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Clean & Sober: LifeRing takes a non-12-step approach to addiction support on the Island

First steps of recovery begin with: “How was your week?”
Michael Walsh proudly holds his sobriety sign with three of his key supporters: Dr. Michelle Bass (left), Dr. Bill Bullock and addictions counsellor Kris Bolton.

First steps of recovery begin with: “How was your week?”

It’s 1976 and, at age 10, Nanaimo native Michael Walsh sneaks his first drink of alcohol out of his parent’s home liquor cabinet. Two years later, he smokes marijuana for the first time and, at age 16, tries cocaine. There’s no single moment Walsh can pinpoint as the start of his addiction — whether it had anything to do with his running away from home at age 13, or encountering sexual abuse during a hitchhiked ride to the ferry — but what started as a desperate attempt to escape turned into a 25-year problem.

Fast-forward to 2012. More than a dozen people form a circle, sitting back on couches, fiddling with their thumbs; some quietly study the floor, while others laugh with an arm around their neighbour. When someone introduces his or herself, the group echoes a hello. There is that proud moment — hours, days, years — when the person announces how long it’s been. There is applause. There is talk of how this week has been. There are tears.

This is LifeRing, the only secular, non-12-step addiction support group on Vancouver Island — and it’s Walsh’s spirit-child. After a lifetime of double-fisting addiction and recovery, and stumbling his way through support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous principles, even detox and recovery programs, Walsh came up with the ultimate shot. The people in this circle are dealing with addiction, but they don’t have to believe in a higher power to aid their recovery. They also don’t have to subscribe to many of the traditional AA steps, but they do have to answer one simple question every meeting: “How has your week been?”

Days of the week

One of the biggest misconceptions about recovery is the idea that it happens overnight, says Walsh. Too often, glamorized success stories show the lifetime alcoholic who gave it up cold turkey, the young man who dropped his crack pipe the day he learned he’d be a father, the young woman who quit snorting as soon as she found housing.

These stories are real, but the bottom of the bottle exposes another truth: recovery is a lifelong process. And, it’s not without its setbacks.

“Losing momentum can be disastrous for people,” says Walsh, 45. “You can be wracked with depression and anxiety. And you just want to escape.”

At 35, Walsh was using cocaine every day. He was living in downtown East Vancouver, and his life was falling apart. He made a phone call to his sister, the one person who knew everything about his addiction, and told her he wanted out.

“I still remember that phone call. She told me to come live with her, and I knew I was ready. I had left an amazing job, I had a failed relationship, I was using out of control, and, well, I was not feeling good about myself.”

Walsh went to live with his sister in Victoria where he started participating in a variety of community support groups, including AA as well as the since-defunct Victoria Life Enrichment Society (then Dallas House Society), where he met addictions counsellor Dr. Michelle Bass. He moved into an adult patient treatment centre, and stayed clean for 10 months. Thinking he had his addiction beat, Walsh slowly stopped all recovery support and moved back to Vancouver. He was clean for another seven months. Then, his depression started creeping back in.

“I was clean and sober, but I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t loving myself at that point, and I didn’t feel worthy,” says Walsh. “They say people can experience a mental relapse long before you actually use anything again. The way I was living my life, then, led up to my relapse — and I think a lot of people need to hear that.”

That relapse lasted for six months, and overwhelmed Walsh with guilt, shame and a disbelief that he could quit. Yet, again, he asked his sister for help, and again she reached back.

“When I called my sister again, she said ‘You can stay — for three weeks only — and you better have a plan,’” says Walsh. “I did have a plan: to relapse again, and this time as big as I could go — I wanted to end it all.”

Walsh returned to Nanaimo, but unknown to him, his sister was being coached by one of his counsellors. When Walsh called to tell of his plans to end it all, she challenged him.

“Did you even leave any money for the funeral?” she asked. “How are we supposed to afford to remember you?” The accusation was a turnaround and Walsh checked himself into emergency at Eric Martin Pavilion. After attending a treatment facility in Ontario, he returned to Victoria to live in The Grove Men’s Recovery House. It kept him clean for seven months.

“Three weeks into that relapse, I had an eviction notice on my door. And that was enough,” says Walsh. “I thought, ‘This is stupid. Why do I do the same thing, over and over?’ And that was it.”

Since that moment in 2004, Walsh has been clean — now, for over eight and a half years. In 2007, Walsh knew he needed extra support, but couldn’t find any alternatives to the traditional groups. After a Google search, he came upon a California group and knew it was the perfect fit. On Jan. 30, 2008, Walsh facilitated the first Victoria version of LifeRing — five people showed up, and he was thrilled.

“I had a hunch that, if I needed this, there would be other people in Victoria who did, too,” he says.

He was right. Five participants became 15, then 20, then new groups were created. Now, with 16 meeting groups from Sidney to Nanaimo, LifeRing Secular Recovery Society Canada has supported thousands of people in all stages of recovery. The group recorded 4,100 visits in 2011, and this year was awarded funding by the United Way of Greater Victoria.

“One of the things I emphasize is that LifeRing looks beyond the substance,” Walsh says. “Recovery itself can take over your life — it can become another addiction. This group focuses on getting past your addiction; not having it define you.”

New taste of recovery

The group does take a different spin by emphasizing personal responsibility, individualized recovery plans and self-empowerment. It also works closely with UVic’s Department of Psychology to study the impacts and realities of real-life recovery.

“I think there are a lot of cultural myths out there about the recovery process,” says Dr. Bass, Walsh’s former counsellor and now director of research on LifeRing’s board of directors. “One, is that you have to hit rock bottom before you are willing to recover. Two, is that you have no control over your addiction. And three, which is still controversial, is that you have to stay abstinent from all drugs if you are labeled an ‘addict.’ I believe some people are able to use again, that some people can leave that label behind, but it can take years.”

In a holistic style of support, LifeRing has worked to build relationships with health care professionals, educators and community partners. There is no fee to attend any meeting, though participants are invited to donate to room charges. Individuals can stick to a group they feel most connected to, or float to all the different meetings for support each day. They can even mix LifeRing with AA or other support groups they feel works for them.

Walsh says that although the spirituality aspect of traditional groups is an important step for many people, some, including himself, can’t get past it.

“There are many people who are turned off of AA because of the spirituality aspect, but there are so many ways people can go into recovery, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” says family physician Dr. Bill Bullock, who also works at a detox facility in Victoria. “What is important is that there are alternatives out there.”

Bullock, who is also chair of the LifeRing board of directors, says in the last four years it’s become much more common for professionals to refer clients to the group. That shift is part of why LifeRing has expanded.

“Most of our program facilitators are people who have been through the recovery process and are dealing with addiction themselves,” says Walsh. “And participants are not all homeless, or even low-income. We see men and women, some executives, some middle-class workers, from governmental employees to people in William Head Institution.”

One such participant is James Ruscitti, 31, a prisoner of William Head who was convicted of murder at age 15. Spending more than half of his life in jail, Ruscitti says he has always had a problem with substance abuse, but lacked any support. When he found LifeRing, which has one facilitated group inside William Head, it “seemed to fit.”

“I’m a lifer, so I turned to pot to help me escape,” says Ruscitti, who is allowed to attend some meetings outside the prison with a chaperone. “I couldn’t get into those other groups, Alcoholics Anonymous  or Narcotics Anonymous, but with LifeRing I don’t have to get into ‘my story’ or even name my drug. We all just speak to the shit we are going through this week, without all the labels.”

When it comes to labels, Walsh says he’s seen many people come into LifeRing as a lifestyle choice — not just those at the hard edge of addiction.

“Everyone is more motivated when they have chosen something for themselves, and the idea that this is something you can have a say in is different,” says Walsh. “There are already so many pressures that come with addiction and recovery. The whole point of this is to make life easier on people, so you can get back to living.” M

To learn more about LifeRing, visit their website at Check out the group’s fundraising event: “Dry Wit Act II” on Nov. 16 at Metro Theatre, silent auction 6-7:30pm, variety show 8pm. $20, through