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'The Couch of Willingness'

In time for Mental Health Week, a BC addictions therapist shares his battle with alcoholism.

By Michael Pond and Maureen Palmer 7 May 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Pond is a psychotherapist in Vancouver who specializes in addiction, trauma and Indian Residential Schools abuse healing. He writes the Professional Advice column in the Vancouver Sun.

Maureen Palmer is a former CBC producer and current documentary filmmaker with Bountiful Films.

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Pond's two-year journey to sobriety makes stops in alleys, dumpsters, emergency wards, and finally, prison. Photo by Wayne Worden from Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

[Editor's note: After decades serving addictions clients, therapist Michael Pond succumbed to alcoholism -- losing his practice, home and family along the way. He landed in B.C.'s under-regulated recovery system, where intersecting mental disorders claimed lives of fellow patients. Republished with permission from Everywhere Now Press, the following passage of The Couch of Willingness recounts Pond's struggle to stay warm and dry after being kicked out of a supervised treatment centre. Now five-years sober, Pond is a practicing therapist in Vancouver calling for the regulation of recovery homes in the Lower Mainland and a more compassionate approach to addictions treatment.]

Wearing a thin jacket and runners, I wander the streets of White Rock. I don't even have a quarter to make a phone call. Worse, I have no one to call. I huddle behind a dumpster in the alley behind a row of restaurants. Then I spy the Boathouse -- an old family favourite. I stagger in, drawn by the warmth. A young blond hostess greets me with a look like I am a creature from another planet.

"Can I help you, sir?"

"I'm sorry, I have no money for the payphone. Can I use your phone to call a friend?"

"I'm not sure," she squeaks. "I'll have to ask my manager."

As she disappears around the corner, I notice the place is empty. A young fellow wipes and sets tables. He busies himself out of sight. Blood floods into my extremities and my fingers are on fire. Even more painful is the unquenchable urge to drink.

Behold the superbly laid out and highly stocked bar. My lover's gaze lingers on the vodkas, then comes to rest on the Scotch. If I just stretch a bit, I can grab a bottle. But I can't possibly steal a bottle of booze from the Boathouse.

Yes, I can. It would be no different from the dozens of times I strode confidently into the Penticton liquor stores, picked up two bottles of Smirnoff, shot a swift glance around to ensure I was out of sight of security cameras and people -- then stuffed one bottle in my pants, walked up to the clerk and paid for the other.

No different from the summer I broke into my accountant's cabin next door and took a bottle of her expensive Snow Queen vodka. Police told her that if she pressed charges, I'd get help. She agreed. The Summerland RCMP charged me with break-and-enter and theft, my first drinking-related charge. I received a conditional sentence and no record. The only condition was to get treatment and go to AA. And I did... for a while.

I scan the restaurant. No one in sight. The pretty hostess will be back any minute. I must move fast.

A brief flash of another Mike Pond makes me hesitate: honest contributing citizen, family man, hockey coach, the man I used to be -- he wouldn't dream of doing this. But that Mike Pond doesn't live here anymore. That unbearable, beyond-any-logic-and-understanding desire drowns out reason.

I zero in on an expensive bottle of Glenfiddich 12 single-malt Scotch. With surprising deftness, I reach up, seize the trophy and shove it inside my jacket just as the hostess comes around the corner of the bar.

With a look of regret she murmurs, "I'm sorry, sir, the manager says you can't use the phone. Unless you want service, you will have to leave."

I can't wait to get my ass out of there. I duck into the washroom, slither down the stall wall and pull out my precious prize. The first hot swallow hits the wall in the back of my throat. Five deep rapid breaths push it down. A straight arm against the wall of the stall steadies me. My head dips expectantly over the toilet. The next gulp is bigger and easier to keep down. My stomach welcomes it now and the warm, numb glow fills my entire being. Nothing matters anymore except this feeling. Everything else disappears. My kids. Homelessness. Being broke.

I head out into the midday cold and stumble down the isolated boardwalk. The freak winter storm continues to batter the entire lower mainland of British Columbia. The snow-clogged streets lie silent. The wild ocean wind shoves me sideways, making it even more difficult to negotiate an already unsteady search for sanctuary. I take shelter behind a log on the beach. I take another long, full swig of my delicious Scotch friend and snuggle with him close to my chest. I don't feel the chill anymore.

'Nowhere to go'

Reluctant eyelids peel open. My body shudders. It's cold again. I fumble unconsciously for the elusive blanket. A metal door clangs and boot steps echo down a concrete hall. The familiar smell of old paint and piss invades my nostrils. I'm in jail again.

The small window shutter slides open. "It's time to go."

I mutter through a cotton mouth, "Where am I?"

"White Rock RCMP cells. A couple walking their dog on the beach found you behind a log. They thought you were dead. We brought you in. You were half-frozen. I've got to release you."

"What time is it?" I ask.

"Oh-three-eighteen."

"In the morning?" I blink and look around.

"Yep. You were brought in early last night."

The corporal's key opens the door and he leads me down the concrete hall to the desk. He heaves my duffle bag onto the counter and pecks on his keyboard.

"You have no ID. What's your name?"

"Michael Pond."

"Date of birth?" He types my information into the computer database.

"September 27, 1953."

He looks up from his screen. "You could have died out there last night. This is brutal weather. You're lucky those folks found you."

"I have nowhere to go." It's starting to become my mantra.

The corporal slides my duffle bag across the stainless steel counter.

"There's a United Church just around the corner on Pacific Avenue. They have an emergency shelter set up because of the bad weather. They may be able to help you." He gets up out of his chair, keys in hand. "I'll let you out the front door. Good luck, Mr. Pond."

I shoulder my duffle bag and step out into the cold darkness. The crackly air shocks my lungs. I squint at the road sign: Pacific Avenue. To the north, a block and a half away, is the church. Sick and disoriented, I make my way to the back entrance.

A sign on the door reads White Rock Temporary Shelter. I open the door and the aroma of hot coffee and cocoa beckons.

"Come in, come in. Are you okay?" A young guy, his face flooded with concern, leads me to the church kitchen and hands me a hot chocolate and two Tim Hortons muffins.

In my days as a hockey dad, stomping my feet in frozen arenas, I mindlessly downed cup after cup of Timmy's. Now I savour every precious sip.

"I was just released from the RCMP cells around the corner," I say between sips. "Someone found me on the beach yesterday passed out."

"You can stay here till six thirty," he says, "then we need to clear the church out. You can come back this evening at nine. Crash on one of the mats over there, okay?" The young guy points me toward the mats, then goes to greet another newcomer.

Sheltered living

It's a large hall, like an old high school gymnasium, the raised stage bumped and scratched from decades of Christmas pageants and year-end recitals. A Christmas tree stands forlornly at the back of the stage, a nativity scene at its feet. A large, sliding room divider is half open, revealing a circle of wooden collapsing tables with stackable chairs around its perimeter. A single row of mats with blankets line up along the long wall below the windows.

I collapse onto a mat. It's comfortable and warm. Half a dozen snoring bodies lie in a row alongside me. An old white-bearded fellow curled up beside me murmurs, "It's brutal out there, eh? I've been on the streets for eighteen years and I've never seen a winter like this. Thank God for this church, eh? I'm pretty damned sure I woulda froze to death this past week."

"Yeah. It just feels good to have something warm in my stomach." I shut my eyes.

I wake up with the young church guy gently shaking my shoulder.

"It's time to go, sir. I have a voucher here for a breakfast meal at McDonald's."

"But I have nowhere to go." It's a limp protest now.

Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. I have to say it a few times before it sinks in. Oh my God. I am truly homeless now, just like the decrepit old man being nudged awake beside me. I gaze across at him. Raw fear like I've never before experienced grips my heart and won't let go. No more second-rate motels or hostels. No more couch surfing or sleeping in my truck or crashing in my office. No more home.  [Tyee]

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