A Surrey father battling alcoholism is sharing his story in the hopes at least one other person feels empowered to ask for help.
Father of five David Sinclair, 38, started drinking when he was a teen, but lost control of his habit about six years ago. Like many others that suffer from the grips of addiction, Sinclair said he used booze to cope with trauma that was deeply rooted in his childhood.
His father left the family when Sinclair was three, his mother – who attempted suicide – “abandoned” him when he was five.
“All of this trauma, I use alcohol to cope with,” Sinclair said, adding that he grew up in foster and group homes.
While the opioid overdose crisis dominates headlines, alcohol is “by far” the most common drug used by Canadians, according to Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).
In 2014, CCSA reported alcohol contributed to 14,828 deaths in Canada, representing 22 per cent of all substance attributed deaths. And according to Statistics Canada, nearly one-quarter of Canadians said their alcohol consumption had increased during the pandemic.
Sinclair, who didn’t want his real name published out of concern of stigma and future employment opportunities, indicated he’s lucky he’s not another statistic.
He had suffered more than 15 seizures relating to alcohol withdrawal.
“I was drinking a lot, enough to kill a mule. I just have a high tolerance and then I tapered too quickly. That’s what got me into the position of having a seizure,” he said. “I should be dead.”
He felt a seizure coming at the beginning of July, during B.C.’s heatwave. He said he went to the hospital to seek medical attention. The waiting room was full.
“They called me ‘seizure guy’ right in front of everyone,” Sinclair said of the “traumatic” experience. “The nurse in the waiting area, she was very naive and ignorant because she was dealing with so many people.”
Inside the waiting room, Sinclair was told that he could be waiting all night before he can see a doctor.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘we have to go, now.’ So I actually had to go purchase alcohol just to avoid having a seizure because I’ve had over 15 now, I know when I’m about to have one.”
That was the last time he had a drink, and it was also the starting point of when Sinclair decided to get serious about overcoming his addiction.
Sinclair said he started to read scientific studies and research papers about alcoholism, dopamine, and serotonin to better understand how it affects the brain. He also researched the properties of available medications that are designed to help balance the chemical imbalance in the brain that occurs with prolonged exposure to alcohol.
“That gave me the motivation to say OK, I’m not going to be sheepish about this. I’m not going to be embarrassed about this.”
After research, Sinclair returned to the hospital with a sense of purpose, and “demanded” a supervised medical detox.
“I did it that way, professionally. And then I tapped into every single resource. So you have a psychiatric team to give you medications to deal with anxiety and stress, then you have an addictions team which will give you medications to deal with the imbalance of chemicals in your brain, then you have your general practitioner doctor who will follow you throughout.”
Sinclair’s motivation for speaking to the newspaper, he said, is to encourage other people who are struggling with alcoholism to make the leap and ask for professional help.
“There is resources. There is subsidization, but it takes serious guts to go into the hospital and say, ‘I’ve got an issue, I need help,’” he said.
He emphasized that people struggling need to be completely honest with health care professionals and “demand” care.
“Unless you stand up for yourself, unless you demand service, unless you demand care, you can be swept under the carpet and you can go back home and continue drinking, and then you can die.
“Hospitals don’t necessarily treat you that fairly if you are a frequent flyer or repeat offender because they don’t really want to operate as detox facilities,” he said.
Ryan Bathgate is The Phoenix Society’s interim director of programs, mental health and addictions.
Ryan Bathgate is The Phoenix Society’s interim director of programs, mental health and addictions. Bathgate said more people come to Phoenix Society for alcohol treatment than any other substance.
He said alcohol excites the reward centre of the brain, which releases dopamine.
“Dopamine gives you a sense of euphoria,” Bathgate said. “You tie that in with a lack of emotional intelligence or history of trauma, and now you have created a neural loop, or a feedback response loop that is developed for you to cope from an emotion or emotions you don’t understand.”
He said most clients he works with are quite cognitively intelligent, “but their emotional intelligence is bankrupt.” When a person doesn’t know what emotions they are feeling, he added, they’re overwhelmed – “fear is the unknown.”
As an example, Bathgate said a parent who struggles with alcohol use could miss their child and resort to having a drink. The alcohol is a coping mechanism that releases dopamine and takes away the feelings of stress, anguish and loss.
Not understanding stress, anguish and loss could overwhelm the parent, he added.
“As soon as I’m overwhelmed, there’s that trigger point in your brain, there’s that neural loop, that alcohol loop,” Bathgate said.
Sinclair has a long journey ahead of him. Bathgate said depending on use and length of use, it can take 18 months for the brain to fully repair from alcoholism.
“There’s some hard months in there when your brain is repairing itself. Specifically months four to seven is a classic relapse time, especially with alcohol, because the emotion centres are coming almost unfrozen,” Bathgate said.
“Your limbic (behavioural and emotional response) system is starting to operate, and now I’m having strong emotions again but… don’t have any emotional intelligence. What happens? I get overwhelmed and the neural loop kicks off.”
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, visit https://www.sourcesbc.ca/our-services/substance-use-services/ for support.