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Coun. Brian White discusses overcoming alcoholism and the dire need for a detox centre in Sarnia

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Cathy Dobson

City Councillor Brian White has a very personal reason for wanting a long-awaited residential detox centre to open in Sarnia.

When someone addicted to alcohol or narcotics reaches the point he or she is willing to take the first step to recovery, White said, it’s critical that a live-in withdrawal management facility be here, not an hour away.

“Far too often, people fail to understand the very brief window that occurs in the life of an addict when everything aligns and they are mentally, emotionally and physically ready to get the help they need,” he said.

“If there isn’t something for them to grab on to for that very brief moment, quite often you’re no longer willing or able to take that first step.

“People die. It really is a matter of life or death.”

He should know. For the first time, White, 41, agreed to be interviewed about his own battle with alcohol addiction.

He’s been sober for more than six years. But for most of his adult life alcohol wreaked havoc on himself and his loved ones.

“The reality is that, for me, it’s who I am. It’s part of my history,” he said. “I go to 12-step meetings two or three times a week. It’s too much of who I am to not talk about it.”

Brian White
Brian White

White said the time is right to tell his story because, as a city councillor, he’s in the public spotlight and in a leadership role.

“No question, as a public person who has access to the ears of a lot of people right now, addictions and treatment is the most important issue I can address.”

White was six years old the first time he blacked out from alcohol. An uncle was babysitting and thought it would be funny to give the little boy a drink.

“I was born into an environment with an abusive father and there was heavy drinking on a regular basis,” he said.

“Trauma has a lasting effect … My thinking was 100% that it was normal to drink.”

By his late teens, White – who grew up in Sarnia and graduated from St. Patrick’s – was regularly blacking out. His poor decisions ruined relationships and got him into trouble, he said.

“There was just so much personal damage.”

At age 18, he blacked out in a back alley and woke up with a broken knee.

Drinking remained a big part of his life throughout White’s early adulthood, yet he managed to graduate from college, launch a filmmaking career, get married and start a family.

“I wasn’t a raging drunk all the time,” he explained. “We moved a lot and I had a lot of fresh starts, but then I’d spiral again.”

At the age of 32, White returned to Sarnia with his young family. Alcoholism continued to plague him, and he speaks candidly about wanting to take his own life during those years.

“Then somehow that window opened and I asked for help,” he said. “I was hurting the people around me. I knew I had to stop living life that way. I wouldn’t allow my kids to suffer the way I did when I was young.”

Through a combination of counselling and the 12-step program, White quit drinking.

It’s working, for him. But every addict has to find his or her own path to recovery, he said.

The more options the better, and White is convinced a residential facility to address addiction and mental health in Sarnia will save lives.

“Ultimately, I want a full residential centre here with a full range of options. I look forward to the day when someone can come out of detox and have a residential facility available to them here in their own community,” he said.

Sarnia-Lambton has been negotiating for a residential withdrawal management facility for 20 years now. Various proposals have come and gone.

In 2012, Lambton County council earmarked $250,000 for a detox centre. In 2015, the Alix family donated $1 million to Bluewater Health to fight local substance abuse.

Yet, there’s little to show for it aside from a lot of paperwork and an outpatient program at Bluewater Health for mild to moderate addictions.

The latest proposal was endorsed last month by the Erie St. Clair LHIN (Local Health Integration Network) for a 24-bed detox “hub” in Sarnia that could cost up to $10 million.

It’s been sent to Queen’s Park for provincial approval. There’s some suggestion it’s being fast-tracked and a response could come in the next month.

Meanwhile, the staff at the outpatient program does a good job, said White. But the hospital model is perceived as inaccessible to many addicts.

“It’s a pretty decent option for folks if they’re capable of going home and staying sober,” said White. “But that’s not the case for everyone.

“Every day we go without a treatment facility, somebody risks dying.”

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