Union Gospel Mission wilderness program helps men overcome addiction

published on June 10, 2017 by Nick Eagland in Vancouver Sun

GARIBALDI PROVINCIAL PARK — Looking out on Cheakamus Lake, Tom Sauls recalls how he would often stand at Crab Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and gaze north at the mountains, dreaming of someday escaping homelessness and addiction to find refuge in the wilderness.

Sauls, 57, would take swigs of strong beer beneath the stars and picture himself climbing the green hills to look down upon the glimmering city. In his mind, Burrard Inlet would finally separate him from the shouting and sirens that woke him as he slept on benches, in buses or beneath bridges.

“I knew in myself that’s where I’d like to be,” Sauls said. “But it was impossible.”

After Sauls’ parents were murdered when he was a toddler, he was adopted by a loving family in Kamloops. But when, as a teenager, he learned the truth about his biological parents’ fate, the trauma sent him into despair and substance abuse that lasted for decades.

Unable to hold a job or apartment, Sauls became homeless and addicted, smoking crack when the liquor stores closed for the night and the beer ran out.

Wilderness programs that support addiction treatment and recovery — also run by B.C. organizations such as Last Door, Together We Can and Solid Ground — are highly effective, said Marshall Smith senior advisor for recovery initiatives at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

“These programs allow people to remove themselves from networks of drug-using friends and from the chaos that is often associated with many urban programs, and allow them to get into nature and deepen their connection with their peers,” said Smith.

He cited a new Canadian Centre on Substance Use survey, Life in Recovery from Addiction in Canada, which found that more than two-thirds of the 855 respondents had used a relationship with the land or natural environment as a support in their recovery.

As well, more than 96 per cent said they used relationships with friends as a recovery support, and 85 per cent said they used regular exercise programs.

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