the-table deals with pharmacists,” Berner alleged. “Pharmacists give them methadone and they give the pharmacist a kickback.”
Finally, he said, there’s the John Volken Academy, which was founded by multimillionaire John Volken under a different name in 2001. After selling United Furniture Warehouse more than a decade ago, Volken transferred most of his fortune into a foundation, which funds long-term residential treatment centres in Surrey, Seattle, and Phoenix.
At the King George Highway site, students learn job skills in a 45,000-square-foot supermarket on-site, which also includes a furniture department. Volken told the Straight by phone that because it takes time for drug users’ brains to recover and adapt from addiction, he developed a two-year treatment program.
His goal is to rebuild the person and not just address their addiction.
“During that time, they learn life skills, job skills, social skills, and leadership skills on their way to become the best that they can be,” Volken said.
Meanwhile, Brenda Plant, executive director of Turning Point Recovery Society, told the Straight by phone that clients stay 90 to 120 days in her organization’s abstinence-based residential treatment centres to give them time to stabilize, develop a support network in the community, and complete a transition plan.
“They have short-term goals that they have to achieve,” she said. “They get increased independence as they complete phases of our program.”
The society also operates a drop-in centre and has opened second-stage housing units for some of those who graduate from treatment, providing a continuum of care.
With more than 1,000 British Columbians having died from illicit-drug overdoses in the first eight months of 2017, Plant acknowledged that it’s easy to get pessimistic over what’s being reported in the media. But despite these bleak numbers, she said that recovery is possible, emphasizing that more people are getting clean and sober than are dying in the streets of Vancouver.
She also said it's a "myth" that reputable recovery houses bring drug dealers and dirty needles to communities where they're located. In fact, she stated, research has repeatedly refuted this notion, suggesting where there's no demand, there's no supply.
In fact, residential recovery facilities can turn around people's very existence, which builds communities.
“What sustains me is that I come to work every day filled with hope that we’re going to keep saving lives and that lives are being saved in the midst of this opioid crisis,” Plant declared. “We have served over 5,000 people in 35 years at Turning Point. That’s 5,000 people who have been given the tools to live a productive and healthy and clean life.”