One of the first sights Robby Sidhu remembers when he came to the Fresh Start Recovery Centre was a colourful mural on the wall of the gymnasium.
Created and gifted to the organization by an artist who had gone through the addictions program, it’s a dramatic scene depicting a group of men pulling on a rope in an attempt to lift a fellow worker from a dark hole.
“The philosophy is that they’ll give you enough rope to either pull yourself out with supports or, you know, hang yourself,” says Sidhu, a real estate agent who entered the program in 2017 to battle an addiction to alcohol. “So, not the greatest secondary outcome. But Fresh Start is one of the more open treatment centres. They allow us to go to outside meetings. You’re allowed to have visitors. The phone is allowed.”
The “hang yourself” metaphor may seem a bit harsh. After all, Fresh Start does not seem like a “tough love” sort of place. Spend any time at the 40,000-square-foot facility in Calgary’s northeast and it’s clear there is a strong camaraderie between clients and staff, most of whom are recovering addicts themselves. Hanging from the gymnasium’s rafters are reminders of the program’s successes — dozens of hockey jerseys with men’s names on the back, each one representing a milestone anniversary of a former client’s sobriety: Five years, 10 years, 15 years, even 20 years.
But on small windows at the back of the gym, there is another list of names. It’s a memorial for the men who didn’t make it. Some overdosed after a relapse. Some died on the waiting list before they could even get treatment at Fresh Start. But all are gone. It’s a reminder, as the organization’s website states, that “addiction has no cure.” The solution is recovery.
But recovery is only a daily reprieve and falling back into that dark hole of addiction is a constant threat.
“There’s a saying in recovery,” says Wayne Steer, director of fund development for Fresh Start. “Just because I’m farther down the road doesn’t mean I’m any farther from the ditch.”
Sidhu, who will celebrate his third year of sobriety in February, keeps himself in check by remaining an active part of the Fresh Start “brotherhood.” He is now the president of the Fresh Start Alumni Association and organizes field trips and dances for the men. In the year after he finished the three-month program, he returned to the facility on an almost daily basis, giving back to an organization that he believes saved his life.
But simply being around addicts in the program also ensures he will never forget his own plight.
He began drinking at an early age, but in his late 20s the death of a close friend led to a serious escalation.
Roughly a year before he entered the Fresh Start program, his mother saved him from a potentially deadly bout of pneumonia. She had vowed not to check in on her son anymore due to his constant drinking but decided to visit him one more time.
What she found was that her son had isolated himself in his apartment, drinking heavily and becoming sick without anyone knowing. She immediately took him to the hospital.
A few months later, Sidhu tumbled down a flight of stairs while drunk, breaking his finger and wrist, and knocking out his two front teeth.
In February of that year, he realized his drinking had caused him to miss two Christmases and two New Year’s Eves with his family. He had also missed his sister’s previous two birthdays, which was coming up again Feb. 22. So he chose Feb. 21 as the day to stop drinking. Granted, he still missed his sister’s birthday — “I was in the basement of the house detoxing,” he says — but Feb. 22 became his official “clean date.”
After detoxing for a few days, a requirement for those looking to enter Fresh Start, he began his treatment at the residential program that has 50 beds. But, at the time, they were all full.
So Sidhu joined the program as a non-resident, staying at his parents’ home but arriving at the facility every morning at 7 a.m. for three months.
Clients are encouraged to find sponsors from outside programs or “fellowships” (as a policy, Fresh Start clients do not name those other organizations). At the facility, men attend group sessions, perform a number of household chores, practise meditation and engage in a number of physical activities. When Sidhu went through the program, he trained in kick-boxing or Muay Thai on a daily basis.
Clients are given access to nutritionists, nurses and dentists, and legal aid. While the program is intense, the facility also offers a number of recreational activities. There’s a screening room, an impressive weight room and musical instruments.
Roughly 150 to 200 men go through the program each year and there is usually more than 100 on the waiting list at any given time. The current facility has been open since 2012, but the origins of Fresh Start date back to 1992 and Calgary couple Tom and Carole Berthelotte. Tom, who had struggled with addiction and gone through a 12-step program, and his wife converted a garage in Midnapore into a group home they called the Christian Love and Shelter Program (CLASP), initially as a coed program.
Fresh Start is no longer a Christian organization but since it is designed to “encompass the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of recovery,” it still has a faith-based component, Steer says. Men are encouraged to find a higher power.
Staying involved with Fresh Start is how Sidhu stays connected to his higher power. Every time he returns to the facility and sees men currently engaged in the program, he is reminded of the dark days that brought him there.
“Some people like to call it God,” he says. “God is easy, it’s a three-letter word. I’m more into the spiritual aspect. The more that I stop doing the things that I’m doing, the further I get away from that and the (closer) I get back to my own well. My own well leads me only to one spot: Jails, institutions or death.”