Isolation, addiction, crime and homelessness are a vicious cycle all tied up in poverty.
Kingston Helps was born from the Poverty Reduction health group to provide a place for one to find any service one may need regardless of the position they find themselves in. It's an organization dedicated not only to uplifting those in poverty, but improving our understanding of the causes and effects of the social determinants of health.
I didn’t belong, I never did. At least, I never felt as though I did. Carrying the burden of family secrets as far back as I can remember left me feeling shameful and isolated from an early age. What today would be a considered a Children’s Aid Society case of abuse and neglect, was back then ignored, covered up, justified and left to become my ‘normal’. This early trauma would set my emotional unwellness stage.
My father, grandfather and uncles all served in the Canadian Forces, so I felt proud to be the first female in the family to serve our country. I craved belonging without knowing it and pledged my oath to the Queen at 18 years-old. I got married and had three children. As a female in a role dominated primarily by men, I often felt alienated and bullied, even quarantined. As life continued, the trauma of constant stress since childhood, still unnoticed, brewed into an inevitable emotional unwellness. This ultimately led to my divorce, then release from the army.
"I spiraled into a deep hole of isolation."
Stress began to squeeze me and I quickly lost control. I didn’t have coping skills, but I didn’t realize that until I needed them. I never learned how to be compassionate with others, or with myself. I still carried heavy baggage from the childhood war zone I grew up in. I was overqualified for most minimum wage jobs yet too specialized in ammunition to be of value other than military. I struggled financially. I hated myself for not being able to maintain the lifestyle I thought my kids deserved.
I turned to drugs as a way to numb the pain and screaming hate I held for myself, and my situation. I spiraled into a deep hole of isolation leaving me addicted, and quickly homeless — drugs are expensive. I was losing weight and my depression deepened while undiagnosed PTSD continued to drive my choices.
I made connections with others while living in the streets, each struggling in their own way, but in the end it’s a place that furthers isolation and exclusion. I was determined to find a way out of the mess I had created, only to repeat the same behaviours over and over, which only intensified my self-loathing and sense of isolation. I was completely disconnected from myself, my life, my family and most of all my community.
"I turned to drugs as a way to numb the pain and screaming hate."
To support my drug habit I smuggled drugs and tobacco into the federal penitentiary in Joyceville, Ontario. I made the long drive from Barrie to Kingston several times before I was arrested just before Christmas in 2008. I wanted to deal with my charges, then return to Barrie, but fell into more procrastination and nearly another full year of heavy drug use. I was in a living hell, wanting so desperately to change it but I couldn’t imagine life without the drug. I was 83 pounds at that point, and had already suffered several crack strokes. I was dying, both physically and emotionally.
The thought of going to Ontario Works in a new city, to see yet another new worker, made me nauseous. I feared the feeling of judgement more than anything. People working at this level have such an important position. They are the first point of contact for so many who feel completely broken and alone. I often think they forget, or just haven’t been told about the types of people they are likely to encounter. But the worker I saw then was different.
“Ruby” (I’ll call her to protect her identity, though she deserves a medal) helped me and my situation without judgement. She went beyond the rigid guidelines that make people feel trapped in a system that doesn’t care. Ruby found funding for things in my personal situation that I needed to be successful. I felt like she was actually on my team, which really helped.
"I eventually moved into housing, which made so much difference."
I had depended on local meal programs daily, since my rent consumed my food allowance, and I was unable to leave my apartment, having been sentenced to house arrest. Not being able to feed myself made me feel constantly stressed. I had no family in the area, and didn’t want to turn to drug-using friends for help. Ruby saw all this, and she boldly listed a freezer under 'other health funds' and helped me to fill it. She went so far beyond, and she never gave me a hard time, or made me feel small. She became my friend. I hadn’t known one of those in a long time.
Ruby set me on a path back to a healthy life. I eventually moved into housing, which made so much difference. I had money for food, and no longer experienced constant stress about how to feed myself or my kids, who were moving back in with me one at a time. Ruby encouraged me to upgrade my education, and find counseling. But what mattered most of all isn’t what she gave me, but what she asked of me.
Ruby asked me to become a part of the Poverty Reduction Initiative (PRI) in Kingston. They were looking for people with 'lived experience', and I certainly qualified. I didn’t understand how I could be of any help, and I didn’t feel like my voice was worth anything.
Ruby explained how policy makers were starting to include people like me in conversations, to better understand the realities of poverty. I felt obligated to attend after all she had done for me, not realizing at the time the bigger impact this position would have in changing my life, or how I would finally find my place in a community.
The PRI was broken down into five sub-groups to correlate with different determinants of health in our city: housing, skills development and employment, community supports for education, social services and community support, and health. I became the co-chair for the health group. I attended the monthly meetings and began to get involved even though I still felt awkward, as though I didn’t belong.
"Policy makers were starting to include people like me in conversations."
The team included professionals from all areas of health, including one of the most respected public health doctors in the city, yet they listened to me like I was an actual colleague, and my opinions were valued. I learned that compassion is the key to changing lives, and when we don’t or cannot understand, the words ‘help me understand’ can turn that key.
When we do things we feel are worthy, we gain self worth, and since I found this community I've felt mine continually strengthen. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection with others. I no longer need drugs to cope or feel supported, because now I have community.
Delina MacDonald continues her work with Kingston Community Health Centers and Kingston Helps, and recently accepted a position on the Advocacy Council for Tenancy Ontario board, and couldn’t be more pleased being part of a team trying to make housing a basic human right. She has received a local bursary for further skills development from the Sisters of Providence in recognition for her volunteer work, and commitment to changing lives.