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COLUMN: Stories look beyond drug addiction

Two books present radically different outcomes
Tents line the sidewalk on East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Two books, both dealing with drug addiction, present radically different possible outcomes.

Less Than, by British Columbia writer A.D. Long, tells the story of Evann, a young man from a middle-class background, who is living on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, falling into a continuing, worsening struggle with drug addiction.

Long’s 2023 novel is a work of fiction, but it is strongly rooted in fact. Evann’s story is not unique.

British Columbia’s ongoing toxic drug crisis was declared a public health emergency in April, 2016. In 2023 alone, the drug crisis claimed 2,511 lives.

While much of the story takes place in the Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, it does not begin or end there. Long also examines Evann’s past experiences and relationships showing how they have contributed to his present life on the streets.

His mother is extremely critical of him and his father works away from home for weeks at a time. Their behaviour plays a role in Evann’s opinion of himself, and this in turn affects the choices he makes.

Before writing this story, Long had spent more than a decade working as a nurse in British Columbia. She had treated people like Evann, and had watched as family members and friends came to terms with a loved one’s dire situation.

Long makes the point, often harshly, that addiction and substance abuse do not happen in a vacuum. As a result, although the story addresses addiction, the more important theme is about what happens when people are denied love, particularly from family members.

However, the story of a battle with addiction does not need to follow the bleak path shown in Less Than.

A couple of days after I finished reading Less Than, I picked up another book.

The Urban Saint, by Paul Boge, is the biography of Harry Lehotsky, a Baptist minister who worked in Winnipeg’s West End from the 1980s until his death in 2006. The book was published in 2010.

Lehotsky grew up in New York and at the age of 17, he overdosed on heroine. His friends abandoned him and left him on the street alone. However, a police office found him and took him to the hospital.

After that incident, he was able to turn his life around, eventually becoming a pastor in a Winnipeg inner city neighbourhood. He lived in the neighbourhood with his wife and three young children.

As a pastor, he spent time with people who were facing addictions and coping with poverty, and also working with with housing initiatives and other projects to improve his neighbourhood.

I had the opportunity to meet Lehotsky when I lived in Winnipeg. I was living in the West End, just down the street from New Life Ministries, the church where he worked.

Today, at 518 Maryland St., there is a mural of Lehotsky, in honour of the work he did in that neighbourhood.

After reading Less Than and The Urban Saint, I kept wondering why some live in the bleak desperation of Evann in Less Than, while others, like Lehotsky, are able to have a life after addiction.

Lehotsky’s religious faith certainly played a role in the direction his life took, but there is another factor as well.

Following his overdose, Lehotsky’s parents and his sisters showed him unconditional love and acceptance, despite what had happened and despite choices he had made. Evann, in Less Than, does not receive such support. As a result, he is relegated to facing his struggles alone.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

John Arendt

About the Author: John Arendt

John Arendt has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He has a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Journalism degree from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.
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