National sports broadcaster Scott Oake and his wife Anne brought a crowd of more than 250 people at the Walter A. Thorpe Recovery Centre to solemn silence as they shared their story about how addiction effected their lives.
“This is a very difficult story to tell,” Scott began. “There will be some halting speech, there will be some cracking of voices, there will be some tears. We have not been able to deliver this speech without all of those things happening.”
The Oakes, who lost their son Bruce to an accidental drug overdose in 2011 at the age of 25, were invited to speak at the treatment centre as part of its 40th anniversary luncheon on Sept. 19. Among those in attendance were a number of past board members and facility builders, as well as Lloydminster Mayor Rob Saunders and Vermilion-Lloydminster MLA Richard Starke, both of whom also made remarks.
Bruce Oake was active growing up. While living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he found success in boxing at the national level and won rap battles in his hometown of Winnipeg.
“When you think about it, boxing and rap music are both extreme events,” Anne said. “Bruce was always about testing the margins and ADHD made him a perfect candidate for that. Then, along came drugs.”
Although the Oakes were aware and disapproving of Bruce’s recreational drug habit, it was in 2007 that they realized his life was in danger.
Scott and Anne were in Nova Scotia at a family function when they received a call from Bruce. He was living in a rented home in a bad part of Winnipeg with a friend and a drug trafficking gang member had stashed cocaine inside their residence. The gang member accused Bruce of tampering with the drugs, then violently attacked him, demanded money and made him sign over his car. Following the incident, police familiar with gang member suggested putting Bruce under their protection. When Scott and Anne flew back in from the East Coast, they discovered that there was more to be concerned about than violent criminals.
“We got one look at him and we knew right away that he had a more serious problem than just the assault,” Scott said. “He had said to his mother on the phone earlier, ‘I am not a junkie, but I have been using a bit of OxyContin.’ He also admitted he needed help.”
Bruce was taken to the emergency room at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre, where it was recommended that he undergo treatment for addiction. It was then that the Oakes sent their son to the best rehabilitation clinics they could find in Toronto, then Halifax and finally Calgary. But each time Bruce relapsed. The clinic in Calgary was willing to give Bruce a second chance. He lasted six weeks before being asked to leave once more after failing another drug test.
“He most of all was disheartened by his failure rate so he went on a major bender. He was back into heroin and four days after he left (the facility) he was dead,” Anne said. “We believed that Bruce’s mindset was that he was going to go on this bender and then go to detox in the morning, but he never made it.”
“Once again we were visiting my parents in Nova Scotia when we got the call that no parent should ever get. The hard, graphic truth is that Bruce’s bender ended in a bathroom stall with a needle in his arm,” Scott said.
“We did the best we could, made the arrangements, went to Calgary to get him, we grieved and we still do every day. We have holes in our hearts that will never heal, but we have, as I said in the outset, decided to tell the story to make his life mean something. We hope that parents get something out of this story and for any teenagers here this afternoon, clients of the Thorpe Recovery Centre we hope that you will think twice, and I don’t have to tell you about what.”
The Thorpe Recovery Centre anniversary was an occasion not only to reflect on the achievements of the past 40 years, it was also a reminder to those in attendance that there is still a strong need for effective addiction treatment and that addictions can impact everyone’s lives.
The tables at the luncheon were all decorated with “gratitude trees,” small, ornamental arrangements of branches protruding from short glasses. Thorpe Recovery Centre clients decorated the trees with paper leaves, on which they wrote messages of thanks. Attendees were invited to do the same. “Sober friends are real friends,” read one such leaf.
“I am stunned to think of the progress this place has made given that it started as a hospital project in 1975,” said Scott, commenting on legacy of the Thorpe Recovery Centre.
“To all the donors of the Thorpe Recovery Centre, thank you. And to the clients of the Thorpe Recovery Centre, you have a gift here, so do what our son couldn’t do. He could never fully commit himself to what he was and it cost him his life. Work the program, do what it takes to get your life back.”