Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

I'd thought I'd seen it all as an addict. Bell Island showed me there's light in the darkness

Stephen Miller is a former opiate addict. Read his take on one community's resilience and work to tackle mental health and addictions problems.

On a resilient island that might seem frozen in time, some dare to hope for a better future

Like the author, Rashida Muthman is visiting Bell Island for the first time to attend a panel on the role of community in dealing with mental health and addictions issues. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

As the ferry embarks from the Portugal Cove terminal on its short journey to Bell Island in Newfoundland's Conception Bay, I realize it had been almost two decades since I occupied any vessel larger than a dory. 

It had been another ferry, the one traveling to Nova Scotia. A family vacation several lifetimes ago. Poor form for the product of generations of men who made their living on the water.

At least I still have my sea legs, I reason with myself, mounting a defence against the judgment of my ancestors I'd cooked up in my own mind.

Despite being born and raised in Newfoundland, I've never been to Bell Island. 

I'm here on this October morning to cover a field trip that's part of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation North Atlantic Forum. The conference takes place over five days and focuses on efforts and innovations that help sustain rural communities.

On this particular field trip, the focus is dealing with mental health and addictions. Bell Island has something to show the world. 

Forum attendees tour the No. 2 iron ore mine, which closed in 1966. The electricity was added long after the mine was closed. During production, boys as young as 12 worked by candlelight. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

I know the topic, but not Bell Island's story. If you happened to catch a 2018 documentary about yours truly, you'll know it's a subject I'm all too familiar with… but we'll get into that shortly.

Bell Island wasn't chosen at random. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of resilience in the face of social and economic woes.

The community produced iron ore for the globe

The community was built around several historically significant iron ore mines, with around 12,000 people living there during peak production.

The mines provided iron ore to nations near and far for decades. 

Shelly Kavanagh was entirely unfamiliar with the drug world. She received a crash course when her daughter became addicted to opiates. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

But that's all a distant memory now.

The last mine closed in 1966, and since then the community has been in decline, with about 10,000 fewer people now calling the island home.

The new claim to fame being sustained economic depression and high rates of addiction and mental health issues.

As you might imagine, I wasn't the only person visiting Bell Island for the first time. The other forum attendees just had better reasons — being from other provinces and, in some cases, other countries.

But we aren't traveling to Bell Island to examine its problems, which unfortunately aren't unique. We're going to witness its solutions.

What's done in the dark...

The striking beauty and sheer verticality of the cliffs of Bell Island make quite a first impression as the ferry approaches. The settlements have the rustic charm of much of small-town Newfoundland and Labrador.

Before the panel, our group tours the famous No. 2 iron ore mine, which opened in 1902 and closed more than 50 years ago. Our tour guide, Brian Hickey, is spectacular. He paints a vivid portrait of life in a mine prior to labour laws and electricity.

After the heavy subject matter of the panel, this writer enjoyed a photoshoot aboard the ferry with some new friends. From left: Georgette Attaa Nyankson, Stephen Miller, Rashida Muthman and Abdul Rahim Abdulai Alollo. (Abdul Rahim Abdulai Alollo)

"Probably the most important thing to remember about this tour, see these lights over our heads?" Hickey said.

"We only put these here 20 years ago when we started doing the tour. The No. 2 mine was never modernized."

Generations of Hickey's family had toiled in the mines. His deep roots lend his voice an authority and passion far beyond your average tour guide. 

One minute we're aghast at descriptions of the conditions that the miners worked in. The next, we're laughing at colourful commentary about when, where and how the miners "relieved" themselves in the pitch-black confines of the mine.  

We all headed down into the dark depths of the mine as strangers, but Hickey makes sure that by the time we see sunlight again, we're all been bonded by the laughs we've shared, as well as the gasps — these miners had it rough. 

It makes me think of my grandfather, who also made a living as a miner. The experience helps me appreciate his sacrifice all the more. 

The mine has a character all its own, and serves as the perfect metaphor for the island as a whole.

Frozen in time, a shadow of its former self.

Bucking the trend

As we drive from place to place, in a big yellow school bus no less, I notice the familiar signs of a town long in decline. Dilapidated buildings, shuttered business, no sign of new structures. 

Kavanagh and Brian Rees were both part of the community-led effort to bring addiction treatments to Bell Island. Kavanagh has a daughter currently using the services to remain sober. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

Then we arrive at the Grand Wabana Inn, which bucks that trend entirely. It's an old but exquisite three-storey structure, modernized and updated into an inn and dining area. Attendees are fed a meal prepared by the owner and operator, who is also an accomplished chef.

The panel turns out to be more of a fireside chat, with the audience occupying chairs borrowed from the dining room. The intimacy of the venue seems appropriate for the subject matter. 

Of the four speakers, two are locals who were instrumental in community-led efforts to tackle rampant drug use in the small community, Brian Rees and Shelly Kavanagh.  

Kavanagh is the mother of a young woman who found herself in the vicious cycle of opiate addiction.

Her daughter is on methadone now. Not so long ago, she had no choice but to watch her child's descent into a world that was as terrifying as it was foreign to her.

"In the beginning, I never had a clue about it," Kavanagh said. "I've since then educated myself. I'm feeling pretty good about it." 

Kavanagh has a quiet strength about her.

The air of a survivor. Eyes that betray both kindness and pain.

She might as well have been my mother. 

Why all of this hits so close to home

That intimate knowledge I alluded to earlier? Well, the majority of my adult life was spent as an opiate addict.

I lived for 10 years or so, starting in my late teens, as a heavy drug user. It was a hell of my own design, but it took me a long time to find the exit.

Those brave enough to venture to the upper deck were captivated by the view approaching Bell Island. The island has an area of 34 square kilometres, its perimeter mostly sheer cliffs rising high out of the waves. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

A decade is a long time to spend as an opiate addict. The initial pleasure fades pretty quickly. The want becomes a need, and the need becomes the only thing of consequence. 

It's a cycle I was fortunate enough to escape some time ago, but one I still remember all too well. An existence of risk and turmoil that couldn't be further removed from my current personal and professional life.

I've been in my new life long enough to outlast imposter syndrome, and I've found purpose in telling people's stories to the best of my ability.

As you might imagine, some stories hit close to home.

Sometimes, in fact, it feels like their story could very well be your own.

What mothers see, and know

Kavanagh's education in addiction, like my mother's, was brought on not by idle curiosity, but necessity. They were watching their children disappear before their very eyes. 

Watching Kavanagh speak about her work tackling opiate addiction and the stigma surrounding it, you can tell how much the work means to her. She's found a way to fight.

"I think our group[s] and kids can help a lot of people. Because it's just too much. Too much for one small island"

Christopher Fulcher admires the diligence and tenacity displayed by the volunteers on Bell Island. He says combining efforts on the ground with quality data is key in dealing with the opioid crisis. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

Several generations have now grown up in a town struggling to exist. Many who work have to leave the island for employment, dependent on the ferry for their commute.

Many work seasonally. Some, not at all.

It reminds me of my hometown of Marystown and so many other small communities in the province. It might have been the collapse of a different industry, but the symptoms remain the same.

Personal connections to addiction

The groups are community-led efforts, known as Heal Bell Island, and In Good Hands. Heal Bell Island focuses its efforts on educating Bell Islanders on the issues that affect their health, primarily addiction and combating the stigma that surrounds it.

Now they've come around. They're actually really supportive of it.- Shelly Kavanagh

In Good Hands brought Bell Island its first clean needle exchange program, in the hopes of stopping the spread of blood-borne infectious diseases and unsafe practices.

The majority of the volunteers are either family of addicts, in recovery themselves, or in certain cases still in active addiction. 

They've got skin in the game, so to speak. It motivates them, and they've made an impact.

Their efforts have brought methadone and suboxone therapies to the island, widely expanding access for addicts in the community that were either unable or unwilling to make the commute by ferry.

The clean needle exchange program has been operating on the island since December.

Back then they were handing out about 4,000 needles a month.

That number now is closer to 300. 

Despite their success in harm reduction and fighting addiction in the community, their efforts have not been universally appreciated on the island.

"Since we've had the suboxone/methadone clinic down there, there's big changes in the people at the hospital. A lot of those people were against all of this," Kavanagh said.

"Now they've come around. They're actually really supportive of it."

According to Kavanagh, the municipal government has remained unmoved in its opposition, resisting their efforts since the beginning. She blames stigma and ignorance for their position.

I ask Kavanagh if she thinks the municipal government might change its way of thinking about their efforts, and about addiction as a whole.

"It would have to hit home for somebody, for them to come around," Kavanagh said.

"It would have to fall on their doorstep."

Don't miss the boat

By the time I finish speaking with Kavanagh, it's time to board the bus to get back to the ferry. Originally, we were supposed to catch an earlier passage and we are behind schedule. 

Fulcher came all the way from the University of Missouri. The centre he directs has focused much of its attention on tackling opioid abuse in the state. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

I spend the trip back with some new friends I made over the course of the day, taking advantage of the scenery with a photo shoot. We laugh heartily as we struggled to take steady shots despite the vessel's rocking. 

It was some much needed levity.

I catch up with the other panellists the following day as the forum — which is organized by Memorial University's Harris Centre — continues at MUN's Signal Hill campus. 

One of them is Chris Fulcher, the director at the Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems at the University of Missouri. The organization does a lot of work around what's called "community context," which looks at social and civic determinants of health — that is, things (which can include income, family, neighbourhoods, public services) that can determine the quality of your life. 

"Our role is, really, how do we use data to inform decision making but not drive decision making?" Fulcher said.

"[That is] because often technologies overwhelm the discussion and people gravitate to data or mapping, etc., rather than the issue at hand."

It may come as no surprise that they've focused much of their recent efforts on understanding and fighting the opioid epidemic in the United States.

'Really inspired by the ground-up approach'

I'm interested to hear his perspective on the community-based approach in Bell Island.

"I think it was fantastic. I was honoured just to be there with the two individuals that spoke from doing it on their own," Fulcher said

"There are all these institutional frameworks to try and help, but ultimately it's up to the individuals and how they work together that really drives the best change."

Fulcher says although he appreciates the efforts of governments and other entities, he feels that the best results come when those with the mentality to do the hard and messy work on the front lines take the lead, with their support.

"It takes diligence. And I saw that yesterday reflected in the comments that they made," Fulcher said.

"I was really inspired by the ground-up approach that is really required for communities to move forward."

As the ferry makes its trip back, attendees take one last glimpse at the cliffs of Bell Island. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

Fulcher knows his stuff. His organization was instrumental in the federal response to the opioid crisis in Missouri. 

There were several communities that had planning grants around the opioid response, but in order to make good spending decisions they needed quality data. Fulcher's centre was helpful in providing that data on a statewide level, as well as providing a framework through which the communities could collaborate. 

"Again it takes both. It's not a tech solution or a data solution. It's a collaborative solution," Fulcher said.

I thank Fulcher for his time and return to the forum. There are more voices to hear and things to think about. 

I know personally how difficult it will be to solve the opiate crisis — that even the best analytical minds and the most passionate advocates can still only provide tools and support to the addict… 

At the end of the day, it will always be up to the individual to accept that help.

But perhaps addicts will be more likely to seek help in a world where they feel they have a future.

One can hope.

Taking your work home

Later that night, I find myself thinking about what I'd seen and heard over the last two days.

Memories I often suppress occupy my mind and — for once — I don't fight it.

I had witnessed the unwavering love of a mother, which I knew, but also the idea that people from within a community can publicly advocate to improve things for addicts. That was so totally alien.

My experience as an addict was one of constant shame.

The cliffs, like the rich iron ore vein that runs beneath Bell Island, have a reddish hue. The iron ore deposits were not played out, just abandoned in pursuit of more accessible open-pit mines. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

Admitting you had a drug problem, past or present, was admitting to being sullied with a permanent mark against your character. You were now and forever unclean. 

A lot of people left town to get clean, and stayed away, myself included. The lack of tangible success stories only adds to the feeling of hopelessness. 

It seemed like no one ever made it out. 

But I've noticed things getting better on that front. Perhaps it was the inevitable result of an epidemic. It's no longer something that happens to "other people." 

Still, to see it in action, a community rising up to face the needs of its most stigmatized, not just without funding or help, but in the face of opposition … it truly moved me.

Many times during the forum I found myself thinking of how badly my hometown of Marystown could use a similar effort. 

I may have drifted from my old drug cohorts back home, but social media offers a porthole into their lives.

I see many are still struggling.

I had asked Kavanagh if there were any plans to bring their model to other towns with similar issues. 

"Absolutely. We plan to go on the road, hopefully this month, to the Burin Peninsula," Kavanagh said.

"A lot of mothers have contacted us. They need our help. They want to know how we did it. They want us to show them the ropes and I'll gladly do it."

I hope those in addiction back home too can find success through this community based approach.

I hope the families of addicts find solace in solidarity, as they suffer without even the escapism provided by drugs.

I hope, like me, they all find their happy endings.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Stephen Miller is a contributor to CBC News in St. John's. You can reach him by email at stephen.miller@cbc.ca