Paul is married, owns a house and runs a construction company.
On a typical day, he goes to work and comes home to dinner, TV and bed.
“Honestly, I’m not that exciting of a person,” he says.
It doesn’t sound like news.
But Paul’s life is radically changed from what it was eight and a half years ago, when he was homeless and addicted to crack cocaine.
“Thinking about using and the way I used to live seems odd,” said the 43-year-old, whose recovery took shape in the Beach.
“At the beginning, it was the other way around.”
Like all members of Cocaine Anonymous, a 12-step, spiritually focused fellowship program for recovering addicts, Paul keeps a small medallion on his key chain that shows how long he’s been clean.
His current one is black with a gold ‘8’ in the middle. His first was white with a zero.
On average, Paul said, a Cocaine Anonymous group might give out 100 of the white medallions for every one that marks a full year clean. Recovery is the exception, not the rule.
Jazmin, another local CA member who is six years clean, moved from Toronto back to Peterborough and then to a rural town in the Ottawa Valley, all to escape cocaine and other drugs.
“I found them,” she said with a wry laugh.
“It’s everywhere you go.”
At 32, Jazmin now has a young son and works at a hair salon. There too, more than one client has told her about an addicted son or daughter.
“I don’t think a lot of parents talk about it,” she said. They are often too afraid of how their child and their response as a parent might be judged.
Jazmin recently spoke with a client’s daughter, hoping to help her into recovery. It didn’t work.
Neither did Jazmin’s first tries – not the medication, books, counselling, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or the three months at a women’s treatment centre in Ottawa.
Like Paul, Jazmin got into drinking and smoking pot as a teenager, but managed okay for a while. Then crack tipped the scales.
By his early twenties, Paul could make $1,000 a week paving driveways and spend it all on crack that weekend.
Eventually, he got fired by so many contractors in Toronto that he had nowhere left to work.
“Honestly, when you’re using crack, you don’t have a future,” he said. “You can’t even save $5, not a chance.”
Unable to make rent, Paul wound up in a homeless shelter. But even that didn’t spark a change.
“I was at a point where it was normal to be homeless,” he said.
He had food, a bed, no responsibility and plenty of dealers nearby. Any drug-free friends were long gone.
“Your world becomes everyone who’s using,” he said. “You don’t have anything to do with anyone normal.”
Paul spent 15 years in that world, longer than most addicts. Most people die first.
His way out came when he finally told his mother what was going on – a talk he doesn’t remember.
Paul’s mother’s helped him into the Bellwood treatment centre in Scarborough, then put him up in the basement suite of her Wineva Avenue home while he spent a year and a half doing nothing but going to work and CA meetings.
Today, Paul’s 15 years of addiction are actually an advantage when he is asked to sponsor new members.
“I have stories that are worse than theirs, in most cases,” he said. “I can use that to their benefit.”
In Jazmin’s case, using drugs came on like a cure.
At 14 and 15, Jazmin was depressed, and addicted to making cuts on her arms and legs in spite of antidepressant medication.
But she quit cutting and dropped her prescription shortly after she started smoking pot, which she paired with the stimulant ephedrine.
“It did something for me that I couldn’t do for myself,” she said. Marijuana was filling a void.
At 19, one of the girls in Jazmin’s circle of friends got terminal cancer.
“Stupid us, but she knew she was going to die, and we just partied,” she said.
The binge lasted months, until her friend died. That’s when Jazmin realized she couldn’t stop.
“I was like, ‘I’m young, I’m sad, we’re all missing our friend – let’s just keep this going.”
Jazmin moved to Toronto for hairstyling school. Things were okay until her boyfriend found a bag of crack cocaine in the lobby of her building and tried it.
“That was in April, and by June I was missing a DVD player, rings, money,” she said. “This was not him at all.”
It was by following her boyfriend that Jazmin got addicted. But four years later, it was seeing her boyfriend to start to recover that led her to CA.
Jazmin attended his group meetings, and watched as he got calmer, less defensive, and began talking more about the future.
“He wanted new things for himself, wanted to strive to be better,” she said.
“That’s what I wanted for myself.”
Jazmin got a sponsor, and unlike the AA meetings she had tried before, this time it clicked.
Likewise, Paul said his sponsor was a big part of why CA worked for him.
“My guy was happy, married, owned his own house,” he said. “He was always smiling. That attracted me.”
A spiritual awakening is another big part of CA. While it does turn a lot of people away, Paul said accepting some kind of higher power is core to how CA works, and it doesn’t always mean taking on a religion.
“I’m about the least religious guy you’ll meet,” he said. “But I have good faith, I try to live by principles. This is all stuff that churchgoing people do, but that’s not me.”
Jazmin believes in God. But the key, she said, is her sense that there’s a greater power at work.
“It’s not all about me, and I don’t know how my life is supposed to go,” she said, adding that so much of her addiction was a misguided effort at control.
“I think the point of recovery is learning to live life on life’s terms.”
Cocaine Anonymous will host its annual convention from Oct. 23 to 25 at the Radisson Hotel Admiral. Visit ca.org for more information.