Chris Morrison shudders to imagine where he would be today without Holmes House.
Morrison was in the throes of a 10-month crystal meth “using spree” when he checked into the Simcoe detox centre six years ago.
“If it wasn’t for Holmes House, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. There’s a good chance I would be dead if I continued that lifestyle,” Morrison said last week in downtown Simcoe, where he built a new life after graduating from detox to Holmes House’s three-week drug treatment program, and finally into addiction supportive housing.
Holmes House has been closed for two months and counting because of what Norfolk General Hospital says is a staff shortage. That leaves Morrison wondering how many people like him have been denied the potentially life-saving help they desperately need.
“There are people I know that would have called Holmes House and tried to get into detox if it was open,” he said, mentioning one acquaintance who was several days into the program when the facility closed.
“It took everything he had, mentally and physically, to get there, to reach out for that help and then get it,” Morrison said. “So to be asked to leave after two or three days in was devastating for him.”
If people have to wait weeks or months for detox, the worry is they will relapse or lose heart before they have the chance to get help, especially if they do not have the means to get to treatment in Brantford or Hamilton, or even further afield.
“For an addict to be at a point to want to go to detox, there’s a very short window for somebody to act on that,” Morrison said.
“A lot of people will disappear and fall back into their old ways.”
The hospital announced the latest closure of Holmes House on Feb. 24, saying in a press release that detox — known formally as the withdrawal management program — was “temporarily closing due to ongoing staffing shortages caused by COVID-19 and a review of internal practices.”
The hospital provided phone numbers for virtual meetings and counselling services, noting the drug treatment program would still be offered off-site while apologizing for “any inconvenience this closure may cause.”
“We understand this temporary adjustment of services is certainly concerning to our clients and families. It’s definitely a concern with the substance use that we see and people living with substance-use disorder in our community and in surrounding areas,” hospital spokesperson Aaron Gautreau said in an email to The Spectator.
“However, we have an obligation to put patient safety first and not put those we care for at risk. Not having Holmes House properly staffed would pose a greater risk to our clients who are looking to safely detox.”
Gautreau would not comment on the reasons for the staff shortage, saying Norfolk General “does not discuss internal matters publicly out of respect and privacy of our employees.”
That leaves Morrison frustrated by the lack of communication from the hospital.
“There’s no transparency,” he said. “What is going on?”
When asked how long people will be without detox services, Gautreau would only say the hospital is “actively recruiting” to fill staff vacancies and reopen the withdrawal management program “as soon as we are safely able to do so.”
To Morrison, that day cannot come soon enough for people in dire need of help.
“The stakes are high. The risks are high,” he said. “Ultimately, the most devastating risk is death.”
Holmes House was not the first detox program Chelsey Freeman tried after deciding six years ago that she needed to give up drinking. But it was the one that worked.
“Holmes House, because it’s so small and because the (drug) treatment people are there with (people in detox), there’s this sense of community and safety,” Freeman said.
Having people further along their sobriety journey share space inside the converted brick house with freshly arrived detox patients lets the two groups help each other, she explained.
People in treatment walk detox patients to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and talk with them at counselling sessions, offering a hopeful glimpse of what awaits those in detox on the other side of their substance use.
Those in treatment are also assigned chores to keep them busy and accountable, tasks like setting the table and doing dishes, tidying the common areas, and even cleaning the detox patients’ washrooms.
“It helps the treatment clients get a taste of what it is like for the people around them who have had to take care of them over the years and clean up their messes, literally and figuratively. It’s a really humbling and grounding experience,” Freeman said.
While patients mostly hail from the local area, Holmes House’s decades-long reputation for effective detox and drug treatment draws people from around Ontario.
“That’s a big part of why there is such a thriving recovery community in Simcoe,” Freeman said. “People come from out of town for treatment and never leave because of the ongoing support Holmes House provides.”
That support includes volleyball games, paint nights, barbecues and holiday parties for people in recovery organized by the counsellors at Holmes House.
“They go so above and beyond, it’s incredible,” said Freeman, who has been in recovery for years but still attends weekly therapy sessions — now available in person or on Zoom — and is grateful that she can get a counsellor on the phone to talk, for free, whenever she needs a supportive ear.
Now living near Nanticoke, Freeman teaches employment and life skills to people with mental-health and addiction issues while pursuing a master’s of social work at the University of Waterloo.
Morrison is in college, studying to be a social service worker. He still sees a counsellor and makes a point of regularly getting to 12-step meetings, where he has become a sponsor through Narcotics Anonymous.
“Put two addicts in a room, and there’s two people who can truly understand and accept each other once they start talking and sharing their experiences,” he said.
For Morrison, Holmes House has meant recovery from addiction, reconnection with loved ones, and making new friends in a new community.
“Really, it’s meant getting my life back,” he said.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator