Ending the stigma helps us all

By Megan Walchuk

I never met Chauncey Grover. But I feel like I knew him. His story is like too many others I know.

Chauncey’s was one of the first stories I covered when I started working at the Times. It was January 2020, just after a significant blizzard. Volunteers were combing the District as I interviewed his sister, Chelsea. He was a recovering addict, but he was loved. He was a dad who loved his kids. He was kind, and enjoyed spending time with his grandpa.

Unfortunately, the family’s worst nightmare became a reality when Chauncey was found in the spring.

For every life lost to drug addiction, alcoholism or a mental health crisis, there are countless close calls. We all know someone from our own life; I know many. One of my close relatives lost his way, on a path of addiction and mental illness. Like Chauncey, it’s not a path he walked alone – it has impacted his whole family. They were there beside him, through rehab, court dates, treatments. Through the ups and downs, the relapses and healing. He struggles with alcohol and drugs, but to us, he’s gentle and funny. He’s my golden retriever’s favourite human.

A friend of ours walked beside his step-daughter down her dark path. Although his marriage to her mother didn’t last, his love never ended for the little girl he’d helped raise. The police told him not to interfere – at 16, she could make her own choices, and he wasn’t her family anymore. But he didn’t listen – he took a leave from his work, to scour the back alleys of Vancouver until he found her, and pulled her back into his life. She struggles with addiction, but to her circle, she’s full of spunk and fun and is a doting big sister.

A high school classmate was arrested on drug trafficking charges. He felt so ashamed and hopeless, he attempted to take his own life while home on bail. His parents found him unconscious in the garage, with the family car running. They got him to hospital in time to be saved. Although he went to jail, it was there he found the support he needed to turn his life around. He credited his arrest as the best thing to happen to him. He struggled with addiction, but to his circle he was outgoing and caring. He went on to graduate high school with honours.

Those were near-misses – all people who were loved, just like Chauncey, each just a twist away from Chauncey’s fate. As we look around our community, we see so many of these stories in the faces of addicts and those struggling with mental illness. It may feel like they are “others.” That they are “those people.” But each one is a human being in pain, and each one has a circle of people who love and care for them.

That circle needs all the strength it can get, including the support of the community. Last week, we saw that support come out, during the End the Stigma Overdose Awareness Walk. It was a moving tribute to Chauncey and the many lives lost to addiction. But it can’t stop there. Everyone struggling against an addiction is a person, each one with wonderful qualities, people who love them, and the potential to heal. As a community, we can show our support by being open to new ideas of harm reduction, treatment and healing. Ideas like Housing First, safe consumption sites, and cultural healing, currently being tested in other towns. Not all of them will be right for our community. But we need to let go of the stigma, and put our focus on the people behind the addiction and find a way to bring them back to us, before it’s too late.