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Jewish agency hosts conference on drug addiction

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David and Nic Sheff know first-hand the way alcohol and drug addiction can devastate a family. Nic first got drunk when he was 11 years old and was addicted to crystal meth and heroin by the time he was 18.

Sober now for five years, he was lost to drug use and addiction and the difficult, damaging behaviours that accompany it, for more than a decade.

Throughout this time, his father, David, a California-based freelance journalist, tried desperately to help his son and understand his disease. In attempting to do so, he wrote a bestselling book about Nic's addictions, entitled Beautiful Boy, a Father's Journey Through his Son's Meth Addiction.

Both Sheffs will be in Winnipeg March 20 and 21 as two of the keynote speakers at Opening Doors, Conversations about Addictions, a conference sponsored by Jewish Child and Family Service (JCFS).

JCFS is the Winnipeg Jewish community's cradle-to-grave social service agency. It offers myriad support services to members of the Jewish and general community, including a support program for individuals struggling with and/or recovering from drug, alcohol and other addictions. This program, one of the newer ones at the agency, helps to develop and sustain recovery in a nurturing and safe environment that incorporates Jewish values.

"There are no specific statistics related to (addictions in) the Jewish community," says conference co-chairwoman Dr. Ruth Simkin, "but the prevalence for the Jewish community is felt to be similar to the general community."

That prevalence, she adds, is significant.

"The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse suggests that 10 to 15 per cent of Canadians 15 years and older reported experiencing harm from alcohol and drug use," Simkin says.

"Presumably it is a growing problem in the Jewish community like every other community."

It is recognition of this fact that prompted JCFS to organize the Opening Doors conference.

Members of the Jewish community affected by excessive drug and alcohol use typically are reticent to speak about the issue because of the stigma and shame often associated with addictions.

The JCFS conference committee, comprised of front-line health professionals, educators and recovering addicts, hopes the Sheffs' appearance in Winnipeg will help to quell that stigma. As David Sheff has repeatedly indicated in his writings, interviews and public appearances, addiction is a progressive illness, and like all illnesses, it needs to be nipped in the bud.

Not talking about it or acknowledging it does not make it go away, and it puts the addict in tremendous danger.

No doubt, when David's son Nic stands in front of 800 Winnipeg high school students, he will talk in detail about his personal experiences with that danger -- the overdoses, the homelessness and the heartbreak his addiction caused. But he will also talk about recovery and all the possibilities that it brings.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 D15

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