My Brother's Keeper - Salvation Army Canada

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    My Brother's Keeper

    When James' meth addiction nearly drove him mad, The Salvation Army stepped in. March 20, 2019 by Jennifer Venner
    Filed Under:
    Faith & Friends
    James lives in Toronto (Photos: Kristin Ostensen)
    James lives in Toronto (Photos: Kristin Ostensen)
    James is a tall, serious-looking man who sells bread at a Toronto market. He’s friendly and knowledgeable and his customers love him.

    But if you had told James 10 years ago that he would someday be sober and have a steady job, he would have said: “That can’t be me. I only make bad decisions.”

    Clean Break
    James is my youngest brother. From 1994 to 2008, my family and I were helpless to intervene as he chased his coloured dragons: green marijuana, white crack, black opiates, red meth.

    Addiction is an illness, and one of its symptoms is poor judgment. James spent almost 15 years making the worst mistakes of his life. He lived with drug dealers, was jailed multiple times for petty theft and breaking probation, and slept in shelters or on the street.

    Though he used them for their connections to drugs, James never fit in among the criminals in the underworld of London, Ont. More than anything, drugs isolated him from everyone, and when his meth addiction finally drove him to the edge of psychosis, he sought the people at The Salvation Army for comfort.

    “I was using The Salvation Army as a resource for everything, including the running dialogue I had in my head, the insanity I was suffering,” he says. “From the age of about 26 to 29, The Salvation Army was basically my home. I knew all the staff members.” However, James was using drugs the entire time because he’d convinced himself that his lifestyle was a choice. Though his childhood had been stable, he’d been estranged from our family since he was 14.

    “I’d never seen what it’s like to live a well-structured life, other than jail,” he says now.

    Finally, after years of cycling through his addictions, James took an offer of a ride to a detox in Thamesville, Ont. There, he was well cared for and agreed to go to rehab at The Salvation Army in Windsor, Ont. He needed a complete break from his former life if he was to have any chance of staying clean.

    Jemas and Jennifer Venner pose togetherThe author with James. “For a time after I’d divorced my husband and struggled with alcohol myself, my baby brother became my big brother,” Jennifer Venner says
    Little Brother/Big Brother
    James had never attended a rehab meeting, and was surprised to learn that other people shared his experiences. They were all “reaching back into reality” and confronting their own bad decisions, James says, and suddenly he didn’t feel so alone anymore.

    During that time, he experienced a spiritual awakening. “I felt like the good choices I made were not choices I was making on my own,” he says now. “The more I focused on the idea that I was getting help from something bigger than myself, the more serenity I found in life.”

    Our family’s reunion with James was at that Salvation Army facility in Windsor. The once suspicious and belligerent kid was now cheerful, hopeful. He had a plan for his future. He’d made friends. We had never seen James so focused. He seemed illuminated from within. Recovery had given him a sense of identity and that, in turn, gave him the confidence to make more good choices.

    James had setbacks, including one relapse and a diagnosis of hepatitis C, but by the time he moved to Toronto in 2013, he was ready for new challenges. He enrolled at Seneca College and got top marks, graduating in civil engineering.

    For a time after I’d divorced my husband and struggled with alcohol myself, James lived with me and gave me support. My baby brother became my big brother.

    The Man He Is
    James has just celebrated his 40th birthday and has been clean since 2011. My kids don’t remember the shadowy man who once haunted The Salvation Army in London. Their uncle is warm and kind, with a generous spirit.

    James knows why he is the way he is.

    “The world is not an easy place to live and so I do my best,” he says. “Every day when I interact with other people, there’s a shared kinship with my workmates and my friends and my family.”

    The Salvation Army gave James the space in which to be open and vulnerable, where he could accept help, from people and God alike. With that support and guidance, he made the right choices to become the man he is today.


    On Friday, March 22, 2019, Penny Adams said:

    Well done, Jennifer. I hope this essay acts as an inspiration to others who have similar struggles.


    On Friday, March 22, 2019, Allan Venner said:

    Excellent story, Jennifer. We all aspire to rise to the challenges life brings us every day. So very proud of both of you.


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