Using a ‘feminist lens’ changed how rehab centre helps women and men beat addictions

Nova Scotia’s Ledgehill Treatment and Recovery Centre says separate facilities help everyone get sober

Jon Tattrie · CBC News · Posted: Jun 14, 2021 6:00 AM AT | Last Updated: June 14

The Ledgehill Treatment and Recovery Centre offers a scenic setting in the Annapolis Valley. It now has separate campuses for men and women, several kilometres apart. (Robert Short/CBC)

The photo gallery for Nova Scotia’s Ledgehill Treatment and Recovery Centre showed misty hills, serene ponds and book-filled rooms, but Stephen Spiteri knew a monster was waiting for him.

“My addiction is not in here with me right now, but it’s out in the parking lot and it’s doing pushups, it’s running laps, it’s shooting steroids, it’s pumping iron,” he said.

“It’s waiting for that one moment that I let my guard down to strike. And it will strike every time. It’s a nasty, nasty creature.”

Spiteri met his addiction in 2012 in Ontario. He was living with bipolar disorder, ADHD and borderline personality disorder, and discovered that crystal meth seemed to soothe the symptoms. 

“For the first five or six years, nobody had a clue,” he said. “I was really great at keeping it hidden. My teeth didn’t start rotting out, I wasn’t picking at my skin all the time. I actually gained weight.”

Stephen Spiteri now helps other people recover from addictions. (Submitted by Stephen Spiteri)

So, while studying at college, he wasn’t too alarmed when he went from using a couple of times a week, to using every day, to using all the time.

He could still look down on the people who injected the drug, because he only smoked it. But then he started injecting a little bit, which soon became a lot. 

“The doses I was taking were ridiculously high and could have at any point caused me to have an aneurysm or a blood vessel burst, or have a heart attack,” he said. “I was being evicted from my apartment. I had lost my home of nine years just a year earlier.”

He tried to overdose, but survived. “At which point people that I thought were my friends — which were other addicts — basically stole everything that I had. When I came out of the hospital I literally had nothing. Things started falling apart even worse. I thought I had hit rock bottom. It was nowhere close to rock bottom.”

His family in B.C. and Barbados helped him realize he needed to try rehab. On Feb. 15, 2019, he checked into Ledgehill, a recovery centre in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

Spiteri had never been to Nova Scotia before, which was part of the appeal. “The only thing I had back in Ontario was a whole bunch of trouble.”

He began his recovery. All of the addicts were men — the women were far away at another, all-female campus. He said it helped the men focus on recovery, rather than trying to impress someone.

“Unfortunately addicts like to fill addictions with other addictions very quickly,” he said.

Feminist lens on recovery

Cara Vaccarino is the chief operating officer of EHN Canada, which operates treatment centres in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and — with the April 2021 purchase of Ledgehill — in Nova Scotia. 

Vaccarino said many of their clients are members of the Canadian Forces, first responders and police officers, often dealing with PTSD as well as addictions. Treatment can cost thousands of dollars; some health insurance providers cover the cost.

She said Ledgehill is one of the first such centres in Canada to offer gender-specific campuses. She said research with a feminist lens clearly shows that men and women do better when they recover separately. 

Staff at the centre help clients understand the root issues of their addictions. (Robert Short/CBC)

“Dividing the genders, you take away a tension that’s built into the dynamic when you’re dealing with men and women,” she said. “For men, there are lots of benefits to being treated in a male-only environment. For women, we see a whole other set of benefits.”

Transgender people are welcome, she said, and enrol as they identify. EHN has an LGBTQ+-focused facility in B.C. and the others across Canada are not gendered.

Vaccarino said most people’s addictions are rooted in deep biological, psychological and social factors. At the rehab centre, they begin the hard work of healing those wounds.

“We know from empirical research, from data in the field that really looks from a feminist lens at why women develop problematic relationships with alcohol and drugs, or developed serious issues with depression and anxiety — for women more so than men, these things are often precipitated by a traumatic event.

“Often the women we see in treatment have sustained some type of abuse, be it sexual abuse or early childhood trauma.”

She said women usually feel more able to share those raw, painful stories with only women together. Ledgehill can accommodate 18 women and 20 men at a time and treats a few hundred people each year. Most people stay for seven to nine weeks. 

‘You have to go into recovery for you’

Carolyn O’Reilly of Moncton said the centre saved her life.

“My demon was alcohol,” she said. “I had gotten quite depressed and that had led to suicidal thoughts. I knew that if I didn’t get sober, one of those suicidal ideations would lead to me killing myself.”

She was in her 40s when her drinking started getting out of control.

In 2013, she worked at a group home in Newfoundland and one of the residents attacked her. A year later, another resident hurt her by accident. She took sick leave to try and recover. Alcohol seemed to ease the pain. 

“I stayed in my bedroom with the door closed and drank until I passed out. It was really, really sad,” she said. “Especially when you get to the point where you’d rather die than face the world another day because you’re just in so much pain and there’s so much self-loathing.

“No one can tell you it will be OK tomorrow. You just want the pain to stop and you don’t think you’re capable of making it stop.”

People stay for several months, so the facility takes on an aura of home. (Robert Short/CBC)

All of her personal relationships suffered, but her friends and family rallied to help her. However, O’Reilly and Spiteri both say the breakthrough happened when they stopped thinking about recovery as something they ought to do for others. 

“They’re part of the reason I got sober, but not the biggest reason,” O’Reilly said. “I wanted to die. I shouldn’t laugh, but there was no point to life. I had to do it for myself. In the past, I did try to do it for my loved ones. And it just didn’t work. It had to come from me and I had to want to do it for myself.”

“You have to go into recovery for you. It sounds bad, but it’s not: recovery is a selfish process,” Spiteri said. 

“You go through a lot of physical and mental and emotional changes that are brutal. Absolutely brutal. It’s an assault: memories flooding back, using dreams, nightmares, night terrors. Emotional roller-coasters. Withdrawal. These are demons you have to face in recovery.”

The centre says mixing genders can distract people from recovery. (Robert Short/CBC)

O’Reilly said that helped her see how little self-worth she had, which soon became the focus of her counselling. She admitted she was an alcoholic. She admitted she had psychological traumas, old and new, that needed to be treated. 

The all-woman environment reminded her of her all-girls Catholic school. “We had nothing to prove to each other. We were all of us women in the same situation and there were no distractions of trying to start a relationship or impress a member of the opposite sex. You got to focus strictly on yourself,” she said.

“There’s been sexual abuse in my background and I wouldn’t have been comfortable sleeping in the same place where men were. I wouldn’t have been as authentic about my past for fear of judgment.”

Learning to stop the ‘demons’

Through workshops, counselling and group talks about self-care, co-dependency, avoiding risky situations and triggers, both O’Reilly and Spiteri started to wrestle their addictions to the ground. 

O’Reilly is approaching one year of sobriety. She often returns to the “bible” recovery plan she created for herself at Ledgehill. She also decided to tell her story publicly, with her full name. 

“I feel it is my obligation now to help any other woman that I can that got as low in life and as dependent on alcohol as I did. It ruins your life. It changes your personality. You can’t think straight. You can’t function. Anything from housework to balancing your budget — it all flies out the window. All you’re concerned about is when you’re going to be able to get to the liquor store and buy yourself some more booze.

“On the other side of addiction, when you’re clean and sober, the world actually gets better. I am more content and happy than I’ve ever been in my life. It is worth every precious second of it.”

Carolyn O’Reilly now finds strength in helping other women conquer their addictions. (Submitted by Carolyn O’Reilly)

Spiteri ended up staying at Ledgehill for 127 days. He now lives in Kingston, N.S., and is rebuilding his sober life.

He has an app that tells him how long he’s been clean. He used to check it constantly. When he looked at it during his CBC interview, he learned he’d been sober two years, three months, 11 days, 18 hours, 24 minutes and 38 seconds.  

He has returned to the facility — but as a visitor, and a guidepost to the men starting their recoveries. 

“I was giving them faith that there is life after. Things can move forward. And they were showing me there are people that care and recovery is a group thing,” he said. 

“I will forever be a recovering addict. As soon as I lose sight of that and allow myself to get lax and think I’m cured, that’s when it blind-sides you and hits you hard.”

He still has vivid dreams of using and wakes up on the verge of relapse. But like O’Reilly, he returns to what he learned at Ledgehill. He calls his sponsor, his sober coach, and keeps calling until someone picks up.  

“As soon as that click comes on and there’s someone’s voice on the other end, that panic state that I was in flushes away and subsides.”

He said the more he works those muscles, the easier it is to keep his demons outside, in the parking lot. 

The facilities create a calm space for people to recover. (Robert Short/CBC)