Walking in the Mess

Others, Addictions , COVID-19

Contributed by: Inner City Youth Alive


Mel had just woken up and was feeling “dope sick”.  If she didn’t get her first fix of the day soon she would begin to experience excruciating withdrawals.  She prepared a shot of “down” (a dangerous mix of heroin and fentanyl) and looked for a vein to shoot up.  Looking me in the eye she told me about a friend of hers who had just died of an overdose the day before – while injecting herself with the very same drug!  The look in the eye of a person battling serious drug addiction is a mix of pain, resignation, hopelessness – and at times, a plea for help.  Our friends know it’s killing them, they know it’s keeping them from getting healthy and having a relationship with their children, with their families, but knowledge and will power alone are not nearly enough.  “I love my kids!” our friend Wayne insisted to me the other day with tears in his eyes.  “I want to be there for them – but this addiction, it’s just so f—— hard!  Promise me,” he continued later in our conversation after sharing with me about another recent attempt on his life.  “Promise me that you will go to my funeral and tell the people there that I was a good person – with a heart for people.” 

As one of four community ministers (lately I’ve been using the term “hood pastor”) on our team here at Inner City Youth Alive, it’s not uncommon for us to find ourselves visiting friends in a trap house (drug house) with a bucket of KFC, checking up on friends experiencing homelessness in a tent down by the river, visiting a single mom and her kids in a Manitoba Housing apartment, or going for a drive and praying with a young gang member who just got released from prison.  “You’re a pastor?” is a question I often get asked.  “What are you doing here?” I was asked recently in a room full of addicts shooting up.  “So you go around talking to bad people?” one woman asked. “Well, just because a person is struggling with addiction doesn’t make them a bad person,” I replied. 

One of the consistencies in our ministries is that we so often encounter people in pain.  Our society often teaches us to avoid facing our pain (and the trauma experiences behind it) at all costs, to do whatever we can to escape the pain, to numb the pain. That’s one of the main reasons that people end up abusing substances and becoming addicts.  And yet we have built relationships with so many people who wish that they could be free from their addictions. We’ve sat and listened and prayed with friends as they cried, begging for help to overcome their addictions.

“What would it take?” I asked a friend the other day.  She has struggled with serious addiction since she was twelve.  “What would it take to get clean?”

“Jail,” was her reply.  Everyone nodded.  I didn’t point out that she has frequently been to jail.

“So, are you wanted (by the police) right now?” I asked her. 


“Well, why don’t you punch me in the face right now and I’ll charge you with assault,” I replied, smiling.

Everyone burst out laughing.

Of course, getting “clean” in jail is very different than learning how to live life sober upon being released.  How do you stay sober if you are homeless upon your release, if your family is comprised of homeless addicts and literally 99% of the people you know are addicts?!  How can you even begin to imagine a different life?  How do you “raise the floor” for a person who has been in and out of jail for the past 15 years?  Someone who has been repeatedly victimized, experienced the traumatic loss of loved ones, witnessed horrific violence…, even carved the words “F–k Love” into their arm?

This pandemic has exposed so many gaps and shortcomings in the systems, structures and institutions we have built to care for the most vulnerable in our society (i.e. long-term care homes, homeless shelters…) and I believe that it has greatly exacerbated the challenges faced by those seeking help with their addictions.  Having walked alongside friends who have desperately sought to get help (i.e. detox, treatment, income assistance…), we have repeatedly witnessed how difficult it is to attain help – even if one has supports and help with rides to appointments, phone calls, access to voicemail, encouragement, food…   For those without, it’s almost impossible.

Those struggling with addiction desperately need safe, caring and supportive places to live as they seek help.  They need counselling to address trauma and space to grieve.  We could open a half dozen more treatment facilities like the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre in Winnipeg and it wouldn’t be enough.  What role can we play in providing loving and caring community for those who need to cut ties with family and friends in order to stay sober?  As followers of Jesus, we know how finding one’s identity in Christ renews our sense of value and worth and can bring about healing and transformation.  God’s desire is for all to experience forgiveness, restoration and wholeness in our lives.  

Our team recently watched a training video by clinical psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud who has taught extensively on the psychology and neurology of how people respond in times of crisis.  He maintains that humanity was designed for structure and healthy connectedness, and that when we lose our sense of “control” and our normal ability to make choices in times of crisis, our tendency is to “unplug” and resign ourselves to a kind of “learned helplessness”.  As strategies for coping he advises that we create structure and prioritized our connections with others.  But what happens when your life is always chaotic?  How can we come alongside those for whom Covid-19 barely registers as a blip on their radar in comparison to the daily crisis of trying to survive?


Harvey Rempel

Hood Pastor at ICYA